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Crashes, Bangs and Quarries: An Interview With The The Radiophonic Workshop
Colm McAuliffe , September 19th, 2014 05:32

Ahead of their curating of Jersey's Branchage film festival and their site-specific performance on the island on the 28th of September, Colm McAuliffe sits down with the legendary Radiophonic Workshop to discuss their long, strange history.

"The BBC Radiophonic Workshop provides a series of radiophonic sound and music effects for television and radio. We are often asked for sounds that have never been heard before. We have prospered because we have provided and realised them on anything and everything from the most advanced synthesiser/computer in the world to a red fire extinguisher, in approximately G sharp." – Desmond Briscoe, 1983.

The story of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is well known nowadays. Yet there is still a slight air of incredulity amongst the current members – Dick Mills, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell, Mark Ayres and guest drummer Kieron Pepper – that this music, which was composed entirely in isolation, is being fêted on its own terms, stripped away from its original television or radio accompaniment. Nevertheless, the current incarnation of the Workshop is seemingly ubiquitous, appearing at myriad festivals in 2014, culminating in their extensive performance and curatorial role at Jersey’s Branchage Festival at the end of September. The festival’s finale consists of the Radiophonic Workshop soundtracking a staggeringly beautiful 3D Projection Mapping of the 13th century St. Aubin’s Fort; alongside this, they have put together a programme of films - including Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – highlighting the history of electronic music and, crucially, the Workshop’s vital role in bringing this art form to the masses.

On a warm evening in late August, I visited Paddy Kingsland’s studio in Hammersmith ostensibly to speak to the Workshop about their plans for Branchage. Not only did they deliver but I was treated to an extensive account of their history, work practices, and some personal recollections spanning the fifty six years since the Workshop’s formation (Dick Mills being the sole original member).

The workshop opened for business in a couple of rooms at the BBC's Maida Vale complex on April 1, 1958. For several years before that, workshop founders Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe had been pushing for the BBC to start its equivalent to French national radio's audio research unit GRMC, where Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered the tape-editing techniques of musique concrète.

Dick Mills: The Workshop started out as a vacuum as there was nothing else there for us to work with. All our stuff was redundant equipment. Our so-called mixing desk was a relic from the Albert Hall from 1943 which was very, very antiquated. Quality was not our high spot. Desmond used to joke that it was very easy to be unpleasant. By that, he meant: this is our excuse for having unpleasant, low quality sounds because the equipment isn’t capable of producing [anything better]. It wasn’t until tape machines became standardised [that the quality improved]. Before that, there was never more than two machines of the same make in any room. And not even the same nominal speed on them!

Mark Ayres: The archive was there largely before the Workshop was set up. Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram were using Henry and Schaeffer as an example to play to other people to say ‘we should be doing this, the French broadcasters are doing it, the German broadcasters are doing it, the Italian broadcasters are doing it.’ There are lots of memos of committee meetings and playback sessions where this stuff was played. Then when it came to experimental dramas like Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, these could show what could happen. But Daphne, in particular, wanted to do what was happening on the continent which was ‘art music’ and BBC Radio Three thought this meant nice sound design for dramas, so it was very much brought in by them as they wanted new sound designs for their department, rather than the music department wanting new arty music. In fact, the music department at the BBC was incredibly suspicious of the Radiophonic Workshop and there was a memo which went around saying ‘the BBC has all the Orchestra and choirs it needs’. It was very much that [they were biased towards] music which was played on traditional instruments and they were very suspicious of anything considered ‘pop’ music. The idea that you had a department with tape machines presuming to make music didn’t go down very well at all. That stuff was de rigeur on the continent but the BBC weren’t having any of it.

Peter Howell: If you could imagine the Workshop going along the Daphne Oram line, more of an arthouse, you would not have had the audience. And the only way you get an audience that size is to apply music to another medium. Once you apply it to the other medium - it doesn’t have to be television, you can go to modern ballet and listen to extremely experimental scores which are fantastic – it works because it’s a combined experience.

