A hushed reverence awaited the reunion of BBC Radiophonic Workshop members for a night of nostalgia and retro electro at the Roundhouse last night. (If you’re not familiar with the work of the RW one of the sound effects units of the BBC, it was created in 1958 to produce music and effects for radio drama and later TV. The music and the people who worked here became pioneers of electronica.)
A blue light danced off the mirrorball as the chaps came on in lab coats, a suitable gesture to the boffins of the RW past. In the introduction we heard how it finally closed in 1998 (40 years later) to boos and hisses and that Liz Parker did switch the lights off on her way out.
We were taken on a swirling, rumbling, beeping tour around some of the RW’s favourite contributions to TV and Radio, as well as homage to well loved former members – for Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills even came on with Delia’s green metal lampshade and they had some great visuals to accompany compositions such as Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00 (watch a clip here)! They also paid tribute to John Baker, Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe and Maddalena Fagandini (who joined from the BBC’s Italian Service) amongst others. The guys were supported by ‘their carers’ a full brass section, percussion (inc. some huge kettle drums), guitar, sax and drums.
The chaps from Room 13 (Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres) took it in turns to introduce favourite mixes and concoctions that sounded awesome in the Roundhouse, accompanied by a backdrop of animations of some of the best titles and intros such as Quatermass, Micro Live, Hitchhikers and also some of the education/kids themes.
For a bit of fun, Peter Howell introduced us to the vocoder and proceeded to treat us to a version of the Greenwich Chorus and Paddy quipped that the ‘Swirly’ continuity music, was really called Shirley after the lady who had commissioned it. They also played Reg, the original B-side to the Doctor Who theme tune.
Of course the crowd expected some Doctor Who and we were in for a treat! The guys started off with an amazing rendition of Delia Derbyshire’s version, that filled every part of the roundhouse and made it shake with it’s swirling sweeps, swoops, bubbles and clouds – my poor camera couldn’t even begin to record, through a melange of different scores and some excellent old footage. This finally made it’s way into a fantastic take on the Doctor Who theme tune that became a mega prog-rock stomping rendition.
For the final part of the concert we heard an awesome version of Astronauts, which rocked the Roundhouse and they when Dick Mills called them back out for an emotional encore, they gave us a rocking rendition of Radiophonic Rock.
These guys, certainly gave an inkling into how much great stuff has been produced by the Radiophonic Workshop over the years and the passion at which they crafted renditions of the compositions clearly showed that they weren’t stopping yet. Although getting on a bit now, the guys are still playing and composing, a lesson to some who feel that creativity and innovation belongs to the younger generations.
It’s a great pity that Birt decided that the RW wasn’t cost effective as it was clearly worth its weight in gold. The techniques and creativity that came from the Maida Vale Studios sowed the seeds of electronic music in the UK. Closing the RW was a real waste of talent and possibilities for the BBC to carry on with its pioneering work in this field, and I feel the BBC should certainly rethink its policy and how it might reinstate or recreate this fine and original cornerstone of the BBC.
Incase you might be interested, here’s an article I wrote in praise of Delia Derbyshire for Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging to raise awareness of women in technology, in March.
Five Days at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on YouTube
Alchemist’s of Sound part 1 on YouTube
‘The trouble with the future is that you never fully know about it until you’ve passed it…’ Roger Limb