Peter Howell’s ‘Radiophonic Times’

❉ with a lovely line of dry humour, the electronic pioneer casts his eye over his time with the Radiophonic Workshop.

“This book is a great read that will appeal to anyone who is interested in the history of electronic music in the UK and is a must read for anyone who is a fan of the Radiophonic Workshop. Highly recommended!”

Often credited with bringing electronic music to the living rooms of the UK, whether it was in schools programmes, jingles or, of course, Doctor Who, the Radiophonic Workshop was often the soundtrack of our lives, whether we knew it or not. For a BBC Department that had a seminal influence on the world of electronic music, it’s rather surprising that so little has been written about the Radiophonic Workshop. Thankfully, composer and member of the Workshop, Peter Howell has added a fantastic new book to this meagre library as his autobiography, Radiophonic Times casts his eye over his years with the Workshop both during its legendary time at Media Vale and more recently as a touring band who are creating new work to this day.

Howell’s time with the Radiophonic Workshop crosses the three major periods of the Workshop’s history. Joining in 1974, this was very much still the era of tape manipulation where sounds were manually manipulated by the use of tape loops and physical editing of audio tape, everything in mono. This moved on in the late 1970s and through the 1980s to the first generation of synthesisers which revolutionised the creation of music in the Workshop and moved recordings into stereo and then finally to the Fairlight and Macs and the digital recording of music and sounds.

It’s interesting to read that Howell struggled with his compositions at times because he wasn’t a classically trained musician. While sometimes this was an advantage because it didn’t constrain his creativity, sometimes, especially when he had to work with session musicians for some of his work, it was the cause of great anxiety to him. Howell is very honest about what he felt were his shortcomings compared to his colleagues in the Radiophonic Workshop and he is often very down on himself and the work he produced. This was something I wasn’t expecting from the book and added something to a man who’s work I greatly admire.

There are many interesting and funny passages in the book about working practices at Maida Vale. On his first day he was asked to keep it secret that John Baker was bringing his dog to work every day for example and there are many stories of working late into the night to finish up pieces when deadlines were tight or when he was excitedly working on something that he wanted to finish. What’s interesting is to read how solitary the work often was. Composers would be beavering away on their own in their own rooms for hours on end, only coming out for lunches in the canteen or for the occasional dreary party at the BBC. I really enjoyed the tales throughout the book of these get togethers which sound rather miserable occasions. The lunches on the other hand sounded great fun with the composers sharing occasionally bitchy comments about each other’s work, gossip and flights of fancy or more generally about the state of the canteen. Its ’80s makeover with a great cartoon maggot sticking out of an apple made me chuckle, especially as it keeps being added to with a jaunty red hat appearing one day, and a smile another before being painted over with white emulsion the following Monday. Peter recounts tales like this with a lovely line of dry humour.

It is, though, the music we all want to hear about and this really is the detail of the book. Using the archive records compiled by Mark Ayres, Howell takes a look back over his whole career at the Workshop from the flying steak and kidney pudding that was his first work in 1974 right up to his last in 1998, when he was the penultimate composer to leave the Workshop (not long before Elizabeth Parker).

As we follow him through his career, there’s a real sense from Howell that his first few years at the Workshop weren’t really giving him a chance to showcase his talents. There’s plenty of work completed but nothing that really stimulates him. It’s not until his own album, Through a Glass Darkly is commissioned that he is able to show his full creativity and as he notes, a composer needs to build a good body of work to gain their reputation.

This came for Howell when he was approached to compose the music for Jonathan Miller’s documentary series, The Body In Question. It was a huge project and gave Howell the chance he needed to create music in many different styles and it’s one that he looks back on fondly. He notes how the superb and rightly lauded piece, The Greenwich Chorus had so many people phoning the BBC to ask how it was made that it jammed the switchboard! This is one of the pieces of music that Howell goes into some detail about, explaining how he pieced it together from a Purcell Chorale piece, used the ticking clock as a metronome and of course, famously used the Vocoder for the chorale line. It was so popular that it was used by Miller in many places throughout the series and released as a single by BBC Records. It was even played over Miller’s obituary on Radio 3.

