Monday 18 May 2009

A Radiophonic night out

On Sunday I had an interesting Who-related evening out. I attended wearing my Tennant Coat, and received a little attention for it, though I did not get to take any new coat pictures.
So though it is not entirely coat related, I thought I’d still share a great evening out with you, as I was at least wearing the coat at the time!

On March 25th there was a new story on Outpost Gallifrey publicising a concert to be given by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at The Roundhouse in the middle of May.

From a young age I was always very much aware of the work of the Radiophonic Workshop, and would often see the same names cropping up on the closing credits of Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven

In my eyes the players had become minor celebrities when Brian Hodgson appeared on Blue Peter to show how he had made the TARDIS noise (see right), and in a late 70s documentary where they showed how sound effects for Terror Of The Zygons had been created.
But I think it was the original radio version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that I took real notice, as firstly their credit was read rather than written, so they became part of the dialogue of the programme; plus being radio, the sounds the Workshop created painted the minds-eye picture of the unfolding plot.

The venue, The Roundhouse in Camden Town (see below), is an arts theatre, which stages events and installations, as well as the more convention performance based entertainment. 

In a previous life it had been a turning station for train engines that ran on the nearby rail lines.
This has now been transformed into a space where performances can take place, with optional seating (see left). The building has recently undergone a renovation, and is looking in pristine condition.

I recall going there in 1975 to see a production of Richard Crane’s Venus And Superkid, a children’s play which transfered for the Christmas season from the Unicorn Theatre, where as a child I had trod the boards myself as part of a Saturday morning theatre group.
As an aside, I first saw Sylvester McCoy perform at the Unicorn Theatre around the same time in a comedy called School For Clowns, directed and starring Ken Campbell and also featuring Chris Langham of Thick Of It fame. 

More recently I saw Toby Hadoke’s solo comedy Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf at the Unicorn, and had the chance to meet Louise Jameson in the green room (see right) who had played Toby’s mother in the radio and CD version of the play. (I was wearing the Mk II coat at the time, if you were wondering!)

Anyway, we got to The Roundhouse around 6.45pm, and though not part of the Radiophonic event, there was a curious musical installation going on upstairs when we arrived.

There were five weird instruments on massive tuning-fork like stands (see above). They were basically stripped down guitars and a drum & triangle percussion section.
They were covered in remotely controlled pistons which plucked and played the instruments, all of which were connected to a laptop that ran the show, making some amazing music.
A boffin was on hand to keep things on track and answer questions.

Doors opened at 7pm, so we found suitable seats and waited for things to start at 7.30. It wasn’t long before the place was filling up, seats were at a premium and the standing area in the centre of the round was pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder. There was a good turn out. While waiting for things to start I was struck as to how much it looked like the Globe Theatre.

There were three large screens above the stage, onto which were projected a slideshow of stills showing members of the Radiophonic Workshop at at their mixing desks. I found a couple of the actual pictures used, and can’t resist sharing them with you here, especially for those 60s and 70s fashions.

(above left: Malcolm Clarke with the EMS Synthi 100 modular synth known as Delaware.
above right: Delia Derbyshire, with Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe in 1965.)

(above left: Dick Mills (left) and Brian Hodgson compare the lengths of two sections of tape, watched by Desmond Briscoe.
above right: John Baker was another stalwart Radiophonic Workshop composer.)

First up was Andrea Parker, who played the real experimental kind of synthesizer music for a full half-hour. I like radiophonic work, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer something a little more melodic, tuneful and structured.
The sounds she created were interesting, though it is easy to record something these days on a Mac or PC, I felt it lacked the organic, hand-made feel that the Radiophonic Workshop’s techniques employed.

It was touch and go to start with as to what sort of evening it would be.
I had dragged the boyfriend along and he was skeptical, and rightly so, after the warm up act, the intervening time had been filled by the venue playing one solitary track of music on a loop for nearly half an hour, which became tortuous.
We agreed to give the Radiophonic concert around half an hour, and if we wenen’t enjoying it, we would slip out and head home.

The Radiophonic guys were due out at 8pm, but it wasn’t until nearly 8.30 before they popped from around the back of the stage, all dressed in white coats like laboratory technicians.
The line-up was Paddy KingslandDick MillsRoger Limb and Peter Howell & Mark Ayres, the latter two of which had done Doctor Who theme tune arrangements in the 80s and 90s.

From there it just got better and better all the way!!
Paddy Kingsland stepped up to the microphone to introduce himself and the rest of the crew (see right), as well as the (younger) backing musicians, who he described as their ‘care workers’.
He quickly established their dry sense of humour and we were soon into the first tracks.
They musicians were real funny when they introduced their music and they did a great job in front of what must have been an intimidatingly sized audience, bearing in mind after all, apart from Mark Ayres, they are around 70 years old!
In the following review, the titles of pieces played are in bold
First up was a Tribute to Desmond Briscoe, incorporating some rare newsreel footage showing him demonstrating how voices can be changed and some of his music and effects for Quatermass And The Pit. (Thrown in for good measure to represent early Radiophonic work was Dick Mills’ Major Bloodnok’s Stomach, a classic cacophony of sounds from The Goon Show.

