This Was... Cult Fiction Part 6: 'This Is... Cult Fiction Royale'

One of the big frustrations for soundtrack collectors of yore - and TV soundtrack collectors in particular - was that the commercially released versions of your top favourite theme tunes never quite matched up with what was heard on screen. The odd ill-advised funked-up abberation aside, they were by and large very close approximations, but were always sufficiently 'different' to cause the sort of frustration that could never be sensibly explained to anyone else; the guitar that came in just that bit further away from the beat, the shrill exotic wind instrument replaced with a more Pye Records-friendly session flautist, the abrupt ending jettisoned in favour of a repetitive and overlong fadeout, and so on and so on and so on and living in harmony they're the friendly enemies living in harmony they're the friendly enemies living in harmonOH JUST STOP. In some extreme cases, like that of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), the hapless punters wouldn't even have got any kind of variation on the original recording at all, with the few - and even in some cases lone - commercially available versions being shunted out by the yard by one of the many and unvaried faceless big bands and orchestras that specialised in such cheap and not always especially cheerful cash-ins.

One such cheap and not especially cheerful cash-in was the long-forgotten ramble through the theme from Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) released as a latterly-dizzying-sum-fetching single by Norrie Paramor & His Orchestra. This alone was enough of a holy grail for collectors (don't bother, though, it's rubbish); the spectral harpsichord tingling of Edwin Astley's original on-screen version was so far beyond the realms of availablity that people didn't even bother wishing that it would come out, and instead just contented themselves with muffled and hissy recordings they'd made from VHS tapes. Like so many other similarly great yet elusive pieces of soundtrack music, it was destined to gather dust on a shelf in some archive where nobody actually knew where it was, tantalisingly just on the edge of continuity-announcer-hijacked consciousness but seemingly destined never to find its way onto CD.

Late in 1996, however, some enterprising soundtrack collector decided they'd had quite enough of this nonsense, and wrote to 'QAnswers', Q Magazine's authoritative rock itch-scratcher extraordinaire, asking the intrepid ask-arounders if there was any way in which the original recording could ever be made commercially available. Surprisingly, the answer came back that the compilers of the Cult Fiction series were looking into whether the original Edwin Astley recording of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), spectral harpsichord tingling and all, could be incorporated into a collection of TV detective themes pencilled in for the New Year. Needless to say, the mere suggestion that they were looking into the possibility of licensing otherwise unavailable original original original soundtrack recordings led to all manner of excitement and speculation. By the twin laws of averages and diminishing returns any compilation series onto its sixth volume should have long since started to run the already flimsy concept into the ground - and Trackspotting of course couldn't even manage a single volume without doing so - but this news suggested that they were all set to outdo all of their previous and indeed not inconsiderable achievements. Whatever the next Cult Fiction album ended up being called, it looked likely to be the album that a great many of the series' fans had always wished existed.

When This Is... Cult Fiction Royale duly appeared late in 1997, it wasn't exactly a 'detective themes' album as such, but neither was it the throwback to now-badly-outmoded Tarantino-worship that the continentally-skewed burger-scoffing title suggested. So... what exactly was it, then? Well, the cover artwork, showing an old-skool petrol-guzzler, a foxy chick in a Paloma Faith-esque wallpaper-pattern jumpsuit, and what experts believe to be Matthew McConaughey's character from Dazed And Confused as rendered by a court artist who'd just been fired for being slightly too accurate, was giving nothing away, and the tracklisting appeared, on first glance at least, to be bewilderingly all over the place. The 'theme', if there could be said to be anything resembling a tangible 'theme' at all, appeared simply to be 'being the best Cult Fiction compilation of the lot', and it's fair to say that this ambitious benchmark was one that they ended up vaulting with ease. Whether by accident or design - well, come on, it's going to be 'design' isn't it - they had managed to gather together just about everything that a Cult Fiction devotee might concievably still want in the one place. Well, technically two places, given it was a double CD set, but you get the general idea.