Howell is similarly enthusiastic about a couple of other pieces from his work. His production, Inferno Revisited for Radio 4, based on Dante’s Inferno was a real triumph. He wrote the play and all the music to accompany it and he still takes satisfaction in originating the idea and seeing it all the way through, in complete control right through to broadcast. That this was one of the pieces broadcast during BBC Radio 7’s tribute to the Radiophonic Workshop on its fiftieth anniversary and several subsequent repeats says a lot about the strength of this production.

He also singles out writing the music for The Children of Green Knowe as one of the most satisfying experiences of his long career at the Radiophonic Workshop. His affection for this production is evident in his look back over it. With hindsight he notes how this was a pivotal moment in the Workshop’s history and that things were never quite as free and easy as they were while he recorded this. With John Birt, Producer Choice and the technology catching up with them, it was becoming more and more difficult for the Workshop to stay afloat and keep their head above the water.

Despite some good work and Howell’s obvious love for the project he spearheaded redesigning the studios at Maida Vale to make them more ergonomic, there’s such a sadness in the chapters that lead up to the end of the Workshop as a department. The gradual grinding down of the composers by the constraints of time and money is evident, as is own personal sadness as one by one they all leave. The sense he of the shabby treatment of the Radiophonic Workshop by the BBC is very clear and as he says, they didn’t even have a party to underline their achievements and say goodbye that the studios that had created so much good work.

As we know now, that wasn’t the end. 2009’s triumphant live show at The Roundhouse brought members of the Radiophonic Workshop together as a band for the first time. Each chapter of the book begins by following this new version of the Workshop on tour, with stories of their experiences at various venues including Glastonbury and the Royal Albert Hall. Here Howell’s writing is really superb and you get a real sense of the man behind the keyboard as he steps out into the limelight. There are frustrations but it’s fun and the camaraderie between him and his band mates who’d never really worked together before is a delight to read.

It’s probably safe to say that other than The Greenwich Chorus it is Howell’s work on Doctor Who that is the most well-known. He covers this in some detail throughout the book, starting with a fascinating look at working with Dudley Simpson while he was the composer of choice and augmenting his score with electronic sounds. Not long after this Howell was asked to produce a demo based around The Horns of Nimon Part Two, which he seems rather embarrassed by, but it was good enough to convince incoming producer, John Nathan-Turner that using the Radiophonic Workshop would be viable for the programme. Peter Howell would join Paddy Kingsland as the two regular composers for the show’s Eighteenth Season.

Of his scores, Howell very much favours his later efforts, with him looking back very fondly at his work on The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors. It’s interesting to read that Howell felt that it took him a long time to master scoring for Doctor Who and that rather contrary to fan opinion, he thinks that his work on Meglos for instance was far more successful for him than the grandiose and epic score to The Leisure Hive. He equally dismisses his work on Kinda where he was struggling for ideas and creativity and didn’t feel he was pushing his creativity very far and wasn’t breaking new ground in the best tradition of the Radiophonic Workshop.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter, certainly for me is the one exploring his creation of the revamped Doctor Who theme. Even after all these years and knowing it was a success, his nervousness about taking on the project to rearrange one of the best-known themes on TV shows in his writing. He goes into great depth on how he went about recreating the theme, using as many of the resources of the Workshop as it stood then to do it, so that like the original theme, you couldn’t quite work out how it was done. Along the way there were happy accidents with unwiped tapes, support from his colleagues and a sense of euphoria and relief with how it turned out and how it was received. It’s a really great part of the book.

This book really doesn’t disappoint. Peter Howell proves to be a drily funny and humble man but also one who is fiercely proud to have been a part of something so well renowned across the world. It’s a great read that will appeal to anyone who is interested in the history of electronic music in the UK and is a must read for anyone who is a fan of the Radiophonic Workshop. Highly recommended!


❉ Published 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/

 Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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