Peter Howell talks ‘Radiophonic Times’

❉ We chat with the Radiophonic Workshop legend about his fascinating career.

“We were being anything but conservative in the workshop. The only way it managed to survive was the fact that we managed to output interesting stuff without bothering anybody. We weren’t in the main building; we were up Maida Vale in the top corridor and a few rooms that nobody particularly wanted with borrowed and hand-me down gear, that’d been headed for the skip.”

Peter Howell has been working as a musician and composer for over 50 years, first as part of a duo with John Ferdinando, who released five highly collectable records together in the early 1970s, before Peter joined the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where his most famous piece of work was reimagining Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s Doctor Who theme tune in 1980, which was used in the series from August 1980 to March 1985 and released several times as a 7” single in a picture sleeve.

Since then, Howell has lectured, written music and more recently been part of the newly reformed Radiophonic workshop with other contemporaries like Dick Mills, Mark Ayres, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb and guest drummer Kieron Pepper. In April 2021, Obverse Books published his autobiography, Radiophonic Times, a fascinating look at his career, utilising a timey-wimey narrative device where each chapter focuses on a particular festival the reformed Radiophonic Workshop played, before diving deep into different aspects of Peter’s long career. We Are Cult recently caught up with Peter to talk about his work.

The 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme tune is one of the things you’re probably most well-known for from the Radiophonic Workshop.

Delia Derbyshire.

PH: I regard that as a calling card of mine. People that are fascinated by Doctor Who, imagine that the workshop did nothing else, when Doctor Who constituted 12% of our output. I said I’d give it a go but if I were halfway through and decided it’s going nowhere, I would suggest it was ditched.

To start with I was doing it in secret. I got the impression that everyone else was asked and there was enormous reluctance at taking on something so institutionalised. Nobody had to know that I was doing it. It really became a labour of love because I liked the idea of it. I love Delia’s work and wanted to do something that would do her proud. I didn’t want to trivialise it by coming up with some cheapskate alternative. One thing Delia did, which became increasingly harder over the years, is delivering something truly original to people’s ears. When she did her version that was possible. People had never heard those sounds before.  Their first question “What on earth is that!” I liked the idea of producing something that had the same effect.

I decided to use as much of the workshop as possible. I raided everything the workshop had. I didn’t concentrate around one particular synth; the bassline was done on the AMA CSAT but nothing else was done on that. On the bassline, there were scoop sounds that were tape manipulation that was done afterwards. There was a lot of work involved with feeding things in towards the end of the opening titles. The sounds like a Catherine wheel took several days’ work  on a separate piece of tape pre-recorded onto eight-inch tape, and re-fed into the master.

When you listen to it, you’re not trying to second-guess how it was done. You’re just interested in the effect it’s having.

PH: It’s like the original that Delia did. People were gobsmacked by the effect it had. They just thought ‘What is that?’ I worked on other soundtracks, but it doesn’t alter the fact that doing that was lucky for me, it enabled me to put The Astronauts on the B-side, which was an added bonus.

Last year’s Record Store Day Radiophonic Workshop box includes both the full-length version of fan favourite The Astronauts and the single edit…

PH:  The single is closer to the original version of The Astronauts, which was for a programme called Space for Man. The LP version has an extended piece, which was from The Case of the Ancient Astronauts,  a Horizon programme about Erich von Daniken’s theories that the Nazca lines in Mexico were landing strips for Alien craft. The opening was dramatized, and that piece of music forms the first part of the new version of Astronauts.

How did the the Through a Glass Darkly album come about?

PH: To be honest, I was concerned that I was regarded as an alternative to Paddy Kingsland, but not quite as good. Paddy is fantastic at his genre of music, which is clear, very direct, with a clever use of sound that’s memorable. You can’t compete with that because that’s his thing. I didn’t want to be a lesser version of Paddy, or Roger Limb.

I wanted to forge something for myself. I was known for playing the guitar, and I’m a great Shadows fan. I’ve done a lot of guitar work. I could compose on the keyboard as well, so I thought it’d be nice to do something keyboard based. I called it In The Kingdom of Colours, the original title to Through a Glass Darkly. I evolved this idea of an allegory where the piano is the protagonist, and the electronics and audio manipulation are the landscape. It’s a hero is travelling through a landscape and a bit of good versus evil.

