Alan Hawkshaw, composer who wrote the theme tunes to Grange Hill and Countdown and worked with David Bowie – obituary

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© Provided by The Telegraph Alan Hawkshaw

Alan Hawkshaw, who has died aged 84, composed the funky music heard on Grange Hill, the popular 1980s BBC children’s television drama series set in a comprehensive school, and the intensely ticking theme for Countdown, the first programme to be shown when Channel 4 began broadcasting in 1982.

The Grange Hill tune, known as Chicken Man, was also used as the theme for Give Us a Clue on Thames Television. It was originally a piece of library music, while the Countdown theme was written under duress with Hawkshaw recalling that having accepted the commission, he promptly forgot about it because he was working on the theme for Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World series.

“About a week later the guy rang me and said, ‘Have you got anything ready?’ I lied through my teeth and said, ‘Yes, I have. I’ll send it as soon as I can.’ Then I went and wrote the Countdown theme in no time,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “[Richard] Whiteley [the presenter] used to say, ‘He wrote it in the toilet’ – and he’s probably right.”

Hawkshaw’s work was used by countless musicians, ranging from his own band the Mohawks, the first of hundreds of groups to record The Champ, to the American rapper Jay-Z, who sampled his 1977 composition New Earth Parts 1 & 2 – written with Hank Marvin – for his track Pray on the No 1 album American Gangster (2007). He recalled having to ask his daughter who “Jay Zed” was, later joking: “I’m one of the oldest rap artists in the world.”

Much of his music was written for the KPM library. It was composed to a brief, later to be licensed for commercial use, and can also be heard on the Milk Tray adverts and as the themes to Dave Allen at Large and Channel 4 News, the latter played on the piccolo trumpet. But the popularity of The Champ left him baffled. “I much prefer my orchestral stuff,” he told The Guardian. “I can never understand why anyone goes ape about three notes I play on an organ for The Champ.”

William Alan Hawkshaw, known as “the Hawk”, was born in the Meanwood area of inner-city Leeds on March 27 1937, the youngest of four sons of Walter Hawkshaw, who played the piano, and his wife Lillian (née Parker); one of his brothers played euphonium in the Salvation Army band. As a child he learnt to play the piano by ear, recalling that the thought of studying music was never considered.

© Provided by The Telegraph Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman on Countdown. Whiteley used to say of Hawkshaw’s theme tune that ‘he wrote it on the toilet,’ to which Hawkshaw responded, ‘he’s probably right’ – Television Stills

He left school at 15 to serve an apprenticeship at the printer Knight & Forster, but realised that “there’s got to be something better in life than that.” During his teens he was playing keyboards with semi-professional bands around Leeds – “which was fantastic because it would earn an extra couple of quid a week if you got one a week. A couple of quid in those days would pay for your mortgage.”

One of those bands, the Crescendos, turned professional, and in 1960 Hawkshaw gave up the day job when they were offered a summer season in Blackpool. But he was fired two-thirds of the way through the summer because the band realised that once the season was over they would no longer be able to afford a pianist.

A friend spotted an advert for another band and Hawkshaw passed their test with flying colours. “I’d been used to playing more jazzy stuff and the auditions were all three-chord stuff, which was a piece of cake,” he recalled of becoming a member of Emile Ford’s the Checkmates.

On one occasion they were in Hamburg at the same time as the then little-known Beatles. “We used to eat with the Beatles in the Seamen’s Mission in Hamburg,” he said. “In fact John Lennon asked me what was it like to be on television because they’d never done anything like that.”

By the late 1960s he was in demand as a session musician, including on one occasion for John Peel’s Top Gear programme on Radio 1 with a young David Bowie, who in 1969 was making a jingle for Luv ice cream. “Ridley Scott was directing it and they picked a piece of music of mine called Luv, which I’d written for a group called Mint,” he recalled. His recordings with Bowie were later released as Bowie at the Beeb (2000).

In 1969 Hank Marvin recruited Hawkshaw for the Shadows’ tour of Japan. He went on to work as musical director for Olivia Newton-John and collaborated with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Along the way Barbra Streisand took a shine to one of his pieces but held on to it for eight years “until I sent her a note saying please record it before one of us dies”. She eventually released Why Let it Go in 1988.

His musical Across the Wall, written with David Soames and set a year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, was presented at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, in 2013.

For the past 40 years he donated a significant portion of his royalties to the Alan Hawkshaw Foundation, which has a long-standing association with Leeds Conservatoire (formerly City of Leeds College of Music) and the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire. His aim, he said, was to help “underprivileged talent to be given a chance”.

Hawkshaw, who in 2011 published a memoir, The Champ (The Hawk Talks), was awarded the BEM this month. An early first marriage was dissolved and in 1968 he married Christiane Bieberbach. She survives him with a daughter, the singer Kirsty Hawkshaw, and a son, Sheldon.

Alan Hawkshaw, born March 27 1937, died October 16 2021 

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