The Composers of Doctor Who - Dick Mills

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Christopher Morley looks at the work of "special sound" maestro Dick Mills.


Time now for another dip into the world of sound design as we salute Dick Mills, the man behind many a ''special sound'' for Classic Who!



He was among the first members of staff employed by the Radiophonic Workshop, initially as a technician in 1958- of which he said:
"The Workshop was set up, really — according to some cynics — to produce sounds that nobody liked, for plays that nobody could understand, which meant that they were BBC Radio Third Programme “mental torture” sort of programmes, or nightmare dream sequences that you just wouldn't be able to use everyday sounds for"
They'd go on to help with the ''effects & new music for radio'' & later television, which were the remit of the early pioneers of electronic music. Among his early credits in this regard are work on the Goon Show & Quatermass & The Pit the same year.



He later remembered of that time
"Well, Daphne Oram was my Radiophonic biological mother, so to speak. I was working at the BBC at the time. The Workshop had been set up, but the BBC were very worried about it. We're all very health and safety conscious nowadays, but back in 1958 they were equally worried — especially with people working in an experimental department, doing things where they didn't really know what they could or couldn't do — with strange noises. Would that affect their health? So the BBC told Daphne that she could only work there for three months. Daphne said, ‘This department is my life's ambition, and if you say I can only work here for three months, I shall have to resign.’ They insisted; so she resigned.

At the Workshop there were engineers as well as creative staff, and one of the engineers was a lady who was good friends with Daphne, that's why she wanted to work there. She felt because Daphne had resigned that she ought to resign as well, as a point of honour, which left a gap in the engineering support workshop. So they pinned a note on the notice board in our engineers' office asking if anybody would like to help out at the Radiophonic Workshop. I said ‘Yes, I'll give it a go.’ So I went over there, knocked on the door, and said ‘Hello. I'm Dick Mills.’

Their response was: ‘Oh, thank God for that! When we heard a certain Mr Mills was applying, and he was the only applicant, we thought “Oh dear, we don't really want him because he's a bit of a show off”. But we're ever so glad it's not him and it's you instead.’ So that got me in, in 1958!

I started as an engineering support artiste. We weren't expected to know about tunes and creative ideas. It was our job to make sure all the machines were working, ready to go for when inspiration struck the others. But later on we joined in, and eventually, of course, everybody got their own little studio so even the engineers could be trusted to do things. So that's how I got into the Workshop."



His introduction to Doctor Who came in 1972 when he was asked to replace Brian Hodgson  - to whom he'd previously served as an uncredited assistant. Perhaps his best known effect is that of the Cloister Bell, achieved by striking a gong lowered into a pool of water & first heard on screen in Logopolis!



Amazingly he would continue in this role until Survival heralded the end of the ' classic' series...he'd started with the tenth anniversary special The Three Doctors, Episode One of that year's Season Ten. He had a simplistic approach to his work-
"We had to manipulate everyday sounds to make them distorted, to make them nightmarish, or anything like that. We were in the market for making unheard-of sounds. Of course, with Doctor Who having a time and inter-galactic storyline, they were going to come up against things that people hadn't seen before, and you can't have these things prowling about on screen not making any noise, so we had to get involved with the sound effects."
The scripts he worked from never actually specified what sorts of sound effect was needed, either-
"The only thing was I used to get fed up with guns going bang. I think it was in The Happiness Patrol, I wanted people to be killed by kindness. I wanted them to be overwhelmed with such ecstasy that they just died. The director said ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘I'd like these guns to shoot a sort of orgasm at people so that whatever their mental state it just overloaded their happiness level and they died. You don't need to be nasty about shooting them. If they're the Happiness Patrol, kill them with happiness!’ But he said ‘What are you going to do if one of your happiness shots misses and ricochets off the tunnel or something?’ So I relented and said ‘OK, we'll have a bang.’ You tried to do something different, but they said ‘No, I'm the director. My guns have got to go bang, whoosh, wallop, or zing."


Anyone who owns the compilation albums Doctor Who- The Music( 1983) & its follow-up Doctor Who- The Music II ( 1985) will no doubt be interested to learn that Mills served as compiler/producer of the two records!

He would also work on Barry Letts' Moonbase 3 ( 1973) & The Two Ronnies, plus finding the time to appear on Blue Peter in 1977 to demonstrate to young viewers how he achieved his contributions to the sound-scape of Doctor Who as well as offering tips on how kids could make sound effects of their own at home. What a hero, eh?

He was also part of the BBC Four documentary The Alchemists Of Sound, a celebration of the Workshop, & continues to play live with his former colleagues.



Somewhat amazingly though, he's never actually picked up a musical instrument himself-
"I was taught the piano as a child but I wasn't one of the musicians. Roger Limb was a very accomplished piano player, so was John Baker. David Cain played guitar, Paddy Kingsland guitar, Peter Howell guitar, Liz Parker played the cello and the piano. They were all musically trained.

I've had my moments with the Symphony Orchestra, though, playing a tape in for Roberto Gerhard. He was commissioned by the BBC to write a symphony. He used to record natural sounds at three o'clock in the morning because that's the only time the lorries weren't going past his house in Cambridge. He'd twang bits of metal, kick things, hit things, pummel things, yell, and do stuff like that. He made a tape that was going to be a solo instrument in the BBC orchestra. He needed to get it into a broadcastable sequence. He was told to go the Workshop where we could put it together for him — which we did. But it was getting towards this concert at the Festival Hall, and I said ‘Roberto, who is going to play this tape?’ He said ‘I can't. I'm the composer. I have to sit in the front row and look important.’ I said ‘Okay, so who's going to play it.’ He said ‘Well, you're the only person who knows as much about it as I do, so you're playing the tape.’ Now, in the Festival Hall there's a stage up front, orchestra, audience, and then there are boxes way back, up here [indicates a great height]. We're in one of those. There are four loud speakers in the orchestra. The conductor never waved to us at all. He started conducting and we just played the tape in as we thought it ought to be. Dreadful. It was a modern piece of music, obviously, and at the end of every modern piece of music there's always a gap where the audience are never quite sure if it has finished or not. Into that gap some bloke shouted ‘rubbish!’ To this day, we don't know if the applause that followed was for the bloke shouting out ‘rubbish’ or for the piece of music!

Then they wanted to record it at HMV studios, so I went to Abbey Road to play the tape again. Then they wanted to do it at the Proms at the Albert Hall. I did it again. Then, it was the Christoper Columbus quincentenary and they wanted some Spanish music. So they dug up Roberto Gerhard, who was Spanish but lived in Cambridge. ‘Oh, we must have his Symphony Number 4 — Collage.’ By which time I'd retired, so they rang me up ‘Could you come to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and play the tape in for us?’ So down I went. So I have had my musical moments!"
And indeed a fair few in the noble field of special sounds/sound design. We salute you, sir!
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