Ronnie Hazlehurst: An Appreciation

❉ Samantha Veal looks back on the enduring musical legacy of the man who defined the sound of BBC Light Entertainment.

You know his work, of course you do. It was the musical bedrock of most of the things you watched, that you STILL watch. You whistle his tunes, they take you back to sitting in front of the TV with the family. The tunes are…warmth. Audience laughter, applause, whichever super-special guest was on The Two Ronnies…..

His work is a comfort blanket for the ears. One of Hazlehurst’s enduring charms is his ability to go from orchestra-filled theme tune to funky bassline at the drop of a velour bowtie.

Hell, Are You Being Served even had both! (Yes Minister also had a great “walking” bassline). He wrote the instrumental sax-heavy theme tune to the first series of Only Fools & Horses, but John Sullivan wanted to add vocals to help explain the programme’s title. Hearing Hazlehurst’s version now, one kind of thinks the BBC went for the better option- but it’s a quirky piece by itself.

His genius was being able to make themes work in the small space of time that they were given to start a programme, and the small music budget he would invariably end up with after the rest of the programme money had been spent. Previous interviews tell of him not having any great technique- he would usually sing the programme title to himself and work from there. You KNOW the theme to Blankety Blank irritates you, but it’s in your head isn’t it?

The term “Light Entertainment” is now almost an anathema – it’s cheese, it’s raucous canned laughter and, sadly in the case of some programmes, it’s actual racism. Television was a different world. A world one could climb into to escape, and Hazlehurst was your bus conductor (he was also an ACTUAL conductor for the Eurovision Song Contest, did you know that? He conducted Rock Bottom with a rolled-up umbrella whilst wearing a bowler hat, how it only came second is beyond your correspondent).

Born in 1928, he was a bandsman in the Dragoon Guards during his National Service (playing trumpet with various bands before he was called up). Continuing to play in bands after he was demobbed, it’s safe to assume he had a deep love of music. Moving between Manchester and London, at one point his band were on The Light Programme, but Hazlehurst left after being refused a pay rise. His biography says he was working on a market stall to make ends meet, so becoming a staff arranger at the BBC in 1961 must have been a dream come true (one presumes his renumeration package was agreeable to all by this point).

By 1968 he had become Light Entertainment Musical Director (having done a plethora of incidental music and themes in the meantime, including It’s a Knockout, The Liver Birds and The Likely Lads).

Sitcoms were everything, and there was a high chance that whichever one you were watching, Hazlehurst had done the theme to it. He would often add quirky touches – the bells in Yes Minister, the cash in Are You Being Served

The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin (a series which deserves a good chunky retrospective all of its own) had a rising and falling wave which absolutely suited the sombre comedy. And remember the morse code piccolo spelling of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em?

The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin (a series which deserves a good chunky retrospective all of its own) had a rising and falling wave which absolutely suited the sombre comedy. And remember the morse code piccolo spelling of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em?

He remained with the BBC until the 1990s, and in 1997 was rightly recognised and awarded a Gold Badge from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. He also moved from London to Guernsey in 1997, but still continued to work and advise right up to a heart bypass in 2006, sadly passing away in 2007.

But his work is still very much with us. Not only his theme tunes, but a huge body of incidental and instrumental music is available for the crate-diggers amongst you. As mentioned, Ronnie knew his way around a tune; if, like your correspondent, you do like to fall down a good YT rabbithole, check out Time On My Hands, Drive Out and Carioca, and that’s just for starters.

His work is famously appreciated and acknowledged far and wide Matt Berry’s Screenwipe tribute is an endearing piece, and further goes to show how ingrained Hazlehurst is in TV culture. Here’s hoping that an appreciation of his works is carried on for years to come (thank heavens for repeats, eh viewers?) and let’s raise a mug of tea to one of the hardest-working men in showbusiness. Thank you for the music, sir.

❉ Samantha is in her mid-40s, and likes to be told she doesn’t look it. She used to be in charge of a cemetery and her favourite almond-based product is marzipan. She fits bouts of catsitting in around her desk-jockey day job, and has been halfway through writing a debut novel for a good few years now. In the meantime, she’ll have a strong white coffee with one sugar please, thanks.

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