Saturday 9 December 2017

The Inimitable Johnny Jarvis Theme Tune

If you've never managed to succumb to the beauty of the Johnny Jarvis theme tune then there's a good chance that you're either stone deaf or beyond any sense of known help. And not only is the Johnny Jarvis theme tune an incessant earworm which refuses to evacuate your auditory system, but it also heralds the start of one of the finest British television dramas.

Written by Gary Shail - who also contributes an acting role to Johnny Jarvis in the shape of Guy Raines - the Johnny Jarvis theme tune has, unfortunately, remained buried deep within the early 1980s thanks to a lack of repeats or commercial releases. However, Network DVD have finally seen sense and released Johnny Jarvis nearly 35 years after it aired on BBC1, so Shail's theme tune lives once more.

Now, I'm a huge fan of Johnny Jarvis thanks to its remarkable combination of Thatcher's Britain, dashed dreams and youth culture, so I wanted to do something to celebrate the release of the DVD. I'd already reviewed Johnny Jarvis in one of the very first blogs on Curious British Telly, so what could I write about instead? Well, everyone who's ever watched the series always remarks on the magnificent theme tune - all woodwind, guitar and haunting melodies - so I got in touch with the man behind the music, Gary Shail, for a quick chat about its construction.

Shail became involved with the project thanks to his appearance in 'Class Enemy' at the Oxford Playhouse which just happened to be written by Johnny Jarvis writer Nigel Williams. And, as Shail explains, it was a fine relationship which helped to secure his place both on the music and acting side of things:

"When the Johnny Jarvis project was announced, my agent at that time thought it would be a good idea to go along to meet him and Alan Dossor the director. Once I was there, at the old BBC complex in White City, I was asked to read for the part of Manning but after a brief while it became clear to all of us that I definitely wasn’t right for the part! We stopped the audition and just started chatting over a cup of tea. 

I had a band at that time with a couple of fellow actors including Joe McGann, and Nigel had seen us play at a private function somewhere. I was very into creating and producing music at that time and was very enthusiastic to say the least. Alan Dossor also started to get enthusiastic saying that there was the part of an immoral, nihilistic borderline psychotic character called Guy Raines who forms a rock band with the other main character Alan Lipton, and would I read that part instead"

And it was an early lyric that Nigel Williams had written which helped to provide the initial spark for the theme tune as Shail remembers:

"The first song I wrote was simply called ‘Johnny Jarvis’ and the first lyric that Nigel had given me was “Johnny gets a gyro Monday morning, Johnny gets a government cheque”. As a lead vocal line, this would also work with any instrumentation I figured. I wanted the song to have an undercurrent feeling of despair, but with a shining light at the end of the tunnel, so the tune splits between major and minor chords which works great I think!"

Recording the theme tune, however, did require a little bit of outside help and, luckily, Shail was paired up with a producer who could bring the best out of his music and also lend the theme some of its most endearing moments:

"As I don’t read or write music in the traditional way, the producer Guy Slater suggested I have a musical director to write down and transpose on to paper what was just flowing out of my psychotic head. So one fine morning a chap called John Altman arrived at my little one bedroomed attic West Hampstead flat, sat on my wickerwork sofa, and started writing the dots as I played him my compositions. 

You have to remember that I was absolutely confident of nailing this, as I knew that I’d been given the chance of a lifetime. Any doubts whatsoever were irrelevant and surplus to my creativity I felt. Had I actually known who the fuck John Altman was though, I think I might have given up. He’d worked with some of the biggest musical names in the world. From pop music, Jazz, reggae, rock and film scores, John had done it all. All I can say is thank fuck I didn’t know. I even told him that I would be playing the bass guitar on all the songs once we got into the studio to record them! He could’ve got bloody Stanley Clarke if he’d wanted too!

All credit for the eventual theme music arrangement must go to John Altman, and his use of flute and guitar played by Andy Findon and Mitch Dalton is sublime I think. All the songs were recorded at Ad-vision Studios in central London, and for me, it was like a dream come true! Hearing your compositions literally coming to life, played by some of the top session musicians in the world ranks very high in my best time ever book! And yes...I DID PLAY THE BASS!"

Shail, of course, also acted in the series in a prominent role, so I was intrigued to know how the creative approach to acting in Johnny Jarvis differed to the creativity required to compose the theme tune; Shail reveals it was a piece of cake:

"Being in Johnny Jarvis as just an actor was easy by comparison to tell you the truth. When you have a director like Alan Dossor at the helm it’s easy. Working with Mark Farmer Ian Sears and the rest of the brilliant cast was an utter joy from start to finish and everybody knew that we were creating something a bit special. It’s just a shame that it took nearly 35 years for the rest of the world to catch up! The first episode of Johnny Jarvis was aired on the 10th November 1983 on my 24th birthday."

November 1983, however, is a long time ago, so how does Shail feel when he hears the theme tune three and a half decades later?

"It’s hard to say what I feel When I hear the theme from Johnny now. I suppose it’s a mixture of feelings. Pride in a job well done, the memories of the people who made it happen, especially Mark Farmer who is no longer here to eventually see the release of the show on DVD after so many years. What a fantastic character he created in Johnny. But I suppose at the end of the day, it’s just wonderful to know that something memorable was created from that incredibly brave decision by Alan Dossor, over a cup of tea at the BBC. Thank fuck I wasn’t right for Manning eh!"

Gary Shail is still acting, producing, directing, writing and helping out retro television blogs - he can be found over on Twitter as @GaryShail


  1. Just stumbled across this. I'm so pleased you interviewed Gary Shail, as that theme tune has been in my head since 1983. Johhny Jarvis is probably my favourite series, ever - utterly heartbreaking and wholly emblematic of those times.

  2. Same here. I’ve whistled that tune for more than 30 odd years. I was 17 in 1983. The tune to me is the same to me as, going underground or town called malice. It’s of “my time” I just wish there was a full three verse, version of shail just singing it and playing acoustic (like the short version in the show) I’ve looked for it thinking it must exist , but I don’t think it does.

  3. The band I played in way back when used to do a cover of the theme. It was classic show that still resonates - even more as this government seems to want to repeat the decimation of Thatcher's....