It’s 50 years since the first episode aired on the BBC on November 23 1963 – and now Doctor Who is in promotion overdrive. We’ve been treated to online snippets of the 50th-anniversary special, pre-anniversary episodes and pleas to #SaveTheDay across time, space and second screen – but what about the special place Australia holds for The Doctor?
A local contribution to the international Whovian puzzle has been largely overlooked – it was two Australian-born composers who provided the music for the classic version of the show as well as inspiration for its new incarnations.
First was Ron Grainer, the composer responsible for the basic building blocks of the Doctor Who theme tune.
His theme has been rearranged more than 20 times for the program’s television updates, and at least a dozen more in audio books, spoofs and multi-platform extras such as the latest promos.
Grainer famously scribbled his piece onto a piece of paper, then handed it to a young member of the BBC’s new sound production house, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
That employee, musician and arranger was Delia Derbyshire, who worked on the theme with painstaking and creative detail. Grainer was so impressed that he reportedly tried to split his royalties for the theme with her. But, as Radiophonic workshop biographer Louis Niebur later noted, “that wasn’t allowed” under the arrangement the BBC had made with its employees.
Derbyshire’s work has also rightly gained attention and acclaim, including celebrations of the Radiophonic’s legacy and the establishment of Delia Derbyshire Day as part of a development of her archive at the University of Manchester.
Derbyshire’s arrangements, in all their weird and wonderful glory, have also affectionately broken down Grainer’s ideas into bass “diddly dums” and melody “oo-ee-oos”. Budding arrangers can now play around with the Doctor Who soundtrack on the BBC’s interactive Radiophonatron.
The forgotten sound of Doctor Who
The celebration of the theme is fantastic – but why have Australians largely overlooked Grainer’s place in local and international music history? As the Doctor Who theme moved from the television screen to dancefloors via disco, samba, dub and KLF-reworked remakes, Grainer’s nationality got pushed further and further into the background.
Ron Grainer was born in Queensland and trained in classical music in Brisbane and Sydney, as well as serving in our armed forces. He lived much of his working life in Europe and, in addition to Doctor Who, Grainer wrote themes for British TV classics including The Prisoner and Tales of the Unexpected.
Dudley Simpson’s incidental music
There’s another Australian alongside Grainer who helped create the sonic world of Doctor Who – Dudley Simpson. Like Grainer, Simpson was born in Australia and served in the military before going to the UK to write for television.
Simpson wrote incidental music for Doctor Who for nearly three decades. Before leitmotifs were really taken seriously on the small screen, he was exploring ways to establish key characters and ensure the sci-fi world was both familiar and alien all at once.
Dedicated Whovians have archived collections of praise for Simpson, including fan letters and responses.
Earlier this year the BBC recognised Simpson’s work by including him as part of the classic section of this year’s Doctor Who Prom, part of the BBC’s annual Proms program, work supported by invaluable Who sound artist and historian Mark Ayres.
New Who composer, Murray Gold, also recently praised Dudley’s work in Doctor Who and beyond. (When not covering weekly sci-fi or drama, Simpson also found time to provide the soundtracks for period dramas, historical fiction and Shakespeare remakes.)
Listening to television
One reason we don’t celebrate Grainer and Simpson’s work is because we’re still not very good at acknowledging the importance of television sound generally.
The box in the corner has been described as a “radio with pictures” and a “cinema at home” – but it’s still not really understood as a place for artistic innovation.
TV composers such as Grainer and Simpson made lots of great sounds – and are being acknowledged by their peers. The rest of us need to catch up.
On Monday in federal parliament, a particularly excited Who fan, Federal Member for Dawson George Christensen, donned a Tom Baker scarf and sung Grainer’s theme. His aim is to get the 2015 series, the Australian broadcast anniversary of the BBC show, made here.
While Christensen still focused largely on images of Doctor Who, moving swiftly past Simpson’s soundscapes, let’s hope the 50th anniversary attention means that we hear more local acknowledgments of pioneering Australian sound.