Formative Experiences #2 – Doctor Who

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The sad death of Geoffrey Burgon, composer of the incidental music to two  of my favourite Doctor Who stories, Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, a couple of days ago prompted me think about writing something about the debt  I owe as a composer to the BBC and Doctor Who.

I have always been a huge Doctor Who fan, but as a child my fandom was bordering on religiosity. I would never dream of missing an episode and luckily my understanding parents always made sure I never did. Maybe I haven’t changed now with regards to Nu-Who, but have just become a bit more laid back about it because I know I’ll always be able to catch up with it on iPlayer.

Probably most people would accept that Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s Who theme bought electroacoustic music to the masses in Britain. Although the UK never had it’s own state tape studio in the vein of the European ones that produced “serious” electronic music by the likes of Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Maderna etc., we did have the Radiophonic Workshop which essentially used the same techniques to produce sound effects and TV themes. The upshot of this was we got a lot of mainstream music on the BBC that was made with very sophisticated electroacoustic techniques.

However, I think it is probably the incidental music to Doctor Who that had the most effect on my musical development, albeit perhaps subconsciously, and it is to composers such as Geoffrey Burgon, Delia Derbyshire, Tristram Cary, Humphrey Searle, Malcolm Clarke and Dudley Simpson that I owe the greatest debt.  Until the eighties, It sometimes appeared that there was no one higher up in really paying attention to what music was being used in so-called children’s TV, which fortuitously meant that we were treated to weird electronica and psychedelic folk on a daily basis. It also ensured that this era was probably the greatest era for TV theme tunes, such as The Tomorrow People, Blake’s 7 and the terrifying, Ligeti-esque The Children of the Stones. One of the more “far out” electronic soundtracks for Doctor Who was Malcolm Clarke’s 1972 soundtrack to The Sea Devils.

The era that I remember fondest as a child was the final season of Jon Pertwee until the penultimate Tom Baker season. Now, I wouldn’t suggest suggest for a moment that there weren’t great doctor who stories outside of this era (there certainly were), but there was a certain style to the incidental music that I loved. The stand out composer of this era, for me, was Margot Fonteyn’s old musical director, Dudley Simpson. Simpson composed incidental music for 211 episodes of Doctor Who, starting with Planet of the Giants in 1964 and ending with 1980’s The Horns of Nimon.

There is a saying that the best soundtracks are the ones you don’t notice. Personally, I think this is bollocks. Is there really anyone out there who didn’t notice the incidental music in The Magnificent Seven, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Apes or The Omen? Exactly. Something I really love about Dudley Simpson, and many other of the Radiophonic Workshop composers, is you always know they are there.

Simpson’s music flirted with atonality and created a wonderful sense of unease, which fitted the gothic horror of the golden era of Philip Hinchcliffe’s reign as producer. He often used a very small ensemble regularly consisting of clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and organ, yet he was able to eek so much out of so few instruments. For the uninitiated, a good place to start would be Genesis of the Daleks, or my personal favourite Who story ever, The Planet of Evil.

In some way, you could say that Doctor Who (and the Eastern European avant garde animation they used to play on BBC2 around 6 o’clock on weekday evenings) groomed me for the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Certainly, in contrast to my classmates who dismissed serial music as unmusical noise, my first experience of Webern seemed like an epiphany. When I first heard Variations for Orchestra Op. 5 at university, I somehow felt that this was the music I had been waiting for all my life. After that, it only seemed a short hop to Brian Fernyhough, Michael Finnissy and Helmut Lachenmann.

I know that the incidental music in Nu-Who is immensely popular with old and young fans alike, although The Guardian regularly has the same complaint that my father has of all film and TV – that it is too loud. It’s certainly true that Nu-Who composer Murray Gold is giving modern audiences what they want and, perhaps more importantly, what they expect from a modern TV drama, but I must admit that I preferred the more unearthly sounds of the original series. Even though Doctor Who was always a mainstream show, its music was always far from mainstream and I miss that.

This entry was posted in composer, composition, Doctor Who, Electroacoustic Music, Electronica, electronics, Tape music, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Formative Experiences #2 – Doctor Who

  1. Pingback: Tribute To Classic Doctor Who Composers | Kasterborous Doctor Who News

  2. Andy McDuffie says:

    Absolutely brilliant to see these scores getting the recognition that they deserve at last, and from a well qualified source too. I have adored these Hinchcliffe era Simpson scores for years with “Genesis of The daleks” and “The Brain of Morbius” being two particular favorites. The small ensemble always sounded quite fantastic and quite unlike anything I would hear again until – blimey – middle age when I discovered “Chamber Rock” acts such as Univers Zero or Art Zoyd.
    Such a pity that these scores no longer exist in their pure form, free from dialogue and sound fx. One day, somebody will get a small band together, duplicate the ensemble arrangements and bring this music to lifa once more. Know anybody who might be interested?

    • It would certainly be fantastic to hear these scores performed live, perhaps accompanied by footage from Doctor Who.

      I’ve been thinking for a while of writing a book about Dudley Simpson’s music for Doctor Who. Do you think there would be much interest from Whovians?


  3. Matt Badham says:

    What a great post.

  4. Andy McDuffie says:


    apologies for not answering the question until now – I lost your Blog, how careless of me!

    To answer, yes, I actually think almost ANY book about the classic era of the show, assuming it to be well enough researched and written, would meet with some degree of success. The show has generated its own industry and public for such things. I’d stick my neck out on this and say that the music is particularly attractive to both Whovians and those interested in vintage instruments, television etc. It might even be an area that transcends this inbuilt consumer group, also appealing to a more mainstream audience. Who knows? I’d read it!

  5. Andy,

    Yes, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think I’m going to start looking into publishers and see if there is any interest there.


  6. Andy McDuffie says:

    Go for it!

    What’s the state of play with Mr. Simpson himself, I wonder? I notice his website is now gone.

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