Twenty Questions

Dick Mills
Dick Mills joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop soon after its inception in 1958 and has remained a stalwart ambassador and protagonist for the department ever since. Here he answers a few unusual questions about what it was like to work there over a period of vast technological change.

1. When did you join the BBC and why did you decide to work there? What was your background, what qualifications did you need and what training did you receive?

In 1956 I joined the BBC at the end of my National Service with the RAF, having seen a BBC engineer recruiting advertisement. Having decided that I didn’t relish returning to an insurance office in the City after demobilisation, I thought my RAF experience as a Ground Wireless Mechanic would stand me in good stead as a qualifier for an interview.

In the RAF I underwent a course on Wireless Engineering (Ground to Air Transmitters & Receivers mainly) and later I was involved in experimental mobile radio-link communications between airfields whilst in Germany.

Once in the BBC, I attended relevant training at its Wood Norton Training Centre in Evesham.

2. Where in the Corporation did you first work, and what was it like? What equipment did you use, what did you do and was it all enjoyable?

During the BBC interview I was invited to specify in which department I would like to work; they suggested that, considering my RAF experience, I might like to try ‘Transmitters’ or ‘Control Room.’ When I declined both of these (and an offer suggesting becoming an ‘Armourer’), they finally agreed – after hearing my preference for a more programme-related post – that I could be a Recording Engineer.

I found myself on a shift-pattern of engineers in Egton House where there were several recording channels, in addition to those in nearby Broadcasting House. The range of equipment used were large tape machines plus acetate disk-cutting machines (the recording channel next to the Radio Newsreel studio had a handy hatch through which the latest reports could be passed for immediate on-air transmission).

Daily duties included recording programme material from distant studios, editing the results and replaying tapes on transmission. Being on a three shifts a day basis (days, evenings and nights) made for a variable work load, not only in quantity, but also in content, so life was definitely not predictable.

3. In your early days at the BBC, before you joined the Workshop, what was the difference between engineers and operational staff in radio? How was the work divided?

Strictly speaking, ‘engineers’ were regarded as those that either mended equipment or (erroneously) worked in Control Room. Set aside from the Engineering Department proper, there were Studio Managers, whose job was to supervise Studio activities, whether broadcasting live or a recording session. These people operated all the control desks, microphones, gram turntables etc, and also added ‘spot’ sound effects live in the studio, alongside the performing actors.

4. What led you to join the Workshop and was it your own decision?

After 18 months or so of doing regular duties (and with amalgamation/​rationalisation of departments looming) the request for engineering support at the Workshop was too good an opportunity to ignore – and look where it got me!

5. Tape was clearly your first tool in sound manipulation, but what other equipment, apart from BBC sound effects discs, did you use for your earliest attempts at making special sounds?

As most people think the Radiophonic Workshop’s main output was centred around drama, and especially science fiction (not altogether true), it is not surprising that electronic sound sources were to be preferred, namely diverse oscillators capable of producing several different wave-forms and also ‘white noise’ generators. Mainly it was the manipulation of any sound that made it ‘radiophonic’, but additionally it was often organic sounds that we ourselves could make, either by beating, blowing, strumming, plucking, stroking and even destroying objects, or using our own voices too, and recording them over a microphone, that provided our basic raw material.

6. Later on, you became exceptionally proficient at using the EMS VCS/3 to create sounds. How much quicker was it than tape manipulation? When computers arrived, were they actually much faster than working with the VCS/3? What device would you use today?

Once synthesisers arrived, complete with the mysterious ‘voltage control’, where so many parameters could be used to control each other (in addition to the actual sound components), they certainly reduced the amount of time inventing ‘treatments’, plus, of course, also reducing loss of quality through constant over-dubbing. Without a doubt, the favourite tool was the sampler, which allowed any captured sound to be controlled via a keyboard.

7. Do you think that some of your work, such as ‘Major Bloodnok’s Stomach’ would have been better produced on a computer, or would it have been worse? Do you think the struggle of working with tape gave better results?

In some respects, computer assembly could be far more exact (and certainly less laborious) in producing comparable sequences, but could appear to be too robotic and soulless. John Baker, our talented colleague, could edit ‘off the beat’ to produce a sequence that produced ‘feeling’ as well as just an effect. Again, it was just as painstaking to be spontaneous on a computer, although this was eventually achievable through the use of Jonathan Gibbs’s Workshop-developed ‘Syncwriter’ software, which allowed you to input events by feel, or instinct.

8. How did you feel about being at the Workshop? Was it just a place of work or something more? The others there, were they friends as well as colleagues?

‘Solo prima donnas, each in his/her own ivory tower,’ is one description often pinned to members of the Workshop. This is certainly true in some respects, as each studio was eventually tailored to suit the creative talents of its inhabitant. In fact, the only time the six composers got together were at tea/coffee breaks, lunch and the much-maligned monthly departmental meetings!

