BBC Radiophonic Workshop

BFI Southbank, London - 6 December 2014

"They were always going to play the Doctor Who theme - only its ubiquity disguising its brilliance"

[BBC Radiophonic Workshop @ BFI - ticket]Taking my seat in an almost sold-out Cinema 1 at the BFI, I was pleased to see a fantastic collection of knobs, switches and blinking lights covering the stage, and a huge open reel (video?) tape machine sitting on the floor to stage right. To top it off, there was an actual wooden clipboard with a hand written check list hanging on the side of it. Which someone actually periodically inspected and ticked as the performance went on. Shockingly, he wasn’t wearing a lab coat, but he did have thinning white hair and glasses, so I’ll let this deplorable lack of attention to detail go this once.

As this was another performance scheduled as part of the BFI's Days of Awe and Wonder Science Fiction season, I was expecting the set to be heavily weighted towards the classic BBC Sci-Fi themes of my youth, and initially, I wasn’t disappointed. Proceedings started off nicely with an epic space theme with accompanying projections of late '60s NASA footage of moon launches and booster stages separating in space. This was followed by the opening credits for Quatermass and the Pit (1958) and footage featuring the unearthly electronic sound effects used to signify the manifestations of Martian influence. I was sitting pretty near the bass speakers and felt the sub-sonic frequencies of the analogue equipment in my chest cavity as much as I heard them, and was looking forward to some seriously experimental work, but sadly this was not to be.

Things took a turn for the worse with some entirely bland funk/jazz (not Jazz-funk – that would have been intolerable) workouts, and a run through of pieces written for the Trade Test Transmission and Open University programs which were specifically designed to disappear into the background, making them a confusing choice to perform live. Things picked up in the end section with the theme from Doomwatch and The Changes (which featured extra percussion and sitar). If you had asked me to hum the theme to Doomwatch five minutes earlier, I would have been utterly stumped, and wouldn’t have been able to recall a single detail of The Changes (including the title), but they both came flooding back as the title sequences were projected in sync with the driving music. 

They were always going to play the Doctor Who theme, and of course they held it back until last. You forget what a great bit of music it actually is, and how avant-garde a composition. This was my introduction to experimental electronics (and this is true of many people of my generation in the UK), and it has been a major influence on my musical taste (and my visual aesthetic) ever since. Bass driven, menacing and supremely odd, it is only its ubiquity that disguises its brilliance.

[BBC Radiophonic Workshop @ BFI]
[BBC Radiophonic Workshop @ BFI] [BBC Radiophonic Workshop @ BFI]

Photos [L-R]: Doomwatch titles, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, The Changes titles

Starting off with the original 1963 Delia Derbyshire version played from tape, they then segueing into a live rendition of the '80s Peter Howell arrangement, stretched out over several minutes. I was slightly disappointed that the harsher, more analogue based mid-'70s interpretation that I grew up watching wasn’t given an extended workout, but judging from the audience reaction, I was in the minority. As the performance came to a close they were treated to the kind of response you would expect the hot new band of the moment to provoke rather than a collection of greying, portly session players some of whom were easily in their 70s.

To be fair, there were periods of tedium in the middle section, and I would guess that nostalgia played a large part in many people's enjoyment, but there were moments of real brilliance and excitement along the way. The Radiophonic Workshop's formidable reputation is based primarily on the scores produced for the BBC’s more outré output, dating from a time when broadcasters weren’t afraid to challenge, unsettle and even terrify their audiences (even of programmes aimed at children).

These apocalyptic visions of occult conspiracies, dystopian futures and environmental disaster influenced an entire generation, and the themes and incidental music that enhanced them were clearly produced in an atmosphere where imagination and a willingness to take risks were highly valued. This bizarre conflux of classically trained session musicians, experimental tape editing techniques and clunky analogue electronics (often working to very tight deadlines) produced challenging work of real quality that still stands up several decades later. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. 7/10

Nick Hydra