Friday, 11 September 2015

Theme Time : Tony Hatch - Man Alive

Man Alive was a current affairs documentary series which ran on BBC2 from 1965 to 1981. Commissioned by Sir David Attenborough whilst he was controller of the channel, the series racked up a total of almost  500 programmes tackling a range of contemporary social and political issues at home in the UK and abroad.

The first programme, The Heart Man, was broadcast on 4 November 1965 and focused on heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.  Each edition of the programme had a sub-title which reflected its content and would generally run from 30 to 50 minutes in length. The series editor and most prominent reporter was Desmond Wilcox, who met his wife Esther Rantzen, when she began working on the show. Other reporters included Anna Ford, Malcolm Muggeridge, Nick Ross and John Pitman.

The series was ostensibly the BBC's answer to what was then Granada Television's excellent documentary and current affairs output, specifically the similar World In Action. Man Alive also followed a similar remit as BBC1's Panorama, which began in 1953 and is still running to this day.

Notable early Man Alive films include The Other Woman, which looked at mistresses, The Alternative Press which focused on the controversial Oz magazine and International Times as well as small independent community newspapers that were appearing all over Britain in the 60s and 70s to challenge Fleet Street with a more moral and vital stance. The Possessed was a look at suburban housewives involved with the occult, whilst 1973's Twinkle Twinkle Little Star dealt with the British record industry's efforts to find a teenybopper singing star to rival Americans such as Jimmy Osmond. The programme primarily concerned itself with Darren Burn,  a tragic, ill-fated eleven-year-old Senior Chorister from north London and the son of EMI executive Colin Burn. Despite EMI spending much time and money promoting him, his record career failed to take off. In July 1988, during his last BBC Television interview (People...Whatever Happened To Darren Burn?), Burn, then aged 26, referring to his ill-fated launch in 1973, told John Pitman that it had been "a very strange thing for a young child to go through" and that it had left him "with a feeling of failure." He also appeared to be blaming his parents for allowing him go through the whole affair and told Pitman: "I certainly wouldn't allow one of my children to do that...should I ever have any."  He died in October 1991, aged 30, in his flat in Southwark, south London, after taking an overdose of anti-depressants. 

Alone, broadcast over Christmas 1970, was an eloquent look at loneliness through a range of candid interviewees, including a widower who was desperate not to burden anyone else but could find no solace in his life since the death of his wife, a man who had found himself gradually losing touch with his family, and a girl who dwelt at busy railway stations to feel a sense of company.

But overall, the film which perhaps best sums up the series' strengths is Gale is Dead, the story of 19-year-old Gale Parsons, who died a drug addict on 11 February 1970, during the making of the film. She had been brought up in no less than 14 institutions and was convinced that she mattered to no one. Her story was told mainly through the eyes of Mrs. Nancy David, a teacher who became a key figure in her life.

The show's memorable theme tune was provided by Tony Hatch

The BBC's website maintains a Man Alive homepage and occasionally updates with clips from the films or a full film itself.


  1. They don't make current affairs programmes like that any more and they don't write theme tunes as fine as that any longer, either. Proustian rush.

  2. Tony Hatch will probably only get the recognition he deserves when they write his obits. Even Barry Gray was getting The Proms treatment last night at The Albert Hall.

  3. Thanks guys, good to see some more Hatch fans. My favourite of his is probably The Champions, but this comes very close.

  4. I read the two words 'Man' and 'Alive' in the title of your post and Tony Hatch's theme tune immediately jumped into my head, in spite of not even having thought about it for over 30 years. Sometimes when you hear a piece of music after that length of time, the stark reality is far less impressive than the memory. Not in this case though.