Countdown to TV action – Part 1!

❉ With Mindhorn in cinemas, we count down the 25 greatest TV action intros of the 70s and 80s…

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Inspector Morse’s TV debut – an event that not only spelled trouble for perpetrators of bafflingly baroque murders in the Oxford area, but which also sounded the death-knell for a certain, dare we say, less cerebral stripe of crimebuster on our screens: the type who eschewed Morse’s MO of solving cryptic clues over a quiet pint and a burst of Wagner in favour of speedboat chases, barroom brawls and the ever-present screech of burning rubber.

Yes, in the years before Morse, Frost, Cracker, Tennison, Wallander and co, Brits would happily sit down in their millions to watch action-heavy US imports of variable quality in plum, primetime slots. Forget Brenda Blethyn’s Vera tramping around Northumberland in that battered fishing hat – if this was 1978, chances are you’d have been sitting down of a Sunday evening with Mum, Dad and Auntie Jean to watch bionic badass Steve Austin leaping tall buildings and bending metal bars with his bare hands in The Six Million Dollar Man. (And if you’re not now hearing that dg-dg-dg-dg-dg reverb effect, you either didn’t grow up in the late 70s, or your parents were too posh to let you watch “the other side”.)

And now, it seems, ITV is attempting to revive this lost cultural tradition by showing the goofy TV version of 80s buddy cop caper Lethal Weapon – a show that has “11pm on ITV2” written all over it – on its main, shop window channel at 9 o’clock. I know!

And then there’s Mindhorn, the new film comedy about a washed-up relic of an action star that, though set on the Isle of Man, owes a very specific debt, according to writer-star Julian Barratt, to the likes of The Six Million Dollar Man and Knight Rider.

What better time, then, to go back and revisit some of the telly blockbusters of our youth in order to see what valuable lessons we might learn from them. Or from the first couple of minutes of them anyway. Because, let’s be honest, while many of the shows themselves were cheesy as all hell, what they all had in common were great title sequences – and even greater theme tunes.

Listening to the bold, brassy, funky fanfares being churned out in the late 70s and early 80s by composers like Mike Post, Mark Snow and Arthur B Rubinstein makes you positively weep for the lost art of the TV theme. Talk about not writing ’em like they used to – I can’t think of a single example in the last 20 years, from either side of the Atlantic, that even comes close to these bad boys. (With the possible exception of Charlie and Lola. But that’s it.)

Join us, then, for our countdown of the 25 greatest action themes of the day. And that’s day as in “back in the” – we’re talking early 80s, plus a few late 70s stragglers that were still in heavy rotation on British primetime well into the age of Duran Duran and the BBC Micro. (Or, if you prefer the Lee Majors Carbon Dating Method, we’ve moved on from Steve Austin into the Colt Seavers Era.)

The only other rule is that there’s nothing too grown-up – so no Cagney & Lacey, no Rockford Files, no Hill Street Blues. And we’re not limiting ourselves to cop shows. Far from it – our heroes here range from private dicks to millionaire playboys to Hollywood stuntmen, and at least one rampaging green monster in denim cut-offs. But what they all share is a certain playful, carefree, gung-ho approach to storytelling. Often played as much for laughs as thrills, these shows rarely concern themselves with anything as sophisticated as story arcs or character development, and have zero shame in recycling such standard-issue genre tropes as the grumpy captain/boss, the nerdy tech support guy and the troubled Vietnam vet.

Oh, and vehicles – everyone, but everyone, has a cool car, or van or boat or experimental supersonic attack helicopter. I mean, Vera’s all very well, but that knackered old Land Rover would never have enough poke to fly through a plate glass window, would it?

25. Manimal (1983)

You can’t help thinking Glen A Larson was phoning it in a bit with this tale of a wealthy doctor, Jonathan Chase (urbane Brit Simon MacCorkindale), who has the ability to transform into any animal of his choosing. (He usually chooses a hawk or a black panther – and who wouldn’t? – though occasionally has a crack at being a horse, a bear and even a dolphin.) Melody Flash Gordon Anderson is his assistant and love interest Brooke Mackenzie. The theme was provided by the clearly-slumming-it classical composer Paul Chihara, while the titles start out trying to do something a bit weird and spooky using cutting-edge digital technology, before giving up and reverting to your standard 80s clips package.

