Time at the Workshop

Roger Limb

I first visited the Radiophonic Workshop in May 1972. I’d already been on the staff of the BBC for several years as a studio manager and then as an announcer; looking back I can’t remember the first time I heard the words ‘Radiophonic Workshop’; I hadn’t paid much attention, mainly because I didn’t really know what went on there.

However, looking back, I think I was ‘falling towards’ the Workshop for many years. As a teenager in 1958, round about the same time that Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram were setting up shop, I managed to get my hands on the school tape recorder, which I smuggled home and spent an exciting weekend experimenting with sound; using the piano as a reverberation unit, shouting into it, hitting and scraping the strings. I’m sure my parents were relieved when I took it back on Monday!

For the next ten years I was immersed in all sorts of musical activities, conducting, playing jazz, songwriting, all of which continued after I joined the BBC, where I learnt a lot of basic broadcasting skills such as sound balancing and tape editing (not to mention news-reading..!). Then, in one of those significant chance encounters, I happened to meet Paddy. Kingsland, who was already at the Workshop, and knowing that I had many musical interests, suggested that I might find it an interesting place to do a short attachment.

When I arrived, I found I had to do a bit of adjusting. I was used to working to shift patterns and the pressures of live radio and TV; here was a place where the pace was different. Certainly there were deadlines that had to be met, but you had the luxury of spending time thinking things through, experimenting, discussing a commitment with your customer (usually a TV or radio producer). Of course, the way you organised your workload required an amount of self discipline.

The staff were a memorable lot. The avuncular Desmond Briscoe, and his deputy Brian Hodgson, presided over a group of talented, imaginative individuals; Delia Derbyshire, John Baker, David Cain, Malcom Clarke, Paddy, of course, and the rather more down-to-earth Dick Mills. As an ‘attachee’ I spent a short while with each of the composers, watching them at work, finding out about their techniques. They were a friendly bunch, but I got the impression that they were quite keen to get back to their work, and would be relieved when I finally left them alone. Then, maybe in the evenings, a studio might be available where I could try out the various bits of equipment, exploring all sorts of techniques not possible in the standard BBC studio. For example, until then I’d believed that nature decreed that tape machines could only run at 7½ or 15 ips [inches per second], but here was a ‘varispeed’ machine that could run at any speed that was required! Also, this was my first experience of working in stereo; there had been no call for it in the overseas services or, at that time, in television. There were all sorts of elaborate pieces of equipment specially designed and constructed by the inventive workshop engineers, who had clearly played a significant role in the way the place had developed and now operated.

At the end of my three-month attachment, there being no vacancies at that time, I went to work for a while in TV Presentation, though I kept in touch with the Workshop. Over the next two years, three key members left and in 1974, after the usual BBC selection process, I was lucky enough to be offered a full time post.

This was an era of change at the RW. I’d had my first experience of primitive synthesisers two years before, but synths were now becoming more reliable and the arrival of multitrack tape machines meant that there was less reliance on quarter-inch tape, although, of course, our compositions were still mastered on quarter-inch, usually at 15 ips. The long term plan was that each composer should have their own studio, but at this stage there had to be a certain amount of sharing. I remember often having to come in in the afternoon and work on into the evening.

The BBC had owned the Maida Vale Studio building since the Thirties and it had always been the place where the majority of music recordings for radio had taken place. In the 1970s it was still a busy ‘music factory’, the BBC Symphony Orchestra were based in Studio 1; three other smaller studios were used to record, maybe chamber orchestras, jazz or rock groups or small audience events (I remember recording here with a jazz ensemble in the late Sixties). Then, in the 1980s, a radio drama studio was constructed at the southern end of the building.

In many ways the hub of the whole building was the canteen (or Staff Restaurant as the manager would prefer it to be known). The Workshop usually got together around a table at 11 AM, coffee time, and then, later on, for an hour or so at lunchtime. Sometimes we would discuss the personalities of the customers we were working for; it was here that rumours were circulated concerning new pieces of equipment and new techniques that were in the pipeline. However, we rarely talked in detail about the music we were working on at the time. The workshop engineers were usually at the table with us and were always a source of useful technical advice, valued especially by me, as I’d not come from an engineering background.

On most days, of course, the restaurant was packed with visiting musicians from every possible genre. I remember a memorable queue on one occasion, containing both Peter Pears [an English tenor closely associated with Benjamin Britten] and, a few places back, Lulu [the Sixties pop singer]. It was that sort of place. And later, when the drama studio opened, all those actors brought another flavour to the place. Maida Vale was well known for being one of the few BBC premises without a bar, but for those who preferred that sort of lunchtime there was a small sports club behind the flats opposite us in Delaware Road. And of course, there were several useful pubs nearby.

It’s difficult to generalise about the work I did while I was there. The work was so varied; some commitments could take several months to complete, some might be completed in a morning. Your relationship with the customer and the briefing you were given were crucial to the operation. Some producers knew exactly what they wanted, others were wide open to suggestions. Some wanted some music to ‘rescue’ a particularly problematic moment. Some had a slight knowledge of music (a dangerous thing; one producer was preparing a series of intense, hard hitting discussions and asked for music with lots of sharps in it!)

Dealing with customers I learned several lessons:

  1. Never work to a committee, I have, on two occasions, seen them use the music as ammunition in their own internal conflicts.
  2. Always invite the customer back to your studio and play your work to them there. Refuse requests to go to their office and play your work on the office cassette machine.
  3. Some producers will react to the volume of the music you play to them. The louder you play it the more they will like it.....!

I’m sure we didn’t realise it at the time, but now hindsight allows us to see that we were building up some sort of legacy, not to mention legend. I always described the music I did as ephemeral; you worked hard at it, you hoped it would do the job it was designed for, and then... on to the next one. But I suppose if your work enters the public domain, you lose control of it. I certainly didn’t expect, 40 years on, to get letters about a short piece of music I wrote for a scene in a Dr Who story. These enthusiasts are always friendly and polite, and I’m always happy to correspond with them or talk to them at Dr Who conventions, but it’s all rather... unexpected.

©Roger Limb 2020