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The Radiophonic Workshop – past, present and future

The Radiophonic Workshop operated from 1958 to 1998 and, particularly in its early days, was a pioneer of electronic music and sound effects for broadcasting.

The history and importance of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was the subject of a recent day-long series of talks, discussions and performances at the University of Chichester.

Featuring former members of the pioneering electronic music and sound facility, along with academics and musicians who have been influenced by its work, the event looked back over the Workshop’s output and assessed its importance to modern broadcasting and music creation.

The Radiophonic Workshop operated from 1958 to 1998 and, particularly in its early days, was a pioneer of electronic music and sound effects for broadcasting. That legacy was initially only recognised by passionate enthusiasts but it is now more widely appreciated by the public at large and has become the subject of books and academic teaching and research.

The University of Chichester event, The Radiophonic Workshop in Conversation and in Concert – Celebrating the Godfathers of British Electronic Music, reflects the intellectual and cultural significance now accorded to what was once regarded by many at the BBC as merely a technical department that made strange noises. In the first full presentation of the day, Feedback to the Future: The Radiophonic Workshop, 5 Billion Years from Now, writer and broadcaster Dr Matthew Sweet described the situation as a “band of eccentrics tolerated by authority”.

The use of ‘Godfathers’ in the subtitle of the event was misleading because, as Sweet pointed out, the Workshop was notable for the number of women who worked there, from the now rediscovered heroines of electronica Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire to less well-known but still significant figures, including Maddalena Fagandini, Glynis Jones and Elizabeth Parker.

Much of the inspiration behind the Radiophonic Workshop came from Daphne Oram’s, who was a junior studio engineer at the BBC during the 1950s. After becoming interested in early electronic music she envisioned an experimental department along the lines of the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) studios in Paris, where many originators of musique concrete, including Pierre Shaeffer, worked.

Oram composed the BBC’s first commissioned piece of electronic music for the play Amphitryon 38 by Jean Giraudoux. This led to other commissions for Oram and fellow studio manager and electronica enthusiast Desmond Briscoe, before the BBC finally gave the pair the budget to establish the Radiophonic Workshop as a department in its own right. Despite this, Oram left the BBC in 1959, disillusioned that the Workshop was seen as a practical, applied facility rather than an experimental one.

Some of the history of Workshop from 1958 onwards was recounted by former members who are now working together again, playing live and recording a new album. Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, pictured with drummer Kieron Pepper second left (photograph courtesy of University of Chichester) and Dick Mills, together with Mark Ayres, who is the Workshop’s archivist and a composer of electronic music, talked about their work and how they see its legacy today.

Mills was the longest-serving member of the Radiophonic Workshop, joining as a technical engineering assistant soon after it opened. He recalled that he assisted the composers and worked on sound effects, including one for The Goon Show that is among the most famous of the facility’s output. Major Bloodnok’s Stomach was created to illustrate the gastric distress of the character, a bibulous army officer played by Peter Sellers.

Spike Milligan, a founder and main writer of the Goons, had, Mills said, a keen interest in sound for both comic effect and to carry his more outlandish flights of fancy. This, however, did not appeal to the organiser of the Radiophonic Workshop. “Desmond Briscoe said that no one should encourage The Goon Show because ‘I don’t want Mr Milligan living here’,” Mills recounted. Because of this only two effects for the comedy programme were created by the Workshop.

Mark Ayres observed that there was some irony in Briscoe, who himself created the unsettling sounds for Quatermass and the Pit among others, declaring that he did not want to the Workshop to become The Goons’ sound department when, later, it nearly became the audio facility for Dr Who. Despite the close association with the long-running science fiction series – with contributions including the Ron Grainer theme electronically realised by Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson’s TARDIS effect and many incidental scores and effects – it accounted for only 30 percent of the Radiophonic Workshop’s output.

Ayres added that on Dr Who and other science fiction programmes, when there was little budget for visual effects, “the music helped out” by creating atmospheres and a sense of the unknown. “It was very British,” he said, “having no money but an enormous amount of imagination”, even though the Workshop itself was not lavished with funds and often had to use equipment that had been discarded by other BBC departments. Among the many credits for the RWS are the radio and TV series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Changes, current affairs and news programmes, The Body in Question and many local radio jingles.

Roger Limb, who worked on dramas and educational programmes, commented that he and other RWS members “felt cherished rather than loved”. He observed that the Workshop “can’t be looked at as a homogenous unit” but as a collection of people with different ideas of electronic and incidental music. “I never thought at the time it was a cultural phenomena,” he added.

The view today is that’s exactly what the Radiophonic Workshop was. Among those attesting to that were Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire, Phil Winter from Tunng, and Anais Neon and Martin Swan of Vile Electrodes, who played at the after show party following the RWS’s performance in the University’s Showroom auditorium.

As Dr Kevin Donnelly of Southampton University said in the closing presentation, the Radiophonic Workshop “should be regarded as part of the art music trajectory in Britain”. But what is also often missed is the impact a succession of engineers, musicians, academics and oddballs made on the way television and radio sound, often taking productions to a higher plane.