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Sounds a bit odd

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1988-03-26 Telegraph.jpg

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Gillian Reynolds celebrates the skill of the BBC unit that gave the Daleks a voice

IN 1944, the BBC sent a young sound balancer, Daphne Oram, on an engineer's course. There she saw a cathode ray tube for the first time, looked at the soundwave patterns and started thinking about reversing them to make a new kind of music.

In the early 1950s, when tape recorders were just coming in at the BBC, she used to go back into the studios at night and work away with a few recorders assembled together. She got a bit grey-faced at this time, since her days were spent sound-balancing orchestras and her nights consumed with this electronic passion. But out of it grew the Radiophonic Unit.

This consisted of herself, an office and two tape recorders. Later, she got an assistant. From that developed, in April 1958, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 30 next week.

To celebrate the anniversary there is a repeat on Radio 3 on Tuesday night of "Private Dreams and Public Nightmares", by Frederick Bradnum, produced by the late Donald McWhinnie. A strange landscape of voices and sounds, where words whirl off into great, echoing chasms, walls press in and colours explode into the ear, it was first broadcast in 1957.

It was heard then by a young man, Brian Hodgson. He had grown up in wartime with "Music Hall" and dance bands on the radio but this bowled him over. He had never heard anything quite like it. Later, invited to join the Workshop by its brilliant founder, Desmond Briscoe, he didn't hesitate. He it was who went on to invent the Dalek voices for "Dr Who". He it is who runs the Workshop today. On Tuesday afternoon on BBC2, you can see a film about their work, "Electric Music Machine". On Easter Sunday evening, perhaps more significantly, Radio 1 will broadcast a piece made specially for the network, "The Dream", a 45-minute documentary with music on the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. "Peace on Earth", a religious documentary for Radio 1, deservedly swept the prize board last year.

The Workshop's list of successes is formidable. But its role is elusive. Daphne Oram, who worked on the Bradnum play and was a stalwart of the early years, left when the emphasis on drama meant less music.

Drama, in turn, gets eclipsed by demands for title music, ("Dr Who", "PM", "The Body in Question") dramatic sounds for documentaries, (spiders walking over rocks, snail trails) and amazing joke sequences (as in "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", and the stomach rumbles of Major Bloodnock in "The Goons"). Yet Radio classics, like Desmond Briscoe's 1977 "A Wall Walks Slowly", still come from it.

There will always be a debate as to whether it is a facilities or a production house, and why it cannot be more of a parent to its own work than a midwife to that of other people. If such argument is a sign of health, the Radiophonic Workshop has reached its 30th birthday in full bloom and vigour. Wherever ingenuity meets technology and the result is art you will recognise its own particular voice.


Caption: Electronic menace from the Radiophonic Workshop

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  • APA 6th ed.: Reynolds, Gillian (1988-03-26). Sounds a bit odd. The Daily Telegraph p. Weekend, p. XV.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Reynolds, Gillian. "Sounds a bit odd." The Daily Telegraph [add city] 1988-03-26, Weekend, p. XV. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Reynolds, Gillian. "Sounds a bit odd." The Daily Telegraph, edition, sec., 1988-03-26
  • Turabian: Reynolds, Gillian. "Sounds a bit odd." The Daily Telegraph, 1988-03-26, section, Weekend, p. XV edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Sounds a bit odd | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Sounds_a_bit_odd | work=The Daily Telegraph | pages=Weekend, p. XV | date=1988-03-26 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 July 2020 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Sounds a bit odd | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Sounds_a_bit_odd | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 July 2020}}</ref>