This year marks the 60th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ and the Radiophonic Workshop are contributing to the celebrations with a special Bluedot performance. Workshop veterans Dick Mills and Peter Howell have set the TARDIS co-ordinates

“We cover all grounds with the live show, and people treat us very generously,” says Dick Mills, smiling modestly. “We get octogenarians who burst into tears if we talk about ‘Blue Peter’ or ‘Crackerjack!’, but we also get youngsters, who are completely up to date with everything.”

It’s 65 years since the founding of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, and 60 years since the first episode of surely its most acclaimed client – ‘Doctor Who’. I’m honoured to be in the company of two men whose careers in sound production and composition are inextricably linked to this brace of charmingly eccentric institutions.

Since 2013, Dick Mills and fellow Workshop veteran Peter Howell have joined erstwhile BBC colleagues Paddy Kingsland and Roger Limb – alongside musical director Mark Ayres – to form a band whose live performances are an outright celebration of this affectingly nostalgic legacy.

Dick, who is now 86, joined the Workshop in its infancy in 1958, and swiftly found himself pressed into service on some of the BBC’s most iconic productions of the decade. On TV, it was Nigel Kneale’s unsettling sci-fi serial, ‘Quatermass And The Pit’. On radio, it was ‘The Goon Show’ – arguably the template for every forward-thinking British comedy movement of the last seven decades.

“There was an engineering vacancy, and I applied for it,” he shrugs. “And my lonely application was successful, because nobody else bothered. So I joined the Workshop, and the rest… just happened.”

Peter, a relative youngster at 75, arrived in 1974. He had a background in studio management at the BBC, but his formative years also included a string of home-recorded psychedelic folk albums. Unfamiliar with the work of the late 1960s East Sussex outfit Agincourt? Then a world of gentle delights awaits you. Even these esoteric experiences, though, left Peter unprepared for his first commission as a Radiophonic Workshop member, devising the sound of a flying steak and kidney pie for a BBC Schools programme.

“I remember the producer reporting back that it was ‘adequate’!” he grins.

But it’s their respective associations with ‘Doctor Who’ that have proved the most enduring. Dick’s long-standing credit for the show’s “special sound” began in 1963, when he assisted Delia Derbyshire in creating her startling electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s legendary sci-fi theme tune.

“There was a very high resistance with Delia and me, to making anything that might be recognisable,” he recalls. “However you press regular instruments into action, they just haven’t got the ‘what on earth is that?’ factor. So we got the Workshop engineer to stretch a steel wire the length of a 19-inch blank plate, and that was the thing we twanged. Which then had to be manipulated to form the notes. And the ‘ooo-we-ooo’ machine was a wobbulator that Delia managed to play like this… hang on, let me put my hand up…”

He makes a dextrous double-digit movement in front of his laptop webcam.

“So there was nothing that forced regular tonal qualities or interludes onto us.”

His relationship with ‘Doctor Who’ began in earnest in 1980. With incoming producer John Nathan-Turner keen for the show’s music to reflect a burgeoning synthpop zeitgeist, Peter was tasked with creating a dramatic reworking of that iconic theme. No pressure, then?

“I did feel the pressure,” he affirms. “But Paddy Kingsland was extremely helpful, he was my go-to pair of ears. I’d play bits to him and say, ‘If this isn’t going anywhere, let’s stop now and not waste any more time’.

But he kept on nodding, so that was alright. And, as with Delia’s version, I didn’t want to make anything where people could sit in the pub and say, ‘Ah, I know how he did that, he used a Casio thingummybob’. So I made it an amalgam of various techniques. I remember being very in awe of Delia’s bassline. I loved that ‘whump whump whump’.”

“She did that as a separate track, on the front of every main note!” adds Dick. “She slid up to them.”

“I did exactly the same thing, by playing the notes then turning the tape upside-down,” smiles Peter. “I had to reproduce it somehow.”

They both agree that the 50-odd live shows they’ve racked up since 2013 have been an unexpected and delightful postscript to the Workshop’s illustrious story.

“It’s great fun,” smiles Dick. “I came to public performance late in life, and for the first few years I didn’t realise people were there to witness a ‘happening’! And that ‘happening’ just happened to include… well, whatever happened. At Rough Trade, we were up one end of a long hallway with the sound mixer on the right under a balcony, and we couldn’t communicate with him unless he stood up and waved his hat. And it went wrong…”

“It went into a digital loop and kept on playing the same four bars!” laughs Peter.

“Afterwards, I went around apologising to people,” adds Dick. “And they said, ‘Why? What happened?’.”

Their mutual enthusiasm for their work – and for ‘Doctor Who’ itself – is infectious. Fans worldwide are, of course, already excited about the show’s 60th anniversary in November.

There’s the return of an old Doctor, David Tennant, to look forward to, followed by the new adventures of his successor, Ncuti Gatwa. In the build-up to all this, the Radiophonic Workshop are performing at this year’s Bluedot Festival. Presumably, with a celebratory set that draws heavily on the show’s ever-evolving soundtrack?

“Yes, that’s right,” confirms Peter. “I don’t think I’m letting too much out of the bag if I say it’ll be less stop-start than our previous sets. We’ll be running things into one another, with lots of video clips from the classic series. So the thematic atmosphere will always be ‘Doctor Who’.”

Jodrell Bank was, of course, the setting for Tom Baker’s childhood-defining 1981 regeneration into Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor. So will Paddy Kingsland be performing his melancholy score for this pivotal scene in the very shadow of that towering radio telescope?

“My lips are sealed,” says Peter, defiantly. But – to paraphrase Tom’s final, heartbreaking line – it’s clear the moment has been prepared for.

The Radiophonic Workshop will be appearing at Bluedot 2023
For more, visit discoverthebluedot.com

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