I mooted this idea to Desmond Briscoe who was the head of the workshop.  He said, “Give it a go, but you can’t stop doing your normal work”.  Because I was determined that the pianos should sound as good as possible. I wanted to use the Steinways downstairs in the rock music studio. So, every evening, with the Arp Odyssey synthesiser under my arm, I’d go through 12 swing doors, all the way down to studio four and do a few hours’ work on this. I got it to a point where I put a demo mix together and Desmond heard it. It took off from there really, they thought it was worthwhile and got BBC Records interested. Without the demo I couldn’t go to BBC Records and say, I’ve got this idea for an allegory. They wouldn’t have been interested. You needed something to show them.

In the book you mention starting in the Radiophonic Workshop in ‘74 which was just before the synthesiser era, so your residency there straddles both eras.

PH: Yes. and I’m proud of that. Sometimes people pigeonhole things into eras. Yet for those of us working on the ground, it wasn’t like that at. You didn’t go into work one Monday morning to discover all the old tech has gone and you’ve just got synthesisers. You’ve got one synthesiser in the department that was shared around everybody and all your other work was all the previous techniques.

It was a gradual change, and even then, the old techniques don’t go away. Last November we did an online concert called latency. The whole point of latency was that it was an enormous internet loop, built up as you relayed the information plus new information into the loop in exactly the same way that we used to do with tape loops. When I first got to the workshop, there were loops bands about three foot tall with a sprung top. We’d wrap the tape around this loop stand with arrows going all the way around the room. You would have a loop of audio on the tape that you keep on adding to, and it would gradually build up a sound texture. Exactly the same thing happened last November just instead of tape, we have the internet.

It would be wrong to say that the old techniques have been forgotten because they haven’t.

Regarding the Radiophonic Workshop and where it started, could it be said that it was at the forefront of Musique Concrete in the UK?

Daphne Oram.

PH:  People always like to they always like to say something is like something else. That’s the only way they feel that they can give it a proper label. When the workshop started, people were saying it was an English base for Musique Concrete, which was not wrong. But there were people in France doing Musique Concrete, with enormous flair that we didn’t have. But we brought something else to the table.

To say that something is like something else is sometimes a missing the point, especially when it comes to creative audio, where a single person can produce the audio in the same way that a single artist can paint. When you’re into that territory, your personal preferences are going to be involved and the thing takes off on its own. You can’t necessarily say I am doing a piece like something else. It just takes off.

You’ve got to remember that the workshop started as a service department for radio drama, which had started to do really innovative and quite psychological dramas. They were hard pressed to find anybody who could produce session music in the studio to support these ideas. So, they used Daphne Oram who was a dab hand at using tape in creative ways and their work for radio drama started the idea of the department despite using hand me down machinery and that seems to be the story throughout the Radiophonic Workshop’s life.

You’re creating all these amazing sounds yet you’re in a department in the BBC, which is notoriously underfunded, funded and quite conservative.

PH: We were being anything but conservative in the middle of the BBC. The only way it managed to survive was the fact that we managed to output interesting stuff without bothering anybody. We weren’t in the main building; we were up Maida Vale in the top corridor and a few rooms that nobody particularly wanted with borrowed and hand-me down gear, that’d been headed for the skip. If someone broke a bit of machinery, they’d send it out to the workshop, the whole thing was very makeshift, but didn’t ruffle many feathers.  Every now and then something came out and the management could turn around and say, Look, see, we’ve got this fabulous department up there that’s producing all this stuff. In the meantime, we’re completely forgotten.

That’s how it managed to survive; a lot of the bread-and-butter work was sound effects for radio. We did a lot for BBC schools. These days with Bitesize, online, and CBeebies, and all the lockdown stuff, we forget that originally there was tons on radio. Radio was used in schools with lessons planned around the broadcast time. Later on, when they had a means of recording it, they would record it and play it back. There were lots of programmes for BBC schools, one of the first things I did was a lovely programme on the legend of Gilgamesh in ancient Persia.

There were tons of creative jobs for BBC schools, I enjoyed doing them. It was a nice atmosphere in the BBC schools’ studios which were opposite Broadcasting House in Portland Place studios. For these dramas, the schools’ producers would get illustrious actors to come in because they loved calling in on their way to the West End. They were appearing in the West End in the evening, in the afternoon, they’d call in to the BBC studios, they wouldn’t have to learn anything, because it’s holding the script and reading it for radio. We got people like Judi Dench and people like that would call in and record these dramas, so they were excellent.

Prior to joining the Radiophonic Workshop, you were used to using different recording equipment?

PH: It was baptism of fire, really. I’ve got a Revox tape machine which I took great pains to collect from London. I came back with it on the train, despite the fact that it was 10 times heavier than me, it’s still working and sitting in my studio now.