Paddy Kingsland: We had lots of things like phonetic poetry, so one day you could be doing a radio jingle but the next you could be working with someone who was a fairly far out poet on Radio 3. There was a history of that with [lingual musician] Lily Greenham and before that there was Bob Cobbing, and Brion Gysin.

DM: Brion Gysin, he used to slice up pages of text, juggle them and then read them straight across. He did a poem called ‘I Am That I Am’, five words, and it went on for pages with different inflections and different repetitions. And Bob Cobbing came on and did the ABC of poetry. He got to the end and what he wanted to do was to recite all the Scottish names he could think of, all the ‘Macs’, a huge string of them. To accompany it all he wanted us to do was to make some music out of the ‘mmmm…’ drone noise. It was inspired. But getting back to the point of serious music not liking us, out of all the people that we had, the most inventive people were the people that came from ‘serious music’. Phil Young turned himself into a herd of rhinoceroses over lunch one day, which was the most liberating thing he had ever done! He didn’t have key signatures and bass and treble clefs, there was complete freedom for the imagination.

PH: This business about the variety of stuff we were doing shouldn’t be glossed over really, because when you’re trying to encapsulate the department’s output it’s that unexpectedness that people like. You could be enjoying the humour in words and pictures one moment and sound poetry the next - anything’s possible. If you go for the strictly serious stuff, you have to be in the right position and have a double-barrelled name to actually understand it… It’s very divisive.

MA: Daphne Oram bailed too early. Daphne set the department up to do art music and then it became apparent that that wasn’t what they wanted - they wanted sound effects. What happened as time went by – she even left the BBC – but within a few years, people like John Baker were starting to bring in an oboe player, or pianos with looped rhythms and so the Doctor Who theme happened. Suddenly the music started to creep in and then you got the art stuff like Lily Greenham. You got the really commercial stuff but you did get the sound art done for Radio 3. It wasn’t just sound effects for radio drama, it became sound art in its own right. There was, even after consolidation, three and a half thousand reels of quarter inch tape in the Radiophonic Workshop archive. Malcolm Clarke went to a seminar on electronic music on the continent. Some studio which had been going for about forty years had digitised all their work… which was two cd’s worth of stuff! At which Malcolm Clarke said “fuck me, I’d do that amount of work by lunchtime!” Which is quite true.

One of the primary and most significant contrasts between the Radiophonic Workshop and its European contemporaries was the prominent role of women, from the co-founder Oram, through early composers such as Delia Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini, to later figures Glynis Jones and Elizabeth Parker. Derbyshire has since attained an iconic status of her own accord due, in part, to her maverick work practices and latterly reclusive lifestyle prior to her passing in 2001.

DM: Delia wasn’t a public figure.

Roger Limb: Delia wasn’t show business.

MA: Delia would have done something with us for the Generic Sci-Fi Quarry event in 2002, but if she was alive I couldn’t see her participating with the live stuff. It just wasn’t her temperament.

DM: The last sort of public thing Delia got involved with was the centenary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers [May, 1971]. She did the music for the audio visual opening.

MA: She was a very private person.

DM: Well, I think she was shy actually. She couldn’t believe it was happening to her because she'd had a setback when she was turned down by Decca for the role of recording engineer for being a woman. She then got into the BBC as a studio manager. She had too much of an analytical mind for her own good.

PH: The way she worked was to very precisely plan things in a way that is completely anathema to me. That also means she wouldn’t have liked the touring.

MA: You have to remember Delia burned very brightly for ten years. That was it, from about 1962-1973. And then she disappeared, became a hermit, she was perfectly happy and did what she did.

DM: I don’t think I ever heard Delia express a view that she was pleased with the result of her work. She was more of a planner. It was alright when she was doing it and she didn’t want it to end. But then, as she got a new commission, off she’d go again.

