Memories of my time at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop 

     Ray White, engineer at the workshop for 20 years who created The White Files asked me for a personal view of my days at the workshop. This is a preview of a book I am writing about my years at the BBC, working title "Rocking At The BBC"


    I arrived at the Radiophonic Workshop by accident. I had heard of it, of course, and played their signature tunes into the programmes I was working on as a studio technician in BBC Radio. So I was familiar with the yellowish BASF recording tape they used, superior to the stuff we worked with because you could record at a high level and reduce unwanted noise.

    I was a studio manager in Group B Studio Operations at Broadcasting House, which dealt with pop music and light entertainment. What a great job. So when I was called into the office and told I had to go on a training course I was unhappy. I thought I knew everything. But I was politely reminded that there was a lot I didn’t know, and so off I went. The course took place in the Langham, once a rather grand hotel opposite Broadcasting House, which the BBC had taken over when it needed more office space. It has now returned to its previous glory as a hotel.

    One afternoon we visited the Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC Maida Vale studios in Delaware Road. We were shown into the ‘Piano Room’ where chairs had been laid out ready for a talk by Desmond Briscoe, at that time ‘Organiser Radiophonic Workshop’. Malcolm Clarke in a smart bow tie was there as well, to play the tapes of the examples Desmond used in his lectures. I was fascinated by all this, and when Desmond invited anyone interested to get in touch, with a view to arranging a week long ‘attachment’ to explore further, I decided to go ahead. That afternoon changed my whole life.

    At that time there were 12 rooms in total belonging to the Workshop. Entering the building by the main entrance, turn sharp left down a long corridor. No need to check in with the smartly uniformed commissionaire in those days. Security was relaxed. After a couple of offices occupied by Orchestral Management - The BBC Symphony Orchestra was based at Maida Vale - a door on the left was marked ‘Room 8: Radiophonic Workshop’. I was told to go to Room 10, further down the corridor, and wait. Room 9 was Desmond Briscoe’s office.

    He arrived soon and his affable manner put me at ease straight away. At the time I was doing part time gigs playing guitar in a second-hand dinner jacket at functions in places like the Cafe Royal and Hotels around the West End, also East End weddings which often ended in a fight. To my surprise, Desmond was totally familiar with this lifestyle. In an earlier life he had formed the Harry Desmond Band; he played the drums. His drum kit was now in use for sampling sounds at the Workshop and featured a folding bass drum and a set of skulls, one of which can be seen being struck by Delia Derbyshire in a film about the Workshop made around that time. It was said that he had bought the kit from the comedian Deryck Guyler.

    I think we got off to a good start, because the Workshop was making ‘sound to order’ and needed practical people more than ‘head in the clouds’ dreamers. After a chat Desmond told me to go and visit the staff in their rooms and find out about the place directly from them. He invited me to make a piece and play it to him at the end of the week. No pressure there then. If all went well I might be invited back for a three month attachment. Room 10, which was a common room at the time, was used for meetings, including, as I would find out later, the dreaded mid monthly meetings which Desmond insisted on. Later on, the Delaware synthesiser would be installed there.

    The next room down the corridor was Room 11, occupied by John Baker, well organised and tidy, with limited mono equipment. A BBC-designed pre war OBA/8 mixing setup with three Philips tape machines and an additional Leevers-Rich machine for playing tape loops. There was an electronic organ and echo was provided by a room in the basement. Tape loops of favourite sounds were neatly arranged on hooks.

    Next door was Room 12, the domain of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. This had a similar quota of tape machines, a more modern mixer and laboratory-type oscillators together with futuristic-looking perspex cubes capable of cross mixing several sound sources in sequence. There was a Tempophon bolted onto an EMI TR/90 tape machine. This had rotating heads, rather like a video recorder and was capable of changing pitch while retaining the duration of a piece, or changing the duration while retaining the pitch. A miracle then, now easily done with a plug-in on your audio workstation. Reverberation was provided by an EMT plate located in a room further down the corridor. There were shelves filled with Doctor Who effects made by Brian Hodgson.

    Next was Room 13, the home of David Cain. His facilities were similar to those in Room 11, except for a groundbreaking ‘Glowpot’ mixing desk, capable of fading without crackles, a problem with pure tones and the stud faders in common use at the time. At that time he was engaged in projects using early musical instruments and was about to embark on The Long March Of Everyman, an epic radio series.

    There was a small studio next door to Room 13, not very well acoustically isolated from the corridor, and with rather home-made foam padding to deaden the roomy sound. The innards of an old upright piano stood there, the strings of which had once been scraped with Brian’s Mum’s front door key to make the sound of Doctor Who’s Tardis.

    All of these rooms were on the left hand side of the corridor, with windows facing Delaware road. But so far no rooms on the right-hand side, because that was the wall of Studio One, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But after the small studio just described was where Studio One ended, and so doors started to appear on the right.

