RONNIE HAZLEHURST : THE MAN BEHIND SO MANY FAMILIAR TV THEMES
By GARETH BRAMLEY
The name Ronnie Hazlehurst (aka Ronnie Bird) (1928-2007) may not mean a lot to film music lovers but his name will be forever linked with the famous Television series ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ set in Holmfirth - which ended its 31 series run in 2010; and the many other TV themes and scores he composed throughout his long career. The BBC complained that his theme sounded nothing like a comedy theme and should be faster. However, since the programme was due to air two days after it had been written there was no time for a re-write. It went on to become one his best loved themes and the longest running comedy on British TV.
Hazlehurst was born in Dunkinfield, Cheshire, on 13 March 1928, the son of a railway worker and piano teacher and, after leaving school aged 14, he became a clerk for a cotton mill. He had his first experience at arranging before being called up for his National Service and from 1947 to 1949 he was a bandsman playing solo cornet in the 4th / 7th Royal Dragoon Guards, for which he also did arrangements. During his time in the Army, Hazlehurst was nominated to attend Kneller Hall (Royal Military School of Music, near Twickenham) as a student and it wasn’t long before he became a professional musician earning £4 a week in the George Chambers’ band who appeared on the BBC Light Programme. Over the next few years he played trumpet with not only this band; but those of Nat Allen, George Elrick, Harry Parry and Melville Christie mainly in the north of England; and also developed his skills as an orchestrator.
However, Hazlehurst soon left because he was refused a pay rise; and he moved from Cheshire to Manchester, becoming a freelance musician until bandleader Woolf Phillips employed him as his deputy at the Pigalle nightclub in London.
He began working for the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra and, from 1955, secured arranging work for Granada TV, working with Peter Knight head of music at Granada; but he left a year later when Knight did. Hazlehurst then joined the BBC in 1961 as staff arranger and arranged the programme for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the BBC’s 40th anniversary. He began as orchestrations manager and then head of music for light entertainment - and finally musical advisor (light entertainment).
Hazlehurst worked on the scores for series such as ‘The Likely Lads’ (1964); and the Dennis Potter TV play ‘Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton’ - a BBC Wednesday Play from 1965; ‘The Liver Birds’ (1971-75); and ‘It’s a Knockout’ (1966).
One of Hazlehurst’s first assignments was a TV movie called ‘Ninety Years On’ (1964) – a live variety show made by the BBC for which he contributed special musical arrangements along with other fine musicians such as Peter Knight; Alfred Ralston; Ray Terry; Dennis Wilson; and conductor Harry Rabinowitz.
In 1968 he became the Light Entertainment Musical Director and composed the theme music for many BBC sitcoms including ‘Not In Front of the Children’ (1969); ‘That’s Your Funeral (1970-71); ‘Now Look Here’ (1971-73); ‘Are You Being Served’ (1972-85); two episodes of ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ (1973); ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em’ (1973-78); ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ (1973-2010); ‘I Didn’t Know You Cared’ (1975-79); ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ (1976-79); ‘Citizen Smith’ (1977-79); ‘To the Manor Born’ (1979-81); ‘Yes Minister’ (1980-84); ‘Sorry’ (1981-88); ‘Just Good Friends’ (1983-86); ‘Three Up, Three Down’ (1985-9); ‘The District Nurse’ (1987); and ‘Wyatt’s Watchdogs’ – a little-known BBC comedy series from 1988 starring Trevor Bannister and Brian Wilde. It was Hazlehurst’s arrangement of the Herbert Kretzmer-David Lee composition that introduced Esther Rantzen’s ‘That’s Life’, beginning in 1973.
Hazlehurst wrote the signature tune for ‘The Two Ronnies’ in 1971; and the lead-in series ‘Ronnie Barker In Bed’ (1971) - a 45 minute BBC TV special. He led the orchestra in the 1976 one-off TV special ‘Harry’ featuring Harry Worth – this also featured The Fred Tomlinson Singers.
Other themes written for the BBC were ‘Butterflies’ (1978-83); the first series of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (1981); ‘The Generation Game’ (1971-2002); ‘ Blankety Blank’ (1979); ‘Odd One Out’ (1982); and ‘Wogan’ (1982-93). He left the BBC in the 90s.
Moving from Hendon to Guernsey around 1997 he was awarded a Gold Badge two years later from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. He continued writing music till his heart bypass operation on late 2006 but just less than a year later he suffered a stroke and died.
