Ronnie Hazlehurst (1928-2007)

21. 10. 2007 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, Prague] It’s a home truth that the more you understand your own culture, the better equipped you will be potentially to understand other cultures in this brave new (ever re-inventing itself) world. The television composer Ronnie Hazelhurst, who died in St. Peter Port on Guernsey in the Channel Islands on 1 October 2007, is a name most of Britain’s population – connoisseurs of screen credits excluded – would hesitate over. But to be British was to be able to name that tune of his in a trice. As Christopher Hawtree wrote in Hazelhurst’s obituary in The Guardian, “The fate of most television composers is to be heard by millions and unknown by all.”

Hazelhurst’s compositions epitomised that sublime essence of the everyday that students of another culture struggle to absorb. And rarely do to their complete satisfaction. It’s rather like spy films of a certain vintage in which the secret police catch out the foreign spy. “You don’t recognise the theme music of Blankety Blank or Last of the Summer Wine?’ What do you mean, Mr. Soviet Spy?”

Any student of a second language knows the score – no pun intended. Anyone living in two cultures, especially involving bilingualism, knows it better still. It’s the trivial and little things that trip you up and throw you. (Pronouncing names, public transport rules from city to city, prepositions.) And although music and food are the two greatest levellers, they are also divide cultures. They don’t need language. They communicate in ways beyond metaphor and allusion, the stuff that no dictionary can cover or explain. So, if you are Czech the names Lucie or Olympic, Karel Gott or Helena Vondráčková convey an instant mental image. Associations pour in. No footnotes required.

The other side of the coin is the troublesome, barely registered things. Especially to do with popular culture. And that was the territory that Ronnie Hazelhurst occupied. Born in Duckinfield, Cheshire on 13 March 1928, Hazlehurst left an indelible mark on the British consciousness. From early work as a BBC staff arranger on the television comedy The Likely Lads in the first half of the 1960s, by 1968 he was the head of the music for Light Entertainment for the BBC. He went on to write television themes and incidental music for comedy series such as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Are You Being Served?, Two Ronnies, Some Mothers DoAveEm, Yes Minister and Last of the Summer Wine.

Composing television theme requires a range of skills and Hazelhurst had many. He also created one of the most deliberately irritating music imaginable with his Blankety Blank quiz show theme – an idiot chorus of the two-word title set to a jarring little tune. Full-strength musical itching powder. But that was a special case. His Last of the Summer Wine theme was bucolic, at odds with the usually upbeat music expected for comedy series. His music set the tone and set a new standard for composing outside the box – again, no pun intended. For Yes Minister – the political satire with the most witty of scripts – the musical allusion to Big Ben’s chimes set the dramatic location as Parliament in a split second. And there were touches that sailed over most listeners’ heads – mine included – as happened with Some Mothers DoAveEm which used piccolo to pick the title out in Morse code.

Thinking about Hazlehurst reminds me of what Andrew Roberts describes in his first-rate guide to the things that trip outsiders up about Czech culture, From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk. Were there to be an edition of Andrew Roberts’ book for Britain, Hazelhurst would be in there. Maybe its title could be From Good King Alfred to Reggie Perrin. Even if you could not stand the comedy series that Ronnie Hazelhurst composed for, they represent the shared cultural things that bind a nation, forge its cultural identity. After all, for every Má Vlast (My Country) and Smetana, there is a Nemocnice na kraji města (Hospital on the Edge of Town) with that theme music by what’s his name. What was the composer’s name again?

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