    First a library containing a tape copy of everything ever made at the Workshop. The next door led to the ‘Piano Room’ which contained a baby grand piano, which was often used to work out parts and sometimes for recordings. I made the piano for The Changes on it. It was quite a large room and used for meetings and lectures, as well as recordings, via tie-lines to one of the other rooms. A door at the end led to the ‘Organ Room’ which contained a huge electric organ, which had been donated to the Workshop at some time in the past, but was seldom if ever used. Not long afterwards the organ retired to make room for another studio.

    Next door on the right-hand side of the corridor was the maintenance workshop, at that time occupied by Dave Young and his assistant Howard Tombs. Dave was a brilliant engineer with the ability to fix any piece of equipment with ease as well as designing new gear for the Radiophonic team. This was an era of hardware and so there were lathes and other mechanical tools in this room, together with the soldering irons and oscilloscopes. Dave Young’s office, which was at the far end and this room, eventually became a studio.

    During that week I met all the ‘Assistants’ as they were called then; John Baker, Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire and David Cain. Also Dick Mills and Malcolm Clarke. I was made very welcome and the week sped by. I did make a piece and played it to Desmond at the end of the week. I wish I still had a copy. But it can’t have been awful, because I was invited back and worked there for about ten years, during which I was able to contribute to many BBC programmes including Doctor Who and The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy.

    My days at the Workshop were happy because of the people there. We worked alone for the most part, but coffee lunch and tea in the canteen were shared by us all. There were pressures due to the fact that programmes had deadlines. We were at the end of the process of programme-making, so that if - when - the programme fell behind schedule, we often had limited time in which to work the magic. But we all thought of that as a benefit, because without deadlines it’s easy to freeze up. I only wish I had fully appreciated how lucky I was at the time.

    All the Equipment in the World

    Desmond Briscoe used to say:

    ‘You can have all the equipment in the world, but without people you can’t produce a note of music.’

    Some might see this comment as out of date, given the rise of artificial intelligence, but in those days most of the best work resulted from overcoming obstacles and the ingenious use of limited resources.

    Desmond worked as a studio manager in the Radio Drama department in the 1950s. He was interested in the work of early pioneers of electronic music in France and Germany, and at that time tape machines were being installed in BBC Radio studios, making possible complex editing and manipulation of sound. Drama productions were also exploring ‘things of the mind’ – to quote Desmond – thus creating a need to develop sounds somewhere between conventional music and sound effects.

    All of the 1957 productions of The Disagreeable Oyster by Giles Cooper, All that Fall by Samuel Beckett, and Private Dreams and Public Nightmares by Frederick Bradnum, featured electronic effects made by Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe. They improvised the facilities for making this material by assembling tape machines and other equipment in conventional studios at Broadcasting House while they were vacant, usually overnight.

    This encouraged BBC bosses to recognise the need for a permanent facility for producing electronic sound, and in 1958 the Radiophonic Workshop was established in two rooms at the converted skating rink in Delaware Road, Maida Vale, West London. That sounds easy when you say it quickly, but a lot of badgering would have taken place to make it happen. Desmond once remarked that persuading BBC management to do something was like fighting with a sponge.

    The unit consisted of Desmond and Daphne, with engineer Richard Bird and technical assistant Dick Mills. The equipment at the Workshop in those early days was gear that had been thrown out by other departments, known in the BBC as ‘redundant plant’. Installation and maintenance was carried out by Richard Bird, and later by Dave Young who invented many innovative pieces of gear during the 60s and 70s.

    Dave once told me over a coffee in the canteen that one of the best days of his life was during the war when the Lancaster bomber he was occupying was shot down. Parachuting down over the Fatherland he felt a sense of some relief, knowing that he was far more likely to see the end of the war in captivity than as a member of the bomber’s crew. As a prisoner of war he managed to build radio sets clandestinely from junk and a few parts supplied by a friendly German guard. What better training for inventing gadgets for electronic music-making?

    He made an enormous contribution to the development of the Workshop with his inventions and clever modifications to standard equipment. He was succeeded by Ray White and Ray Riley in the 70s, who continued his work by bringing the equipment up to date, with Brian Hodgson leading the way. It seems hard to believe, but in the early 50s radio was the ‘king’ of broadcasting, with only a small number of television viewers. The tide turned when a huge number of people bought TV sets to watch the coronation in 1953. By the end of the decade, TV had the lion’s share of evening audiences.

    Quatermass and the Pit was the first TV show undertaken by the Workshop – Desmond made the electronic sounds for this sci-fi series. The hugely popular show attracted far more attention than high-brow productions on Radio’s Third Programme, and put the Workshop firmly on the map.

