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The BBC Radio 4 UK Theme is an orchestral arrangement of traditional British airs composed by Fritz Spiegl (and possibly Manfred Arlan) which was played every morning on BBC Radio 4 between 23 November 1978 and 23 April 2006.
The piece was used as a start-up theme to introduce the Shipping Forecast, and was always the first item broadcast after Radio 4 resumed service following the night-time handover to the BBC World Service. In 2006, Mark Damazer's decision to cancel the UK Theme to make way for a "pacy news briefing" caused much controversy in the United Kingdom, including extensive discussion in the British media and even in Parliament.
The UK Theme was created in 1978 (not 1973 as BBC press releases at the time of its axing claimed) at the suggestion of Ian McIntyre, the then-new controller of Radio 4. He commissioned Fritz Spiegl to produce an arrangement of traditional British melodies to signify Radio 4 as a service which, from its move from medium wave to 1500 metres/200 kiloHertz long wave on 23 November 1978, would for the first time broadcast a unified service to the whole United Kingdom (i.e. without the regional opt-outs which it had inherited from the old Home Service in 1967). Austrian-born Spiegl came to the UK as a refugee in 1939, after his parents fled Nazi persecution of Jews following the Anschluss. He had contributed several pieces of music to the BBC, including a theme for Radio 4 based on a children's skipping rhyme introduced in 1973 (called A Skipping Tune), which was replaced by the Radio 4 UK Theme.
The time at which the piece was played varied according to the time Radio 4 began broadcasting, which has become gradually earlier in the morning over the years. Initially it was played at approximately 5:54am on weekdays (starting from Thursday 23 November 1978), before the first programme of the day (News Briefing) began at 6:00am. At weekends it was played later than this (Saturday programmes in November 1978 starting at 6:30am and Sunday programmes at 7:15am). Towards the end of the UK Theme's life it was played at 5:30am every day, when Radio 4 took over from the BBC World Service, which has provided overnight programming on Radio 4's frequencies for some years.
The actual premiere of the Theme was at approximately 9.07pm on Monday 20 November 1978, when it was played to fill a lengthy gap in the schedule and to familiarise listeners with the immiment frequency change.
In 2006 the Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer, announced that he was cancelling the broadcast. The decision caused much controversy, but protests were to no avail. The last broadcast of the UK Theme was at 5:30am on Sunday 23 April 2006.
The UK Theme, like Sailing By, was used before the Shipping Forecast, allowing fishermen and sailors within range to tune to the correct frequency for the gale warnings and weather forecasts which are about to be broadcast; the continuity of the music being better than spoken words as a gauge of sound quality, allowing those tuning in to find the best frequency for their location.
The piece was recorded in 1978 by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. The original recording was 5 minutes, 45 seconds and did not include 'Greensleeves/Drunken Sailor', having instead a longer and slower 'Londonderry Air/Annie Laurie' section, with the two pieces played separately before being combined. By 1990, the more familiar five-minute arrangement was in use, lasting until 2006.
The piece has echoes of Jack Byfield's Fantasia on National Airs, known colloquially as "Nat. Airs", which was written as a startup theme for the BBC Television Service in the mid-1950s. Both pieces open with Early One Morning.
On 23 January 2006, the BBC announced that by April 2006 the UK Theme would be scrapped, the station opening instead with a news briefing and extended shipping forecast. Explaining the decision, Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer said: "I know there are some people who will regret the passing of the UK Theme, but I believe the bulk of the audience will be better served by a pacy news briefing, read by one of Radio 4's team of news readers."
The announcement led to mass coverage in the British media and even to comments in its support by then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. On the 24 January, several British MPs submitted Early Day Motions about the theme, which led to a question being asked at Prime Minister's Questions, with then Prime Minister Tony Blair referring to the "strong feeling" around the country. Also, BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman played the UK Theme to end the programme on a number of occasions and several British orchestras and institutions have also pledged to play the theme. These include British supermarket chain ASDA, and London speech radio station, LBC. ASDA said: "We are going to be playing the UK Theme at 10am every morning on ASDA FM, our in-store radio, so that our customers will be treated to this rousing musical medley as they do their weekly shop." David Lloyd, the managing director of LBC, said: "We're with [Jeremy] Paxman on this. If our friends at Radio 4 don't want the theme tune anymore, then we would seriously like to acquire it [for our breakfast show]". Fritz Spiegl's widow, Ingrid, added her support, saying: "I feel the voice of the people should be heard".
Meanwhile, another controversy broke out as to whether it was solely Fritz Spiegl who arranged the piece, as the family of Manfred Arlan, the RLPO's principal bassoonist for 35 years claimed it was a joint authorship, citing both names on the score. Spiegl's widow suggested that Arlan was only the copyist, whereas Arlan's family suggested his contribution was more extensive.  As both composers are deceased, the true authorship remains unclear, although the published orchestral edition names both men.
On 31 March 2006 the BBC issued a press release confirming that the new Radio 4 schedule would begin on Monday 24 April, meaning that the UK Theme was played for the last time on Sunday 23 April. In it the Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer, said: "I'm sorry that part of the audience is upset by the removal of the UK Theme. They may like to know that we will be offering the UK Theme as a stream on the Radio 4 website, where it will be available from Friday 21 April." The following day, the Daily Telegraph carried a short piece saying that the campaign to save the theme had "failed."
The BBC has released no official figure for the number of complaints it has received on the matter of dropping the UK Theme. However, a MediaGuardian article dated 29 March put it at "more than 6,000".
On Friday 21 April, the UK Theme officially went online on the Radio 4 website.
On Friday, 17 February 2006, the piece was re-recorded by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Gavin Sutherland and was released as a single on Monday, 27 March, also featuring Ronald Binge's Sailing By, the BBC Radio 4 late night Shipping Forecast theme. The original manuscript was restored by the notable light music composer Ernest Tomlinson after it was discovered in the loft of Ingrid Spiegl's house. The executive producers of the single were Mike Flowers, who had previously had an unexpected hit with his arrangement of Oasis's "Wonderwall", and Liverpool-based conference organiser Simon Roxborough.
During the first week of its release, it charted at number 15 in the Woolworths Singles Chart. On Sunday, 2 April 2006, the single entered the Tesco Singles Chart at number 8 and the UK Singles Chart at number 29. The top-ten placement at Tesco resulted in the single featuring prominently in the store's display areas, while its entry into the UK Singles Chart led to an on-air explanation of the campaign by the presenters of the Radio 1 Chart Show. By the second week of its release, it had dropped to 39th in the UK Singles Chart. In its third week, it fell to number 75.
The same team behind the single were also planning a full-length album of pieces selected from the British light music tradition. The album, provisionally titled "Early One Morning: British Light Music and Broadcasting Classics", was expected to include Country Gardens and Lillibullero (the BBC World Service theme), as well as the re-recorded UK Theme and Sailing By. This appears not to have come to fruition. However, the theme is available in another recording on Naxos Records' British Light Miniatures performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paul Murphy.