Fans of the Doctor Who theme (and who isn’t, eh?) should check out this BBC report from 1982 in which Peter Howell describes how he went about revamping the programme’s famous opening tune.
The clip was originally screened on 2nd February 1982 as part of The Music Arcade: Electricity in Music. Peter gives a detailed run through of his use of polyphonic analogue synthesisers, a vocoder, and an old, malfunctioning phase shifter to give Ron Grainer’s theme music a ‘brighter, more modern sounding’ feel for the 1980s.
In the Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition: The Music of Doctor Who, Peter says he spent about six weeks working on the new arrangement:
“I rather prided myself on the fact that I used so many different synthesisers and techniques that nobody could actually go down to the high street and buy something and reproduce it. There were something like ten or 12 different sound sources in the thing.”
You may have thought that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop staff would have been chomping at the bit to have a go at revamping Doctor Who’s theme, but far from it:
“Nobody would touch it with a bargepole. Because when something’s been established for 18 years you tread very, very carefully. I was quite interested in the challenge, but I did actually say to Paddy (Kingsland)…’Well, look, if I have a go at this will you constantly monitor what I’m doing to make sure I’m not making a fool of myself?'”
The new theme certainly helped incoming producer John Nathan-Turner make his mark on the programme, and I vividly remember watching Part One of The Leisure Hive and wondering just what was going on when the new opening titles and music burst onto the screen. Its use of what were then the very latest in electronic equipment probably makes Howell’s take feel rather more of its time than the Delia Derbyshire arrangements it replaced, but it undoubtedly formed a strong part of the programme’s identity and endured until it was in turn succeeded by Dominic Glynn’s arrangement in 1986.
The clip is hosted on the BBC Archive YouTube channel, a great source of clips from news and factual programmes where you can very easily spend an hour or two watching wonderful old footage of the likes of football manager Brian Clough signing the first million pound player, Blue Peter presenter John Noakes climbing floodlights, and Jon Pertwee collapsing a caravan in 11 seconds.