How I discovered radiophonics—an introduction

Back in the early days of cable TV, Nickelodeon didn’t have much—if anything—in the way of original programming. It was all ganked from the UK or Canada, so there was some small subsection of my Generation X cohort that spent lazy summer days getting dosed up on Bagpuss, Bod, Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, and other twee-yet-somehow-disturbingly-mental British children’s television from the 1970s, along with some terrific YA SF&F and horror. Anyone else remember the anthology show The Third Eye, with Children of the Stones, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, and Into the Labyrinth?

And then there was The Tomorrow People. That show, originally broadcast in the UK starting in 1973, was the show for me: the adventures of a group of teenagers who were the first emerging strains of Homo Superior, the next stage in human evolution. They were telepaths, and they could get from place to place by teleporting, or “jaunting”, as they called it. (Years later, I would learn that “jaunting” was itself a lift from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.) I was nine. I convinced my friends to pretend we could communicate telepathically, and I borrowed my father’s military-issue uniform belts to serve as “jaunting belts”.

Flash forward some twenty-odd years to 2006. On a typical weekend afternoon trip to End of an Ear with my husband, I found the Trunk Records release The Tomorrow People: Original Television Music. I hadn’t thought much about the show in years, and it wasn’t as if the music had any influence on my musical tastes—it was entirely due to Bruce’s influence that I was able to listen to electronic music at all without hearing undifferentiated noise. But some stab of childhood nostalgia prompted me to pick it up and over the next few weeks, I got reacquainted with the strange, spiky, jazzy opening title theme—a Proustian recall to summer days in the playground of a Maryland Air Force base military housing. 

Right around that same time, the obsession that succeeded The Tomorrow People in my preadolescent brain returned to the American airwaves in a new incarnation: Doctor Who. A few associative leaps and I’d acquired the multi-CD collection Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and from there it was all manipulated tape loops, all the time.

Well. Not exactly. But the more I dug into the Workshop’s output, the more intrigued I was, especially by the fact that some of the most significant players in this peculiar commercial offshoot of musique concrete were women. It was also (unsurprisingly) the perfect soundtrack to the British New Wave science fiction that I was reading and re-reading at the time. It was music with a story, and I liked that.

This week, I’ll be talking mostly about Delia Derbyshire, one of the most famous composer-engineers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—and somewhat inevitably, I’ll also be talking quite a bit about Doctor Who. But you can’t cover these subjects without an acknowledgement to at least some of the other players of the time—Daphne Oram, John Baker, and Tristram Cary—and I’ll be writing about them as well. 

In many ways, I’m an outsider on this subject. I’m an American, and I was born the year that Delia Derbyshire retired from music. Nickelodeon aside, I didn’t really grow up with radiophonics the way you might have if you were a child in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, when that sort of thing was present not just in sci-fi TV, but in station idents, advertisements, and news programme lead-ins. When it comes to commentary and criticism, my usual bailiwick is SF&F and comics, not so much music. All the same, I hope I can share my enthusiasm for radiophonics while I’m holding down the fort here, and pique your interest as well.