Interview: Doctor Who’s Brian Hodgson on creating the sounds of the Tardis and Daleks

The former head of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop reveals the origins of sci-fi's most famous sounds

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Interviewed in 2009

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The voice of the Daleks… The Tardis taking off… Otherworldly sounds now instantly recognisable around the world. “I created all of the special sounds for the first ten years,” says by Brian Hodgson, one of the avant-garde aces responsible for the early success of Doctor Who.

Born in Liverpool in 1938, Brian did his National Service in the RAF and trained in the theatre, before joining the BBC drama department in 1961. “I was a studio manager. I showed some creative initiative with effects so was asked to go to the Radiophonic Workshop [RW] for a three-month attachment in about February 1963.”

He first heard about Doctor Who later that year when producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein arrived to discuss their new programme with RW boss Desmond Briscoe. “They were both charming, amazingly attractive and full of confidence that the series would run,” recalls Brian. “And a delight to work for because they knew exactly what they wanted.”

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[Above: Brian Hodgson and Waris Hussein at the BFI in January 2013. Photographed by RT’s Patrick Mulkern]

“Verity really wanted a Ron Grainer signature tune played by Les Structures Sonores [French musique concrete exponents], but Ron had turned her down because he didn’t want to compose any more TV sigs. However, Desmond knew Ron would like to collaborate with the Workshop so he offered to ring him.”

Brian didn’t work on the groundbreaking theme music; that was realised by RW colleague Delia Derbyshire. “I only helped Delia add a few ‘sparkles’ when the graphics changed,” in 1967, shortly after Patrick Troughton became the Doctor. Nevertheless, Brian devised many of the iconic Doctor Who sound effects. “Yes, the Tardis take-off, Dalek voices, the Dalek control room … which are still used today.”

So what inspired the groaning racket the Tardis makes? “I remember a phrase about the ‘rending of the fabric of time and space’. So I wanted a sort of tearing sound. What we definitely didn’t want was a sound like an ordinary space rocket. When I first sketched it out there wasn’t a rising note, but Desmond insisted we needed one or else it wasn’t saying “spaceship” enough. So we put that in.” The sound was generated using a broken down piano frame. “It was standing up in the corner of the workshop with its strings exposed and I scraped a front-door key down the bass string. We recorded that and added loads of feedback.”

Brian created many other special sounds and atmospheres. Think warbling Zarbi (“A lot of people complained it was too high-pitched”), invading Cybermen, the Time Lord courtroom, Auton wrist-guns – even Thal wind! But it may be an apocryphal story that the Yeti roar was recorded from a flushing toilet. He laughs. “Yes, it probably is. Basically, we used anything we could find. Sometimes I used my own voice; I’d been trained as an actor. Sometimes I’d use a recording of my dogs. Slowed down and treated electronically.”

There wasn’t much discussion in 1963 about how the Dalek voices would sound. “I’d done a voice for a robot butler in a children’s radio series and used a ring modulation system. So we used that again and just had to make sure that [voice artist] Peter Hawkins gave a monotonous delivery. So it was a blend of my treatment and Peter’s performance.”

Some of the later Troughton stories (The Wheel in Space, The Dominators, The Krotons) and an early Jon Pertwee (Inferno) eschewed incidental music altogether in favour of a Radiophonic sound design. It was partly an aesthetic choice but, says Brian, “Sometimes it was because they’d run out of money. And people wouldn’t have called it “music”; they’d say it was “atmosphere”. The fact it was atmospheric music was beside the point; we never got paid extra. It was part of our day job.”

By 1967, Brian was also collaborating with Dudley Simpson on such classics as The Evil of the Daleks and Fury from the Deep. “Dudley was a great composer and musician but he didn’t have any technical side. He’d start with musicians in a studio session and sometimes we’d treat the recording later electronically on a multitrack.”

Producer Barry Letts opted for all electronic music for Jon Pertwee’s 1971 season, including the fabulous Master theme. “By then I’d quite a rapport going with Dudley. And we’d started using synthesisers. The VCS-3 was a bit tiresome because if somebody opened the door, it would go out of tune. We had to keep retuning it all the time. Later we had the Synthi 100, the big Delaware synthesiser.”

Brian remembers some of the stars of Doctor Who. “Everyone steered well clear of [first Doctor] Bill Hartnell. He was a misery but, let’s face it, he created something really quite special. I liked Patrick but didn’t see much of him. I saw more of Jon Pertwee because by then I was often going to the studios for dubbing. Jon was terrific, immense fun, but he liked to be the one telling the jokes. A very kind man, actually.” Brian also became great mates with Katy Manning who played companion Jo Grant. “She was so pretty and always a delight to be with. We sometimes went out together.”

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[Above: Brian Hodgson and Katy Manning in 1972 at the Whitechapel Gallery – and re-creating the shot in 2015 in Covent Garden]

He left the RW in 1972, founded his own recording company Electrophon and composed for the Rambert Ballet. In the late 70s, he was invited to return to the RW as “organiser”, in effect Desmond Briscoe’s deputy, a post he accepted “more out of devilment than anything else. It didn’t matter to me whether I got the job or not.”

He eventually became department head and stayed until 1995, taking early retirement a few years before the place was wound down. A lot of people lamented the Radiophonic Workshop’s closure. Brian believes “it was inevitable. Originally, we were the only place that could do that sort of work. By the 90s, kids had more technology on their own computers.”

In a complete career change Brian spent a few years as a hypnotherapist and counsellor, but now lives in retirement in the Norfolk Broads. “I am eternally amazed that people seem to value my contribution so highly,” he says, “and I’m proud to have been associated with such a significant part of television history.”

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Below: in 1983, a crowd of eager fans listening to Brian Hodgson at the 20th-anniversary Doctor Who Celebration in Longleat (photographed by RT’s Don Smith)

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