I arrived at the Radiophonic Workshop by accident. I had heard of it, of course, and played their signature tunes into the programmes I was working on as a studio technician in BBC Radio. So I was familiar with the yellowish BASF recording tape they used, superior to the stuff we worked with because you could record at a high level and reduce unwanted noise.
I was a studio manager in Group B Studio Operations at Broadcasting House, which dealt with pop music and light entertainment. What a great job. So when I was called into the office and told I had to go on a training course I was unhappy. I thought I knew everything. But I was politely reminded that there was a lot I didn’t know, and so off I went. The course took place in the Langham, once a rather grand hotel opposite Broadcasting House, which the BBC had taken over when it needed more office space. It has now returned to its previous glory as a hotel.
One afternoon we visited the Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC Maida Vale studios in Delaware Road. We were shown into the ‘Piano Room’ where chairs had been laid out ready for a talk by Desmond Briscoe, at that time ‘Organiser Radiophonic Workshop’. Malcolm Clarke in a smart bow tie was there as well, to play the tapes of the examples Desmond used in his lectures. I was fascinated by all this, and when Desmond invited anyone interested to get in touch, with a view to arranging a week long ‘attachment’ to explore further, I decided to go ahead. That afternoon changed my whole life.
At that time there were 12 rooms in total belonging to the Workshop. Entering the building by the main entrance, turn sharp left down a long corridor. No need to check in with the smartly uniformed commissionaire in those days. Security was relaxed. After a couple of offices occupied by Orchestral Management - The BBC Symphony Orchestra was based at Maida Vale - a door on the left was marked ‘Room 8: Radiophonic Workshop’. I was told to go to Room 10, further down the corridor, and wait. Room 9 was Desmond Briscoe’s office.
He arrived soon and his affable manner put me at ease straight away. At the time I was doing part time gigs playing guitar in a second-hand dinner jacket at functions in places like the Cafe Royal and Hotels around the West End, also East End weddings which often ended in a fight. To my surprise, Desmond was totally familiar with this lifestyle. In an earlier life he had formed the Harry Desmond Band; he played the drums. His drum kit was now in use for sampling sounds at the Workshop and featured a folding bass drum and a set of skulls, one of which can be seen being struck by Delia Derbyshire in a film about the Workshop made around that time. It was said that he had bought the kit from the comedian Deryck Guyler.
I think we got off to a good start, because the Workshop was making ‘sound to order’ and needed practical people more than ‘head in the clouds’ dreamers. After a chat Desmond told me to go and visit the staff in their rooms and find out about the place directly from them. He invited me to make a piece and play it to him at the end of the week. No pressure there then. If all went well I might be invited back for a three month attachment. Room 10, which was a common room at the time, was used for meetings, including, as I would find out later, the dreaded mid monthly meetings which Desmond insisted on. Later on, the Delaware synthesiser would be installed there.
The next room down the corridor was Room 11, occupied by John Baker, well organised and tidy, with limited mono equipment. A BBC-designed pre war OBA/8 mixing setup with three Philips tape machines and an additional Leevers-Rich machine for playing tape loops. There was an electronic organ and echo was provided by a room in the basement. Tape loops of favourite sounds were neatly arranged on hooks.
Next door was Room 12, the domain of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. This had a similar quota of tape machines, a more modern mixer and laboratory-type oscillators together with futuristic-looking perspex cubes capable of cross mixing several sound sources in sequence. There was a Tempophon bolted onto an EMI TR/90 tape machine. This had rotating heads, rather like a video recorder and was capable of changing pitch while retaining the duration of a piece, or changing the duration while retaining the pitch. A miracle then, now easily done with a plug-in on your audio workstation. Reverberation was provided by an EMT plate located in a room further down the corridor. There were shelves filled with Doctor Who effects made by Brian Hodgson.
Next was Room 13, the home of David Cain. His facilities were similar to those in Room 11, except for a groundbreaking ‘Glowpot’ mixing desk, capable of fading without crackles, a problem with pure tones and the stud faders in common use at the time. At that time he was engaged in projects using early musical instruments and was about to embark on The Long March Of Everyman, an epic radio series.
There was a small studio next door to Room 13, not very well acoustically isolated from the corridor, and with rather home-made foam padding to deaden the roomy sound. The innards of an old upright piano stood there, the strings of which had once been scraped with Brian’s Mum’s front door key to make the sound of Doctor Who’s Tardis.
All of these rooms were on the left hand side of the corridor, with windows facing Delaware road. But so far no rooms on the right-hand side, because that was the wall of Studio One, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But after the small studio just described was where Studio One ended, and so doors started to appear on the right.
First a library containing a tape copy of everything ever made at the Workshop. The next door led to the ‘Piano Room’ which contained a baby grand piano, which was often used to work out parts and sometimes for recordings. I made the piano for The Changes on it. It was quite a large room and used for meetings and lectures, as well as recordings, via tie-lines to one of the other rooms. A door at the end led to the ‘Organ Room’ which contained a huge electric organ, which had been donated to the Workshop at some time in the past, but was seldom if ever used. Not long afterwards the organ retired to make room for another studio.
Next door on the right-hand side of the corridor was the maintenance workshop, at that time occupied by Dave Young and his assistant Howard Tombs. Dave was a brilliant engineer with the ability to fix any piece of equipment with ease as well as designing new gear for the Radiophonic team. This was an era of hardware and so there were lathes and other mechanical tools in this room, together with the soldering irons and oscilloscopes. Dave Young’s office, which was at the far end and this room, eventually became a studio.
During that week I met all the ‘Assistants’ as they were called then; John Baker, Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire and David Cain. Also Dick Mills and Malcolm Clarke. I was made very welcome and the week sped by. I did make a piece and played it to Desmond at the end of the week. I wish I still had a copy. But it can’t have been awful, because I was invited back and worked there for about ten years, during which I was able to contribute to many BBC programmes including Doctor Who and The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy.
My days at the Workshop were happy because of the people there. We worked alone for the most part, but coffee lunch and tea in the canteen were shared by us all. There were pressures due to the fact that programmes had deadlines. We were at the end of the process of programme-making, so that if - when - the programme fell behind schedule, we often had limited time in which to work the magic. But we all thought of that as a benefit, because without deadlines it’s easy to freeze up. I only wish I had fully appreciated how lucky I was at the time.
©Paddy Kingsland 2021