1973 wasn’t quite as weird as 1972 when it came to its number 1s. Few years are. But this piece of instrumental library music picked for crime drama series Van der Valk did enjoy a month at the top of the charts in the autumn and is remembered as one of the most popular TV themes of the 70s. It also led to the bizarre sight of an orchestra on Top of the Pops.
If you delve deep, library music, especially of the 60s and 70 and early 80s, can be a treasure trove of fascinating music, where composers would record stock music to be used on film, TV and radio. They were often given free rein to use (then) cutting-edge instruments, which give such pieces a charm of an imagined future that never happened. Think hauntology, but more upbeat, usually.
This number 1 was originally written by Dutch composer Jan Stoeckart for the De Wolfe Music Library, based in the UK and the oldest of its kind. Stoeckart had worked for De Wolfe since the 60s and over the years composed somewhere around 1,300 pieces for the library under a variety of pseudonyms. He came up with Eye Level, then known as Amsterdam, in the early-70s and used the name Jack Trombey. It was loosely based on an 18th-century poem known as Catootje in Dutch, which used the opening bars of Non più andrai from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.
Thames Television picked the piece for their new series Van der Valk, which first aired in 1972. It was based on the novels by Nicolas Freeling about Commissaris Simon ‘Piet’ Van der Valk, a cynical detective in Amsterdam, played by Barry Foster. With Britain set to enter the EEC in 1973, it was the perfect time for such a series, and was filmed in the Netherlands. It was renamed Eye Level to refer to the ever-present horizon in the Low Countries, which is always at eye level.
Simon Park, leader of the orchestra that performed the theme, was born in March 1946. Raised in Market Harborough, he began playing the piano aged only five. He gained a Bachelor of Arts in music at Worcester College, Oxford.
So, an unusual number 1 indeed. I think it’s the first time library music had been in pole position, and the first example of a TV theme gaining that spot. Russ Conway’s Side Saddle in 1959 was from a TV show, but that was incidental music. But while it’s certainly a strange sight to see a group of middle-aged men on Top of the Pops at the height of glam rock, I’m all for it. It’s a prime example of the eccentric tastes of the Great British Public and it’s a nice piece of music, that really lodges in your brain. I first became aware of it in 1991, aged 12, when ITV brought the series back, and have never forgotten it. It has of course been used elsewhere since.
I’m not sure it’s a great theme for Van der Valk though. I’ve never watched it, but from clips and research, it’s pretty dark and gritty, and Eye Level isn’t. It sounds more like the theme to a gardening series or comedy drama. it’s bright, breezy, jaunty and uplifting, and so I think it became a number 1 because of the disparity rather than in spite of it. Fans of the show would have bought it, but you’d also have had older music fans purchasing it too, just for its pleasantness and anything to get that awful noisy rock music off Top of the Pops.
Despite what I said about the novelty of seeing this on the BBC’s flagship music show earlier though, I soon became bored while watching repeats of seeing these men parping away, and not for the first time, found myself wondering how something so out of place stayed at number 1 for quite as long as it did. But that’s novelties for you.
Columbia Records cashed in on the success of The Simon Park Orchestra, releasing two albums of their work, Something in the Air (1974) and Venus Fly Trap (1975). Park also made the music for ITV war drama Danger UXB in 1979. He went on to compose for films, notably Nutcracker (1982) and Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998).
Van der Valk was revived in April this year, with Marc Warren as the detective. Fans of the original were apparently in uproar over the fact Eye Level wasn’t used as its theme, with just a slight nod to it instead. Considering there was a worldwide pandemic lockdown also going on, any uproar seems a little unjustified. It didn’t really work as the theme in 1973, it’s not going to work in a world as depressing as the post-Brexit, COVID-19-ridden Earth in 2020, is it?
Written by: Jack Trombey
Producer: Simon Park
Weeks at number 1: 4 (29 September-26 October)
Presenter Beverley Turner – 21 October
Poet WH Auden – 29 September
Conservative MP Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 8th Duke of Buccleuch – 4 October
Actress Hilda Plowright – 9 October
8 October: London Broadcasting Company, Britain’s first legal commercial independent local radio station, starts broadcasting.
16 October: The thriller Don’t Look Now is released in a double bill with horror The Wicker Man.
20 October: The Dalai Lama makes his first visit to the UK.
26 October: Firefighters in Glasgow stage a one-day strike as part of a pay dispute, leading to troops being drafted in to run the fire stations.