The Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
There is much to be said about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1970s and 1980s—in addition to Malcolm Clarke and Peter Howell, there’s Paddy Kingsland’s compositions for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Elizabeth Parker’s use of the Fairlight synthesizer to score The Living Planet; Jonathan Gibbs’ work in introducing MIDI to the Workshop; and Mark Ayres’ contributions both as composer and as librarian and archivist. Unfortunately, my time here is almost up, so that commentary and analysis must be saved for another day. In the meantime, though, there are a few more observations worth addressing about the legacy of the Workshop, particularly as it applies to the music we’ve covered this week.
The rather woeful-sounding track presented here, “Assignment (Kofi Annan)” was composed by Elizabeth Parker; the work for the Assignment television show was the Workshop’s final project. A major factor in the Workshop’s dissolution was the cost-cutting Producer Choice policy introduced in 1990. This policy gave producers the option of obtaining services from both within and without the BBC, depending on what was cheaper—and hiring freelance composers was cheaper than trying to keep up the in-house studio. The Workshop was slowly gutted and picked apart in 1990s, and by 1996 it had virtually ceased to exist, lingering on as an entity until the doors were officially closed in 1998.
But even as the BBC was closing the Workshop down, the music from its “golden age” was on the verge of rediscovery. The Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop collections were released in 2000 and 2002, and in 2002 Mark Ayres re-mastered the collections BBC Radiophonic Music (1970) and The Radiophonic Workshop (1975). In 2003, Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, repackaged and re-released the Ayres remasters in 2003 as Music From the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on his Rephlex label; arguably, this release brought the Workshop material to the attention of a whole new audience that was hungry for new and different experimental electronic music. These releases were all the more timely due to the deaths of Delia Derbyshire in 2001 and Daphne Oram in 2003 and the attention their obituaries brought to the Workshop. The music came with the classic narrative of the unappreciated auteur, and was also appealingly non-commercial, created without an eye to album sales. And of course there was a significant nostalgia factor for many British listeners, and even some Americans, the “memoradelic imprint”, as Simon Reynolds calls it in Retromania, left by radiophonics’ ubiquity.
Both Derbyshire and Oram left enormous archives of unreleased material—Oram’s tapes are currently being restored and released, and Derbyshire’s archive (so disorganized that it included tapes crammed into cereal boxes) passed into the safekeeping of Mark Ayres, archivist for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In 2008 David Butler of Manchester University officially announced the existence of the archive; for the last several years, they’ve been digitizing and archiving the vast quantity of material, and uncovering some hidden gems. Much has been made, for example, of a track that may have been recorded sometime in the late 1960s and which sounds as contemporary as any modern dance track.
By then, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop revival was in full swing amongst certain circles of indie and electronic music fans, thanks as well to the small “crate-digger” labels that were busily excavating and re-releasing the material. And you can’t overstate the importance of the internet, which made it possible for labels to publicize their music, and for fans (many of whom might not have been fans until they heard it) to access it—and having accessed, to talk about it, often at great length. (Ahem.) The Radiophonic Revival is small, but very enthusiastic, and where it goes next remains to be seen.
- Retromania by Simon Reynolds, Faber & Faber, 2011.
- Special Sound by Louis Niebur. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire. Hosted by Matthew Sweet. BBC, 2010.
- John Plunkett, “Doctor Who Goes Dance”, 7/18/2008
- Nigel Wrench, “Lost Tapes of the Doctor Who Composer”, 7/18/2008