The Composers of Doctor Who: Elizabeth Parker

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Christopher Morley returns to the Workshop...

As we look once more into musical matters, with a focus on the Sixth Doctor's era, what better place to start than with a notable lady composer who isn't Delia Derbyshire? For although Elizabeth Parker has but two Doctor Who- related credits to her name- "special sound" on The Stones Of Blood...

...and a a full score for Timelash...

...she has quite some previous in sci-fi having done similar for Blake's 7!

Graduating with a degree in Music from the University of East Anglia - which was sadly forced to close that side of its operations in November 2011, she joined the BBC as a studio manager before transferring to the Radiophonic Workshop in the footsteps of Derbyshire.

As her official website's biography tells us:
"At the Workshop, Elizabeth wrote the music for hundreds of BBC productions including Blakes Seven, David Attenborough's ground-breaking 12-part series The Living Planet and music for Dr Who."
Her work was later retrospectively appreciated by vreeowdiddleydumooweeoo:
"Much of the incidental music for Timelash consists of atmospheric sounds with small synth phrases added as accents, but even the atmospheric material is out of the ordinary. Lurking amid the ethereal flourishes and misty washes are a variety of knocks & other small percussive sounds that keep the listener from getting too comfortable, which adds an alien dimension to the planet Karfel that the visuals on this occasion can't quite muster.

The clearest examples of this otherworldly ambience can be heard in the scenes of the Doctor clambering about inside the well of the Timelash in Part Two."

She was also the subject of an interview/feature in Sound On Sound which dealt with the closure of the Workshop itself. She had been the last to leave the great musical repository of Doctor Who's "classic" years..............
"I did Fine Arts and Music at the University of East Anglia, and at the time they were thinking of running one of the first electro-acoustic music courses in the country at postgraduate level, so they said to me 'Look, we'll fund you, would you like to try it out?' Trygg Tryggvason, who used to work for Decca, was running it along with Tristram Carey [composer and co-founder of EMS].

I'm not sure I got on terribly well with Tristram Carey, because we had a big EMS Synthi 100, and he was telling us how to make music, you know 'You put a pin in here, and you put a pin in there, and you get a wave, and then you can alter it,' and I was thinking 'This isn't music! This isn't what I want to do!' I always had this idea that I could make electronic music sound more musical.

I went to the BBC as a studio manager, because that was the way in to the BBC — it was either that or secretarial, but I got in as a studio manager — and then I got an attachment to the Radiophonic Workshop, because I thought it would be an interesting place to work.

Then, all of a sudden, somebody left in the middle of Blake's Seven, and I was up for the job. They said 'You haven't done much television, do you think you can take on a major BBC science-fiction series?', and I said 'Yes, of course I can!' That was a baptism of fire! It was a wonderful training ground. I did Blake's Seven, and The Living Planet, among other things. Amazingly, jobs like that just went to whoever got into the office first in the morning!"
The killer blow for the Workshop came with the appointment of John Birt as Director-General of the BBC in 1992. His policy of Producer Choice marked a massive sea change in the way things were done- introduced on April 1, 1993. As the Independent put it at the time:
"BBC management has given 'buyers' - producers - the choice of shopping for studios, camera crews, archive material, theatrical make-up and other resources, outside the BBC as well as inside it. And it has obliged 'sellers' - studio managers, camera crews, librarians, and other back-up staff - to do enough 'business' with BBC producers to justify their jobs. Producer Choice, in other words, establishes a 'market' inside the BBC akin to the internal market in the NHS."
It was under this model that the Workshop was forced to close down. But Elizabeth had fond memories of the place!
"It was wonderful. If anything went wrong you just picked up the phone and an engineer, or two, came down within a minute.

And if you needed something, you just got it. If I wanted a new synthesizer, I'd go to my boss and say 'Hey, this is really great, any chance of getting it?' and it would arrive.

In fact, six of them would arrive, one for each studio. But then it got to a phase where no money was spent at all, because there was no money. So by the time the Workshop actually closed we had a lot of very old gear and we were definitely past our sell-by date.

And the worst thing was that I was there right until the very end, and it was horrendous, it was horrible. It was just so sad because it had been such a great place."
But as she also acknowledged:
"We couldn’t compete. The BBC was looking to use freelancers, who had no overheads. We received regular wages, had our own studios – we weren’t cost-effective.

We knew that was that. In some ways, it was sad, but in others, it was right. After all, times had moved on, and with talent and the right equipment, which was much easier to get, anyone could do what we did."
You can see a full set of notes for Timelash, including details on Elizabeth's music, here.

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