London - 6 December 2014
were always going to play the Doctor
Who theme - only its ubiquity disguising its brilliance"
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
titles, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, The
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
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
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