    More people, usually studio managers, came to work at the department for short periods, notably the talented Maddalena Fagandini who, among other things, composed the interval signal Timebeat. Television presentation in its early days was far less slick than it is now. Much of the output was live, and there were very few studios, so now and again time was needed to change scenery or line up the equipment. At these points there was an interval, perhaps filled with a still picture of a vase of flowers or a film of a potter’s wheel. Maddalena’s catchy electronic rhythm was used to accompany these interludes. In 1962, George Martin added instruments to her track and released it as a record under the name ‘Ray Cathode’, months before the Beatles arrived at Abbey Road studios to make their first record.

    Delia Derbyshire had worked as a teacher and later in music publishing before joining the BBC as a studio manager. In 1962 she joined the Radiophonic Workshop. Brian Hodgson joined in the same year – he had been an actor in Rep before joining the BBC as a studio manager in Radio Drama.

    When I started at the Workshop, Delia and Brian shared Room 12. I owe so much to their generosity of spirit in my early days, as they allowed me to became a (junior) member of the team. It was such fun working with those two! I learnt tons of things technically, and even more about the ‘mystique’ side of things – there is a lot of snake oil salesmanship in Radiophonics. But above all, they were aware of the possibility of creating magic. Not an exact science, but you know it when it happens. That’s what you are always trying to get, often exploiting the ‘happy accident’.

    Delia and Brian had also worked on theatre projects with Peter Zinovieff in his studio in Putney, calling themselves Unit Delta Plus. Peter was more interested in researching computers and synthesisers, and went on to form the synthesiser company EMS with David Cockerel, responsible for the VCS3, the first synthesiser to be used at the workshop, and eventually the Synthi 100, christened the Delaware by the Workshop. They later had a studio in Camden Town called Kaleidophon. Someone once jokingly called it ‘Catastraphon’, but they did make an album called An Electric Storm – now a cult classic. David Voorhaus was the third member of the team behind this record.

    They both made contributions to Doctor Who, which are well known, but their brilliantly original individual contributions to documentary and drama programmes for Radio and TV are less famous. They were great friends and supported each other through tough times.

    Delia had personal troubles in her last years at the Workshop. Not least the arrival of synthesisers, which she never really got to grips with. Brian embraced the new technology and helped her all he could, but I would love to know what she would have produced, had those machines arrived a few years earlier when her life was on a more even keel. She had a uniquely sensitive touch and a mastery of the techniques of music concrète. The tragedy is that she never saw the admiration for her work which exists today.

    The new ‘toys’ made it easier to make things quickly, and the arrival of BBC2 TV and Local Radio meant that the demand for Radiophonic material was growing, particularly in music. Myself, Peter Howell and Roger Limb were eager to do this work. Malcolm Clarke and Glynis Jones were handling the ‘floaty/abstract/arty’ stuff with enthusiasm, and so for Delia this sudden influx must have seemed overwhelming. That’s not to say that the old methods died out. The new members of the creative team combined the old techniques with the new, and, I’m glad to say, still do!

    Delia eventually left the BBC and Brian started a studio in central London, but he returned later to become head of the department.

    John Baker was a jazz pianist and had studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy Of Music before joining the BBC as a studio manager. I first remember him working away in Room 11 with his own style of tape manipulation.

    The equipment was basic. A Leevers-Rich tape machine was modified to change speed in exact steps. A short tape loop of a pitched sound – say a cork popped from a bottle – was set up to play on this machine. Playing the loop at double the speed would produce a note one octave above. All the intervals in between were marked on a special switch calibrated in semi-tones.

    He usually wrote down his arrangements beforehand – sometimes on the commuter train from Southend-on-Sea. Having selected sounds for tune, bass-line and accompaniment, he set about copying the individual notes for each part onto a second machine running at standard speed of fifteen inches per second. Now all the notes for each part were in order. After selecting a tempo it was a simple calculation to work out the length of tape to produce a crotchet, quaver, semi-quaver, etc. If you want to take my word for it, skip the next paragraph!

    For example, at a tempo of 120 beats per minute in 4/4, each bar of music lasts two seconds. Running at fifteen inches per second, a complete bar then needs a tape length of thirty inches. So the length of a crotchet (or quarter-note) is a quarter of thirty – seven and a half inches.

    Working from the score, he was able to assemble the tunes by cutting notes of the correct length together using a ruler, an editing block and sticky tape. He would then play three tape machines in synchronisation to mix the elements together to produce the final result. This was a lengthy process, and also involved careful mixing, equalisation (tone control), and the addition of echo and reverberation. Much of the process was routine, and, believe it or not, he often had Radio 4 on in the background as he worked. Many pieces of music were made by various people at the Workshop using this technique, but nobody matched John’s skill at injecting musicality into this somewhat mechanical process. He understood the value of subtle variations of note lengths and volumes, so that his pieces sounded as if they were ‘played’, rather than mechanical.