That was how I got into all this, you had a facility on it whereby you could actually record on the top tracks or stereo machine tracks, you can record in mono on the top track, and then play it onto the bottom track and add something new to it. Then you could do the same in reverse. But of course, what you got to remember is that in those days, the thing we were most irritated by was tape hiss. Every time we made a recording, there would be a high-pitched hiss which normally wouldn’t be annoying.

It gets annoying because you’re just making one recording, each recording has got that hiss on, it gradually builds up every time you pop over. I devised this technique whereby I’d pre-plan that piece of music so that the first thing to be recorded will be the thing that’s furthest back in the mix. This means that the hiss from the back will be reduced and the things that were loudest in the mix would be the last, so you’d be able to maximise on the amount of hiss and I got it down to a fine art.

Can you tell us a little about the Game For All Who Know box set, where you honed your skills with John Ferdinando prior to joining the workshop.

PH: I think Cherry Red have done a fantastic job on it. The first two albums Alice and Tomorrow were done entirely using that technique with one Revox. When we got to the third album Flyaway, we’d interested somebody else in what we were doing, who ended up being an illustrious engineer at Thames Television. Brian Crowley, who brought his own newer Revox over. That means we could  bounce from machine to machine and you’re talking stereo, which slightly improved the quality.

When I actually got to do the John Ferdinando album, which is the fourth one, which I love, we were getting quite good at it.

We’d got a whole electric organ in the corner of the studio that used to belong to my dad. He reluctantly allowed us to have it in the studio. We found that if you place the microphone in a certain position, you could use string sounds, and they sounded impressive, so we locked it in position because we didn’t want to try find it again.

So yes, I was already into innovative recording techniques.

Moving on into the 1980s, you scored quite a few Doctor Who serials.

PH:  For me, the standout is The Five Doctors. Which was a one-off, but it came at a really good time, because all the technology had moved on in the meantime. I  had stuff in my studio that was a really impressive array of audio sources. I felt I could do that justice and because it was a multi-threaded show.  each thread needed a particular treatment so I’m incredibly pleased with that.

Also, The Five Doctors didn’t have too pressing a deadline. Some of the earlier shows, the deadlines got progressively harder. What would happen is, if you had a four-episode adventure, Episode One went swimmingly, you had enough time. But the shooting schedule would squeeze everything else. When you got to Episode Four, you only had a few days to score the whole episode. It was a fast turnaround. When I was writing, I did a search of how many times I’ve mentioned the word deadline, I think there were a dozen mentions! It brought home the fact that the deadlines were hair raising at the time.

In television, generally, deadlines are pretty tight. If you’re in post-production and you’re composing as editing the lateness of previous scheduled things in the timeline, squeeze at the end. You’ve got this brick wall facing you, which is transmission date and we’re all cantering towards this brick wall. It gets squeezed, gets concertinaed and we’re in the middle of that. That’s why I wanted to try and do stuff that I wouldn’t be ashamed of later. I didn’t always succeed. There are things  I mention in the book, that I thought were absolutely horrendous. Not everything was successful.

What prompted you to write your autobiography?

PH:  What prompted it was the Radiophonic Workshop concerts, which is the other way round to what you might think, the problem was people have said to me over the years, one of you ought to write a book. But there are already histories out there, some of them quite serious.

I didn’t want to be overly serious about it, because it was enormous fun, it was a dream job. You don’t want to be talking about it, in revered tones throughout, because there were a number of occasions where it was lightweight and enjoyable.  What really triggered it was, those things started to happen in the concerts, when we played the cosplay festival in Wales, we were flabbergasted with how escapist the whole thing was, it was a flight of fancy from beginning to end.

There were lots of lovely things happening. I thought that’s how you could write a book, because you  have a parallel thread of concerts and history that I could bounce off each other. That’s what started me thinking it would be possible.

It reads really well, the flow between the concerts and the history.

PH: That was genuinely the point at which I knew I could write a book, when I realised that you could do that. Prior to that, I didn’t want to stick myself in history, because I’m somebody who loves doing new things.  To put my head in the history permanently throughout writing a book. I couldn’t manage that. If I could bounce off the modern stuff it became a lot more interesting.

Speaking of the concerts, how did reforming the Radiophonic Workshop come about?

PH:  We had a little outing to a quarry in 2003 for a piece called Generic Sci-Fi Quarry, since Quarries feature so much in Doctor Who landscapes we were invited to do something for them. We had surround sound, including speakers on the top of the quarry as well. We got a rock festival engineer to do all the speaker system. It was big.

It took until 2009 to perform again and that was the request of the manager of the Roundhouse. He was doing a season of electronic based performance. He asked Mark if we’d get back together and do that, and we did.  The audience absolutely adored it. I didn’t think it was a great night, I  felt that I wasn’t properly prepared. I came away from it, wanting to do more, but to do it properly.

