Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Tuning up 'Doctor Who'

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1980-08-10 Canberra Times.jpg


The famous, pulsing 'Doctor Who' theme will appear in a new guise when the latest series of the Doctor's adventures goes to air in Britain in September: but the music is, once again, the work of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop — a unit whose work extends far beyond theme and sound effects for the famous science fiction "pantomime".

IF YOUR immediate reaction to mention of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is to think of 'Doctor Who', then you are in good company.

At the Centenary Conversazione of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London's Royal Festival Hall a few years ago, the Queen's instant response when she was introduced to workshop members was, "Ah yes, 'Doctor Who' ", a remark echoed by Prince Phillip when he caught up with her a few minutes later. Soon the Royals, in common with other Britons, will have the chance to see the Doctor in a new series.

Desmond Briscoe, founder and head of the Radiophonic Workshop, had had the Royal party in the audience that night for his lecture and the Workshop-in-Concert program given by the BBC for the centenary.

"When you've done the Festival Hall with the Queen, I don't quite know what you do next", he said in the BBC's Maida Vale, London, studios last week. "Since then it's all been downhill".

In one sense things may be progressing with the ease of a downhill run, but there seems to have been nothing but steady and quietly exciting growth for Mr Briscoe and his team. And it is a team, it members working amicably side-by-side but seldom collaborating.

Mr Briscoe came to radio young. While still at school in Manchester he began broadcasting there, as a child actor, with BBC Regional 'Children's Hour', later becoming involved in variety programs.

In 1941 he joined the BBC to do sound effects for drama and feature programs, and through his interest in music progressed to music programs as well.

Then came service in the Grenadier Guards — "Which was a terrible mistake for the Grenadier Guards, I think, and certainly for me" — and the Royal Army Educational Corps, lecturing in musical appreciation.

Demobilisation brought him back to London, the BBC, and sound effects for drama: on the bottom rung again, but a rung that was to be the first step to his specialisation.

"Tape came very slowly on the scene, very slowly", he said.

"Instead of being something which was very transient, disappearing, or even being put on a gramophone record where it was a fixed thing, suddenly sound on tape was an object: each sound could be played in the opposite direction, cut in little bits, you could stretch your tape. And this was absolutely fascinating".

The Radiophonic Workshop opened in 1958 — the first of its kind in Britain — following the success of experimental radio programs, made possible by the introduction of tape-recording, aimed at broadening radio's dramatic canvas.

'All That Fall' by Samuel Beckett, written for the BBC Third Program in 1956 and first broadcast in 1957, was the first radio play in which a new sound convention was attempted.

These experiments, and others, led to the Radiophonic Workshop being set up to develop techniques to produce, electronically, the special sounds and incidental music required for radio and television productions." It grew rather like Topsy, from one large room with a small annexe used as a studio, largely equipped with sub-standard, semi-professional equipment. There were no synthesisers or multi-track machines, and tape manipulation and editing were the main techniques employed. Layers of sound could only be created by recording each one on a different tape and playing them together, all the while hoping that the tape machines would stay synchronised.

At Maida Vale, the Radiophonic Workshop now has five separate studios where sounds can be manipulated and mixed, with two acoustic studios and a film and video area. Much of the inflexibility, and certainly most of the bulk, of the early sound-generating equipment has been eliminated by the introduction of voltage con- trolled equipment — the so-called synthesiser. The smallest of these needs only the addition of a tape machine and monitoring system to become a self-contained studio: with a multi-track tape recorder and a comprehensive mixing desk, more complex music and sound can be obtained.

But it is still a very small department, Mr Briscoe said.

Development on the electronic side was fairly slow: the landmark was a six-part science fiction adventure for children for which the director wanted a Ron Grainer signature tune.

"He and I had been talking about him writing something that we realised entirely electronically using instrumentalists, so I rang him up on the spot", Mr Briscoe said.

And so the 'Doctor Who' signature tune was born.

The workshop provides a service both for radio and television, for regional and local broad- casting, and for BBC External Services. The workshop's producers have undertaken work for every department and fulfil more than 200 different commitments a year, from simple sounds to complete scores, jingles and signature tunes for television and radio.

"The problem here is facilities because each of the six composers is his own technician but there are only five studios, so you have immediately got problems. The building is open 24 hours and we've never lost a deadline, but we have worked right through many a night", Mr Briscoe said.

"There is always an element of experiment but we rarely experiment for its own sake. Every commitment is its own experiment. People often think it is a team effort, but it isn't. It's very lonely because from the moment you've looked at the script or film and discussed it with the director you are on your own. The journalists' blank page is not half so blank as this situation because you've got to create your orchestra before you start.