MA: Brian Hodgson used to say that she would occasionally get to the end of a commission and destroy the tapes. She finished the Institute of Electrical Engineers piece and Brian made a copy when she wasn’t looking because he knew she was quite likely to destroy the tape. And she was actually very cross when she realised he kept a copy. She was quite temperamental.

RL: I think part of the problem was the Workshop changed drastically in the 1970s. But the techniques were changing and the deadlines were changing. There were more and more programmes and the writing was on the wall for her.

MA: She was being assisted more and more.

RL: She was well known and she had a good reputation. On one occasion she was asked to go to Abbey Road to assist on a Roy Harper album, but I had to set up for her. She couldn’t face doing it on her own.

DM: I usually say Delia’s interest in any production she took on was exponential, in a downward direction. The more it went on, the less interested she became.

While the early days of the Workshop is considered to be a golden age where magical results were achieved by the most rudimentary of means - tapes, razor blades, fire extinguishers - the early 1970s saw the introduction of analogue synthesisers. The EMS Synthi 100 arrived in 1970 while the analogue/digital hybrid Fairlight was introduced at the Maida Vale studios in October 1981. However, the Workshop’s output from this period retained its unique sound, particularly through the BBC’s children’s drama output – the quaint electronics of Look And Read retain a startling ingenuity some forty years on. Crucially, the Workshop’s position outside of Broadcasting House and their insistence on receiving credits for their work served to further fuel their singular output.

PK: They used to give enormous credits to the Radiophonic Workshop. In those days, there were tons and tons of viewers and listeners. Whereas now four million is quite a lot, in the seventies it used to be twelve, sixteen million people.

RL: Peter, Paddy and I worked on a lot on schools programmes and at that age perhaps one remembers more. Even at Doctor Who conventions, people come up to speak about Look And Read!

Kieron Pepper: It’s amazing working with these guys, someone might say “When are we going to work on The Boy From Space?” and that’s essentially my DNA, it means so much to me, working with Paddy who actually wrote the theme.

RL: All those kids now are in their thirties and forties.

MA: I’m a child of the sixties and I was brainwashed by the Workshop. At school, you’re standing there pretending to be a tree… to the sound of the Workshop. Blue Peter… the sound of the workshop. Any documentary you watched in the evening, be it Horizon, or Chronicle, that had a Workshop soundtrack.

DM: Local radio and the station idents were all Workshop.

PH: We were one of the very few at the BBC to actually get a credit as a department. Something that Desmond Briscoe organised and that did us an enormous amount of good as far as profile was concerned. Not only that, but he insisted that the composer’s name and the department name be credited.

PK: In those days, there were very, very few credits.

DM: All the ‘after six o’clock’ news magazines kept coming round to us. Newsround... John Craven with John Baker’s bottle top noise. But it was just a job. Had to be done.

PH: it was quite an insular operation, the BBC prided themselves on the fact they had everything in-house, you didn’t have to go outside for anything. And you don’t look outside for any inspiration. It was heads down, do the work within four walls. It was great, a dream job! Stuff just came through the door and you did it to deadlines, which meant we weren’t allowed to be pretentious as we didn’t have enough time.

DM: Didn’t have time to think.

PH: This meant there were a lot of happy accidents which otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

PH: You got more adept at doing things. We built a synth which worked on light sensitivity, you could get it to sound like a soprano by wobbling it like a Theremin. Some lovely stuff went on. Some producers just assumed that something was possible. They had the idea that whatever was in their head was possible for us to create. They’d look at you as if to say ‘I’m right, aren’t I’? And you have to make it work.

