Music & Radio

Doctor Who: When the Radiophonic Workshop went to Shoreditch (#Whovember)


It’s Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary month.  First off, a rare glimpse at an incredible part of British culture.

YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLOODY GREAT LUCK TO CATCH THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP IN ACTION.  Not just a concert rendition of their songs, but the real deal, or as close as you can get.  Messrs Mills, Ayre, Howell et al on a stage, surrounded by theremins, vocoders and ever-spinning tape loops.  Dick Mills took centre stage, wonderfully and eccentrically decked out in what may as well be milkman garb.

The Radiophonic Workshop was, of course, the BBC department established in 1958 to produce music and effects for radio and later television.  Mills gave an interesting run-through of the departments origin, one that led to the creation of an important and influential unit… Until the BBC shut it down in 1998.  Yesterday, it was an hour of classics, crossing from Gallifrey to the War of the Worlds, with a glimpse at the pages of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for good measure.

Best of all, the concert was held in Shoreditch, that part of East London, England, Earth where, in a totters yard, on Totters Lane a policeman first led us to the TARDIS fifty years ago.  It wasn’t the home of the Workshop, but the home of their most famous creation.  As Mills said when introducing the closing section, they couldn’t just let the 50th birthday of a certain “medical man” go without recognition.  “1958 to 1993” read the badge on the front of Dick Mills’ Jacket.  “The original sonic solution” read the back.

The Doctor Who theme really must be the Radiophonic Workshop’s most famous creation, but that’s hardly its only gift.  That theme was tweaked from Delia Derbyshire’s first arrangement of Ron Grainer’s composition – with assistance from Mills – was tweaked all the way up to Peter Howell’s compositions that closed Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor era.  As Workshopper Mark Ayre once said, while the Workshop started off with little beyond hand-me-downs from other departments, by the time it was disbanded in 1998, it had become one of the most sophisticated studios in the world.  Always based at Maida Vale, the original workshop spread from its famous Room 13 – as Mills joked, that’s when the License Fee started going up.  There were star admirers in the crowd, and rightly so.

Praised as unsung heroes of electronica, there reach extend beyond the airwaves and screen into popular music.  During particularly pounding rock efforts I was reminded of the indiscernible and strange connection between English eccentricity and rock and rolls.  From the Beatles to Bowie and rolling on to better examples of Britpop, it’s long been an asset, or cause, of Britain punching above its weight in popular music.  While an aspect like Metal could only have developed from the industrial Black Country, eccentricity is a general staple of all forms of British music.  And while the devilishly talented core members of the Workshop were crafting incredible music from nothing on behalf of the state broadcaster in the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Pink Floyd were doing the same for progressive rock just miles away.  One listen to that band’s 1971 song One of These Days illustrates that link.

Of course, in 2012 the BBC announced that the Radiophonic Workshop would be returning as an online endeavour after 14 years.  It’s a great, eye-catching and correct idea.  But the real deal were those creaking around a stage in Shoreditch for an hour in the November of 2013.  Catch them when you can.

The Radiophonic Workshop was something that only the BBC could produce, something that only Britain could produce.

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