Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Title Flight

Watching Douglas Burd’s title sequence for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of just how inventive television titles used to be. Nowadays a drama is lucky if it gets the familiar brief clip reel that identifies the stars of the show interspersed with brief action sequences. Even then they still lack the razzmatazz of the titles for the shows that I watched as a kid.

Whether it was the Anderson–produced fantasy adventures that began with the puppets shows filmed in Supermarionation before the move into live action or the ITC spy and private eye dramas, the mixture of lurid graphics and action-packed recaps were sometimes more entertaining than the programme content that followed. To round it off, each sequence was backed by a distinctive theme tune composed by the likes of Edwin Astley, Ron Grainer, Barry Gray and, in the case of The Persuaders!, John Barry.

Alternatively, rather than splice together existing footage, some dramas produced original sequences that concentrated on the relationship between the lead players rather than the content. The titles for the fourth series of The Avengers, and the first to be broadcast in colour, played on the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Even without referencing the extraordinary adventures in store, their easy charm ably showed the drama had come a long way since its dark beginnings as an offshoot from Police Surgeon.

Meanwhile the title sequence for Euston Films’ Minder perfectly captures the sometimes fractious relationship between Arthur Daley and Terry McCann that lay at the heart of the long–running drama. With their succession of wary glances, running contrary to the jauntily optimistic theme tune, the match cuts to the black and white photographs expertly sketch in the put–upon bodyguard’s background as a former boxer and jailbird. If the emphasis was squarely on McCann it only showed how unprepared everyone was to the popularity of George Cole’s dodgy dealer and his “nice little earners”.

Burd, on the other hand, had little more than a minute of screen time to sum up le Carré’s labyrinthine plot. Using a standard matryoshka doll, opening to reveal progressively irate faces until all that remains is a blank face, he skilfully encapsulates the mood of the spy drama’s search for the high–ranking mole working within the upper echelons of the British secret service. When it comes to creating a simple visual trope to capture the essence of a television drama, nothing beats Alan Jeapes’ title sequence for the BBC’s Secret Army.

I previously wrote about the drama here, but in essence the critically acclaimed series followed the exploits of a group of Belgian civilians risking their lives to help RAF aircrews shot down over occupied Europe get safely back home to England. Created by producer Gerard Glaister who had previously flown Blenheims in the North African Campaign before switching to piloting reconnaissance Spitfires, Secret Army was in part based on the Comète line set up by the 24-year-old Belgian nurse Andrée de Jongh, codenamed Dédée, and her schoolmaster father, Fredric, to ferry downed airmen from Belgium all the way to the Pyrenees.

Described by one air gunner as “the best travel agency there ever was,” over 800 of the 3000-plus airmen from Bomber Command that evaded capture, returned via the Comète line. One of them was Group Captain William Randle, who Glaister would eventually hire as the drama’s technical advisor. A Wellington bomber pilot who had been forced to bail out with his crew on their way back from a night raid on Essen, luckily the Belgian locals found Randle before he could be picked up by the Luftwaffe Polizei scouring the countryside for downed terrorfliegers.

Reunited with his rear-gunner and an RCAF observer at a safe-house in the heart of Brussels, the trio were gradually moved south over the course of the next couple of months, with de Jongh personally escorting them down through Southern France and across the mountains to Algeseras. Before setting off on their perilous journey, Randle and his fellow airmen had to supply unique information that could be passed back to London to confirm they were who they said they were and not enemy agents determined to infiltrate the secret network of escape lines.

When the Germans eventually broke Comète in 1944, Andrée de Jongh was amongst those apprehended. After being interrogated, rather than being taken out and shot she was sent first to Ravensbrueck and then Maulthausen concentration camp where she saw out the final year of the war, in her absence it was left to Micheline Ugeux, then aged nineteen, to pick up the pieces and re-establish the line to continue getting allied aircrews to safety and sheltering them from the SS.

From this wealth of background material, Glaister and his script editor John Brason fashioned a drama that emphasised the growing stress and strain exacted upon the members of the fictional Lifeline as they worked under the noses of the occupying German force, dealing with young RAF crews who proved to be a liability on the ground. With the escape line operatives having to become calculated and ruthless to survive, Secret Army never shied away from showing failed attempts at getting airmen to safety, or the compromises made which would lead to casualties on both sides.

When it came to the title sequence, Alan Jeapes, a senior designer at the BBC, favoured a low-key approach to contrast the dramatic subject matter. Inspired by the show’s theme music, an arrangement of Wall of Fear written by the Canadian composer Robert Farnon, he took a series of carefully composed images that had been taken on location in Belgium and shot on a computer–controlled rostrum camera to replicate the exponential zoom. The end result illustrated the progress of the downed airmen, from the sky and through the countryside to the welcoming lights of a safe house.

The end credits (which appear below after the episode’s final scene) continued the journey from the safe house on to the open sea, signifying the eventual escape from occupied Europe.

The Secret Army titles would deservedly earn Jeapes, who would go on to create the title sequence for EastEnders, a BAFTA Award and a D&AD Silver Award. Watching it, I wonder if we’ll ever see such well–considered, simple and effective design again.


At 6:44 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Many of those 60s ITC title sequences were made by a company called Chambers and Partners -- an outfit about which I found nothing when I googled them a while back.

My favourite opener of recent years has been this one, from the HBO show CARNIVALE:


At 11:48 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

I think it was during the end credits for an episode of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) that I finally saw the Chambers and Partners credits. That was about the only time they were mentioned. And yes, there’s hardly any information about them, which is a shame.

A listing in the BFI database for the company – sometimes credited as J.D. Chambers & Partners – notes that they also produced the titles for Kubrick’s Lolita amongst a dozen or so projects, but that’s about it.

Even though the titles consisting of “the familiar brief clip reel that identifies the stars of the show interspersed with brief action sequences” probably suggests US dramas more than anything made in the UK – although Spooks would certainly fall into that category – I tried to steer clear of discussing American dramas. Especially with the recent practise employed by a number of network dramas of replacing the title sequence with what is essentially a sting or bumper, presumably so that there’s more time given over to squeezing another advert into the commercial breaks.

If network shows have reduced their opening titles down to what is essentially a glorified title card, the most inventive design appears on the cable channel dramas. Without question HBO is the leader in the field. Beginning with Cindy Mollo’s titles for Oz, there has been Paul Matthaeus’ remarkably unsettling title designs for Six Feet Under and True Blood, Angus Wall’s evocative designs for Carnivàle and Rome, not to mention the uncredited titles for The Sopranos, Deadwood and various mini–series like From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers.

Wall’s titles for Carnivàle really is something special, with it’s use of multiplane. One of my favourites is the title sequence for David Milch and author Kem Nunn’s John from Cincinnati.

At 5:56 am, Blogger Pipérade said...

For me, the most memorable opening credit sequence in recent years has to be "Band of Brothers" - an emotionally charged set of black and white images that capture the highs and lows of infantry warfare. I liked the way that some of the photographs were textured to make them look as if they'd been kept in someone's wallet. Stop-motion effects also contributed to the powerful mood. I can't mention BoB without referring to the Michael Kamen theme - this sets an appropriately heroic & inspirational tone for the series. As far as I'm concerned, the BoB credits set a new standard.


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