DM: Schools programmes were great, you went home extremely qualified every day. It will be very interesting when we all sit down to watch Berberian Sound Studio in Jersey because you do get affected by what you’re working on. Years and years ago, I was working on a Napoleonic War radio programme and we had to do recreations of Trafalgar and Waterloo. We did Trafalgar where a mast gets shot by a cannonball and we had to do twenty three – it had to be twenty three – French marines falling to their doom. So we had to do this huge crash sound. At the BBC at this time, the microphones were actually made out of timber like a bird table support. We had one of these that we didn’t use so we decided we’d wreck it. We split it first and I got a terrible gash down my thumb. Fast forward a few weeks, my wife and I are in Wembley post office. There was this queue and we’re about ten back and my wife says “Oh dear, what have you done there then? How did you get that scratch?”. So me, being truthful, said “Oh I got that in the Battle of Trafalgar when a bloody English cannonball shattered our mast!” Suddenly, we were at the front of the queue and everyone was like ‘get away from this madman!’ You become immersed.

PK: Some of what we did wasn’t Radiophonic at all. We did things like The Castaway where I was working on a drama adapted by Mary Benson who had been expelled from South Africa and was not allowed to go back there. One of the things we had to do was to build up a ‘stereo’ bush background for South Africa and put it together in a stereo wash, for atmosphere. She burst into tears on hearing this recreation of the country she could no longer return to.

RL: People often ask what does Radiophonic actually mean? It can mean anything I want it to mean on the day. It’s a way of thinking rather than a category. A way of approaching material.

PH: When the 80s and 90s dawned, we were rather obliged to take on the idea of deadlines. There was an awful lot of stuff being made in the later years in comparison to the early years. That period is sometimes a bit disregarded, as if it wasn’t as pioneering as the early days whereas, in fact, when digital came along, we were one of the first studios to have multi Yamaha mixers and all sorts of things. We were innovating all the time.

MA: Brian Hodgson was very good at doing deals with people like Yamaha to get gear in.

PH: As far as I was aware, the head of Yamaha wanted his picture taken in the new studio as part of one of the deals!

MA: It went from being very experimental to being the most advanced music studio in Europe. It was samplers not tape machines.

DM: The trouble was that all the pioneering by that time had been done on the treatments. It was down to hard work and talent when it came to the content.

MA: It became a music composition service rather than an experimental sound studio.

PH: We were no longer able to produce sounds that no one had ever heard before. But you were then faced with producing ideas. And that could be pulled off if you came up with something that was memorable. I like to think that it was equally as good as the early stuff.

MA: What we are trying to do now [with the live shows] is combine all of that. We’ve got the tape machines and we are using them, the analogue synthesizers, and we’ve got the new gear as well. The laptops are nestled in amongst all the other stuff. I get incredibly bored going on stage with just a master keyboard and laptop. I’ve got to have the analogue stuff.

PH: I personally would feel a bit disingenuous if I [performed without the analogue equipment]. I just love playing the live stuff although I was scared stiff at the start. But you need to give something, you behave differently when performing live.

DM: The terrifying thing underlining what we did isn’t really appreciated, or even thought about, by people. Sometimes you woke up in the night thinking “I hope this isn’t a headache coming on. What’s going to happen to the show I’m working on if I can’t make it in tomorrow morning?” In the early days, there was always an engineer and studio manager, and there was always some sort of crossover. If you were ill you could ask someone to edit things together. But when everyone had the luxury of their own tailor-made studio to suit only them, you became solely responsible for the whole integrity of that sound or music score for that programme. You didn’t dare go ill! They didn’t know where you were going or where you’d been. Peter used to go home after a transmission and come out in spots. Subconsciously, you know you must not let go until it’s done. We were all very good at setting our own house style so that no one else could join in.

PH: That’s right, you couldn’t possibly hand it over to anyone else.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop finally closed its doors towards the end of the nineties, after what Peter Howell calls a "war of attrition" amid John Birt’s ultra-bureaucratic re-structuring of the BBC. However, the Workshop acquired cult status instantaneously on its closure and within three years, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – in its current iteration – was recording once again.

PH: I left in about 1998. I wasn’t expecting anybody to revive Doctor Who with such success. I wasn’t expecting to play live which was an enormous surprise. And I never expected to be speaking about stuff we did behind closed doors where we never saw the public…

DM: …or each other!

