14. Latter Days

1992-1996

The Corporation that the author joined in the seventies was like an exclusive club of enthusiasts. Money, although rationed a little, was considered secondary to the work in hand, much of which was enjoyed by the staff. Unfortunately, this allowed the BBC to expand, invariably with an ever-increasing number of managers. And, despite the aims of Producer Choice, this trend continued.

As far as the Workshop was concerned, the effects of Producer Choice were soon felt. In the spring of 1992, Brian Hodgson discovered that the department’s accounts were £72,000 in the red. In the summer, whilst Rupert Brun was acting as Engineering Services Manager, the Engineering Operations department decided to reorganise. By this time, Brian Hodgson was saying that he was ‘disillusioned’ with management. A subsequent Radio Resource Review indicated that 6,000 jobs had already been lost across Radio Operations and that a further 1,272 would have to go. In Engineering Operations, a total of twenty jobs would be lost, although only five real redundancies would be required.

Cutting the Losses

By the autumn, it was clear that Brian Hodgson couldn’t afford to fund one engineer, let alone two. The only way he could provide any kind of engineering support was by using a ‘part time’ engineer from the team that maintained the main Maida Vale studios. For reasons, perhaps out of his control, he wouldn’t or couldn’t take over the management of any engineering staff. Peter Howell was said to be ‘startled’ when he learnt that the ‘Radiophonic’ engineer might be doing other work as well.

Understandably, Ray Riley wasn’t happy to work for a new Maida Vale ‘supervisor’ and thought the updated management structure had too many ‘chiefs’. Brian now maintained that Ray ‘wouldn’t be going’ and that there was a possibility of contract working. However, Ray was less than happy to hear Brian talking of ‘my people’, as separate to the engineers. Once again, the established gulf between ‘artistic’ and ‘engineering’ staff had opened wide. On seeing the possibilities of redundancy, Ray was soon emptying his filing cabinet, telling Brian that he wasn’t interested in him ‘pulling strings’.

The position of Dick Mills was also on the line. Despite being involved with the operation of Studio X, the amount of work he was required to do on sound effects had fallen drastically. Brian said that he could ‘go tonight’, although he would be paid until April. Dick must have enjoyed his job, since he stayed at his post until his redundancy date. Rumours soon circulated that the NoNoise facility might go to Broadcasting House, where expertise existed in the Quality Control areas. This generated an amazing meeting that lasted all of thirty seconds, in which Brian declared ‘we’re keeping Studio X’.

Understandably, all this uncertainty resulted in friction, causing one composer to say that the author had an ‘abrasive attitude’. Still, there were advantages. For example, now there was less work, more time was spent enjoying a ‘beverage’ or two at the Paddington Bowling and Sports Club. This was reached via a curious ‘tunnel’ that burrowed under the Edwardian tenements located opposite the Maida Vale studios. Once the subterranean journey was over, a large area containing tennis courts and bowling greens was revealed, as well as the club house, all of which retained a slightly ‘colonial’ feel. Following IRA bomb scares, it was necessary to take a long walk around the block to reach another entrance. Fortunately, a very useful individual discovered an alternative tunnel that could be used. By the end of the year, project work had dried up and Ray Riley was separating the department’s asset register according to ‘ownership’ by the Radiophonic Workshop or Engineering Operations. Despite his earlier concerns over management, Brian met John Birt and considered him to be a ‘lovely man’.

Early in 1993, Rupert Brun took up his new post, looking after engineering at the Maida Vale studios, including the Workshop. At the same time, Barrie Baker became his manager, looking after all of Radio’s music production areas. And Malcolm Clarke celebrated his fiftieth birthday, along with a cake and a model Bugatti. In February, the author gave Brian all the paperwork concerning the funding of Radiophonic projects, as well as the accounting software. However, information regarding the Maintenance of Broadcast Plant (MOBP) was retained for the new engineering staff.

On February 16, Rupert Brun arrived with Fiona Sleigh, the new and very capable ‘part-time’ engineer, and the author happily made his way home. Ray Riley remained for a few more weeks and was paid as Senior Engineer during the hand-over period. The author returned for a one-day visit on February 22, so as to give a second ‘training session’ to the Maida Vale engineering staff. This was followed by a few jars of the excellent Old Speckled Hen in a nearby pub and his final departure. Ray Riley, on his leaving of the BBC, had what appeared to be a spectacular party in another hostelry, whilst Dick Mills enjoyed his official ‘retirement’ party at Broadcasting House on March 26.

Brian Hodgson subsequently wrote to the author, describing ‘the excellent and undoubted contribution you have made to the engineering integrity of the Radiophonic Workshop. You inherited a mess and have left us with a well-engineered set of studios built to the highest standard.’ However, these improvements would never have been made without Desmond Briscoe’s determination to get the author into the Engineer’s job or Ray Riley’s unstinting assistance and enthusiasm.

End Game

On the occasion of Dick’s farewell, Roger Limb said he was ‘envious’ of the author. In fact, it wouldn’t be too long before he could enjoy his own redundancy payment!

