Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Orbit stage, July 9 2017.
There’s a quiet thrill of anticipation in the stuffy air of the Orbit tent, early evening of the Bluedot Saturday. It’s the bubble of knowing that witnessing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop live is likely to be a rare and unique pleasure. With Leftfield and Orbital on this year’s bill, and the likes of Jean Michel Jarre and Underworld in the past, Bluedot is stuffed to the gills with acts that share the ‘electronic music pioneers’ moniker, but it is the Radiophonic Workshop that have most earned the label. Created in 1958 to produce sound effects and original music for BBC radio and TV productions, the gang of keen technicians pushed sound producing technology as far as it would go to achieve warps, bleeps, tones and wobbles for all manner of experimental productions. Their most famous work, the Doctor Who theme tune, was composed by the late Delia Derbyshire who famously used keys scratched along piano wires to create the iconic electro-screech of the opener.
The Radiophonics take to the stage, a humble foursome led by archivist Mark Ayres who takes to his impressive bank of synths like an engineer fixing the warp drives of the Enterprise. Each tune is its own special delight: unpretentious sci-fi pop moves into semi-improvised soundscape via sample-stocked modern electro-rock. Space shuttles and backwards-talking robots fill the screen, alongside mushroom clouds and the grinning girl of the BBC test card. It’s the sort of imagery you’re just as likely to see at a Public Service Broadcasting gig and yet here there is added delight in the knowledge that these guys owned it first, and best.
The spirit of invention is still palpable as curious instruments appear as if spirited from nowhere. Ayres plays some sort of electronic clarinet, drummer Kieron Pepper (who once beat the skins for The Prodigy) pulls a violin bow across a sheet of metal at the front of his kit. The stage is fertile with laptops, synths and guitars too and the resulting sounds are a glorious blend of inventive, fun-filled aural journeys.
A guest appearance from the actual voice of Professor Stephen Hawkins brings an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd and there’s a lovely surprise towards the end when the gang are joined by Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll who takes to the synth bank like he’s always been a member. The concluding speech of legendary member Dick Mills is as moving as it is thrilling because we all know what’s around the corner. Cue the faces of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker et al and the loving sweep into the vortex of the TARDIS as the Doctor Who theme tune comes bouncing out to play.
And it is special, it is unique. For that hour we are all companions to our very own gang of Time-lords and our adventures through time, space and sound are no less thrilling.