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Bookmark and Share An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend

8/12/2013 06:10:00 pm - Reported by Marcus

The Delia Mode
The seventeenth in our series of features telling the story of the creation of Doctor Who, and the people who made it happen.

Production is now well under way on the new science-fiction series, the main actors had been cast and issued with their contracts.

It was clear to the production team that a vital element of the new drama's success would be the title music and special sounds. On Monday 12th August, exactly 50 years ago today, director Waris Hussein contacted the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to discuss the requirements for the first episode of Doctor Who.

The Radiophonic Workshop had been founded in 1958, with a brief to produce effects and new music for radio and television using new techniques available in the new electronic age. It was based in the BBC's Maida Vale Studios in Delaware Road, north-west London.

Verity Lambert had by now abandoned her original idea of asking the French group Les Structures Sonores to provide the title music. A meeting with the head of the Workshop, Desmond Briscoe, had persuaded Lambert that what she needed was "something electronic with a strong beat", something "familiar, but different" - something the Radiophonic Workshop could provide. Lambert was keen to obtain the services of Ron Grainer to write the music.

Grainer was an Australian composer who had been living in London for the past ten years. After working as a pianist in a nightclub, he had achieved some success as a composer, creating the scores for a number of TV series and a couple of features films. In 1961 he had won an Ivor Novello Award for the theme to Maigret, the series based on the books by Georges Simenon. Grainer had already worked with the Radiophone Workshop when creating his score for Giants of Steam, a documentary about railways.

Assigned to create the music would be one of the Radiophonic Workshop's staff, Delia Derbyshire. She had joined the BBC in 1960 working as a radio studio manager before joining the Workshop in 1962. The music she provided to herald the start of each episode of Doctor Who is now regarded as one of the most significant and innovative piece of electronic music ever produced. That it was created in the early Sixties, in the days before multi-track recorders and commercial synthesizers, is truly amazing. Aided by assistant Dick Mills, Derbyshire created each note separately by cutting, splicing, speeding up, and slowing down recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the output of test-tone oscillators. The notes were then edited together on quarter-inch tape. Mixing was done by starting several tape machines simultaneously and mixing the outputs together.

Grainer was highly impressed with the final result, famously asking Derbyshire, "Did I write that?" Her reply became equally famous: "Most of it."

Another important element of the show would be the special sounds. In charge for the first episode would be Brian Hodgson, who had joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962. One of the most important effects that would be needed for the new series would be that of the Doctor's time-and-spaceship dematerialising. The ship had by now been named the TARDIS. Hodgson produced the effect by dragging the key to his mother's back door along the strings of an old, gutted piano. The resulting sound was recorded and electronically processed with echo and reverb. Hodgson would provide most of the special sounds for the series until 1972, creating much of the soundscape of Doctor Who.

While the music was being put together, events around the series were moving on. William Hartnell had attended Television Centre in west London for make-up and costume tests in the first week of August, and Carole Ann Ford would attend the following week. Terry Nation had submitted his scripts for the fourth story of the season and the production team had decided to up the episode count to seven to better serve the story. The story was, however, likely to be moved back to fifth in the season as script editor David Whitaker was keen to include a story where the TARDIS crew get reduced in size. This, however, was dependent on getting a better studio allocation with more up-to-date equipment to help achieve the effects needed for such a story.

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SOURCES: Hartnell, William Henry (1908–1975) by Robert Sharp, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; The Handbook: The First Doctor – The William Hartnell Years: 1963-1966, David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker (Doctor Who Books, 1994)