DOING IT FOR THE KIDS - Deborah Linton
Banks and Wag went from playing stadiums to writing hit TV music, from Go Jetters to The X Factor. So what's the secret to making a CBeebies earworm?
Every day, tens of millions sink into their sofas, turn on the television and enjoy the earworms of the composers Banks and Wag.
They have penned the pulsing tension music when someone is voted off the X Factor. They are behind the buildup when a number drops on the national lottery; the 15-second intro to one of Netflix’s biggest-ever international kids’ hits, Mighty Little Bheem; the most recent theme tune to Blue Peter and – inescapable to anyone who has parented a preschooler in the last six years – the disco-funk opener to CBeebies’ wildly popular show, Go Jetters. And yet, Chris Banks and Wag Marshall-Page remain unknown to almost all those who hear, hum and stream their catchy melodies. “There are not many countries in the world that aren’t showing one of our shows, and yet we are anonymous,” says Banks.
The two composers are full of beans and bouncing around their home music studios – Banks in Hertfordshire and Marshall-Page in London – on a Zoom call. This year is their ninth scoring the CBeebies Christmas show. “You see a young audience responding to your music and that’s great,” says Banks.
Banks, 43, and Marshall-Page, 46, first met 25 years ago at university in London. Banks grew up in Brecon, Wales, and was inspired by his high school music teacher; Marshall-Page used to hide copies of Guitarist magazine in his GCSE German textbook at school in Newbury, Berkshire. In 1996, at the height of Britpop, they both enrolled at the University of Westminster to study commercial music, and became friends and housemates. They joined “every band going”, including a 15-piece drum’n’bass setup, an indie outfit and a covers group. “We seemed to play every venue Coldplay had just played, but they were the better investment,” says Banks.
After graduating in 1999, they picked up radio jingle gigs for Dutch compost and Russian margarine companies among others, and got regular work engineering, programming and performing with early-00s Top of the Pops regulars including Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Blue and the Sugababes. Banks played keys for Busted for two years, touring in Japan and playing at Wembley, while Marshall-Page travelled the world playing bass with his band, Infadels, supporting the Prodigy and Faithless in the UK. Then, around the late 2000s,they had kids.
They don’t miss the 4am bedtimes that were typical when touring: “There were no regrets about hanging up the stage clothes,” says Marshall-Page. “We spent less time touring and more time watching CBeebies.” They realised then that it was not only children who were watching kids’ shows, but also the parents. “We felt we could write music that would help to draw them in as well as kids,” says Marshall-Page. “If we could get the premise of Dutch compost over in 30 seconds, we could get the premise of a disco-loving unicorn driving a spaceship over in 30 seconds, too.”
He’s referring to the music to CBeebies’s Go Jetters, a show about four explorers who travel the world on a spaceship piloted by their unicorn teacher, Ubercorn. “That’s probably the one we’re best known for. We get sent videos, on Twitter, of kids singing along or messages from mums who’ve found themselves humming it in a meeting till another parent asks: ‘Is that Go Jetters?’” he says. Friends of Marshall-Page’s 11-year-old daughters used to collar him in the playground: “They’d come running up saying, ‘You’re the Go Jetters guy!’ Parents too.”
Before Go Jetters, the pair struck up working relationships at the BBC by dialling the switchboard and blagging their way through to producers. In 2010 they penned music for another CBeebies hit, ZingZillas. Jazz singer Cleo Laine and glam rockers the Darkness stopped by for cameos because their kids were huge fans of the show.
"We got a call from the Brand New Heavies. They'd heard the Go Jetters theme. It turns out pop stars are up at 6am, too" Chris Banks
They do jingles for adults, too, from The X Factor to Radio 4’s Dead Ringers and ITV’s reality spin-off Sam and Billie: The Mummy Diaries. But there isn’t much of a difference between those jobs and writing for CBeebies, says Marshall-Page: “Whether it’s kids, adults or a family, in essence it’s the same approach. A kid might respond to a melody or lyric in a different way to an adult but both compositions rely on finding an idea and refining it until you come up with the best version. The moment you say: ‘Ah bosh it out – this is just for kids’ is the moment you might as well give up.”
The secret to a good jingle, says Banks, is building a world which sets the tone for what viewers are about to see: “Sonically, you encapsulate a show in 30 seconds. Hitting on a theme that works basically comes from us wandering around our homes humming to ourselves, enunciating, investigating melodies. If it’s still memorable on day two, that’s when you know it’s sticky.”
In March 2019, they briefly topped the Billboard charts in Japan, beating Ed Sheeran and Queen, when their theme tune to a Japanese TV drama [Mr Hiiragi’s Homeroom] became the soundtrack to a TikTok dance challenge. “There’s a video of the Japanese prime minister learning the routine,” says Banks.
The line between pop stardom and jingle-writing is far less entrenched than one might think. “You’re also part of a TV and theatre team at the top of their game, working with musicians who toured with pop stars one month and are brass-playing, tap-dancing reindeers the next,” says Marshall-Page. But they are happy with their anonymity. “For us, the fact that we’re two names you might vaguely remember from some end credits means we get to do different, fun projects without any of the baggage of what came before,” says Marshall-Page. “A handful of people on Twitter and Mumsnet know who we are – and we like it that way.”
As comprehensive school kids who had no industry contacts, they recently signed up to support the Arts Emergency charity which supports young people trying to break through. “It’s harder now than it was for us in the 90s,” says Banks. “When you didn’t have tuition fees and only had to scrape together £100 a week for London rent, there were lots of people from ordinary backgrounds, like us, in the industry. Now, a lot of people working in telly have to undertake low or unpaid internships, which excludes some young people. If you don’t see people like you or can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad, it’s a real barrier.”
Next year promises a new Netflix series, BBC work and talk of writing music for a feature film. The pair meet to work in their south London studio most days but things can be unpredictable – it’s no nine-to-five. “We never know what’s coming and that’s why it’s brilliant,” says Banks. “A couple of years ago, we got a call from the Brand New Heavies. They’d heard the Go Jetters theme and wanted to collaborate. It turns out pop stars are up with the kids at 6am, too.”
The CBeebies Christmas show The Night Before Christmas airs Saturday, 9.30am & 3.10pm, CBeebies.