Sound Alchemy: the BBC radiophonic workshop

The BBC's famous sound labs, where the unearthly intonations of the original Doctor Who theme were created, was born this day in 1958...

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was based in Delaware Road in London’s Maida Vale, opened by Desmond Briscoe on April Fools Day 1958. For many years the BBC had a department for sound effects, where amongst others, legendary Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter began her career. The Radiophonic Workshop was home to all manner of Heath-Robinson devices, literally anything which could provide an eccentric sound or noise from left-field was given office space, and people from fields including mathematics and engineering helmed the fledgling department.

The early years of the Radiophonic workshop saw several commissions for sound effects. They were kept particularly busy by the excesses of The Goon Show. One of the workshop’s leading technicians Dick Mills recalled producing a particularly memorable sound effect on BBC4’s Timeshift in 2006. ” Major Bloodnok was a military gentleman with a penchant for loose women and hot curries or perhaps it was the other way round. We were asked to portray the sound of his stomach… when you’ve got a creator of the calibre of Spike Milligan, it can go anywhere…” In 1961 the Radiophonic Workshop produced a record called Timebeat by one “Ray Cathode”, in reality workshop technician Maddalena Fagandini. Originally produced for BBC TV to use when music was required to fill a gap in the schedule, the track somehow made it onto Jukebox Jury bemusing the panel and David Jacobs alike.

In 1963 a long and fruitful partnership began when a young BBC Producer Verity Lambert telephoned Desmond Briscoe. Lambert asked if the Workshop could provide the theme to a new TV series called Doctor Who. Lambert required something very different and other-worldly and was familiar with the work of the experimental French orchestra Les Structures Sonores, who created unusual sounds from hitting glass rods encased in steel. She wanted the accompolished TV theme composer Ron Grainer to compose the music and after her discussion with Desmond Briscoe, Grainer was engaged to the project.

Desmond Briscoe assigned the theme’s technical production to composer Delia Derbyshire. Ron Grainer had detailed the kind of sounds which the Doctor Who theme should incorporate. Rather prosaically describing “windbubble and clouds” Grainer envisaged musicians blowing across the tops of milkbottles. Delia Derbyshire was fond of measuring out everything mathematically and applied this to her musical compositions. She experimented with the sound of a sine and square wave generator.

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Essentially Derbyshire created the iconic Doctor Who theme using the base sound of a plucked guitar D string and modulating electronic notes over the top. The basic melody was created by modulating the sine and square wave generator so it matched the desired pitch of each note, which in turn were recorded on individual pieces of tape. The notes then had to be painstakingly put together by hand. Eerie sweeps of white noise were placed on top of the distinctive baseline. The finished tune is a testament to Derbyshire’s musical talent, her impressive use of mathematics and her incredible patience. Together with Dick Mills she created arguably the most famous TV theme on British Television. So unusual and impressive was the result that Ron Grainer was heard to remark “I composed that?”

Sound Effects expert Brian Hodgson scraped a door key over the strings of a gutted piano. He slowed it down to create one of television’s most famous sound effects… the dematerialisation noise of the TARDIS. Due to the success of the theme and the programme the Radiophonic Workshop became synonymous with the Timelord. By the Seventies the familiarity of The Radiophonic Workshop was such that HM The Queen when asked about it replied ” Radiophonic Workshop? Ah yes, Doctor Who!”

In 1972 Workshop composer Malcolm Clarke provided an acutely unusual score for the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils but by and large the incidental music had been the preserve of composer Dudley Simpson. During the Eighties, as part of a far reaching revamp, the Workshop was given full control of the incidental music. Central to this new Workshop commission was a fresh version of the famous theme tune. Peter Howell offered to undertake this mammoth task. Howell was all too aware of a previous attempt to update the theme, which was dropped at last minute by producer Barry Letts who felt it wasn’t strong enough. In creating his version of the theme, Peter Howell utilised many new techniques. A vocoder, essentially a voice recorder which made the human voice into electronic notes was used to great effect. Most startling was the use of the “cliffhanger sting” at the start of the opening theme which was synched in via a ring modulator to give it a more up-to-date sound.

Some 50,000 engagements were recorded in the Workshop’s first 25 years. It is fair to say that whilst undoubtedly pleased with their association with Doctor Who, the Radiophonic Workshop found it could cramp their style and somewhat limit the kind of commissions they received. Although generally used for Horror, Science Fiction and creating weird audioscapes, Radiophonic music would crop up in the most unlikely of places. The famous quirky 12-note ending to John Craven’s Newsround is the end flourish to an otherwise quite pedestrian Radiophonic piece. Commissions came in from the raft of new BBC Local Radio stations in the early 1970s for news themes and jingles. Programmes as diverse as children’s drama The Changes, Dr Jonathan Miller’s medical documentary series The Body In Question and natural history programme Wildlife On One have all benefitted from music by the Workshop.

Composer Paddy Kingsland produced music and sound effects for the radio version of the Douglas Adams classic The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. His approach to the TV show was quite different. He had to synch his music to specific visuals as opposed to being allowed to go his own way. His work was often used to accompany the memorable animated “book” sections of the show. The Workshop also produced sound effects for the popular TV space series Blake’s 7. Initially the project was assigned to composer Richard Yeoman-Clarke then later to Elizabeth Parker. A recent graduate, Parker was a meticulous and hardworking musician. She relished the challenges of working on Blake’s 7 and was rewarded with a major commission, David Attenborough’s follow-up to Life On Earth – The Living Planet. Such was Parker’s devotion to duty she carried on working on ideas for The Living Planet throughout her maternity leave.

Blake’s 7 ended in 1981 and after Doctor Who’s demise in 1989 the BBC lost interest in producing a regular science fiction series.The Radiophonic Workshop’s days were numbered. More and more shows were being made by independent production companies so the idea of an in-house incidental music and sound effects department became increasingly redundant. The Workshop closed in 1996.The musician Mark Ayres, a regular contributor to the latter years of Doctor Who, bought the Workshop’s back catalogue and now curates the collection.

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As its 50th anniversary approached the influences of The Radiophonic Workshop were still being felt. Radio 4 broadcast a play about the life of Delia Derbyshire starring Sophie Thompson. BBC4’s Timeshift series produced a documentary The Alchemists Of Sound just as Doctor Who was being revived by Russell T Davies. Most recently the Workshop was the subject of a Radio 3 investigation into electronic music. The programme featured a detailed examination of the creation of both the Doctor Who theme and the Workshop as a whole.

For anyone who has innovated musically on their own terms rather than be confined to the parameters of an electronic instrument, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop will always have a special place.