A Look Back at the Studio That Created the Music for ‘Doctor Who’

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one of the first to specialize in electronic sound effects

31 July 2017

Sound design, specifically the sound effects and music used in science-fiction films and TV shows, helped introduce electronic music to mainstream audiences. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one of the major players, generating many influential and innovative scores for the broadcaster’s programs.

The workshop was formed in 1958 in London when Daphne Oram, a pioneer in the field of radiophonics (sound effects and music produced for radio), petitioned her employer, the BBC, to open a formal production studio. Its engineers produced music and sound effects for such works as the long-running British sci-fi TV series “Doctor Who” and the sci-fi comedy radio program “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It closed its doors in 1998 after four decades.

AN ELECTRONIC REVOLUTION

The telharmonium (an electronic organ invented in 1897) and the theremin (a variable-frequency, single-oscillator instrument invented in 1920 with two metal rod antennas that controlled pitch and amplitude) each experienced brief periods of popularity. The emergence of tape recorders in the 1940s greatly expanded a composer’s ability to edit and arrange musical works. At the time, music composed specifically for electronic instruments and electroacoustic devices was mostly experimental, performed by innovative musicians including John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer.

Musician and composer Daphne Oram entered the scene in 1943 when the BBC hired her as a sound engineer at the age of 18. With many men serving in the military during World War II, she entered a traditionally male-dominated space.

Oram began to work after hours building a makeshift studio equipped with the BBC’s tape recorders and oscillators. One of the earliest broadcasts she worked on was the experimental radiophonic play Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, composed with Frederick Bradnum, a radio dramatist, producer, and director. The play, which aired on 10 July 1957 on BBC’s “Third Programme,” relied on tape effects extensively. The effects, such as echo, pitch shifting, and reverb, were produced by the manipulation and playback of tape. The following year, Oram produced the music and sound effects for a televised production of the play Amphitryon 38, which aired on 2 March.

With the increased demand for radiophonic sounds in all genres for BBC’s programming, Oram petitioned the company for the production studio. On 1 April 1958 the workshop officially opened, with Oram as studio manager and her colleague, composer and sound engineer Desmond Briscoe, as senior studio manager.

One of the studio’s first efforts was to produce the otherworldly sound effects for the third installment of the influential Quatermass sci-fi series, “Quatermass and the Pit,” which aired in 1958.

Although Quatermass and the Pit and other avant-garde radio plays allowed the studio to experiment with new techniques for developing strange music and sounds, much of the studio’s income came from producing advertising jingles.

LEADING LADIES

Oram left the BBC 10 months after the workshop opened to set up the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. There she furthered her “oramics” technique, which she had begun to develop at the BBC in 1957. Oramics is a method that involves drawing directly onto 35-mm film stock. Shapes and designs etched into the filmstrips are read by photoelectric cells and converted into sounds. This method of arranging music predated computerized composition software. In the 1980s Oram received grant money from the RVW (Ralph Vaughan Williams) Trust and the Arts Council of England to develop oramics as software for the Acorn Archimedes and Apple II computers, but the projects were never completed. From 1982 to 1989 she also taught music part time at Canterbury Christ Church College (now Canterbury Christ Church University).

During her stay at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop—her career at the BBC lasted until 1973—she composed and created sound for nearly 200 TV programs. Oram was instrumental in establishing a creative environment with a large equipment collection for composers. Accordingly, over the course of its life span, the workshop attracted many experimental composers and popular artists including the Beatles and Pink Floyd.

Possibly the most recognized piece of music produced by the workshop is the original theme to “Doctor Who” [above], composed by Ron Grainer and arranged by Delia Derbyshire. Derbyshire joined the studio in 1962, and the theme was produced the following year by manual manipulation of tape in conjunction with oscillators and filters. “Doctor Who,” which first aired on 23 November 1963, became one of the longest running sci-fi franchises, with its initial run spanning from 1963 to 1989. The show relaunched in 2005 and is still broadcast today.

Derbyshire’s theme music played over the title cards of the program until Season 18, which began in 1980. Derbyshire’s compositions “Blue Veils and Golden Sands,” “Nightwalker,” and “The Delian Mode” also were featured in the program.

LEAVING A LEGACY

Tape manipulation was time-consuming and arduous. As synthesizers became commercially viable in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the studio shifted to them and away from oscillators and tape machines. The studio acquired several synthesizers including one nicknamed “the Delaware,” an EMS (Electronic Music Studios) Synthi 100 that was one of the largest voltage-controlled synthesizers in the world. It attracted a new generation of composers and techniques, producing music and sound effects for sci-fi shows including “Blake’s 7,” as well as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

The BBC’s investment in cutting-edge studio equipment produced a wide range of innovative compositions, but the equipment was expensive both to buy and maintain. In 1992 the BBC appointed John Birt as its director-general. Birt evaluated each department for financial sustainability. He gave the Radiophonic Workshop five years to come up with a plan to make itself self-sufficient. The studio failed to do so and was shut down in March 1998. The last of the equipment was removed on 1 April—exactly 40 years after it opened. With the studio closed, much of the BBC’s sound production was done with computers.

The BBC’s use of the Radiophonic Workshop’s programs introduced electronic music to millions of viewers and listeners. Oram’s and Derbyshire’s contributions to electronic music were massive. Several recent anthologies of their work, including this one, ensure that it is available for new audiences to enjoy.

Nathan Brewer is archival and digital content specialist at the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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