MA: I had been asked to put together a group of people to put together a soundtrack for the Generic Sci-Fi Quarry event, which was a celebration of the use of quarries in 1970’s science fiction television shows. It was put together by a couple of visual artists, Rory Hamilton and John Rogers, and they wanted a Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack and came to me about doing it. I did it with Peter, Paddy and Brian Hodgson. It was enormously sad that Delia passed away during this time but we dedicated the event to her. It was all pre-recorded but it was original work. Then we thought, “we could do a few more of these”. But it was another few years before we did the concert at the Roundhouse. That came about because I’d been trying to persuade the BBC – or anyone – to do a celebratory concert for the fiftieth birthday of the Workshop and I just kept coming up against brick walls. The BBC were saying “you can’t do this, you’ve never done live concerts, it won’t work.” And I kept saying “yes, I promise you I can make this work” and literally, three or four weeks before the anniversary, I got a phone call saying “you’ll be delighted to know we are now doing a concert to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary.” I said “how are we going to put that together in three weeks?” and they replied “oh no, you’re not doing it. Coldcut are doing it. But we’d like you to come along and watch.” So basically we’re having a birthday party where other people are going to blow our candles out. And she said “oh… when you put it like that…” That was in the basement room at the Roundhouse. Dave Gaydon, who was the events manager at the Roundhouse, came up to us after and said “what do you think?” And I said, “well it’s not a celebration of the Workshop, it’s Coldcut with a load of samples.” He asked if we could do better and I said yes. He agreed and put us in [the programme] for the following year. That’s how it happened.

PH: Also, contemporary music has such a retro element to it. This is an enormous surprise. Cliff Jones [the current Workshop manager] did a bit of market research before we started playing together regularly and we were shocked at the amount of interest in our work!

And so to 2014. The influence of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has loomed large in groups ranging from Broadcast, Add N (to X) to, more recently, Pye Corner Audio. But also in projects such as Richard Littler’s fictional town Scarfolk, D.D. Denham’s equally spurious Electronic Music in the Classroom, through to the retro-futurism of Julian House’s Ghost Box label and, of course, the dark and surreal world of Foley sounds encapsulated by Peter Strickland’s masterful Berberian Sound Studio. Strickland has oft-stated his admiration for the dark streak, the “garden shed element” within the Radiophonic Workshop.

PH: We definitely have a dark streak. Lots of people can muck around but the secret is knowing when you’ve got something that’s going to take off and is worth following through. For me, following on this dark thing, I famously had great difficulty in writing in a major key. If there’s a choice, when you’re mucking about with something that sounds serious or something that sounds happy, we’ll all go for the mysterious. Underneath a lot of the output is this idea that you don’t quite know what it is, and that’s at the basis of the Workshop’s output. At the time, you’re more worried about the deadline rather than someone writing a meaningful article about your music in ten years time! It’s just not how it is. Also, if you’re getting really immersed in something you cease to take notice of the things other people take notice of. They look at all sorts of imperatives which you don’t focus on.

MA: And right now, myself and Peter are working on the music for the 3D Mapping event at St. Aubin’s. We've done an audio storyboard to go with the pictures, it’s quite like when we did the Quarry event.

RL: It’s going to look and sound wonderful.

PH: We are going to play with the whole idea of where it is and what’s happening, make it quite specific.

MA: We’ve got a very good opening and a very good middle bit. Now we just need to think of an ending…

RL: Well you know what they used to say: take something from earlier and play it half-speed, backwards and with itself!

PL: I think we can sum up [our approach to music] by saying there’s always been a beginning, a middle and a… what the fuck!

MA: Peter and I, in particular, have this thing about site specific shows and Branchage plays into that. This is the biggest festival we’ve been involved with so far.

PH: Because we’re writing and performing in something that is not an everyday event.

MA: It’s great to find the right people who get what you do and Branchage is part of that.

DM: We are very honored to be given curatorship and responsibility for the festival.

Branchage Festival runs from the 24th to the 28th of September. For more information visit the website