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That Dr Who Sound: Descendants of the Radiophonic Workshop

That Dr Who Sound was a radio documentary I made in 2013 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the world’s longest running science-fiction series. It was co-produced with ABC Radio National’s Into the Music program.

Interestingly, I had started this project before even realising the anniversary was coming up: I had initially thought of writing an article about how, over the years, I had noticed many electronic musicians who had been influenced by the sound of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the unit within the BBC that made not only music for Doctor Who, but also most of their radio jingles, sound effects, theme songs, and full soundtrack like that for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Thinking about it as a long blog post, I suddenly realised that this would make a perfect radio documentary; I would be talking about something where I could then play examples of what I was talking about. This would be way better than just an article with youtube embeds!

Promo flyer for That Dr Who Sound radio documentary

Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson compare tape loops // Image courtesy of the White Files Radiophonic Workshop Gallery

I contacted Radio National, one of the main radio stations within our national Australian broadcaster, the ABC, and they told me to let them know when I had finished making a demo version so they could have a listen to it, and see if they were interested in broadcasting it.

So I worked on it over the next seven months, interviewing people over Skype; original members of the Radiophonic Workshop, like Peter Howell, as well as music writers, and electronic musicians who I felt were influenced by the workshop in some way.It took longer than I thought. I firstly had to make sure that I had the history of the workshop and their little-known connections with bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd correct in my mind; the right historical order of events, gathered from a few different sources, so that they could affirm one another.

Also, I discovered what ‘weasel words’ are: that is when you just make a sweeping statement, which sounds great, and you feel might be true, but you don’t have the information to back it up. Lazy writers often use it to link one thing to another to keep their narrative flowing — but in many ways, it is misleading, because your are trying to pass off something as the truth when you are not so sure about it yourself (and this can never be a good thing when you are creating something factual). Anyway, it meant that I had to go to the bookshop and start ordering some books on the technical history of synthesizers.

A pile of research books related to the Radiophonic Worksho

Libris Radiophonica: A few books from my reading list!

The anniversary I worked out would be in November. The ABC got back in touch with me a few months before. My demo was only up to about 35 minutes — but I sent it into them, anyway, and they liked it. I had one interview left to do, so they suggested that I could come in and do it over their ISDN phone connection.

Then, over a three day period, we reworked my demo; the sound engineer Mark Don, and executive producer of Into the Music series, Cathy Peters, pointing out what didn’t work and suggesting other ways that we could do certain things. As we were sitting in the studio, I would rewrite aspects of the script to fit the changes.

On the second day, they recorded me as the narrator — but it didn’t quite come up to scratch: I was nervous, and botched a few lines. They decided that it would be better to have someone else do it, as there wasn’t really enough time to coach a better performance out of me. I had seen the presenter Robbie Buck in the studio, and knowing that he was around my age, I suggested him as someone whose voice I liked, and Cathy was able to track him down and get him on-board to voice the narration.

And he did a brilliant job; I didn’t get to hear it until the day it went to air, but I was absolutely shocked, listening with a girlfriend who had organised for us to have a picnic by a river, unable to believe that what I was listening to was really something that I had made. It was definitely a high-point of my thirties!