Having said that, there were the occasional collaborations where two composers got together jointly on a commission, especially where creative conflicts were not likely to occur! The most obvious of these was for Dr Who, where one was responsible for the incidental music and the other for the special sound effects.

Whilst most trod their separate paths, there was, nonetheless, a healthy respect for each other’s talents – in most cases it was in regard to jobs that we were more than pleased that other people were doing!

9. What did you think of the special programmes, such as ‘Narrow Boat’, that Desmond Briscoe, the head of the department made at the Workshop?

The trouble with promotion is that it usually takes one out of the practicable work into a desk-bound position, thus losing touch with the actual product. The ‘in-house’ productions gave management the chance to return to the active scene and catch up with new techniques and equipment. Many saw this a mandatory chore, but underneath it all, there were benefits accruing.

10. How did you feel about the ‘high art’ aspirations of the late Malcolm Clarke?

The reality of our position often made it impossible for the person involved to have a truly balanced opinion of their own work. It is often said that if the same commission were offered to all composers, they would each come up with a satisfactory solution in its own right, whilst at the same time being totally different from each other.

Malcolm was a stout defender of his own work, but often took the opinions of others too seriously, an unfortunate trait in someone who was a bit of a perfectionist. At times, the phrase ‘polishing the polish’, when in search of encouragement, might not have been quite the right guidance – and the jack-socket labelled ‘Fine Art Output’ on the jackfield in Malcolm’s studio didn’t do too much for his esteem either at the time. You can see that we didn’t take too many prisoners at the Workshop.

11. How would you characterise the department as run by Desmond Briscoe?

The phrase ‘beneficent Dictator’ has been used, but in fairness, Desmond gave everyone to opportunity to experiment, and to fail in the process, if necessary. He realised that creativity could not be guaranteed every day from 9 to 5, and also appreciated that the simultaneous union of creativity alongside equipment reliability was another fragile area. In short, he was of the opinion that the results outweighed any problems along the way.

12. There used to be an annual gathering of staff at Desmond Briscoe’s home by the River Thames. Do you recall any interesting happenings there?

Again, this departmental get together was often seen as a chore, but usually it went off quite well, as Desmond’s home was on the banks of the Thames and he had a motor cruiser boat moored at the bottom of the garden. The afternoon usually climaxed with a river trip aboard. Unfortunately, my then quite young daughter had to ‘pay a visit’ and her impression of the chemical-based plumbing was described, when asked, as ‘Like peeing in a dustbin!’. It’s a wonder we were asked back the following year.

13. Do you have any thoughts or amusing memories about the various engineers that came and went at the Workshop?

Our original engineer, Dickie Bird, made great thing about travelling abroad. He usually went by road to Montreux in Switzerland (he was frequently the Table Tennis champion of his Montreux Hotel) and his Morris Minor Traveller estate car (complete with wooden window surrounds) was kitted out with duplicates of almost everything under the bonnet (coil, carburettor, air filter etc). At home he was equally fastidious about its care; if it was raining he would take his wife Olive to work, then return the car home, wipe it dry, and then come to Maida Vale by public transport.

Dave Young, our next engineer, was totally habit-struck due to his long years in a German prison camp during WW2, but also highly-inventive. He was an avid collector of a wide range of objects from his local tip, and his home boasted umpteen vacuum cleaners (under the stairs), several fibre-glass kayaks (up the stairs), plus a six-drawer chest of drawers, full of loudspeakers from TV sets (which promptly collapsed with a loud crash one night). He frequented the Portobello Road with a religious fervour every Friday and once bought (and then dismantled into manageable pieces at the Workshop) a bowling-green lawnmower, so that he could transport it on the train to his home in Havant later!

A creature of habit, each day when the occupant of a neighbouring office removed his coat from the hanger, the resulting clatter alerted Dave that it was time to wash his hands and have a cup of tea in the canteen.

Ray Riley had been at Maida Vale as a studio maintenance engineer for almost as long as the Workshop had existed. Clearly a man with a purpose, Ray repeatedly refused to be put on courses that would have led to promotion, as he enjoyed his current job so much. Eventually, he achieved his ideal situation, as following the appointment of Ray White as our Senior Engineer, he gained a post as a support engineer at the Workshop – thus staying in his favourite occupation and in the same building! He inaugurated lunchtime Table Tennis and Bridge sessions.

Over the years, all of our engineers contributed to the smooth daily running of the Workshop’s equipment, whilst at the same time, looking out for ways to advance the composers’ creativity by modifying and even inventing practical devices to creative/manipulate sounds. As technology advanced so rapidly, they also kept up their reactive speed and were responsible for the design and installation of the latest Workshop studios. We are indebted to their support that enabled us to continue for so long.

14. Do you remember any especially humorous events at the Workshop?

Letting off steam – or relaxing from the responsibility of being the sole person trusted with the success of an important component of every commission was difficult, so humorous moments were much appreciated and often hard to come by; such moments usually occurred around the lunch or coffee break tables, although one moment truly stood out from a departmental meeting.

