Incidental Music and Additional Effects in BBC Television Programmes

That programme with Bill Oddie and Davina McCall is on, you know, the one about extreme sex in the animal kingdom. It's starting now



I'm not sure about you lot, but the background music and the sound or visual effects in television (and, to a certain extent, in radio) programming nowadays is really beginning to get me down. It is virtually inescapable, from the news and current affairs programmes - things we are supposed to take seriously - through broadcasts that for the purpose of this argument will be clasified as general interest and education, to it's natural home; light entertainment, comedy and children's television.


As I said, it is inescapable.


Never has there been such an attack on the senses. I have been, in my own quiet way, noticing with increasing frustration that every thing on the bloody television seems to demand - as if by it's very birthright - a relevant, funky, witty, jaunty or daring soundscape; comprising of snippets of the coolest music around. Oddly enough for a champion of left-field music, I find its employment in this sphere nothing short of depressing. I remember being mildly annoyed in thinking about six months back, whilst watching Gardeners World, that to my mind the appreciation of a fully flowering herbacious border didn't need a soundtrack by Moby. Neither did I gain anything by the addition of David Holmes to a display of cabinet making techniques on some house restoration programme.


Mild annoyance is one thing. Being driven to the edge of despair is another. I despair when a programme I want to watch is rendered moronic by the addition of utterly pontless music, included solely for the reasons that it is vaguely cool (but not too outre, I'll wager that no Throbbing Gristle has yet punctuated the viewing public's eardrums as yet) and that the programmers feel that a broadcast wholly without music or sound effects in the background will send the audience packing off to another channel. You can almost second guess the poor idiotic fools who commission a series thinking that the conversation in an ordinary household would go something like this;


(Husband) "Ethyl? Ethyl? That programme with Bill Oddie and Davina McCall is on, you know, the one about extreme sex in the animal kingdom. It's starting now.

(Wife) Coming dear. (sits down) Ooh, look at them toads doin' it... here, hang about, there's no bloody music.

(Husband) Bloody hell, you're right. This is disgusting. No music? How are we supposed to enjoy this? We don't pay our license fee for this. Turn it over."


This malaise is affecting viewing so much chez Foster that yours truly ended up pleading with the actual television itself to stop showing the nonsense that unravelled during the BBC broadcast of an admittedly interesting-sounding programme about dinosaurs (with, incidentally, the now ubiquitous Bill Oddie).The need to include a lot of pointless background music, make the whole thing akin to an early learning broadcast and made me a gibbering wreck full of bluster.


What made this particular show infinitely worse was the adoption of a technique used on gameshows such as The Weakest Link; that of the introduction of a contestant when a certain amount of visual trickery is used to make it look as if the camera is travelling at the speed of light towards a certain object, only for it to shudder crashingly to a halt before the spotlit, (and in the cases of the dinosaur experts in question on this programme) balding and unassuming dinosaur expert. It was laughable. As well as useless and of course, begs the question why, in the name of all that's honest, sober, sane and true, why oh why use it in the first place?


Of course, there's no reason for it's inclusion. The programme makers just thought it looked impressive. It's the effect you see. The effect you are confronted with (and supposed to react to) is the paramount thing, not the information imparted by the broadcast. That's why Bill Oddie can talk to a T Rex skeleton, a skeleton that is standing spotlit in a circle of groundlights (again, very much akin to the groundlights on The Weakest Link).


Maybe the programmers think that these visual ingredients help digest the programme's message in a more effective way. After all, learning on it's own is boring, right? Maybe this knowledge is like a load of dead things, that kinda need to be sort of "brought to life," right?  Wrong. Learning for learning's sake, especially in a comparative silence is a very nice, fulfilling feeling, actually. Silence, moreover can bring a sense of wonder, or reflection. It can bring a sense of clam. We can mull things over, make our own minds up. We can hear ourselves think.


But this of course is a problem for the current crop of creatives who are in charge of television effects, whether they be sound or visual ones. I'll wager that they are of an age to be the generation who started playing computer games in their teens. My generation I hasten to add.  All those hours playing dungeons & dragons quest games, Pacman, or, rather later, Super Mario Brothers have now found a successful and creative outlet – indeed a safe haven – in the world of television. They are of an age to have seen the dramatic change in technological wizardry (normally applied in its full splendour through the medium of games) from the start. No wonder they see the change in computer graphics as a sign of progress in its noblest form, and one that should be introduced to every aspect of modern life.


You see, early computer games were dreadfully basic. I suppose – I can't quote with accuracy for I am no expert – there was something very limiting about playing tv tennis (1980?) or fighting giant spiders from outer space with ray gun toting llamas (1982?). It was all in wonderfull 2d for a start. The new microchip technology hadn't caught up with the dreams of the inventors, but, slowly and surely it did, allowing game makers to create ever more complex worlds, which, in turn, became the most important selling point of the game. The llamas, Pacman and all the rest were made redundant. In some ways, being a sound game per se didn't count for everything. You needed the graphics to make the breakthrough.


Just compare, for a second, computer games with Scrabble or Monopoly, where the idea of the game was more important than the additional flummery that could be attatched to it. Indeed, this flummery (revolving Scrabble boards, timers, deluxe Monopoly sets) could lessen the fun to be had by getting in the way of the essentials of the game itself. Not so with stuff like Super Mario Brothers, Tombraider, etc etc. The more visual stimulants over and above the complexity of the game, (which to be fair was often bound up with these effects), the better the chances of it selling.


It doesn't take much imagination (well, it takes my imagination, which isn't that much of a thing), to see how this way of thinking has crossed into television. Especially those televisual broadcasts concerned with imparting information. Facts on their own are boring. Presenters standing still telling viewers facts figures or points of view, without any visual wizardry to aid them (or even distract them) is seen as boring telly. So, wherever possible, respectable geologists are turned into cartoon geologists dodging mammoths; as witnessed – with mounting fury – in the recent BBC series Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where the presenter, a perfectly respectable and affable youngish chap, who should really have no problem in holding his own in an argument became a cartoon, to explain time, other presenters pull out dinosaur skeleton's teeth at seeming risk to themselves, and wildlife presenters are given special state of the art, marksman-approved infra-red cameras to spy on baby birds.


And all this goes hand-in-hand with the incessant, ever so cool constantly updated, relentlessly "on the button" music. The bloody music is even in between programmes now, during the trailers. It's even on Radio 4. There's even music drenched, funky sounding advertising for Test Match Special now that cricket has been re-branded as cool. And, whilst we're about it, the very word, re-branded. It is a heartless, cynical image that this word throws up. Re-branded, re-burnt. Flesh freshly singed and irreducibly marked. A perfect word for a cynical, vain, self-obsessed, funky, cool time.


I think I had better stop now, before I get heartburn, or before further contemplation leads me to die of melancholy. But I'm sure you'll get the picture (if you will excuse the pun). Anyway, I'm off to watch Last of the Summer Wine.


Words: Richard Foster.