"Having the whole of sound to choose from you've got to make your own disciplines. One has to establish conventions".

Brian Hodgson, now Mr Briscoe's deputy, created the sound of the Tardis.

"There was obviously a science fiction way of doing things when 'Doctor Who' started but I know one of Brian's great aims was not to use cliches of science fiction. But you create your own cliches, because I don't think you can ever deny the composers, of incidental music anyway, the cliches because it's the quick way of saying something. I mean, if there are four bars of 'Rule Brittania', everybody knows what we are talking about, and so on", Mr Briscoe said.

"But it is a very creative work and a very lonely job. Although we have engineers we do not have 'the technician'. . . The composer has always been his own operator, his own technician, and the manipulation of the tape is all part of the creative thing".

What sort of background do their composers have in music and in electronics? They must be rare sorts of birds?

"Yes", says Desmond Briscoe, "Jacks of all trades; I wouldn't say masters of none because they're masters of this trade — or craft; I mean, it is an art and a craft.

"I would say we ask of them a technical instinct but not more than that. Some of them are technically quite clever but this is really by the way. They don't need to know what happens inside the boxes. They need to know which rules you can break and not break.

"As regards training, some are conventionally trained musicians, but my experience over the years convinced me that the trained musician is often at a disadvantage because his mind has been set on certain lines and certain rules and he is very unhappy if he has to break them. And therefore the intuitive musician is usually the more imaginative. After all, a lot of the rules one has in conventional music are because of the nature of conventional instruments and the physical ability to play them. Once you do away with these restrictions the thing is wide open.

"On the other hand you are making music for people to listen to. And not only that, it is there to aid communication (all broadcasting is communication). Therefore you have got to make music which is acceptable", he said.

"The first requirement is the understanding of what they (producers) are aiming for and this interpretation is half the job. The composition is relatively simple once you have understood: the ideas come".

How does he apportion the tasks the department is given to do, assuming the composers differ in talents from each other?

"They are different, although in theory they are all the same", Mr Briscoe replied. "Three of them I would say were tunesmiths; and of the other three, one is concentrating on sound and fairly difficult abstract radio drama and this sort of thing. And the other two deal with the abstract again, the pure radio and the psychological drama. It doesn't mean they don't write tunes; they can write tunes but their minds work in a wider way — although everybody does do everything".

Dick Mills joined the BBC in the middle 50s, when he came out of the RAF after two years' national service.

"I couldn't face the thought of going back to the insurance office", he said. "I saw an advertisement for technical assistants for the BBC in the RAF magazine, and went for an interview and joined the BBC as a recording engineer, having been faced with the terrifying question from the interview board: 'Should you be successful, in what department would you like to work?'

"Now, it will come as a shock to most people that the BBC employs such things as architects, armourers and things like this; by a process of elimination they decided I would be best suited for recording, because I did learn the piano, under duress, at an early age — so I had an appreciation of music. I wanted to be involved on the program side but not necessarily with the technical side, not in the control room communications link side; I wanted to be in the program making. So I began life as a recording engineer.

"Shortly, after two years at Broadcasting House, there was a chance to come over to the newly-born Radiophonic Workshop to help out.

"Having come here as a technical assistant and helped develop the technical ways of working, when the great merger came (as it does in all big organisations — you have mergers and diversifications) we were merged with the program staff as such. We were suddenly able to do twice the number of programs. . . we all became one, so the effective staff doubled overnight.

". . . everybody likes working to a deadline because the temptation in any creative job, whether it's just painting a house or putting wallpaper up, is to think 'I could improve that'. We can improve too much and it gets so out of hand that you lose sight of what you are trying to do. You become obsessed with playing with the equipment.

"You know, the old saying 'Do you want it good or do you want it tomorrow?' has a lot do with it.

"We do give a full service. The first thing is a discussion with the director about what he wants. We may later refine this down by sifting out the bits he thinks he wants. Which isn't necessarily the same thing. He may come here with ideas that aren't practicable, which it's not our job to do anyway.

"Having done the commission and played it back to him, and he says 'Yes, I like it', then we want to go to the studio and see it used properly. We want to go to the television centre to the dubbing session — and naturally if there is a Royal Command performance we want to go to that, too.

". . . when we do work for radio there's a chance that we — I was going to say do a far more important part of the program than tele- vision. You see, with television you can stumble along with the plot if the sound goes off; the eye can assimilate so much more information than the ear. But in radio the sound is important, and we've got to provide the scenery, the atmosphere, the tension, or whatever.

