The Radiophonic Workshop – Derby Theatre

by Elliot Davies

Radiophonic Workshop at Derby Film Festival 2015

The 2015 Derby Film Festival kicks off with a virtuoso performance by some of the most influential figures in electronic music.

“We hear you’re looking for a new leader,” says Paddy Kingsland. Having fed his voice through all manner of machinery, he’s speaking like a true Dalek.

“We’re looking for a new leader too. Have you seen Nigel? We think he might be one of us.”

If Nigel Farage turned out to be an incognito Dalek, it’s likely that people would only be surprised to find that he’s not, as they suspected, a flesh eating lizard in disguise.

Kingsland is introducing Dick Mills, a jovial and unassuming man who just so happens to be one of the most influential figures in electronic music.

In creating sounds and moods for BBC radio and television throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Radiophonic Workshop shaped the development of electronic music as we know it. The most remarkable thing is that they did it almost by accident.

Contemporaries such as Stockhausen were responding to some kind of restless creative muse. The Radiophonic Workshop, though, were instead responding to briefs by producers, dramatists, and documentarians. So when, say, Peter Sellers requested a sound for one of his character’s stomach conditions, the Radiophonic Workshop were on hand to assemble a jumbled cacophony of strange noises:

There was no prescribed way of doing the things they used to do. For every new sound and commission, they were essentially required to painstakingly develop the systems and techniques from scratch. With scissors and sellotape, they pioneered sampling. With a lampshade and some piano strings, they created a sound that still screams, to millions, “time machine”:

Two of the leading figures of The Radiophonic Workshop – Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram – are sadly no longer with us. But in recent years, the surviving members have started to play together, tour together, and even record together once more.

Joining Mills and Kingsland are fellow Workshop luminaries Roger Limb, Mark Ayres, and Peter Howell. On percussion is Kieron Pepper, touring drummer for The Prodigy, who spends several songs playing the back panel of a washing machine with a cello bow.

Mills refers to the six gentlemen onstage as “the most advanced band in Britain”. Given that the group resembles a gathering of dads conducting a series of bizarre experiments in a shed, this comment is taken for a joke, eliciting polite titters from the audience.

But Mills might actually be speaking the truth. The stage is cluttered by a baffling assortment of guitars, Theremins, Moogs, Korgs, Rolands, Arps, laptops, and other inexplicable panels of flashing lights and tangled wires. There’s even a bit of reel-to-reel tape manipulation and musique concrete thrown in – you know, for the lads.

In terms of their technical expertise, coupled with the sheer diversity of their approach to sound, then yes: The Radiophonic Workshop just might be the most advanced band in Britain.

But it’s one thing to have the equipment. Even more remarkable is how the group are able to wrest from their machines a stunning set of driving, infectious melodies that are eerily familiar to almost everyone. Though ostensibly dated, in that they were originally used to soundtrack retro visions of the future, nowadays their music sounds utterly timeless. Poignant, with a sense of unease that’s constantly at odds with a sense of quiet optimism, this music is quintessentially British.

“There’s a real English uneasiness about the sounds they made,” said Portishead’s Adrian Utley, speaking to The Guardian for a recent feature on The Radiophonic Workshop. “[It’s] a spookiness that’s just part of the fabric of life for anyone who grew up with BBC TV and radio… which is everyone, pretty much.”

An early highlight is a menacing performance of Delia Derbyshire’s grim robot march, Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO. Once heard, never forgotten, I one day intend to use it as my entrance music for when I’m a contestant on Take Me Out.

Other highlights include a jolly run through the theme from John Craven’s Newsround, some improbable sounds from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and some funky space age bachelor pad music from their showcase records. There’s even a few tracks from a mythological new album which I cannot seem to find anywhere. Has it even been released yet? I need a copy of Wireless, their supremely moving tribute to the spirit of the radio.

Things end as they were always going to end, with an extended performance of their signature tune – the theme from Doctor Who, beautifully spun as a stirring synth prog epic. They make clever use of Derby Theatre’s house lights to simulate the shimmering Tardis, and onstage all are grinning the sort of grins that are only possible when you’ve played such a huge role in capturing the imagination of millions.

The whole night feels like a celebration of technology, imagination, creativity, and the sheer possibilities open to anyone who dares to let their mind wander a little. A more fitting opening to The Derby Film Festival is difficult to imagine.