As has been mentioned, earlier, Desmond was a keen canal/river cruiser and the bane of his waterborne leisure activities were anglers who may have impeded the progress of his oncoming vessel. To this end, he acquired a loud-hailer (from a local RadioSpares’ or Laskys’ shop) through which he could announce his approach. He also discovered it could function as a sound ‘telescope’ if held in reverse and proudly showed it around the assembled staff. Everyone was very interested, but in his eagerness to try it out, ‘someone’ inadvertently operated the trigger control too aggressively, which shattered the fragile plastic moulding. The ensuing conversation went something like: Desmond: ‘Sometimes ⸺ you could make me scream!’, Someone: ‘Well, with one of these you don’t need to!’.

15. How did you feel about Brian Hodgson returning to act as Organiser?

Brian had been at the Workshop for a few years before he left the BBC to found his own studio group. When Desmond Briscoe retired there wasn’t exactly a rush of in-house applicants to fill his post, and it was logical that Brian, who had plenty of Workshop experience, should return. Again, I think it was the case of none of the composers wanting to give up their creative jobs for one in management!

16. Were the newer studios more pleasant to work in and, if so, why?

Fitting equipment into any space that basically wasn’t designed for the purpose is a hard task (the road-facing rooms in Maida Vale had the added obstacle of cantilever girders in them), but the biggest advantage of self-designed studios was that they could be tailored, equipment-wise, according to their proposed use (and incumbent composer). For instance, I was much happier with sound-making and associated manipulative equipment than musical sound sources such as keyboards.

On a different slant, the introduction of MIDI-control, synthesisers and memory-laden sequencers, keyboards and the like certainly cut down the need for bulky, space-taking jackfields with their tangle of connecting jacks and cords.

17. Did you find working with Macintosh computers a good experience?

Yes and no. The one regret I have over the whole period of my stay at the Workshop was the lack of a software programme aimed simply at sound manipulation. Although the Macintosh-based programmes, such as ‘Performer’ did the job of memorising and playing back stored sound events, at no time did I appreciate that each key-press resulted in a visual musical reference on the screen – all I wanted was a positional time reference! It may have been a built-in retaliation on the Mac’s part but, for some reason, I never managed to print anything off at the first attempt.

18. Towards the end of your stay, you worked with the NoNoise system, cleaning up old recordings. Were there any especially memorable pieces that you restored?

Apart from the pleasure and interest at the opportunity to listen so many historic and memorable recordings, this task went a long way to tempering the coming sadness in the realisation that the Workshop’s time (and mine!) was drawing to a close with the increasing popularity and availability of synthesisers and home computers. The sheer functionality of cleaning up old recordings was more like a playful exercise: you simply sampled the ‘annoying sound’ from the original and then told the computer to remove it from the whole piece – and it did. From Dame Nelly Melba singing in Hyde Park to polishing up old film tracks, it was all in a day’s work.

On the subject of corrective treatment, the one job I really did feel pleased with was an opera soundtrack where one particular solo singer consistently sang off-key. Using an Eventide Harmonizer, it was a simple job to pass her particular track (thank goodness it was on a multi-track tape!) through the corrective setting and re-record it during mix-down. It just shows what can be done and how far we’ve come.

Having said that, the interest for future possibilities goes on. With the Radiophonic Workshop band, I have enjoyed a few years of doing appearances at festivals around the country, but this year’s lock-downs have prevented us from doing so. But recently, we constructed a performance on YouTube that featured a live performance using digital technology to emulate (and use in an entirely new way) the age-old technique of the tape-loop.

Using the internet to link together the five musicians in the band, who were each in their own home studios around the country (so safely ‘socially-distanced!’), it was possible for them to play together, despite the time-delay between each player, as though they were playing in unison. Being a ‘loop’, the musical phrases overlaid each other (and itself) with every circuit of the loop, and so it built up over time into an extended jam-session. Based on this, the band is experimenting with several ideas of utilising this way of making even more radiophonic music.

19. When you left the BBC in 1993, was it a painful experience? Did you feel let down by the Corporation and did you think closure of the Workshop could have been avoided? Do you think its closure was politically motivated?

Of course we all felt sadness at the closure of the Workshop, but realistically, the writing was on the wall. Obviously it would have been very difficult for the BBC to keep refurbishing the Workshop equipment at the rate that would have been necessary to keep up with technology’s hectic progress.

As mentioned earlier, the availability of equipment on the open market made it easier by the day for any ‘competition’ to challenge the Workshop’s hold on originality. It may also been a victim of the Corporation’s need to reduce expenses.

20. Do you think that anything similar to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop could be established again today, or will the future only consist of individuals working with computers in their home studios?

I think it unlikely that a central unit could be formed, unless it was under the auspices of a university. It will flourish as an ‘art form’, thanks to individual interest and a legacy that we didn’t realise we were bestowing on the future generations.

©Dick Mills/Ray White 2020