"If you've got a picture, talking in terms of 'Doctor Who', of a monster on television, you can accept the sound that goes with it is probably no more than water going down a drain; because you're terrified by the picture. But on sound, if the author has gone to a lot of trouble in the script to describe the monster and its effect on people, you've got to make that monster right. There's no way you can get away with a comic sound or something just thrown together, so it is a challenge one way or another".

Since 'Doctor Who' began about 18 years ago there have been various attempts to update the music.

"You see, every time there is a new series of any program they want an updating of the music — and it's never been entirely successful with 'Doctor Who'. We've kept going back to the original and just embellishing it slightly but this time we've got a brand new version. And we have become more involved with providing the incidental music than before. Before we used to do the incidental music in collaboration with Dudley Simpson; who used conventional musicians. This season the workshop is responsible for the whole music for 'Doctor Who', and naturally it's been done entirely on synthesisers".

Dick Mills worked on the first 'Doctor Who' series with Brian Hodgson but went on to other things with the merger. Now he has been back doing 'Doctor Who' sound effects for eight or nine years.

"There are sounds in 'Doctor Who' that won't change until they change things like the Tardis or K9. It's always got to make the same noise for continuity's sake; because there is a very, very efficient Doctor Who Appreciation Society in England who do chase people. I go to their conventions usually as a guest speaker but just as much out of fun, and you always get somebody saying, 'In the last episode why did you find it necessary to change the background to. . .' And the only answer to that really is, 'why not?', because that stops them stone dead in their tracks.

"The Tardis interior flying, interior not flying, the materialisation sound or the taking off sound is all stock and I just take a copy of that from our stock library. Anything new you try to make different—certainly different to the last episode. Which does throw up problems because there is only a finite amount of equipment in the work- shop.

" 'Blake's 7', the other science fiction adventure that is running, uses the same equipment so certain sounds in 'Doctor Who' are going to appear in 'Blake's 7' just because they are made on the same sort of machinery. If it's a straight forward science fiction — ray guns, flying saucer — that's entirely synthesiser. As soon as we come back to earth time or sort of conventional surroundings I try to bring in a lot of naturalistic sounds and treated everyday sounds to get away from the synthetic sounds to give the monsters or whatever slightly more credibility.

"The trouble with synthesised sound is it does stick out a bit. It's very difficult to blend it in; to get a homogenous mix into whatever else is going on. We don't do anything until we see the videotape, for a very good reason; we could spend a lot of time making sounds and backgrounds from the preliminary script but when you get to the studio half the stuff you have done may not be required, so you are really wasting your time.

"Ours is such a peculiar job that nobody could come up with a title that fits everything; we could be a tonmeister, we could be a realisator or a sort of son et lumiere. Our job defies description".

It is one shared by Peter Howell and Paddy Kingsland, both composing music for the 'Doctor Who' stories in the new series.

Peter Howell has no formal musical training and is another composer who begins to outline his background with "I've been all sorts of things really".

"I started off doing law, for about 18 months, and made a mess of the exams and decided it wasn't for me. That was about 1968. During that time I'd been fiddling about with tape recorders. I'd already been interested in making music and discovered that I could write melodies. Not write down, I hasten to add, but just play — on very primitive instruments, things like harmonicas.

"And probably unbeknownst to me I was doing something that was the grounding to what I am doing now, which at the time was just fun.

"When I gave up law I was looking round for an avenue to the BBC because I thought that was probably the best place to use the knowledge of tape machines, although I had at that stage no intention of using the musical side at all".

He joined the Glyndebourne Opera, doing lighting and sound, and eventually was appointed a studio manager. He stayed four years, during which time his outside activities with tape were developing.

"I was doing music for semi-professional shows but always on tape. So when I got the chance to come here on attachment — and you come for three months — I just felt very at home.

"I was using a lot of techniques that I had discovered through experimenting on my own.

"Once I was here I started up thinking I could do everything and discovered I could do very little indeed. When you do stuff in an amateur way you can kid yourself you've got the confidence to do it properly. But when you are faced with it professionally it is a very different kettle of fish.

"There was the Jonathan Miller series, 'The Body in Question'. That was 14 months work and it amounted to 2¾ hours of music".

Mr Howell used Palestrina as a starting point at Jonathan Miller's suggestion.

"I probably learned more doing that than I had up to date. Because it was just forced learning; much more about the construction and what works electronically and what doesn't. Be- cause you can't just look at a normal score and reproduce it electronically; it's a different sound system. You have very close harmony, for in- stance, which might work fabulously on a piano, but it's going to sound terribly buzzy on a synthesiser unless you get rid of all the treble. . . and if you get rid of all the treble it sounds like an organ, so that's unpleasant.

