BBC Radiophonic Workshop – 21 (1979)


April 2016 saw Silva Screen reissue the classic Radiophonic Workshop album 21. This 45-track compilation was originally released in 1979 to mark the department’s 21st birthday, and has been remastered by composer and Workshop archivist Mark Ayres. The album charts the progress of the Workshop’s sound from their first experiments with tape manipulation and tone generation, through to later works composed on synthesizers and mixed in stereo. The musical styles of each track are as varied as the programmes they were made for: sound effects for radio alongside sci-fi underscores, documentary themes followed by talk show sig tunes.

The collection kicks off with an eerie soundscape from BBC-tv’s 1958 production of Quatermass and the Pit. This science-fiction drama was one of the earliest Radiophonic Workshop projects, for which Desmond Briscoe designed a wave of unearthly shrieks, squeals, and pulsations that sent viewers scurrying behind the sofa.

It wasn’t all alien menace for the Workshop though; one of their most fondly-remembered creations is from the classic radio comedy The Goon Show. The sound of Major Bloodnock’s stomach exploding was concocted by Dick Mills and Jeremy Burnett, who mixed real-life sounds with swoops from tone generators. This comic crescendo of gurgles, belches, and burps became legendary, making it a natural choice for this compilation. It was even used in Doctor Who once, to depict the TARDIS crashing in The Horns of Nimon. The Doctor’s reaction to the cacophony was apt: “That’s very odd!”

Some of these tracks are so far ahead of their time that you’re left querying the copyright dates on the sleeve. Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Know Your Car’ is among them. This light-hearted theme (recorded for a 60s TV series on car maintenance) sets the music hall tune ‘Get Out and Get Under’ against a rhythmic backdrop of engine noises, breath sounds, and electronic sweeps.

Heard today, these quirky effects prefigure the sound of 8-bit computer games, long before Nintendo and Sega arrived on the scene. The track pulses with the kind of vibrant bleeps, bloops, and zaps that accompanied the Mario Brothers on their 1980s adventures. The tune finishes with a resonant “clunk-click”, and a second later comes Delia’s best-known work: Doctor Who.

The version here is the original mix, from 1963. It’s funny to think how Doctor Who’s budgetary constraints influenced the creation of this timeless masterpiece. Verity Lambert initially wanted a Ron Grainer theme played by Les Structures Sonores, a Parisian group who made ethereal melodies with glass rods. The programme’s budget wouldn’t stretch to this however, so she turned to the Radiophonic Workshop. Delia Derbyshire realised Ron Grainer’s score with pure tones sculpted from valve oscillators; when meticulously spliced together on tape the results spoke for themselves. Ron Grainer was stunned when he heard it, incredulously asking “Did I write that?!”

Brian Hodgson’s sound effect of the TARDIS dematerialising is equally iconic. It’s hard to imagine Doctor Who without that wheezing, groaning sound, and his ingenuity in creating it is worthy of the Doctor himself. Verity Lambert asked for a sound that depicted “the rending of time and space”; Brian achieved it by recording a key being scraped along the wires of an old piano. When heavily processed (massively slowed down, reversed, overdubbed multiple times…) this tinny screech became the deep, grinding noise that millions know as the TARDIS’s engines.

The early 70s saw a radical change in the way Doctor Who’s radiophonic sound was produced, with Dudley Simpson composing his cue for ‘Mind of Evil’ on an EMS synthesiser. Simpson makes striking use of its sonic potential: a sawtooth buzz signals the Keller Machine’s deadly force, whilst an ascending melody builds tension as it approaches its next victim.

A trumpet fanfare from Dick Mills then heralds the start of Side 2 and the arrival of stereophonic sound. It’s an effective contrast to a longer piece from Jonathan Miller’s 1978 documentary, The Body in Question. Peter Howell’s haunting ‘Greenwich Chorus’ sounds classical and contemporary at the same time; its tempo is set by a ticking clock from the Greenwich Observatory, whilst the lush vocal harmonies are vowels sung through an EMS vocoder. The track is a multi-layered overture, set off by chiming arpeggiated phrases played on a synthesized harpsichord. At 2.17 it’s the longest track on the album, and to my mind one of the most beautiful pieces in the Radiophonic Workshop’s discography.

Dick Mills’s ‘Martian March Past’ does exactly what it says on the tin: a procession of aliens marching to an other-worldly rhythm. The celestial theme continues with ‘A Whisper from Space’ by Paddy Kingsland. He composed this synthesized cue for a Horizon documentary on cosmology, and its rising scales convey a suitably epic feel for the subject matter.

Peter Howell’s atmospheric theme for The Secret War is another winner. This BBC series traced the development of undercover technology during World War II, including the pioneering work of code breakers at Bletchley Park. The track opens with a cascading burst of tones that sound like ciphered messages intercepted on a radio scanner. An ominous bassline builds the tension, conjuring images of engineers working through the night to crack the code. Roger Limb’s ‘For Love or Money’ then closes the album in spectacular fashion, with harpsichord lines echoing in a cavernous space.

This record takes the listener on a remarkable journey, one whose chronological approach gives a great insight into how the Radiophonic Workshop’s music developed over its first 21 years. Mark Ayres’ remastering has worked wonders too: his subtle approach is sympathetic to the sonic limitations of earlier tracks whilst presenting the higher fidelity of later material with crystalline clarity. A brilliant reissue.

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Review © David Huggins, August 2016.
(Originally published in Issue 63 of the Doctor Who fanzine, Fast Return)