FYI: The animal transformations were the work of Oscar-winning make-up effects legend Stan Winston (Terminator, Jurassic Park, Predator, Iron Man). Oddly, whenever Jonathan returned to human form, he was still wearing his clothes.

24. Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1982-3)

One of two (see 14) rapid small screen responses to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, CBS’ answer to Indiana Jones was Frank Buck, a real-life big-game trapper on whose 1930s bestseller of the same name the show is based. Buck had previously appeared in a movie adaptation of his book, but here he’s played by Bruce Boxleitner, rocking the khaki-and-pith-helmet combo in steamy pre-war Singapore. John Zee is his nemesis, smuggler and underworld kingpin GB Vonturgo, Klyde Kusatsu is Ali, “Buck’s Friend and No.1 Boy” (probably best not to ask) while Boxleitner’s Tron co-star Cindy Morgan plays US Consul Gloria Marlowe. The declamatory theme comes courtesy of prolific TV composer Arthur B Rubinstein. (You’ll be hearing a fair bit more of him.)

FYI: Predictably, none of the show was filmed in Singapore. The cast made it as far as Hawaii, while a replica of the famous Raffles Hotel was built at Columbia’s Burbank Studios.

23. Riptide (1984-86)

Riptide is constructed entirely from 80s action show DNA. Vietnam vets? Check. Private detective agency? Check. Los Angeles? Check. Geeky backroom tech guy? Check. The “twist” here is that Nick Ryder (Joe Penny) and moustachioed own-brand Magnum Cody Allen (Perry King) work out of Pier 56, hence an unusual amount of speedboat action, even for this era (when fast boats were so de rigeur, they even gave them away on Bullseye). Their crazy boffin friend Murray “Boz” Bozinsky (Thom Bray) also has his own pet robot (the Roboz, natch). The titles mix action, comedy pratfalls and bikinied beauties, while the theme – a collaboration between the legendary Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, Magnum PI, The Rockford Files and many, many more) and jazz trombonist Pete Carpenter – rocks a vaguely Beach Boys vibe, with more ba-ba-bas than Pearl and Dean.

FYI: A young George Clooney appears in the season 2 episode, Where the Girls Are.

22. Simon & Simon (1981-89)

Simon & Simon offers a prime slice of that vintage US telly staple, the mismatched private dicks – here in the form of bickering siblings. Wannabe Marlboro Man Rick (Gerald McRaney) is the slightly uncouth, cowboy-hatted Vietnam vet (yes, another one), while AJ (Jameson Parker) is the cultured college grad. In a dramatic subversion of the usual format, the pair’s detective agency is in San Diego, not Los Angeles. Though not widely remembered as being in the front rank of action shows, Simon & Simon proved surprisingly durable, running for eight seasons. The original vocal theme song, Best of Friends, was ditched after the first run in favour of a jazzy instrumental number, heavy on the electric bottle-slide guitar and sax, written by Barry De Vorzon and Michael Towers.

FYI: In 2012, Simon & Simon was one of several classic TV title sequences lovingly recreated for Adult Swim’s Greatest Event in Television History. They also did Hart to Hart with Amy Poehler:

Adam Scott and John Hamm took the roles for the shot-by-shot remake. You can compare the two here:

21. Automan (1983-84)

Arriving – by total coincidence, I’m sure – a year after Disney’s Tron, Glen A Larson’s Automan is the story of Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr) a police officer and computer whizz who creates his own, invulnerable holographic crime-fighter (Chuck Wagner), complete with a sidekick called Cursor, who’s a floating… er, cursor. The most memorable moment of the title sequence – backed by a typically lively Stu Phillips synth workout – is an early example of cross-promotional marketing in which Cursor, the randy bugger, takes a shine to a poster of a bikini’d Heather Thomas out of The Fall Guy (a Glen A Larson production).

FYI: The glowing Automan costume, made up of hundreds of tiny reflective balls, was created for the show by 3M, the Post-It note people. A similar technique had been used for the Kryptonian costumes in the Superman movies. He also had a holographic Lamborghini, known as the Autocar, obvs.


❉ The countdown continues into the top 20 here!

❉ Paul Kirkley is a regular contributor to publications including Doctor Who Magazine, SFX and RadioTimes.com. He writes celebrity interviews and TV reviews for Waitrose Weekend, and the second volume of his book ‘Space Helmet for a Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who’ is published by Mad Norwegian Press. Say hello at www.interestingmedia.co.uk

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