Then there was a couple of tracks called Incubus and Quirky by Roger Limb.
Part of this was accompanied by some images from an episode of Out Of The Unknown entitled The Prophet, which had sadly been wiped as part of the BBC’s infamous 1970s clearout. 
It was interesting to see these rare images, as the robots created for the episode later cropped up in the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story, The Mind Robber (for which they were painted white, see left).

This was followed by a demonstration of a Vocoder, which effectively turns voices (or anything else) into musical tones, creating a surreal heavenly choir from just one vocalist. This was demonstrated by a performance of Greenwich Chorus from The Body In Question which used this very effectively.

Next up was one of Paddy Kingsland’s track which he had composed for the BBC Africa World Service. In a bizarre fit of subversion, he had called it Reg.

There was then a performance of Brighton Pier by Paddy Kingsland, some incidental music from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy covering the scene where Ford and Arthur have just been rescued by the Heart Of Gold (see right). Which is odd, because the scene is set on Southend Pier!
The scene was shown mute, apart from the music, so that as Paddy Kingsland said, “Nothing to get in the way, such as the actors actually speaking.”

We were then given a speical treat in the form of some new material, specially  composed for the event, called Dancing In The Waves, which was accompanied by visuals of two dancers. It had been composed on a modern software system which displays sound as colour moving across a screen, and part of this could be seen on the projection screens.

Next up were some fun compositions that had been done for schools programmes, with
Bill The Brickie and Words & Pictures, the latter of which personally awoke some distant memories of watching it at school in the 1970s on tv monitors mounted on high, wheeled platforms.

There was then a Tribute to Delia Derbyshire, who when her name was mentioned, received a round of enthusiastic applause from the audience. Dick Mills brought out an old metal lamp shade that Delia had often used to create her most distinctive sounds, and we all briefly saw it in use in some rare newsreel material which played as part of the tribute (see left). The compilation included her seminal Blue Veils And Golden Sands, but saved her Doctor Who work for later.

Paddy Kingsland explained that it had been noted that the music of the Radiophonic Workshop was best suited to alien landscapes, whether that be on distant planets or deep in the oceans of the world. This was illustrated by his compsitions Quarry March and Vespucci, before some haunting other-worldly music from Sea Trek, a BBC natural history programme.

The last of the tributes was for John Baker, who had combined his love of jazz with his Radiophonic compositions, one of which New Worlds (played on milk bottles) has incredibly distinctive final couple of bars, as they had been used as the sign-off for John Craven’s Newsround (see right). You could hear the whole audience’s collective recognition of this.

Next up was a track called Swirley, which had been erroneously labelled at the time, intending to be called Shirley in an attempt to try and flatter the nice BBC lady who had commissioned. Sadly because of the transcribing error, the gesture was lost on her.

Attention then turned to the Workshop’s most famous ‘client’, Doctor Who, which let’s face it, was why we were all here!

This took the form of a series of suites covering Early Who, with clips of Cybermen and Sea Devils (see below); then Logopolis, covering the closing moments of Tom Baker’s time as The Doctor.

We then had a suite from The Keeper Of Traken, entitled Nyssa’s Theme; followed by the haunting melodies from The Five Doctors; and finally some of Mark Ayres’ work for the McCoy Period.

Coming towards the end of the concert, there was a performance of The Astronauts by Peter Howell, which had been a B-side to a single release of the Doctor Who theme in the 1980s (see right). The audience appreciated its announcement almost as much as the first Who-related items earlier. The track had been an amalgamation between two track: one half of which was from an edition of Horizon about Aztec spacemen.

By now it was 10.30pm, and any thoughts of sliding out before the end were a distant memory. We were enjoying this far too much!

There then followed, for me, and I’m sure a lot of people, the highlight of the entire evening. Peter Howell performed his 1980 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme - LIVE!
The arrangement is probably the most popular re-arrangements of Delia Derbyshire’s classic theme, and it was just amazing to hear it, and see it performed by THE arranger who had made it real. I got a real buzz from this, and had to keep reminding myself I was hearing this first-hand, not listen to a CD.
The occasional bum note proved this, and made it into the live performance it actually was.

The whole group then played the theme again, but as a Doctor Who Jam, adding what they felt as they felt it.

To round off the fantastic evening, the group played Radiophonic Rock, their interpretation of full on heavy rock. The venue trembled and shook as those synthesizers were thrashed to within an inch of their electronic lives!

If you want to read more about the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, here are some great links and sites.

A good chronology of work and staff

The BBC Radiophonic’s Wiki page

A good historical article on a music magazine site

Programme notes on a great BBC4 documentary

A profile of the Workshop on the BBC site

News report (including video) of 50th anniversary celebrations

A good resourse to track down CDs of recorded works
With thanks to The Roundhouse for hosting the evening and providing me with some notes to help me remember the whole concert’s tracks.

You can download the event’s programme by clicking HERE.
Reviews of the evening can be read on The Daily Telegraph and The Times websites.

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