Album Reviews

Various – Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volumes 1 & 2

(Mute) UK release date: 13 June 2005

Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volumes 1 & 2

Together with Christopher Eccleston’s mugging chops and Billie Piper’s wide screen kisser, a whole new generation has been introduced to the possibilities of travel in the fourth and fifth dimension. Sharp satirical scripting and clever casting meets American production values, and before you know it, Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who is the TV success of the year. Surely only a curmudgeonly Zygon would find cause to disagree.

It’s only natural therefore that an interest in the series of old would follow. And an integral aspect of the success of the original series was the part played by the BBC’s own creative sound department, the now legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As Doctor Who was the primary focus of the facility, this two-disc set represents something of its ‘greatest hits’.

Volume 1 concentrates solely on the ’60s years of Doctor’s one and two, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. Volume Two advances into the years of colour, the collected era’s of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter Davidson.

Any glance at an old Doctor Who video will find the effects somewhat less than special. Yet stripped of their visual context, the noises assembled here still hint at the unknown, still suggest something fearful lurking in the darkness, still provoke the imagination. Most surprising of all is that Volume 1’s collection of metallic pulses and vibrations were created without the aid of what we understand as a synthesizer. This was mainly down to the talents of Radiophonic assistant Delia Derbyshire.

As a student of Musique Concrete, Derbyshire would utilise random audio testing equipment to ‘treat’ sound. Her colleague Brian Hodgson would bring in army surplus electronic equipment such as low frequency oscillators and test tube generators. By physically splicing audio-tape, unfriendly, claustrophobic , dystopian landscapes were forged into eerie familiarity for the post-Grandstand public.

Everything, including the wheezing, whooping sound of the TARDIS materialising was created this way( included on this set). Much of the ‘music’ (original electronic scores were commissioned for every episode after 1970) on Volume 2 was composed using Electronic Music Studio’s VCS3 synthesizer by Dudley Simpson. Designed by avant-garde composer Tristram Cary, the EMS VCS 3 filled a medium-sized room.

Overburdened as we have become with the familiarity of archaic synths from electro-pop onwards, it is these ’70s soundtrack fragments (the Tom Baker-era excerpts redeem it) that slip into a sixth dimension of corn compared with the disquieting aura’s magicked by the ‘manual’ experimentation of their ’60s counterparts.

Without the video-track, Malcolm Clarke‘s much vaunted metallic crossfire for The Sea-Devils occasionally invoke memories of children’s show Let’s Pretend, as oppose to a gang of Palaeolithic man-phibians rising zapping a nascent Worzel Gummidge. Ultimately, snippet’s like The Master’s Theme and Keller Machine Theme are period pieces, audio curio’s.

However, if the late Delia Derbyshire ever dreamed of immortality, she found it in the execution of Ron Grainer‘s score for the evergreen theme tune. Somehow surviving some unfortunate cover versions (Orbital‘s pallid attempt being particularly unworthy) and full-synth re-commissions from later directors, the original cut and re-cuts stand supreme (the dramatic ululating ‘scream’ was added later, again by Derbyshire).

It’s tempting to hear the steady enveloping presence of the original, its acoustic vortex, surfacing in other work here and there. For my money, the proto-Techno disco nirvana of Giorgio Moroder‘s I Feel Love is virtually unthinkable without Derbyshire’s masterpiece.

Though there are numerous cuts of the theme here , this event-horizon of electronica is best heard out in the farthest reaches of Coldcut‘s Journeys By DJ, whereby it subtly shape-shifts into a piece of dub prophecy and a kind of dream-music. Though the facts of Derbyshire’s ‘performance’ are readily found elsewhere, it still has the power to elicit a sense of wonder.

This set functions best as an exercise in sonic excavation. The various Radiophonic assistants proved themselves as pioneers. Capable of being as elegiacally gradual as Eno/Lanois‘ Apollo (see Derbyshire’s own Blue Veils And Golden Sands) and as misanthropically dissonant as Richard James (The Invasion), its worth remembering that these bits ‘n’ pieces were composed for highly successful prime-time entertainment.

If you’re prone to the odd bout of Axonite , or concerned about your Krynoids, this two-disc set just might be the remedy.

buy BBC Radiophonic Workshop MP3s or CDs
Spotify BBC Radiophonic Workshop on Spotify

More on BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Various – Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volumes 1 & 2