For kids growing up in the 1970s, sci-fi nuts glued to our tellies, Dudley Simpson provided the spooky soundtrack of our lives.
A freelance musician, born in Melbourne in 1922, he was brilliantly talented and impressively adaptable. Working at the cutting edge of television and sound technology, he composed incidental music for more than 200 episodes of Doctor Who between 1964 and 1980. He wrote the eerie, urgent theme for kids’ fantasy series The Tomorrow People (ITV, 1973–79). He also composed the bombastic theme to Blake’s 7 (1978–81), as well as scoring almost every episode of BBC1’s sci-fi hit.
But Doctor Who was his baby. Working to tight deadlines, he’d engage a small band of perhaps five musicians and mastered the extraordinary shed-sized synthesizers at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale. “I always find Doctor Who very hard to write for,” he told Radio Times in 1973. “Some of the stories are romantic, some dramatic, some straight sci-fi. But I always treat it as serious drama and try to give the music a sense of doom.”
In 1985, I had the huge pleasure of interviewing Dudley Simpson for Doctor Who Magazine. I invited him to come along to their offices at Marvel Comics HQ in Bayswater and vividly remember this small-framed, dapper Australian in a tweedy suit and trim moustache strolling into reception. He’d have been 62 then, and bless him, he wasn’t at all fazed to be greeted by the 19-year-old me.
We were joined in the Marvel meeting room by my friend, Richard Marson. Both of us admired Dudley’s work, and fondly dubbed him “Deadly Dudley”. I’d spent the weekend priming audio cassettes and VHS tapes of his “greatest hits” from 15 years of Doctor Who. All bootleg recordings, of course; those were the days long before most Doctor Who had been released on video, DVD or CD.
We passed a memorable afternoon reminding Dudley of his compositions, which he hadn’t listened to in years. He was as thrilled as we were. He was also still quite sore about being dumped from Doctor Who five years earlier by 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner. A few days later he sent me a sweet letter of gratitude, which I will always treasure.
In these modern times when most of Murray Gold’s scores are available on CD or as downloads, it’s such a shame that very little of Dudley’s music exists “in the raw”. It’s there to be enjoyed, embedded into the soundtracks of his episodes, but is often cluttered with sound effects and dialogue.
Sci-fi was only a part of Dudley Simpson’s composing career. In the 70s and 80s, he was in demand, writing for many major BBC dramas: The Last of the Mohicans, Paul Temple, The Brothers, Target, the Sunday afternoon serials, and the Beeb’s prestigious Shakespeare adaptations. He remained proud of his association in the late 1950s with the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House. He became principal conductor and Dame Margot Fonteyn’s musical director on two world tours.
He retired to his native Australia in the 1990s, but in 2013 was bowled over to be invited to attend the Doctor Who Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. His romantic “city skyline” from the 1979 Tom Baker story, City of Death, was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Dudley Simpson died in Australia on 4 November 2017 at the grand old age of 95. He will always be remembered for his long association with the show he adored and for his atmospheric scores.
“I loved Doctor Who,” Dudley told me in 1985. “It was the greatest challenge of my life. Every episode presented a challenge. Every moment. They were funny days. I miss them all.”