The Radiophonic Workshop: an interview with musician and composer Paddy Kingsland

The BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was already a pioneer of electronic music when the musician and composer, Paddy Kingsland, joined in 1970. His electronic scores for a host of BBC programmes during the 1970s gave the station’s output a distinctive other-worldly soundtrack, and it was a thrill to interview him ahead of his live appearance with the reborn Radiophonic Workshop at the 2017 Bluedot Festival.

The comedian Alexei Sayle once joked that “anybody who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a twat”.

His target was the fringe theatre scene of the 1980s and its purloining of the language of proletarian endeavour. But the word had been in regular use in the arts since the 1940s, ever since the no-nonsense Joan Littlewood established her Theatre Workshop in 1945, and not every such manifestation was as frivolous as Sayle no doubt hoped to imply.

Joan Littlewood may have used the word first, but another workshop came along in the 1950s and added to its creative mystique. Inextricably linked with a golden era of public service broadcasting, the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop became internationally renowned as the sound source for entire imaginative worlds.

Founded in 1958 by Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, the Radiophonic Workshop was created to put new electronic music techniques at the service of the BBC’s radio and television producers. By harnessing the creative potential of oscillators and tape machines – devices that were never designed to make music – the Radiophonic Workshop’s innovators defined the sonic signature of a new broadcasting era. Dramas, documentaries and educational programmes all became identified with the alien swoops, echoes and gurgles wrenched out from those metal-and-Bakelite husks.

If Doctor Who became the Saturday teatime sensation of 1960s children’s TV, it was its theme tune that truly transformed the Radiophonic Workshop from a curious name on the credits into a phrase on every school kid’s lips. Written by Ron Grainer but alchemised into sonic gold by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire, it was a piece of music as unearthly as the show itself, and it heralded the moment when electronic music passed from being a novelty or an academic discipline into the stuff of mass consciousness.

For the composer Paddy Kingsland, who joined the Radiophonic Workshop in 1970 and stayed for eleven years, the Doctor Who theme was his first unconscious contact with his future employer. It wasn’t until he joined the BBC as a tape editor, however, that he got the chance to move into its irresistible orbit.

“I was sent on a course,” he says, “something which used to put dread into everybody’s heart at the BBC. But one of the things we had to do was go to the Radiophonic Workshop for an afternoon and have a look. I went and was thoroughly taken with it. Then Desmond Briscoe, who was in charge, said if anyone was interested they could come and hang around for a week, and if that went well then they might come for longer. I did that and that’s when I really got to know what it was all about.”

Although Kingsland had been playing in rock bands for a few years and was taking advantage of his position at the BBC to get some free studio time – “It was the era of Sgt Pepper, and we thought we were making music like that” – it was an idle day at work that gave him his first practical experience of electronic music.

“I was in Bush House as a tape editor with these two huge tape machines; producers would come along and we would edit tapes for them. But one day not a single producer arrived and I was getting lonely, so I made a couple of noises with some bits of metal hanging round in the studio, recorded them and made them up into tape loops. I started fooling around and in no time, about three hours had passed. I was totally absorbed. That was the first time I made a piece of electronic music as opposed to recording stuff with guitars and drums.”

Kingsland’s subsequent career with the Radiophonic Workshop saw him creating themes, soundtracks and effects for some of the most innovative programmes coming out of the BBC at the time. He cites his work on Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – both on radio and TV – as career highlights, but also mentions a more hazily remembered, but no less creatively potent, title among his favourites.

The Changes was a children’s drama series broadcast in 1975. With a plot that involved mass hysteria, menacing machines and scenes of unhinged quasi-Luddite destruction, it seared itself into the collective memory of that sofa-bound, tank-top wearing generation, not least due to its unsettling electronic soundscape.

The Changes was lovely to work on,” recalls Kingsland, “because they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. I felt I had contributed something to it. Sometimes people just want music to paper over the cracks, but that show had music for a reason. And there were also sounds and effects which went with people going crazy. I enjoyed doing that.”

Such was the Radiophonic Workshop’s influence on a generation’s formative TV experiences, it has taken on a near-mythic quality in the minds of many who absorbed its vibrations by default. It’s easy now to imagine it as a hothouse of free-associating electronic experimentation, but for Kingsland, things were rather more matter of fact.

“It was just a job where you took on a project, and you got on and did it, and that was it. We worked the hours we needed to work, and if we needed time off after we’d worked three or four 12-hour days, we could take a bit of time to recover.

“The main driving force was making stuff for programmes, that was what it was about. Anything you could get was pressed into service to make noises, particularly in the early days before there were synthesizers. That’s when they had all the laboratory oscillators, and I think they had an oscilloscope, though I’m not sure it was used for anything much except to have it waggling around when a film crew was there.”

Although almost 20 years have passed since the Radiophonic Workshop switched off its oscillators and synths for the last time – as a BBC department, at least – the intervening period has seen its reputation continue to grow. While it was always recognised for its commitment to quality and creativity, we can now also appreciate it as a true pioneer of electronic music. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, therefore, that Kingsland and other Radiophonic Workshop veterans – Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres – have got the old gang back together and have been performing live on the festival circuit under that familiar future-retro sounding name.

With their acclaimed audio visual show about to hit Bluedot, how has Kingsland enjoyed bringing their old creations back to life?

“It’s great,” he says, “it’s good fun and a huge buzz when there’s an audience there. We’re all used to doing gigs and things but not in such a big way. When you’re on stage at Glastonbury and you’re surrounded by hundreds of people, it’s quite a different thing from doing a dinner dance at the Café Royal or something like that.”

So what provided the impetus for the Radiophonic Workshop’s new incarnation?

“The Roundhouse invited us to do a concert as the Radiophonic Workshop in about 2009,” recalls Kingsland. “We got together to attempt to do live versions of a lot of the material from the Workshop days, and it went very well. Of course, it wasn’t like making electronic music in the old way because that takes time, and doing it live is a completely different thing, but it went OK and we decided we’d like to do some more.

“We’ve since done a lot of festivals and gigs of various sorts. It’s quite hard work but it’s very rewarding when you see a crowd of people who really enjoy the whole thing, who stay right to the end and ask for more. That’s so satisfying, especially seeing the affection they have for the Radiophonic Workshop.

“It’s not just us, it’s the place as an entity. They’re applauding for Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (creator of the TARDIS sound effect) and Desmond Briscoe and those people who came before us. So I definitely think we carry a bit of responsibility there.”

While Bluedot’s blend of art and science seems a highly appropriate context for these sonic explorers, the festival’s unique location carries special significance for Kingsland.

“It’s an exciting prospect to play there,” he says. “The fact that it’s at Jodrell Bank is amazing, because I did the score for Tom Baker’s regeneration into Peter Davison (as The Doctor), and that was filmed at Jodrell Bank. Tom Baker fell off the telescope there, so it’ll be terribly interesting to see that. It’ll be a full circle type moment for me.”

With such pop cultural synchronicity in effect, who wouldn’t want to be around to witness this latest manifestation of the Radiophonic Workshop’s enduring legacy? It may not involve the wearing of overalls or the liberal application of machine oil, but this is one artistic workshop that even Alexei Sayle might grudgingly accept.

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Text © Damon Fairclough 2017

An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the official programme of the 2017 Bluedot Festival.

The Bluedot Festival took place at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, over the weekend of 7-9 July 2017.

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