Since the author was now absent, the remainder of the Workshop’s technical history must rest with the main Maida Vale team. However, on a short visit in October 1993, he explored the Radiophonic archives for photographs to go in an abortive Wireless World article. All seemed perfectly normal, with Tony Morson exploring the possibilities of the Apple Newton, the forerunner of the Palm Pilot and subsequent handheld computers. By now, the multitrack recorders had been replaced by ADATs and the last Akai DP3200 matrixes to be manufactured had been bought by the Workshop.

At the end of 1994, the Workshop was said to be ‘on the skids’. A year later, the author was surprised to see Tony Morson credited for Radiophonic sounds in a Here and Now television programme featuring Bill Gates. Clearly, all hands were to the pump. Despite being asked to continue, Brian made himself redundant, along with Maxine Blythe-Tinker, in the hope that this would extend the life of the department. But even this couldn’t satisfy the accountants, causing Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb to follow him. Apparently, Malcolm had finished his replica Bugatti and Ray Riley reported that it was ‘impressive’. Rupert Brun had also grown a beard, although, fortunately for all concerned, this was later removed.

By 1996 the Radiophonic Workshop had virtually ceased to exist, although Elizabeth Parker bravely soldiered on until March 1998, when the Workshop finally closed its doors. Mark Ayres recalls a pantechnicon arriving to collect the Workshop’s tape archive on April 1st 1998, exactly on the fortieth anniversary of the department’s opening. And so the BBC Radiophonic Workshop took its last breath, and very few people even noticed.

Postscript

The end of the Workshop wasn’t the end of the world, and for many it was probably quite liberating. Peter Howell, having helped Elizabeth Parker build her first studio, also produced music for Channel 4. By the year 2000, he had also taken up writing fiction and Elizabeth was established in her new studio. In the same year, Dick Mills was fortunate enough to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary.

A Coroner’s Report

So what did the Radiophonic Workshop achieve? As a ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, the author isn’t properly qualified to comment. However, in the field of ‘fine art’, so beloved of Malcolm Clarke, the results might be counted on the fingers of two hands. Possible contenders would have to include Malcolm’s own award-winning work, as well as Desmond Briscoe’s, although the latter programmes weren’t always ‘radiophonic’ in nature. But the earliest and most innovative productions, including those by Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, would most definitely fit into this category.

Although founded in Radio, the Workshop’s greatest contributions were in the realms of title music and incidental music for Television. Although many viewers enjoyed a television programme, they were often unaware of such music, though this had clearly enhanced their viewing experience. Now, some people might not consider this product to be art, but the creation of music that matched the mood and atmosphere of moving pictures was definitely a skill, and one that many Radiophonic composers had perfected. This skill can be more appreciated when subjected to more recent programmes, where inappropriate and badly-edited music has been crudely jammed into place. Unfortunately, the creation of a unified experience in sound and vision now comes second to the cost of programme production.

And what of Radiophonic Engineering? Well, little, if anything of that remains, mostly because new equipment often replaced that of old. This is a pity, since many of the unique devices used in the earliest days of the Workshop could have formed the basis of a museum display. The author, in his youthful exuberance to move technology forwards, must claim some responsibility for this sad loss.

Most of the later equipment was provided ‘off the shelf’ by manufacturers, but was sometimes stretched beyond its original intentions. As the Workshop progressed, it became more of a ‘buy and plug’ establishment, although it still sometimes hung onto older BBC Engineering traditions and fell into several traps. One example was the endless VITC debacle, where the author continued to accept the advice of ‘experts’ who really didn’t know where they were going. And the monitoring systems for the circular consoles were seriously over-engineered, the author allowing established standards to determine what was to be constructed, without really considering the costs. In addition, these studios were fitted with Akai DP3200 matrixes that weren’t necessary. Elizabeth Parker, in creating her own version of such a console in the ‘real’ world, was happy to use permanent connections instead.

Undoubtedly, the adoption of a ‘buy and plug’ attitude in earlier years might have saved the Workshop later pain. Also, it should have reduced its engineering staff sometime in the mid-eighties, and this should have been under the control of the Head of the Radiophonic Workshop. Sadly, as in many other fields, the integration of ‘artistic’ and ‘engineering’ disciplines wasn’t considered acceptable.

The Body in Question

Could the Workshop have survived? The answer is, unlikely. When it began, the Workshop was a unique ‘cutting edge’ department that cost virtually nothing to operate. At the time of its demise, the running costs of the Workshop were quite astronomical. Meanwhile, everyone else in the world could buy the same equipment that it used. Even if it had introduced artistic ‘new blood’, it couldn’t have competed in a world in which everyone’s computer could be used to produce ‘desktop music’.

And the Corporation itself, once the sole provider of broadcast material, has also found itself in a new world, in which the consumer doesn’t simply sit back and accept what’s transmitted. Now, it’s possible to ‘pick and choose’ between a vast number of providers who supply multimedia material over terrestrial, satellite and Internet broadcasting systems. Unfortunately, the Corporation has chosen to follow the path of its commercial competitors in becoming even more shrill and vulgar. The once-innocent ‘auntie’ BBC has donned her new lurid lipstick and become a harlot. Such is life.

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©Ray White 2001, 2004, 2009.