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BBC Radiophonic Workshop, The

Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Community, Music, Radio, TV.

Founded in 1958, this department of the BBC was tasked with providing both sound effects and original music for BBC radio and television programming. Desmond Briscoe (1925-2006) and Daphne Oram (1925-2003), who had previously composed original electronic music for radio works by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Giles Cooper, were the founding recruits. They soon established the Workshop's reputation for innovative, striking music and all manner of sound effects. Early works included the eerie electronic score for Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959) and a string of comical sounds for Spike Milligan's long-running Goon Show. Other figures joined as the Workshop expanded through the 1960s, amongst them the Australian composer Ron Grainer and the English electronic musician Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001), who together collaborated on the Workshop's most enduring and important work, the theme to Doctor Who (1963-current). This piece's soaring and swooping melody, layered over a spongily galloping bass line 12:8 rhythm, is both instantly recognizable and wonderfully evocative. It owes as much to Derbyshire's extraordinary realization as it does to Grainer's original score (on first hearing the finished piece Grainer is reputed to have asked: "did I write that?"). This version fronted the show from 1963 to 1969, and although later recordings added density and tempo to the original, it remains at heart Grainer and Derbyshire's work. The Workshop was expanded in the later 1960s, with new composers and technicians and a range of what were then state of the air electronic synthesizers. As well as mainstream BBC programming, the Workshop produced both sound effects and theme music for Blake's Seven (1978-1981), this latter written by Australian Dudley Simpson (1922-2017), the incidental music and effects for both radio and TV iterations of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and music and effects for James Follett's Radio drama Earthsearch: A Ten-Part Adventure Serial in Time and Space (1981).

At its height, in the 1970s, the Workshop was famous enough to justify releasing its own albums. BBC Radiophonic Music (1970) was a compilation of work by Workshop members Derbyshire (though not her Doctor Who theme), David Cain (1941-2019), British musician Peter Howell (1948-    ) and John Baker (1937-1997). A follow-up album, Fourth Dimension (1973) was credited to "The BBC Radiophonic Workshop" but was in fact exclusively the work of Paddy Kingsland (1947-    ). Twenty albums in all were released, some containing nothing but sound effects – for instance Out of This World (1976), which includes the tracks "TARDIS take-off", "TARDIS land", "Space rocket take-off" and "Space rocket land" amongst many others – and some concentrating on music. The results are varied, although much of the music was well ahead of its time. Nevertheless a list of some of the titles makes plain where the main commercial appeal lay: BBC Sound Effects No 19 – Doctor Who Sound Effects (1978); Doctor Who – The Music (1983); Doctor Who – The Music II (1985); Doctor Who: 30 Years at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (1993); Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 1: The Early Years 1963-69 (2000); Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 2: New Beginnings 1970-80 (2000); Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 3: The Leisure Hive (2002) and Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 4: Meglos and Full Circle (2002). A useful overview is provided by BBC Radiophonic Workshop – A Retrospective (2008). In the 1990s, management philosophy at the BBC moved away from in-house facilities and towards the provision of content by private production companies in competition with one another. The Workshop had been losing money for a number of years, and the decision was made to outsource music and sound effects provision. Accordingly, and despite an outcry, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was closed down in 1998. [AR]


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