It was 2013 before we found a way of organising ourselves to tour. We set about putting a set together and the Number Six festival at Portmerion is the very first one we did and since then we’ve played 48 concerts so far.

We enjoy seeing the people for real. When you’re working in broadcasting, especially in Maia Vale, the middle of the building with no windows, you’re beavering away at this stuff. The producer comes along and says, ‘thanks very much’ and walks out the door with it. Sometimes you don’t hear it broadcast. Then you’re working on the next thing.

In concert, you’re  looking at the people that heard it, and they’ve taken the trouble to turn up to a concert, which I think is fantastic.

Live, people expect you to play the Doctor Who theme. How do you decide what else you’re going to perform?

PH:  When we do our concerts, we use my version to close the concert. I’ve done a seven-minute build up to it, which gradually increases in intensity. By the time you get into the closing section, which is the theme tune everybody knows what’s coming. It takes minutes to get there it’s a nice bit of audience manipulation. It works well and it’s extremely popular.

There’s discussion and we almost always do some Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because Paddy is there, and that is enormously popular. We’ve written new stuff, Paddy’s written a piece called Wireless, which has a lot of sound clips from early wireless stuff with electronics around it and percussion. It’s a mixture of things, you have to look at the venue is it standing up or sitting down? If the venue is seated there are certain things you wouldn’t do. You’d start to introduce more thought-provoking material. We’ve got one, a number that’s based around a poem by an American poet to do with electricity that we wouldn’t dream of doing in a festival that we do at a seated gig, We’ve got a big repertoire we can choose from.

When you started at the Radiophonic Workshop did you ever think you’d be playing festivals like Glastonbury?

PH: I loved Glastonbury. It was a fantastic experience. Glastonbury came quite early on in touring and I think we were nervous at the time.  There have been other things that I wouldn’t have thought I would have done. Playing on the South Bank in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was fantastic. I enjoyed  that because we actually had surround sound. Blue Dot festival is out of this world, the most well organised and enjoyable festival. We’ve been there twice, and we were on the mainstage second time and the field gradually filled up.  By the time we got to do Blue Dot, we were much more sorted in what we were doing and more confident. As a result, it was more enjoyable.

Of course, you performed at the Doctor Who Proms as well.

PH: That experience was strange for me. We were at the back of the most gigantic orchestra. As you can imagine, when you’re playing with an orchestra, you are using a score. You can’t say,  this time round, I won’t do that. It was all regimented, an enormously long score, and not my comfort zone. It was enjoyable, it’s a one-off experience to play to an audience that size, who are so enthusiastic, 100% of the audience was just beaming from ear to ear, with kids on their father’s shoulders. It was a one off and was fantastic.

Does performing under the name of Radiophonic Workshop, cause problems with the BBC?

PH: No because we keep them on board. The BBC were aware of the fact that we found a lot of work. By the time we were touring, they’re aware of the fact that we’ve kept the brand alive, that people were still interested in it. Effectively we’re promoting a BBC legend. So, they are happy for us to carry on. We closed in 98 yet here we are 23 years later.

Have you plans for any more books?

PH: I’ve got a couple of novels. One of which is a comic sci-fi novel. It’s based around the idea of art versus science and that one is left brain and the other is right brain and what would happen if you separated the artists from the scientists geographically.

You mentioned the left brain, right brain split in your autobiography,

PH: It’s something I’ve used in when I was lecturing at the National Film Television school. The left brain tends to be methodical and our right brain intuitive.

In order to produce a piece of music, or audio, you’re actually using both sides. Because your technical knowledge happens on one side, your creative inspiration on the other, and unless the two get together, nothing comes out.  It is a team effort between both halves.

Has composing for TV and film changed since when you started?

PH: It’s a case of Yes and No, we were talking about deadlines, if anything, they’ve got slightly worse. The emotional stress of turning out the music remains the same. The technical side of it has changed. There are important things that haven’t, for instance matching the music to the picture, you use timecode, exactly the same that we were, but we were involved in doing it analogue onto the multitrack. These days it’s all on the computer. 

It’s surprising how much hasn’t changed. The technology is massively different and writing music for games is breaking new ground and is a different experience. Writing music for TV and films is fairly traditional.

With grateful thanks to Peter Howell for his time.


❉ Released 5 April 2021, RADIOPHONIC TIMES is available from Obverse Books website in paperback, with electronic versions to follow. at https://obversebooks.co.uk/product/radiophonic-times/

 James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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