    Just as Delia had felt the pressure of the dreaded synthesisers, John had his own problems, including ill-health. He left the BBC in 1974.

    David Cain arrived in 1967. He had a mathematics degree, was a jazz bass player and had previously worked as a studio manager in Radio Drama. He was interested in using early musical instruments, and sometimes blended them with electronic sounds. A number of his theme tunes appear on the BBC Radiophonic Music album, originally released in 1968 to coincide with the Workshop’s tenth anniversary. Later on, he was engaged in ‘blockbuster’ radio programmes, supplying music and atmospheres for The Hobbit, The War of the Worlds, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, The Long March Of Everyman and others. He left in 1973 to take up a lecturing post.

    Dick Mills was known as the Workshop’s oldest inhabitant, having joined in 1958. He started as a technical operator, assisting the four creative staff, although in reality he also undertook projects of his own and was later upgraded to the creative staff. Dick famously assisted Delia when she made the Doctor Who theme tune, as composed by Ron Grainer. When Brian left in 1973, he took over the ‘special sound’ work for Doctor Who until 1989.

    Up to 1970 has been described as the ‘golden era’ of the Workshop. From that time more people arrived, partly to replace those leaving. Malcolm Clarke joined the workshop in 1969, having been a studio manager, followed by Richard Yeoman-Clark, Roger Limb, Glynis Jones, Peter Howell and Elizabeth Parker. Each had their own individual style and approach, and my feeling is that they all did the Workshop proud, going on to create a second ‘golden age’ during the years after I left in 1981, when they were joined at various times by Jonathan Gibbs, Richard Attree and Steve Marshall.

    So these were the people Desmond referred to in his comment about equipment and people.

    I think he was only half right. You need both.


    Hard to be beautiful

    Have you had the experience of opening a new piece of software only to find that using it seems like visiting an alien planet? The designers have joyfully put a brand new slant on something you were already familiar with. You are tempted to close it down and stick with the old version.

    I imagine that this is how Delia felt in 1970, when a system she had helped to build suddenly looked like being drastically changed. All those tape recorders you see in the early Workshop films were mono. The hookups were relatively simple, but stereo seemed more complicated, although the record industry had been making stereo recordings for years. Synthesisers were poking their heads round the door, accompanied by young and enthusiastic new people. Delia was not naturally a ‘management type’, or she could have climbed the BBC ladder with ease. But she was an artist and essentially a soloist. She needed a bit of technical help, but when ‘set up’ was free to roam in an electronic wonderland. In the new age the technology side of things looked as if it was in danger of taking over.

    If she had been less vulnerable at that stage in her life, Delia would have coped and re-triumphed. But the combination of a chaotic personal life and change in the workplace was too much at the time.

    She was often said to have worked out everything before starting in the studio, but when I worked with her, Delia was great at busking it, experimenting and exploiting those ‘happy accidents’. Adept at playing the machinery, if not hooking it up, and brilliant at moulding the sounds into something with extra magic. In jazz terms, it ‘felt good’.

    In his lectures Desmond often said:

    ‘With electronic music it’s easy to create tension or suspense. Or to be sinister. Or funny with silly noises. But it’s not easy to be beautiful.’

    It has been done though, for example Blue Veils and Golden Sands by Delia, Veils and Mirrors by Glynis Jones, and much of Elizabeth Parker’s work on The Living Planet. Peter Howell’s Greenwich Chorus from The Body In Question is also, I think, a beautiful piece. We played it live at gigs in the recent reincarnation of the Workshop. It seemed fragile, and I think that quality connects with the listener. Roger Limb’s more recent Incubus has a similar effect.

    And simplicity is another gift. Most of us are guilty of putting in too much in an effort to impress – ‘It’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out’. The director of the TV version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Alan Bell, called me very late as I was struggling with a deadline and said: ‘I need a bit of music to go with the Vogon scene. Can you do it? About 3 minutes? By tomorrow?’ After an initial panic – no pun intended – I did a very sparse single-line tune with echos, in one take, busked without thought.

    He later said that this was his favourite bit of music from the series. Oh…

    Not the ‘Heart of Gold’ sequence? Not ‘Share and Enjoy’? Not any of the narrations with graphics, all of which had taken ages? Now I’m not claiming that that piece was beautiful, but it did convey a simple bleakness, which I think was the result of being forced into autopilot and sharing what I was feeling at the time. Even though electronic music is more artificially created than performed music, it can still come from the heart. And when it does, I believe that it gets through to the listener in a way we don’t understand, but is truly magical.

    None of us realised the effect our music would have on the young people watching TV in the 70s and 80s. But now, in our 70s doing gigs, we see those children, now grown up, with genuine affection for the work we thought would be forgotten in a week. Of course, our part is just one element of a TV or Radio show. The total effect of story, acting, set, lights, music and so on makes the impact. Our work played a supporting role and I for one am proud to have played my part in that.