"So the only answer is to widen the harmonies. So when I am ever approached by people who say 'Could you do an electronic version of this signature tune' I am very wary, in fact we all are, because it is often not a good idea".

What of the new 'Doctor Who' series?

"Last November we knew that a new producer of 'Doctor Who' was to take over for the series that's going to start going out here early in September, and he really wanted to change things to make it brighter and slightly more up to date.

"So the first thing he thought of was the signature tune, which is a very dangerous area because it's very established and made our name for us.

"I was delighted when Brian asked if I would like to have a go at doing it. As far as I was concerned, I was trying to prove that you could use all the techniques that we have learned over the years and still make something fresh with all the new equipment. Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater; not wanting to do something so ridiculously new that nobody would know it was the same tune.

"That was very interesting and I finished it earlier this year and it seems to have gone down quite well within the BBC — but it hasn't had its public airing yet, of course".

"It's a weekly program which has at least nine or 10 minutes of music every half hour and up until about 19 months ago we just didn't have either the equipment or the manpower to sustain that effort. But when they came to us in November we felt that we were ready to take it on, and Paddy Kingsland and myself are sharing the load. There are seven stories in the current round: we are doing three each and Roger Limb is doing the last one".

The series will have four episodes in each story because the producer has an aversion to doing six episode-stories, which tend to have two monsters. "You can't sustain one monster for six weeks",

Mr Howell said.

The producers have gone to pains to make the dialogue and situations credible.

"Someone else has just discovered the particle that travels faster than light, called the tachyon. Tachyonics is what this first story is all about".

Paddy Kingsland was drawn into his career when he was about 13 years old, "making" amplifiers and bits and pieces with a soldering iron".

With the shared enthusiasm of a next door neighbour who had only daughters, he became interested in radio and learned the basics of electrity.

He left school at 18, a pop group guitar player just before the Beatles era, and joined the BBC as a technical operator in the control room at Bush House for the World Service.

"Then I went on to be a studio manager, anything from pop groups to panel games; then to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1970, on attach- ment at first but continuously for seven years since", he said.

He, like the others, works best to a deadline because he says he is lazy. He previously did sound effects for a 'Doctor Who' series.

His commissions have included drama, music for a film, and 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', a science fiction work which started off as a radio program.

He enjoys producing and prepared a rock musical for BBC Radio 2 last year.

What of his part in the new 'Doctor Who' series?

"This 'Doctor Who' director said 'I want it sort of Tchaikovsky', and I said, 'Well, that's not going to be easy; I don't really think I am up to

that'. But I know what he meant because this particular story is traditional: Doctor Who spends half his time in space with planets which are way ahead of us, and in this particular story we've regressed into the Middle Ages, so it obviously needs much more traditional feel to the music instead of the usual space-age stuff, which I think Pete's episode is concerned with", he said.

" I shall watch it at home. I'm very bad at judging until I get home — somehow at home you are in a different frame of mind completely. My children will watch it; one's six and he'll be very interested, the other's four and he hides behind the settee.

"When I started, it was difficult to get into it because it's a mixture of comedy and drama, and you never know who's sending what up, or how much to play it up. 'Doctor Who', I think, is pantomime really. It appeals to lots of age groups. It has a homey quality".

Although its primary role is to service the production departments in the BBC, the workshop has begun to devise and produce its own programs.

Its first production, 'Wee Have also Sound- houses', a history of the workshop, was broadcast in April, 1979, on BBC Radio 3 and transmitted over ABC FM in January.

Workshop producers have won a number of major awards. In 1977 Mr Briscoe won three awards given by the Radiowriters Association of The Society of Authors with 'A Wall Walks Slowly', and Malcolm Clarke, producer of radio- phonic music, an award for 'August 4, 2026'.

The awards merely confirm that — as the workshop's information sheet notes — "it is people, versatile and dedicated, men and women, whose ideas and unremitting enthusiasm have made the reputation of the Radiophonic Workshop".

Caption: Mr Briscoe: "You have got to make music which is acceptable".

Caption: Dick Mills watching a 'Doctor Who' video recording in his studio at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Boling, Edna (1980-08-10). Tuning up 'Doctor Who'. The Canberra Times p. 9.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Tuning up 'Doctor Who' | url= | work=The Canberra Times | pages=9 | date=1980-08-10 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 March 2023 }}</ref>
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