Heroes of DOCTOR WHO - The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

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Christopher Morley looks back at the huge contribution The BBC Radiophonc Workshop made, and possibly may make again, to Doctor Who.


With Series 8 soon to begin, away from all the talk of a new Doctor, people may be forgiven for wondering what'll happen to that famous theme tune. And one possible answer creates a bridge between past & present- could the New Radiophonic Workshop be asked to create a fresh arrangement?

Founded in the spirit of the original Time Lords of electronic music, with composer Matthew Herbert serving as their Rassilon, a core team of Patrick Bergel, Tony Churnside, James Mather, Yann Seznec, Lyndsey Turner & Max de Wardener form its High Council. While little else is known as yet, if they do get the call from Steven Moffatt they could do worse than to hark back to the age of their illustrious past incarnation...

Founded as far back as 1958 with a brief to produce new, innovative music & sound design/effects for radio, the original Workshop held out in its own Time War against the BBC for 40 years, finally closing its doors in 1998. But anyone who ever sat down to enjoy an episode and got some small measure of pleasure from whistling or humming that iconic 'oo-wee-oo' should be grateful to them, & the team of Delia Derbyshire & Ron Grainer (the Australian being the man who wrote the tune, and Derbyshire charged with 'realising' his more abstract ideas through the then-still developing medium of electronic music). What they came up with in time for An Unearthly Child's broadcast on November 23,1963 was most likely as far ahead of its time as anything William Hartnell's First Doctor could pull off...



It stayed more or less the same until the early 1980s, when the latter years of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor/the early tenure of Peter Davison's Fifth played out on our screens accompanied by Peter Howell with the help of a bank of synthesisers...



...Aside from a brief experiment with what came to be known as the Delaware theme, named after the brand of instrument it was played on, during the Third Doctor's time - Frontier In Space & Carnival Of Monsters the only two serials known to have featured it...



But of course the Radiophonic remit didn't begin & end with the theme tune - their ring modulators & other handy tech enabling the likes of Peter Hawkins, David Graham & Roy Skelton to breath heavily stylised life into the Daleks & Cybermen by means of tape manipulation, among other pieces of pioneering trickery.

Ever watched The Dominators & wondered how the devil the Quarks, boxy servants of the titular baddies, sound as they do? Actress Sheila Grant's voice was electronically treated to create their every babble. All that on what today's electro-explorers would most likely class as archaic primitive equipment, & yet it still manages to sound like the future - its a credit to 'classic Who' & its stable of composers that you can gain as much from concentrating purely on the soundscape as you can the visual imagery.

Testament to the work of Derbyshire and contemporaries Dick Mills & Brian Hodgson, as well as predecessors Howell, Mark Ayres & beyond. Best of all they're hitting the festival circuit soon and have a new album out in September......top that, new boys! If any reminder of the live power of the old-world equivalent were needed here they are at LEAF (London Electronic Arts Festival)...


The question of whether the next generation of plugged in musicians can even with ever more advanced aids to music-making and far-out ideas/attitudes on the subject should be one which has Moffatt reaching for the phone if he hasn't already- not to say that Murray Gold hasn't done a sterling job, but imagine him augmented with a slice of the past and just marvel at the possibilities, new sounds for strange hinterlands of the imagination and a chance to play around in the hope of getting something jawdropping- the TARDIS materialisation sound ( actually a house key being scraped down a piano string and electronically treated) perhaps the best known old-school example of just that. Did not a great man once prompt us to imagine the cries of alien birds as they wheeled in a distant sky? Little did he know they could have been generated had the need arisen, and that should drive the new breed if and when the call comes. 



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