Monday, 1 August 2011

The miracle of synaesthesia: Delia Derbyshire and the Doctor Who title sequence.

Architecture, as someone once said, is frozen music. What a beautiful and correct expression this is. One only has to gaze upon the vaulted arches that spread as so many serried ribs along the ceiling of a medieval cathedral to hear in one’s head the spacious chanting and dense, block-chorded polyphony that makes such a virtue of the long sound decay embedded, encoded even, in the architectural acoustic. How could the elegant, wedding-cake aesthetic of 18th Century architecture be matched in sumptuous splendour by anything else but the triumphant bustle of Handel, Vivaldi and their Baroque music contemporaries? Was there ever a more perfect evocation of the broken, decaying urban wastelands of Thatcher’s Eighties than ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials? I defy any TV documentary maker to come up with a better candidate for a song to play over tracking shots of desolate, graffiti-strewn concrete tower blocks.
Synaesthesia — perceiving one sense with the stimulation of another — manifests itself in all of us to a greater or lesser extent. Now, don’t tell me you haven’t experienced this sensation. I’m not saying you necessarily see the steely thin charcoal-black rods that radiate from the corner of my mind every time I hear overdriven electric guitars, the hard squares and bell-like shapes that get conjured up on listening to brass music or the smooth green curved formations that accompany a lot of 70s Prog Rock whenever I close my eyes — but I think a degree of it is intrinsically hard-wired into the human perception matrix. As someone says in the final Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool, speaking of film direction: you’ve got to hear the colours; you’ve got to smell the sounds. Hm, I think a little harder and recall that this may have been said by the neurotic, psychotic serial killer, but hey — I’m right, aren’t I? Well, aren’t I? When another’s sense of synaesthesia identifies so closely with my own it feels like they’ve literally read my mind. 
If you have seen the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille you may recall the moment early on when our redoubtable rodent hero bites into a particularly toothsome piece of cheese. As he does so, the background fades away to black around him as we see him lose himself in the magnificent moment, while bursts of colour and shape explode, fizz and fizzle this way and that with every delirious, delicious mouthful. Whoa! That’s synaesthesia. It’s possible that this is the most subtly detailed, yet wondrously observed depiction of it I’ve ever seen on a moving screen. With one exception.
I shan’t express any incredulity if you have never heard of Doctor Who — only last week did I find myself having to outline the entire premise to a young chap from abroad who really hadn’t seen it. It’s been a while since I met someone with no Whovian foreknowledge and I was left scrabbling, struggling to describe a show that has been part of the British public consciousness for almost 50 years. It’s a show of inherent contradictions; often grappling with high-flown concepts and bold futuristic ideas, yet (sometimes unfairly) remembered for its stagey, often low production values. It’s an action show where the hero wins largely by using his brains — who flies a spaceship that also travels through time and is bigger on the inside than on the outside. Answer anyone’s question on one aspect of the show and you’ll find three more questions spring, Hydra-like, out from your response. It’s part of the beauty of it all. If you are not up on your Who, I shall spare you a passionate and largely incoherent torrent of babble by way of explanation and suggest you look it up while you are online. Thank me later!
I have spoken briefly before of my enduring love of the Doctor Who theme tune. It has featured in my life longer than I have been cognisant, having been used on the programme years before I was born. It was written by Ron Grainer, an established Australian composer who was already enjoying success with popular TV series tunes: That Was The Week That Was — that was Ron Grainer, that was. The jaunty clod-hop he wrote for Steptoe & Son was — still is — effortlessly evocative of that show. His catchy, likeable tunes would inform much essential viewing in the coming years, including the curt, purposeful Sixties strut of The Prisoner and the genial-yet-sinister fairground waltz of Tales Of The Unexpected in the Seventies. In 1963 he was at the top of his game and a logical choice for the Who production team. Doctor Who’s young, sparky and intelligent producer Verity Lambert had already commissioned a suitably unearthly title sequence for her brand new children’s show; now it needed a melody to match.
Before I say any more on the music, I must discuss the title sequence, designed with care and supreme skill by Bernard Lodge, who was a BBC designer at the time. You should really watch a video link of the titles to appreciate their fluid, shifting quality, but I’ve isolated the salient points below. The abstract, ephemeral shapes that seem to ripple out towards the viewer were achieved by making a virtue out of two normally unwanted video effects. 
First, if an object in the camera’s view is too bright, the light source has a tendency to bloom and create a burnout afterimage onscreen, exactly as your own eyes do should you stare too long at anything bright. You will notice on old pre-Eighties videotaped shows how excessively bright moving light sources, such as car headlamps or a candle flame leave a dark trail behind them. Recent advances in video technology have all but done away with these side-effects. I don’t believe you can replicate the effect quite the same way with a webcam, for example.
Second, when an analogue video camera’s lens is pointed at its own monitor screen, the tone value of any image and indeed any light coming from the monitor itself is fed back again and yet again in a series of recursive, degrading and regrading signals that pulsate and create visual echoes of themselves. It’s an effect not dissimilar to holding a mirror up to a mirror and seeing infinitely regressing images, but the shortcomings of the camera eye and fluctuations in the electronic signal keep the visual information fluid, ever-changing. This phenomenon was recognised in the Fifties and dubbed ‘howl-around’ — although it is visual feedback by any other name. Several years before Pete Townshend (with his Who), Jimi Hendrix and their Sixties rock peers were pioneering the use of controlled feedback in music, Bernard Lodge was doing exactly the same thing with vision. It doesn’t get more Sixties than that.

