BBC Radiophonic Workshop – Fourth Dimension / Through A Glass Darkly – Album Review

No-one would have thought, in roughly the mid-part of the Twentieth Century, the world of British television music and sound would be revolutionised by all the experimental work which was emanating from the ominous-sounding Room 13, deep in the bowels of a converted former roller skating rink – once described as resembling “a mildewed wedding cake”– in Maida Vale.

Given that it was part of the BBC – which, at the time, was a very much Received Pronunciation, stuffy, WASP, old school tie kind of organisation – it seemed even more unlikely that there would be a haven for avant-garde, unorthodox, wildly creative individuals, yet the Radiophonic Workshop would be a vital part of the Corporation for exactly 40 years. Whether or not you know the name, you will most certainly know their work, perhaps without even realising.

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Their most famous association is with Doctor Who, during its original run on television between 1963 and 1989 – the Radiophonic Workshop produced special sounds, including the famous TARDIS noise, as well as incidental music, along with the eerie, otherworldly theme tune, which was realised by Delia Derbyshire. In fact, the link was so strong between the series and the Workshop, even Queen Elizabeth II could associate the two when introduced to Desmond Briscoe, the Workshop’s co-founder.

But the Radiophonic Workshop did so much more than just that in its four decades, and from its early successes such as for Quatermass And The Pit and radio’s The Goon Show, it would provide sound effects, music, themes and jingles for radio and TV. Most of its early work was done through use of mathematics combined with cutting and splicing different lengths of tape, with the results often played at all differing speeds, as well as being electronically oscillated, modulated and even wobbulated.

As the 1960s progressed, these old school methods used for creating special sounds and music began to be superseded by the introduction of synthesizers, such as those pioneered by Robert Moog in the mid-part of the decade. It was thanks to composers and musicians like Milton Babbitt and Wendy Carlos that electronic music started to become more familiar and commonplace, with Carlos’ use of a Moog synthesizer on her album Switched On Bach in 1968 which then resulted in her providing the score for A Clockwork Orange.

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During the ‘60s and ‘70s, electronic music was brought into the mainstream even further, through artists like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Jean Michel Jarre. Synthesizers also made their way into the Radiophonic Workshop, with some resistance from traditionalists within the department, so it meant there was a turnover in personnel. As some longer-standing members moved on, it did lead to an influx of new people coming into the Workshop, such as Peter Howell and Paddy Kingsland.

Although neither are household names, the combined body of work speaks for itself, with TV viewers and radio listeners alike almost certainly having heard it. Howell was given the onerous task of creating a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme, replacing Delia Derbyshire’s original version of the tune written by Ron Grainer, which was used (with some periodic tweaks) between 1963 and 1980. Howell was also to provide the scores for a number of Doctor Who stories, both on TV and radio, as well as shows like The Children Of Green Knowe.

For Kingsland, while he too provided some incidental music for Doctor Who, his notable work included music and sound effects for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in both its radio and TV incarnations; Kingsland would later go on to do the BAFTA-nominated soundtrack for Around The World In 80 Days With Michael Palin, as well as its follow-up, Pole To Pole. Kingsland was part of the Radiophonic Workshop from 1970 to 1981, with Howell working there between 1974 and 1997, departing a year before the BBC closed the Workshop forever.

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During their time at the Radiophonic Workshop, Kingsland and Howell both had albums released – Fourth Dimension and Through A Glass Darkly; while the former was credited purely to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, missing out any mention of it being a collection of Kingsland’s work, Howell did at least manage to get name checked on the cover of the latter. Thanks to Silva Screen Records, both the albums are finally getting a long-overdue reissue, restored to a pristine and pin-sharp condition, as digital releases.

Each album is vastly different from the other; in the case of Kingsland’s Fourth Dimension, first released in 1973, the tracks are taken from his work doing music and jingles for BBC television and radio. You might expect this to perhaps be just a collection of purely synth-based electronica, but there is in fact more conventional instrumentation thrown into the mix; the album’s opening track – ‘Scene & Heard’ – is a jaunty collage of very funky ‘70s electric guitar, playing off against the main synthesized melody.

The Radiophonic Workshop definitely goes ‘lounge music’ with ‘Vespucci’, sounding just like the sort of easy listening muzak which you might have expected to hear while Pages From Ceefax was on. ‘Reg’ is a very upbeat, poppy number which seems to have a ring of John Barry’s ‘Florida Fantasy’ from Midnight Cowboy (which was later used on the BBC’s Wildtrack) with its percussion. ‘Colour Radio’ has a playful rise and fall, with its electronic Waltz feel, almost sounding vaguely Baroque at times.

At some points, the synthesizers come across more like the typical Moog sound you might expect from the era, having a very sharp and shrill sting. However, other tracks manage to make the electronica feel almost natural, such as the flute-like tones featuring in ‘The Space Between’, mixed in with a harpsichord-like sound, making the whole thing sound very light and airy. ‘Tamariu’ comes over like a haunting spin on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at the beginning, and ‘One-Eighty-One’ sounds very much like a funkadelic video game theme.

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In contrast, Howell’s Through A Glass Darkly – which came out in 1978 – is very much a different kind of beast, having been commissioned as an entirely original piece of work in its own right, rather than being just a collection of existing compositions. Before coming to the Radiophonic Workshop, Howell had been involved with a number of psychedelic folk bands, and this album has traces of that, as well as prog rock. Howell uses a mix of piano, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, drums and timpani to complement his synth work.

The album’s first track, ‘In The Kingdom Of Colours (Through A Glass Darkly – A Lyrical Adventure)’ – which originally took up one side when released on vinyl – runs to approaching 20 minutes, taking the listener on an aural odyssey. Opening up with a rather jarring, crashing piano scale, it swiftly dissolves into ethereal, soothing noises, and shifts its way through a whole series of tempos and styles, evoking different moods as the track progresses, ebbing and waning as it goes along, changing from innocent to sinister, effervescent to chaotic.

The other five original tracks from the album – which had formed the B-side – are an eclectic mix, showing Howell’s range and versatility. ‘Magenta Court’ stands out as being a very Mike Oldfield-esque piece, with plenty of rock guitar thrown in to counter the main synth melody. ‘Colour Rinse’ sounds like a cross between the theme for a game show and parts of an uptempo version of the music from Peter Gunn. Howell’s folk roots come out strongly in ‘Wind In The Wires’, with plenty of acoustic guitar leading the tune, and the bold, bombastic dynamism of ‘The Astronauts‘ sounds like it was ripped straight from the credits of a sci-fi show, with strong overtones of Jarre.

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Both albums also have a selection of bonus tracks, none of which were originally included on the original vinyl releases. These include some real gems, such as Kingsland’s ‘Willie Banks And The Administrative Machine’, which uses the sound of typewriters to great percussive effect, as well as Howell’s ‘Greenwich Chorus’, with its use of vocoder courting controversy at the time that it was used on Jonathan Miller’s series The Body In Question; his track ‘Mesmer’ also evokes some of Wendy Carlos’ pioneering work, having a classical feel despite using some modern – and futuristic – sounds.

Fourth Dimension and Through A Glass Darkly are without doubt triumphs, demonstrating to us why the Radiophonic Workshop is held in such wide regard by such artists as Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Orbital, Hot Chip, Portishead, and Aphex Twin. The Radiophonic Workshop reformed independently in 2009, and its members – including Howell – are playing live shows around the country, so these two albums prove a timely reminder of just why we should hold the Workshop in such high regard as a crucial part of our musical heritage, as well as an incentive to hear them live when we can.

Fourth Dimension and Through A Glass Darkly are released digitally on 9th April from Silva Screen Records.

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