Friday, 17 April 2009

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Institutional Pre-History

In a 1997 interview with John Cavanagh for BBC Radio Scotland’s Original Masters series, Delia Derbyshire claimed that when the first “boss” of the Radiophonic Workshop was appointed in 1958, “there were two applicants from a drama background and three applicants with a music background. And drama won.” But things were not quite as simple as this statement implies. At the time the BBC had a particularly adventurous Drama department, heavily influenced by the ground breaking work that came out of Laurence Gilliam’s post-war Features department, and a largely conservative Music department. In the 1930s, writers like Tyrone Guthrie were already talking about “symphonic form” in radio drama, and paying attention to the significance of words as sound forms in themselves.

Though the BBC had developed a strong reputation for ‘modern’ music in the twenties and thirties, with the coming of the Second World War, a decision was made by the Programme Planning Department to move to a ‘lighter’ programming schedule against the wishes of Head of Music, Adrian Boult. In a Musical Times article from 1943, otherwise full of praise for the high standard maintained in broadcast music, the author remarks on a “falling short” in the field of contemporary music, “due to causes that nobody can remedy.”

Despite the newfound pressures of commercial competition, R. J. F. Howgill, Head of Music 1952-1959, insisted on maintaining the BBC’s commitment to the “very best” – in the ideology of the times however, this consisted of a spectacular spectrum with “at one end” the Last Night of the Proms and “at the other end of the spectrum, ‘celebrity recitals’ by Menuhin, Fischer-Dieskau, and others." Things were about to change. In 1957, William Glock conducted a performance of works by Stockhausen, Boulez and Nono on the Third Programme, 3 March 1957 and would become head of music in 1959 with a remit to broadcast “a wider selection of contemporary music.” Of course, by this time, the Radiophonic Workshop was already set up under the stewardship of the Drama department.

Born, G. (2004), Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC, 2004, London: Secker & Warburg;
Briggs, A., The History of Broadcasting in The United Kingdom Volume V: Competition, 1995, Oxford: Oxford University Press;
Doctor, J. R., The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922-1936, 1999, Cambridge University Press;
McN., W., ‘The BBC Comes of Age’, in The Musical Times, vol. 84, No. 1210. (Dec. 1943), p.367;
Rodger, I., Radio Drama, 1982, London: Macmillan