❉ Si Hart pays tribute to the recently deceased composer, best known for his many scores for Doctor Who.
For those of us of a certain age, the name Dudley Simpson is synonymous with 1970s BBC sci-fi. His scores and themes were the soundtracks to our childhoods and have stayed fresh well into adulthood. A genius for making five musicians sound like an orchestra, Simpson scored nearly 300 episodes of Doctor Who, 50 Blakes 7 episodes and provided themes and music for many other productions until the end of the 1980s when he retired to Australia.
Dudley Simpson passed away on 4 November 2017, at the grand age of 95, and I’ve chosen some of his very best work as a tribute. There are many scores I could have chosen and indeed may have chosen on another day, but this I feel represents him at his best. You may disagree; if so, why not nominate your Dudley Simpson Top Tens in the comments below?
1. Doctor Who: ‘City of Death’ (1979)
What else could top this list, but Dudley’s superb and memorable score for City of Death? His Gershwin-inspired “city skyline” theme that accompanies the running round Paris sequences is beautiful and so rightly deserved the full orchestral tribute it received at The Royal Albert Hall in 2013 (Click the YouTube excerpt below, or hear the entire performance here). It’s the most hummable of his Doctor Who scores and it’s a testament to his skill that so many fans have walked around Paris with this score in their head.
There are so many other great moments in this score. I love the part where the Countess Scarlioni unravels the Eyptian scroll to reveal Scaroth’s face at the end. Dudley’s Egyptian style music, recalling his work on the early scenes of Pyramids of Mars, really helps to sell this scene. Equally good is his little theme for the TARDIS’s arrival in Renaissance Florence, which adds some Italian sunshine to the score.
Speaking to DWM in 2003, Dudley said of this score, “That was nice to do ‘cos it was all set in Paris- a nice diversion from the usual Doctor Who. I used an electric piano for that.” He would add in 2015 in DWM’s The Music of Doctor Who special, ‘ I enjoyed that one. Yes, it had a sort of American in Paris feel, didn’t it?” Rather touchingly he commented that hearing part of his score played at the Proms in 2013 was “The greatest night of my life.”
2. ‘Blakes 7’ Theme (1978 – 1981)
Simpson’s finest TV theme is of course Blakes 7. In this he captures firstly the menace of the Federation, with the downbeat and uncomfortable start of the opening theme, then the hope with the triumphant major chords as the Liberator appears in the original opening titles and the appearance of the series logo with a huge swoop, followed by the downbeat chords as the logo disappears with perhaps the hint that they won’t win. Dudley described this to DWM in 1993: “David Maloney rang up and said… ‘The title music has to reflect a release into space… like a liberation.’ So I dreamed up this idea which David said was marvellous.”
Although Simpson was unhappy that the titles had been completed while he was writing the theme it nonetheless works very well and it even manages to fit to the title changes for the third and fourth year.
His rearrangement of theme for the closing titles of Season 4 was perhaps less successful, but we should be grateful that Stephen Pacey never sang over them… All together now – “There is a distant star…” Oh Vere Lorrimer, what were you thinking?
3. ‘The Tomorrow People’ Theme (1973 – 1979)
For a generation of children, this was one of the eeriest TV themes ever. Taking its cue from his 1973 score for the Doctor Who story Frontier in Space, Dudley Simpson gave this show its most powerful asset.
The theme works so well with the visuals of the title sequence, from the slow menacing drumroll that accompanies the unopening of the hand at the start, through the rush of images that follow; it sounds like nothing else on TV and gives the show such atmosphere. It’s incredibly powerful.
I like the little variations that are used as occasional incidental music in the show too, especially the slowed down version that plays eerily over the dusty, empty lab at the end of The Revenge of Jedikiah episode 3. Superb.
4. Doctor Who: ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975)
For fans of a certain age, this is probably the most familiar of Dudley’s scores, thanks to the album version and the many repeats over the years. That doesn’t diminish its power though.
This score is the epitome of Dudley’s action/adventure scores for Doctor Who. He accentuates the action throughout, adding menace to the scenes that need it. There are some great moments, such as Sarah and Sevrin’s desperate escape up the rocket scaffolding, which is one of my favourite bits of this score, the sneaky Nyder theme as he plots and schemes, or the way he makes the Doctor being attacked by Kaled mutants sound like the most terrifying thing.