Upon his death veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson said he was ‘a marvellous and talented musician. He was also a funny north-country man with a great sense of humour’. Parkinson went onto say ‘when I was at the BBC I did a series of specials with him. He was one of the great unsung heroes on the music business – and a great professional’.
BBC’s Head of Comedy, Jon Plowman said; ‘He was the composer of many of the best-loved signature tunes of the last 40 years of television – and some of his work is still heard today. He’s associated with some of the best-loved shows of our lives’.
Fellow musician Laurie Holloway said his favourite Hazlehurst composition was the theme for the political satire ‘Yes, Minister’. ‘I thought it was grand a very much Ronnie’ he said. ‘We’re going to miss him a lot’.
Hazlehurst said he tried to make the music fit the title of the programme to which it related – for example the piccolos imitating Morse code in ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em’; the cash register and ‘going up’ lift sequence in ‘Are You Being Served’; the chimes in ‘Yes Minister’, etc. ‘I wouldn’t prostitute a tune, to bend it every which way to fit the title’, he said, ‘but if I can make it so, I do’.
The producer of ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em, Michael Mills, insisted on a basic theme that would spell out the programme’s name in Morse code. Hazlehurst was eventually allowed two piccolos and only when Sydney Lotterby took over for series three was he allowed the luxury of an added tuba. He was paid a mere £30 for his work.
Following his death the Sons of the Desert (The Official International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society) held a special event on February 12th to celebrate his life; and some of those in attendance – Cilla Black, Sir Terry Wogan and Val Doonican - emphasised in their speeches that he was a very friendly guy with a great sense of humour.
Hazlehurst had attended the Sons of the Desert international conventions in 1980, 1990 - and 1992 when he and his band entertained at a concert for the conventioneers at the ‘Wet ‘n’ Wild Water Park’ in Las Vegas. Apart from one professional musician brought over from the UK the rest of the band were all hired locally. Hazlehurst and his orchestra also played for the ‘Sons’ again at Leeds Castle in 1991 and rounded up his musicians again for a two hour concert at the Laurel & HarDay in Wigan in 2001.
Very few recordings of Hazlehurst’s work exist but one of the first was a box set for Readers Digest entitled ‘Magical World of Melody’ released in the States in 1964 as part of their ‘Dynagroove’ series. He worked with Rolf Harris on the B Side of his 1967 single ‘Pukka Chicken’ called ‘Here Come the Bees’; and also arranged Rolf’s May 1967 single ‘Fijian Girl’.
CBS records here issued a single of his theme from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in the UK in December 1973. However, the series was not as popular then, when it first started – and it failed to chart - remaining extremely rare today. The same year Philips issued a single composed and sung by Bruce Forsyth - ‘Didn’t He Do Well?’ b/w ‘Life Is the Name of the Game’ - the latter being adopted as the title theme from his series ‘The Generation Game’. Ronnie accompanied these tracks with ‘The Generation Gang’.
In 1976 an album was issued on Transatlantic Records featuring ‘The Two Ronnies’ – Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett - with orchestral arrangements by Hazlehurst and vocal arrangements by Fred Tomlinson – who was regularly used on the show. Also that year French music label Editions Montparnasse 2000 issued an album titled ‘Ben The Big One’ containing 15 themes written by the composer.
Hazlehurst recorded for the Conroy Music Library in 1975 and Amphonic in 1976 – and the track ‘Tomorrow is Now’ from Conroy’s LP ‘Pictures in Sound’ was released on CD in 2009 by Vocalion. KPM released eleven of his arrangements of some music hall songs on a CD they issued in 1989 called ‘Victoriana / Music Hall / Variety’.
The BBC issued a single of the opening music used for their coverage of the 1976 Olympic Games composed by Peter Young. This was called ‘Music For Montreal’ and was flipped with David Gold’s ‘Go For Gold’. Dick Walter arranged both.
One of the rarest Hazlehurst recordings is a 1978 Polydor LP titled ’16 Small Screen Greats’ which included faithful versions of his own themes from the TV series ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em’; ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’; ‘Last of the Summer Wine’; ‘The Two Ronnies’; ‘Happy Ever After’; ‘I Didn’t Know You Cared’; and ‘The Other One’. It also included cover versions of other popular themes including ‘Blake’s Seven’; ‘Poldark’; ‘Wings’; ‘Secret Army’; ‘M.A.S.H’; ‘I Claudius’; ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’; ‘Who Pays the Ferryman’; and ‘Pro-Am Golf’.
