Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Whenever I'm asked what sort of music I like, I'm never sure how to answer.

I suppose I infer that the question requires a neat box-like answer, like "jazz." After all, everyone knows what jazz is.

So I usually cite a few artists who I like – easily identifiable ones like Elvis and "Weird Al", but the truth is I know so little about music that I'm usually happy with anything.

But what do I really enjoy listening to?


When I was a teenager, I was in awe of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I'd buy compilations of BBC TV themes, cassettes of BBC incidental music, and LPs of BBC sound effects, and just listen to them, weekend after weekend. More than anything else, these unearthly, alien atmospheres would provide no end of inspiration for my own storywriting, and helped engender in me a belief that there was a great big universe out there, far bigger and more diverse than I now think the 'universe' can really contain.

You may have noticed the letters B, B and C cropping up a few times up there in the above paragraph. Well, that's because I found out today that, in musical terms, the word 'radiophonic' doesn't actually exist.

Roger Limb (radiophonic composer): "People often used to ask me that - What does radiophonic mean? – [and] I said It's a bit like Humpty Dumpty – it means anything I want it to mean at a particular time. I think it means sound or music that you don't hear normally."

A documentary programme about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's unique audio creations is well overdue, or it was in 2003 when this was made anyway. And I can't emphasise enough how lovely it was to watch such an intelligently made programme, on a subject that I respect so much, and learn so much from it that I had never previously known.

Throughout the 1960s, this tiny BBC department worked tirelessly to produce sounds that, simply put, noone had ever heard before. They did this by a complex system of recording an actual noise, and then exhaustively calculating the different tape-speeds needed to speed it up, slow it down, play it backwards or whatever to produce a full complement of musical notes. These would then be copiously copied onto hundreds of tiny strips of ¼" magnetic tape and spliced together into a musical order to make a tune.

And that would only be one track.

In fact, according to this programme, there is a word for that – musique concrète.

And it wasn't just for science-fiction programmes – TV themes, Follows Shortly music and news bulletins all benefited from the workshop's tireless efforts. So prolific did these geniuses become, that one interviewee in this programme proudly boasted of how the whole of BBC Radio Sheffield's jingles were produced entirely by recording cutlery.

In the 1970s, proper electronic synthesisers came in, and with them heaps more opportunities to blow-away the listener to far-off enchanted worlds. The best incidental music I've ever heard, to any programme, ever, is easily Paddy Kingsland's work on the original BBC radio series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

Executive-Produced by Victor Lewis-Smith and Graham Pass, this tribute doco was extremely well made. It was accurate, it taught me, and it actually stuck to interviewing the people it was talking about. Not a sniggering comedian-of-the-hour knocking the whole thing anywhere. Even the narrator was 78-year-old Oliver Postgate, whose respectful voice lent the whole thing an air of authority, the sort of thing that today's usual 20-something presenters can't even hope to achieve. Well not for another 58 years anyway.

Kudos also, for having the confidence to show a completely blank screen for 25 seconds whilst playing a piece of music, and having that ghostly face in the background without ever explaining why. I still don't get it, but it was good to see some genuine creativity on show.

If I have any criticisms, it would be the programme's lack of direction in the first half, and over-pushing of the Doctor Who angle, but even here, it was justified with the relevant stats of just how much work for Who the department did. (400 archived tapes out of 3,500)

In conclusion, the thing that really came across about these artists was that they all appeared to have been doing exactly what they wanted to do in their life. To continually produce such marvels took dedication, conviction and passion, and their understanding of these qualities is evident from the tale of how, when the department was finally closed for those pesky budgeting reasons, Mark Ayres was asked to sort all the old tapes out, purely because he clearly had such a passion for it. Upon subsequently learning that most of these priceless tapes had been destroyed, he rolled up his sleeves and spent months determined to find them anyway, even though they didn't exist anymore. And, God bless him, find them he eventually did. Now that's the sort of inborn passion I'm pointing at.

I've never understood why 'radiophonic' music died out. Again and again, science-fiction movies, and even new Doctor Who shows, reject these unearthly sounds in favour of boring old samey orchestras, which really could be scoring any old genre of film. And, in fairness, they do make everywhere sound like Earth.

Final word then, has to go to David Cain, radiophonic composer from 1967-73, who in this show provided the following rather profound insight into perhaps why the department eventually went into decline...

"One thing about any definition of 'Golden Age', for me, comes also within music, comes within art, comes within literature. It is the point where the desires of the creator are greater than the technology which is available.

There comes a moment where the technology gets closer and closer to the sort of imagination creativity of the writer, and in the end, if you're not careful, it overtakes. And serendipity, which before was from your own sweat and blood, but you created something and thought "Goodness me, that's great," serendipity comes by saying "If I press one of these 397 buttons on this synthesiser, maybe I'll get something out of it."

Now at that moment, the machinery is driving the creativity, and the creativity is not driving the machinery, and maybe that's where the 'Golden Age' stops. Maybe."

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