Throughout, Dudley raises the stakes and he even manages to make the few scenes of Daleks gliding around the Bunker or the wasteland menacing with a pulsing, synthesized theme. As Dudley himself noted in DWM’s The Music of Doctor Who special, “I had to introduce some horrific music for the entrance of the Daleks and I had my favourite percussionist play play two things at once. I aksed him to play a big Tam-Tam with a hard mallet and a drum playing at the same time… It was very effective!”
5. Blake’s 7: ‘Project: Avalon’ (1978)
There’s a beautiful passage of music in this score, where Blake and Jenna teleport down to the planet and spend a couple of minutes exploring the caves in the cold before finding the massacred rebels. Simpson doesn’t often get the chance to write for long periods like this and it works really well, with soft music punctuated by hints of menace as you realise they’re being watched by the surviving Chevnor.
His score is icy and austere, like the setting, all piano, cold synths and his trademark bass clarinet and cello. This is nicely contrasted with a soft and rather beautiful theme for Avalon, and some out and out action music when Blake and his team attempt to escape from the Federation base. Add in some classic teleport landing stings, as was his trademark for the series, you have probably his best score for the series. Sadly though, even Simpson can’t make the Federation Security Robot appear in any way menacing!
6. Doctor Who: ‘Carnival of Monsters’ (1973)
One of Simpson’s most important scores, as this was one of the first that mixed the synthesized scores of the previous few years with conventional instruments. The result is the start of the classic Dudley Simpson sound that came to define his work on Doctor Who and later Blakes 7.
As Dudley himself said in a 1988 interview in DWB, “I found [just using synthesisers] uninteresting and lacking in impact, so I just kept adding to it!”
This score is playful and fun. You sense Dudley is enjoying this one, writing fun bits for Vorg and Shirna reminiscent of fairground carousels, alongside the seafaring themes on board the SS Bernice. These contrast nicely with some more synthesized sequences for the Functionaries and The Tribunal.
7. Blake’s 7: ‘Gold’ (1981)
This score is one of those ones where Dudley adds to the tension, but like Carnival of Monsters also has a more playful side. There’s his trademark fanfare when a ship, this time The Space Princess, appears and the tension building opening music, which builds nicely into the sequence where Scorpio docks with it.
Later on in the episode, Dudley gets to write a muzak theme for the space tour sections, which rather wonderfully is used with an echo when we see the Space Princess cruising through space. It’s very jolly and becomes a tune that will stay in your head for days after you’ve watched the episode.
8. ‘Moonbase 3’ Theme (1973)
Another theme influenced by his score to Frontier in Space, here Dudley goes all out to suggest the cold emptiness of space with some spooky synth work combined with some lovely conventional horns and trumpets. The theme is probably the best thing about the series and far better than it deserved (though it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest)
9. Doctor Who: ‘The Seeds of Death’ (1969)
Simpson’s late ‘60s scores for Doctor Who are all rather wonderful, going all out with flanged piano and drums, creating something that’s very much of its time, but also a brilliant accompaniment to the episodes.
Seeds of Death is my favourite of them. It’s a memorable opening theme for each episode, where we see the Moon or Earth from space, a great lumbering drum based theme for the Ice Warriors, and some playful fun bits to accompany Patrick Troughton running around the Moonbase or being engulfed by foam. As Dudley noted in an interview with DWM in 2003: “I would underline what the actors were doing… Like Patrick Troughton swanning around in The Seeds of Death. Running around and falling over! [I would add] a little less drama.”
The story wouldn’t work half as well without this score.
10. ‘The Brothers’ Theme (1972 – 1976)
I thought I really ought to include something to represents his work outside of the world of sci-fi, as although Dudley was best known for that work, he provided scores and theme for many other shows during his career. Though, as he lamented to DWB in 1988, “I was pigeon-holed because of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 as that sort of writer. It took me a long time to recover.”
This theme has a lovely brass fanfare and a nice rhythm representing the haulage theme of the show. It’s all rather lovely.
The last word belongs to Dudley Simpson: “I loved Doctor Who. I think it was the greatest challenge of my life. Every story was different. Every episode presented a challenge. Every moment… They were funny days. I miss them all!”
Thank you, Dudley Simpson.