1975: The Radiophonic Workshop & Doctor Who!

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Christopher Morley gets in sync with the Radiophonic Workshop...

1975 - Tom Baker's first year in the role of the Fourth Doctor. But what viewers watching the new man in the TARDIS might not have known at the time was that a similar shift was taking place within the corridors of the BBC's Maida Vale Studios- its first rumblings beginning with the conclusion of Revenge Of The Cybermen.

Assisting Carey Blyton, albeit uncredited, on incidental music duties was Peter Howell in his first Radiophonic Workshop assignment. Howell had joined the Workshop a year earlier, at a time where he was working alongside Desmond Briscoe, Dick Mills, Malcolm Clarke, Paddy Kingsland, Richard Yeoman-Clarke, Roger Limb, and Glynis Jones.

Howell would go on to be at the forefront of a new way of producing the music for Doctor Who upon John Nathan-Turner's appointment as producer in 1980, casting aside Dudley Simpson, who had enjoyed a near-ten year run as unofficial composer in residence of sorts, dating back to Jon Pertwee's time at the controls of the police box.

Of course, the Radiophonic Workshop was no stranger to the world of Doctor Who. Back in 1963 they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for the new upcoming science-fiction series. Presented with the task of "realising" Grainer's score, complete with its descriptions of "sweeps", "swoops", "wind clouds" and "wind bubbles", Delia Derbyshire created a piece of electronic music which has become one of television's most recognisable themes.

The Workshop continued to provide the unusual sound-effects that Doctor Who was forever in need of, from the TARDIS dematerialisation to the sound of the Sonic Screwdriver. In 1975 Peter Howell, on his second assignment for the show, provided the "special sounds", as they were credited, for Planet Of Evil.

Eventually, when in 1980 the Workshop was tasked with realising all future Doctor Who scores, starting top-down with the theme tune, it was Howell who was responsible for the rearranging of that most recognisable of themes. The results of his synthesiser-led labours was first heard over the title sequence for The Leisure Hive...

...Howell's arrangement would survive another two Doctors in Peter Davison's Fifth & the pre-Trial Of A Time Lord period for Colin Baker's Sixth, which is to say everything from The Twin Dilemma- Revelation Of The Daleks.

The shift towards the synthesiser marked a turning point for the Radiophonic crew as far back as 1965, when they did business with Electronic Music Studio (EMS) to acquire a VCS3, one of the first such commercially available & handily portable instruments of the period thanks to its outer suitcase-ish resting place.

In 1969 it would have cost you around £330! Just a year hence, though, it would be superseded by the Delaware used to create an experimental new arrangement of the Third Doctor's theme heard only once............

As former engineer Ray White recalled from a technical standpoint:
"In 1970, the Workshop received into Room 10 the largest voltage-controlled synthesiser ever built, a modified version of the EMS Synthi 100. This was renamed the Delaware by virtue of the name of the street on which the Maida Vale studios were located.

This was a massive machine, four racks wide, with a sloped lower surface containing two huge pin-matrix panels, one for audio signals, the other for voltage-control circuits, as well as an integral eight-channel mixer. In the vertical surface above, there were twelve oscillators with an appropriate number of other voltage-controlled elements, as well as an oscilloscope and frequency counter. A free-standing two-level musical keyboard enabled the composer to play two lines of music at a time."

The image above shows Malcolm Clarke with the EMS Synthi 100, which in 1975, along with the VCS3, contributed to the Radiophonic Workshop's compilation album, which demonstrated many of the various techniques they employed.

The following year would see the release of the Yamaha CS-80, a synthesiser that was instrumental in Peter Howell dragging Doctor Who kicking & screaming into the Eighties! As he remembered of his work on The Body In Question, speaking to Sound On Sound:
"What I really found satisfying was making beautiful sounds from ugly, clinical-looking machinery. The Fairlight was one of the ugliest instruments ever! I enjoyed using the VCS3 a lot; with the eight-track recorder I could make a whole piece using only the Odyssey, which I was very keen on. Then polyphonic synths appeared. I tried the Polymoog and really didn't like it; I liked the Prophet V, but my favourite was the Yamaha CS80.

When I did Jonathan Miller's TV series The Body In Question I really wanted one, as I'd just seen it demonstrated. There was no money for one at the Workshop but we got the programme, which did have a decent budget, to hire one for me. It became a hit series, so later the BBC was later shamed into buying me one. It was a wonderful machine: polyphonic, though only eight-note; it was so expressive, with soft-action pads, and a great long pitch ribbon that you could play like a violin string."

All of which sealed the deal, and he became an early convert to the then relatively new phenomenon of using computers to aid music-making!
"I did love having a room full of actual things that made noises, but what appealed to me most about computer instruments was the fact that all the settings could be memorised. Previously, I used to dictate all my studio settings into a cassette recorder, especially if there was a chance that someone else might come in to use my studio and change something.

People would call in as they were leaving at the end of the day, and I'd be crawling around on my knees, calling out 'Attack seven; decay three; sustain nine' It could take me 20 minutes to do the whole studio!"

His incidental score for The Leisure Hive pressed into service an innovation which subsequent composers would seize upon in their own work for the series, including Murray Gold & Keff McCulloch. In retrospect it's simple enough- quoting a few notes from the main theme in distorted/manipulated context on appropriate occasions to represent changes/deviations from the Doctor's usual self.

Take as an example Meglos in which its used in distorted form to indicate the Meglos-Doctor's status as an impostor!

Fittingly Howell's pivotal score to The Leisure Hive was featured as the first twenty tracks on Volume Three of the Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop series. And to think it all began for him with an uncredited assistant job on Revenge of the Cybermen!

Jelly babies out and headphones on!

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