In 1983 Hazlehurst was back in the studio to record another single from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, a vocal version of the theme written with Bill Owen and series scriptwriter Roy Clarke, featuring star Bill ‘Compo’ Owen. The A side was ‘Nora Batty’s Stockings’ featuring Bill with Kathy Staff. It was credited to Ronnie Hazlehurst & His Music. 21 themes from the series were released on a CD in January 1997 on his own label to mark the series 25th Anniversary BBC Records issued a single in 1984 containing the vocal and instrumental of Hazlehurst’s theme for the series ‘Leaving’ sung by Val Stokes. The piano solo on the latter was by Ronnie Price.
Hazlehurst recorded two albums of themes from the Laurel & Hardy films under the title ‘Laurel & Hardy’s Music Box’. Originally issued on LP in 1980, CDs were released in 1986 on Silva Screen (and later TER records) played by Ronnie Hazlehurst and the ‘GG Band’, which were stereo re-recordings of the original arrangements. Tring International then issued all 34 tracks on a double CD in 1990. The very first disc to be pressed on vinyl was presented to Sam, Stan Laurel's great grandson, at Leeds Castle during the Helpmates meeting there. Hazlehurst had met with Hal Roach Studio’s musical director Marvin Hatley to iron out copyright issues relating to the Laurel & Hardy themes prior to recording.
In 1989 Spartan Records released a single for Children in Need - ‘If You Want to Help’ on which Hazlehurst conducted the BBC (Children in Need) Orchestra. The instrumental featured solos by its arranger Mark Stevens.
Grace Brothers covered his distinctive theme for ‘Are You Being Served’ firstly in 1996 though it was a remix using only samples of his theme. The Flaming Stars later recorded it in 1997. Also in 1996, Carlton issued the CD ‘Marti’ (17 tracks) with the late Marti Caine backed by Hazlehurst and His Orchestra.
Hazlehurst conducted the orchestra seven times for the UK entry at the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ – in 1977 with a bowler hat and rolled up brolley for Lynsey De Paul and Mike Moran’s ‘Rock Bottom’ (though he was not featured on the single which followed and peaked at No.19 in the UK singles chart). The same year he also conducted the German entry by Silver Convention (‘Telegram’). This was broadcast from the Wembley Conference Centre, London. Hazlehurst was also musical director in 1974 and 1982 when the event was hosted in the UK and also conducted the UK entries in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991 (‘A Message to Your Heart’ by Samantha Janus) and 1992 (‘One Step at a Time’ sung by Michael Ball). He was also a regular conductor on the ‘Song for Europe’ shows, which previewed the songs for each year’s Eurovision.
Hazlehurst appeared in the 2003 documentary ’30 Years of Last of the Summer Wine’ and the BBC-TV series ‘Seaside Special’ - which ran from 1975 to 1979.
He also conducted two singers on series opening credits – Clare Torry (on ‘Love Is Like a Butterfly’ from ‘Butterflies’) (1978) and Paul Nicholas’ ‘Just Good Friends’ (1983). He composed the ‘Lazy Daisy’ music for an episode of the popular detective drama ‘Shoestring’ in 1980 and worked with Cilla Black; Mike Yarwood; Cliff Richard; Mike Reid; Marti Caine; Val Doonican; and ‘Not Only…But Also’ on TV.
The only feature film to involve Hazlehurst was Miramax’s ‘The English Patient’ (1996) where he arranged music and conducted the Shepheard’s Hotel Jazz Orchestra - again working alongside Harry Rabinowitz. However, he had also orchestrated another of Gabriel Yared’s scores – ‘The Lover’ in 1992.
During the 1970s and 80s, Ronnie became such a well-known name in the UK that he was honoured with a Spitting Image lampoon (voiced by Harry Enfield) and the famous ‘South Bank Show’ sketch was included on the CD released in 1992. He died in hospital near his home in Guernsey on 1 October 2007; a plaque was erected on 19th April 2009 at Lodge Lane, Dunkinfield, Cheshire where he was born. Before it was unveiled by Councillor Jaqueline Lane the congregation were played The Generation Game’ theme; the band played ‘Last of the Summer Wine’; and one of the guests sang ‘Love Is Like a Butterfly’.
Copyright © Gareth Bramley February 2013