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Dudley Simpson

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Versatile classical musician who wrote much of the music for Doctor Who and other popular sci-fi series on British television


When Dudley Simpson was on a deadline to compose the music for the next week's episode of Doctor Who, he would sit up all night working furiously on the score. "I would have to deliver music to my copyist at all hours and I got pulled up once by a policeman," he recalled. The observant constable, who had noticed Simpson pass him several times during the course of the night as the sheets of music were ferried back and forth, demanded to know his business. "I said, 'It's all right, I'm delivering music.' What for?' the officer asked. When I told him, he said, 'What? Doctor Who? Well, you'd better be going on your way, then.."'

It was a weekly ritual that Simpson went through more than 300 times between 1964 and 1980. He supplied the atmospheric_ incidental music for the iconic sci-fi series under four iterations of the regenerating time lord: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pert-wee and Tom Baker. Although Simpson did not compose the famous theme tune — that was written by Ron Grainger and arranged by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC — he provided a smorgasbord of incidental music for the series.

Working to tight deadlines with a tiny budget, Simpson recorded with a small band of musicians and mastered the early shed-sized synthesizers at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale, west London. "I always find Doctor Who very hard to write for," he told Radio Times in 1973. "Some of the stories are romantic, some dramatic, some straight sci-fi. But I always treat it as serious drama and try to give the music a sense of doom."

A dapper man with a clipped moustache and much given to wearing tweed suits, Simpson got to act alongside Tom Baker when he appeared in the 1977 episode The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It wasn't the most imaginative piece of casting — he played a composer — but he enjoyed the experience. "They had me dolled up in a set of tails," he said, "and I conducted to my own music, which I'd recorded beforehand." However, his appearance took some delicate negotiation with the BBC unions over demarcation because he was a member of the Musicians' Union and not Equity.

Simpson also composed music for the BBC sci-fi series Blake's 7 and Moonbase 3, and for ITV's The Tomorrow People. He complained that he had become typecast. "You can get pigeonholed very easily in British television," he said. "Some people are in light entertainment, some drama, some classical. Having made a success through years on Doctor Who and Blake's 7, people would say, 'Oh, Dudley, he's a drama queen.'

It wasn't entirely true. He composed the music for The Ascent of Man, a 13-part series written and presented by Jacob Bronowski, the historian of science. He also composed music for six plays in the BBC's flagship Shakespeare project. His compositions for TV were inventive and diverse, ranging from outré electronic experimentation to traditional marches and waltzes. "Composing for films requires a certain degree of adaptability," he said. "I might be writing something to accompany the Ken Dodd Show one minute and switch to something classical the next."

Modest and well-liked, he was incongruously known to his friends as "Deadly Dudley", for no apparent reason other than its pleasing alliterative rhyme. Before becoming a TV composer, Simpson spent three years as principal conductor with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in London and toured Europe and the Middle East with the company.

He landed the job in remarkably casual fashion after he was introduced by a friend to Hugo Rignold, the company's musical director. "He said, 'So you're a conductor, are you? All right, how would you like to go on next Saturday?' And I said, 'Yes please' No rehearsals, and I'd never constructed an orchestra of that size before."

His television breakthrough came in 1961 in similarly informal fashion at a party in Holland Park where he met the producer Gerard Glaister. He asked Simpson to compose the music for Moonstrike, a series about European resistance during the Second World War, which then led to Doctor Who.

Douglas George Simpson was born in Malvern East, Melbourne, in 1922, the son of Charles Simpson, a postal worker, and his wife Edna (née Stephens). He attended Melbourne High School and won a nationwide piano competition playing Beethoven.

His musical ambitions might have come to an early end when a truck he was driving for the Australian army was bombed by the Japanese during the Second World War. One of his hands was so badly injured that he was withdrawn from active duty, but then regained the use of his fingers using the piano as physiotherapy.

After the war he studied composition and piano at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He joined the Borovansky Ballet and in 1957 conducted a production starring Margot Fonteyn. On her suggestion he moved to London.

Three years later he married the Australian ballerina Jill Bathurst, whom he had met at the Borovansky Ballet, which was later renamed the Australian Ballet. She survives him along with their three children: Karen, Alison, who is a dancer, and Matthew, who is a film producer.

When he was dropped from Doctor Who by a new producer in 1980, Simpson took it badly, but he continued to work for other BBC programmes until his retirement in 1987. He then returned to Australia where he lived quietly in the suburb of Sylvania.

He was delighted when, at the age of 90, the BBC invited him to attend the Doctor Who Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where his score for the 1979 episode City of Death was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. "Doctor Who was the greatest challenge of my life," he said. "Every episode presented a challenge. Every moment."

Dudley Simpson, composer, was born on October 4, 1922. He died on November 4, 2017, aged 95


Caption: Dudley Simpson conducting Peter and the Wolf for BBC television in 1966 and, left, later in life

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2017-11-17). Dudley Simpson. The Times p. 62.
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  • Chicago 15th ed.: "Dudley Simpson." The Times, edition, sec., 2017-11-17
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Dudley Simpson | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Dudley_Simpson | work=The Times | pages=62 | date=2017-11-17 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 April 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Dudley Simpson | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Dudley_Simpson | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 April 2024}}</ref>