Top left: the rising line, reminiscent of the exhaust trail of a rocket or missile soaring skywards, is the first thing you would see in Doctor Who for the initial three years of transmission. Interestingly, it’s the only part of the title sequence that was not made specifically for Doctor Who — it’s an excerpt of experimental howl-around imagery created in the late 1950s for a scene in Amahl And The Night Visitors, an opera commissioned by the BBC specifically for television, conceived by Giancarlo Menotti. Bernard Lodge has cheerfully admitted no credit for this opening shot, having found it while researching all the test footage made thus far with video effects and wisely decided it was worth recycling. In doing so, he brought this striking, weirdly disturbing image to a greater audience than it ever did within the context of Amahl. It crossfades into… 
Top right: Lodge’s tumbling howl-around cloud-blobs, for want of a better description, that comprise the main element of the titles. 
Bottom left: the evanescent shapes coalesce into the words DOCTOR WHO. Bernard Lodge had observed in early tests with lettering that boldness and symmetry created better, more balanced results from the howl-around signal. Consequently, he selected a sans-serif typeface, placed the words one on top of the other to create a solid square-ish shape and processed the image both forward and reversed (note the ‘OHO’). This generates a pleasingly Rorschach-like pattern before finally it sharpens into focus as…
Bottom right: the title logo, which recedes through the billowing howl-around continuing throughout. I use the word ‘logo’ but Bernard Lodge would describe it as merely typeface. I forget the name of the font, but it is stark, austere and reads crisply onscreen, like a newspaper headline. It’s both a televisual hangover of the Fifties and the start of Sixties Pop Art. It’s effortlessly cool, classy, contrasty and contrary. It’s William Hartnell’s Doctor. 
Back to the music. How many ways — how many different, unexciting and ordinary ways — it could have gone, but Verity Lambert decided the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop could handle the realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme and in a brilliant move, sat Grainer down in front of the newly minted title sequence along with the talented Delia Derbyshire, a delightfully mercurial, mischievous member of the Workshop who was obsessed with the texture of sound and its musical application. What happened that day as they watched the images unfold and expand was pure, direct synaesthesia.
Grainer and Derbyshire must have left the room after seeing Bernard Lodge’s monochrome psychedelia with a million ideas fermenting at once. Grainer set to work immediately and promptly presented the Radiophonic Workshop with a scribbled single page of music, upon which he had marked out some whimsical and poetic instrumentation suggestions — including guitar, bass bassoon, clouds and wind-bubble. The words conjured instant magic in Delia Derbyshire’s head.
Electronic music was relatively new, but not unheard of and Grainer possibly expected Delia and her boys to turn in a thoroughly electronic, but essentially solid arrangement, played on the newly emerging sound generators, the prototype synthesisers of their time. What Grainer didn’t know was that he’d handed his work over a collective of eccentric English alchemists bent on creating melody from the strangest of sources. Derbyshire’s recording featured sine-wave generators playing short, bent notes in a pulsing bass sequence, sampled repeatedly via tape loops, in conjunction with the sound of a piano string being plucked with a slap-back echo/reverb added to create rhythm. There’s no real percussion in the piece at all — just the pure drive of Delia’s bass line and her imagination. Behind it all, there appear to be sounds like water drips, or steam puffs, played backwards to create a beguiling, whooshing, sucking texture that plays arrhythmically throughout. The melody was recorded at half-speed on a basic electronic sound oscillator, with the notes arrived upon by turning the dials to the appropriate intervals, like a mad scientist’s Swanee whistle. Everything is then plastered in just the right amount of echo and reverb. I make it sound easy. Don’t you believe it: Delia Derbyshire, having completed the arrangement in her head, would have taken painstaking weeks, often working alone in the wee small hours, to assemble the loops and run them at the correct timing. None of the piece was recorded in real time.
The resulting recording — and I say this with all the understatement I can muster — remains astonishing, ageless and unique. Derbyshire’s realisation of Grainer’s score took the theme — and the show too, no question about it — into a whole new realm. Never — and I mean never — has a TV series and its theme tune been so insolubly linked, conveying in a scant thirty seconds of sound and vision something that has now been going for half a century and still carries with it all the fear, wonder, excitement and sheer alienness of Delia Derbyshire’s stunning, eerie arrangement. Many other people have made recordings of it; none have matched it. 
No less impressed, Grainer lobbied for Derbyshire to receive a co-composing credit; so far gone, so otherworldly, so removed from his original sheet music did he deem the end product. BBC parsimony ensured that sadly, Delia never did. No doubt she received her scale BBC wage packet, or at most a modest ex gratia payment, but nothing like the revenue made by the theme itself for the BBC. After she left the Corporation she continued in her quietly naughty, wildly experimental way. Her other most notable recordings were in collaboration on the wonderful album An Electric Storm as part of the collective called White Noise, along with fellow Workshop alumnus Brian Hodgson, in 1968. She died in 2001, leaving behind hours of music made with passion and loved with equal reverence by her devoted followers. While her fame within the world of Doctor Who is considerable, she remains largely unsung to the larger universe. Her website is here
Currently listening:
I A Moon (North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2011)
Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior & June Tabor, 1976)
Paul Hardcastle (Paul Hardcastle, 1985)
Currently reading:
Fire & Rain (David Browne, 2011)
Currently watching:
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles seasons one and two (20th Century Fox, 2008-2009)
Doctor Who: The Gunfighters (BBC, 1966)
Doctor Who: The Awakening (BBC, 1984)
Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (BBC, 1977)

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