In fact, This Is... Cult Fiction Royale was such a mighty collection of tracks that it was easy to miss the fact that a good thirty percent of them had already appeared on previous Cult Fiction compilations. And indeed sufficiently mighty that even when you did notice this, it hardly seemed to matter, though admittedly the fact that many were also appearing in full this time around did help a bit. Joe 90 (with 'wow' reassuringly intact), Hill Street Blues, The Return Of The Saint, The Professionals, Man In A Suitcase, Get Carter, The Champions, Avenues And Alleyways from The Protectors, Mission Impossible, Danger Man, The Man From UNCLE, Strange Report, The New Avengers and Tales Of The Unexpected (the only one of them still to be suffering from early-fade-out-itis) all show up for a repeat performance, but they're all such great pieces of music that you really don't mind hearing them again in a new context. On top of which, there's a couple of welcome surprises amongst their fellow returnees; the James Bond Theme is in its original Connery-era single-version guise as credited to (cough) 'Monty Norman', there's a thundering funked-up take on The Sweeney as recorded for mysteriously undiscernible purposes by library music mainstay Simon Wallace and alternative comedy's own piano-pounder Simon Brint (and yes, the alarming drumming may well be courtesy of Rowland Rivron), and as an entertaining white elephant there's the 12" extended version of a partially successful 'Big Beat' reworking of the original The Professionals theme by Blue Boy, which as you're probably suspecting by was indeed the less successful follow-up to the still-fantastic earlier-in-the-year hit Remember Me.

And what of that much-vaunted 'new stuff' that allowed for this equally much-vaunted 'new context'? Well, the two-disc set gets off to a barnstorming start with two previously-neglected instrumentals that had then recently been dusted off for renewed advert-fuelled popularity, Lalo Schifrin's car-bigging-up main title theme from Bullitt and Jean-Jacques Perrey's Lucozade-proffering early Moog gurgle-out E.V.A., alongside - more impressively still - the single version of John Barry's oddly ill-fittingly Cold War-evoking theme from ITC's most entertainingly ludicrous series of the lot, The Persuaders, which up until then had been eluding compilers on account of headache-inducing rights complications, with many a collection having to opt to use a dreary orchestral rendering in its stead. Yer Schifrin also makes everyone's day with Dirty Harry's scorching opening title accompaniment, which rumbles on ominously far longer than it has any right to before losing control and going wildly overboard with the blaring brass, yodelling backing vocal ladies and wah-wah disobedience, along with the more subdued On The Way To San Mateo from further along in the Bullitt soundtrack, while John Barry performs much the same honours with his oft-overlooked recurring Bond incidental instrumental 007. On the more obscure and televisual side, there's not only the shrill flute-driven funk workout that introduced a corduroy-clad post-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee grilling a team of b-list celebrities about an extended ripoff of Cluedo in Whodunnit?, Laurie Johnson's close-but-no-final-verse-trumpet-voluntary single-length reading of The Avengers, the surprisingly tuneful 'gritty' urban eighties orchestra-hit-driven intro from Dempsey & Makepeace, and The Les Reed Brass' top drawer cover of The Saint, there's also the Simon Park Orchestra's it's-a-lager-not-a-tune-tastic theme from Van Der Valk - probably one of the most frequently forgotten chart-toppers in top forty history - and even better still its even more regularly overlooked b-side; Distant Hills, better known to school-averse perusers of pre-daytime TV daytime TV schedules as the closing theme from Crown Court, and which is arguably worth the price of admission alone.

Yet amazingly, if we're extending the 'price of admission' analogy still further and indeed beyond the point where it really makes any logical or cogent sense, all of this above-alluded to musical fantasticness is really only sitting in those dusty display cases in the foyer that people just sort of wander past without taking much notice of, and what everyone really wants to see (or, erm, hear) is the main attraction; or, in less ridiculous terms, those excitement-arousing themes taken directly from the soundtracks of TV episodes. And they really are 'taken directly' - in the absence of easily sourceable master tapes, a deal was struck with the then-present rights holders of ATV/ITC's televisual output whereby they were literally dubbed from master copies taken directly from the archive, with the opening and closing themes as heard on screen bolted together into something at least approximating 'full length'. While this does mean that they're unavoidably presented here in trebly flat mono and there are some jarringly shoddy bits of editing on display - someone was clearly labouring under the misapprehension that Gerry Anderson's 'Century 21' ident was actually part of the UFO theme, whilst a butterfingered fragment of the sponsor message from the US broadcasts somehow found its way into the theme from The Baron - mere words alone cannot adequately express how much of a thrill it was to finally have high quality as-heard-on-TV copies of those two along with The Prisoner, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), Department S, Jason King, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Supercar, Space: 1999Tiswas and Sapphire & Steel (or, as the back cover tracklisting has it, 'Steele'), complete with chattering teleprinters, screeching car u-turns and Patrick McGoohan thumping a desk crudely sellotaped over the top. Of course, dilligent detective work has since led to a great many compilations using the original tapes of all these and many more besides and in glorious properly mastered stereo to boot (yes, alright, and mono in quite a few cases too, but you get the general idea), with the result that in retrospect they make This Is... Cult Fiction Royale feel like a bit of a disjointed listen as a whole, but at the time it was a massive step up and indeed step forwards from the home-made cassettes that hapless soundtrack fans had been trying and failing to put together to their satisfaction for far too long.

Inevitably, with a compilation and indeed an archive-scouring endeavour on this scale, there are a couple of moments where This Is... Cult Fiction Royale doesn't quite hit the Century 21 Productions target. The perfectly decent but all-too-familiar single versions of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons show up instead of their superior on-screen readings - quite why they didn't take the opportunity to include the much-sought-after mock-bubblegum-psych oh-no-some-boxes-are-falling-quite-near-me closing song from the latter really is a mystery - although on the other hand we should be grateful they averted the weedier onscreen original of the Joe 90 theme in favour of the hefty Northern Soul-favoured single version, 'wow' or otherwise. Presumably because the rights were then owned by the same people as the erstwhile ATV/ITC shows, we get the horrendous beefing-up of the theme from The Magic Roundabout from the now quietly forgotten Nigel Planer-narrated episodes, though the most jarring plot-straying is saved for right at the end, when listeners get to 'enjoy' all seven bastard minutes of the the are-they-still-going-on-about-that-am-I-still-on-that-fecking-island moping-sax main theme from the show they could never quite stop trying to convince you that you liked, Twin Peaks, and more incongruously still Vangelis' complete and unedited Blade Runner Blues, which may very well be an astonishing piece of music but is not really one that should be taking up several decades at the end of two discs' worth of walloping drums and swaggering brass. Though if you did give up halfway through, then you'll have missed the suspiciously prolonged blast of silence at the end; 'hidden tracks' at the beginning and end of CDs were all the rage back then - indeed, it's quite possible that some have still never even been stumbled across - and what better way to end this collection than with the inattentive-listener-alarming actual literal binging and indeed bonging ATV 'zoom' jingle, blaring out as if an episode of Pipkins is about to start? Actually, why wasn't the theme from Pipkins on here? Yes, alright, moving on...

Although whether they were actually that good at going out on a high as individual compilations is open to question, This Is... Cult Fiction Royale really did end the Cult Fiction series on a high; presumably it was a commercial rather than artistic decision to finish the series here, but even so it drew a pretty satisfying line under two years and nine discs' worth of expertly-chosen tracks that most of the target audience had probably never even imagined they'd get to own on CD. And that wasn't even the end of the story; in 2004, Virgin saw fit to release The Best Of Cult Fiction, which collapsed highlights from the earlier volumes (though frustratingly no Eurovision stuff) onto two discs alongside a handful of newcomers and a couple of selections from Tarantino's later offerings, and a revised This Is Easy, replacing a couple of the original's more obscure selections with contributions from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and Mike Flowers (and yes, they did take the opportunity to upgrade those horrendous re-recorded Burt Bacharach and Sandie Shaw tracks). Meanwhile, there was no updated Trackspotting.

So, This Was... Cult Fiction. A series of compilations that may not have had the era-defining cultural cachet of Now That's What I Call Music, the slick combination of chart hit crowd-drawing and collector-friendly obscure 12" mixes of Anthems: Electronic 80s, or the sheer FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THAT IS DECENT AND HUMANE HIT IT WITH A BIN of Summer Chart Party, but which still make for interesting and enjoyable listening today, and which more importantly went very well with your Britpop, your Loungecore, your unironic love of Eurovision, your alcopops, your liking for the sort of films that the 'cineastes' seldom enthused over, your back issues of Loaded that you couldn't bear to throw away, and your falling off a chair while attempting to impress 'That Becky'. Significantly, the exotic jazzy stylings and tendency towards chilled-out extended album-closers also went surprisingly well with an unexpected various-reasons-prompted shift in musical mood that happened shortly after This Is... Cult Fiction Royale came out... but that's another story.