Alice Lowe, Sightseers, Timestalker and Delia Derbyshire

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, I began to stumble upon subtle suggestions that actual other people may have experienced the same hazy feelings of vague, oddly reassuring disquiet that had helped to define my own childhood and teenage years. The discovery of Boards of Canada – via a free CD, sellotaped to the front of the NME – was certainly a revelatory moment. And on TV, Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper’s immaculate spoof of 1970s schools and science programmes, Look Around You, gave me a frisson of hilarious, head-swimming nostalgia; as did Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s brilliant pastiche of low-budget, late-night 1980s horror. Both shows not only captured perfectly the style and tone of their respective targets, but also their production aesthetic: the crackly 16mm film, the clunky edits and deliciously wonky analogue synths.

Starring alongside Holness, Ayoade and Matt Berry in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was Alice Lowe, brilliantly assuming one of the dual roles that defined the series’ “show within a show” conceit. Alice played actress Madeline Wool, who in turn portrayed Dr Liz Asher, a medic in the Darkplace hospital with hilariously destructive psychokinetic powers. Since then, she has become one of the most in-demand performers on TV (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, Little Britain, Horrible Histories, Sherlock, Black Mirror… it’s a very long list), and her BBC Radio 4 show, Alice’s Wunderland, unfurled a gentle tapestry of woozy, almost psychedelic comedy onto the airwaves; a hallucinogenic trip though “the Poundland of magical realms”.

In recent years, she has launched a successful cinema career: co-scripting and starring as a homicidal caravan enthusiast in the brilliant horror-comedy Sightseers, and then writing, directing and taking the lead role in the ingenious Prevenge, the darkly comic tale of a heavily-pregnant serial killer who believes her crimes are being directed by the voice of her unborn child.

Alice was genuinely seven months pregnant with her first daughter, Della, when Prevenge was filmed in 2015, and – when I spoke to her in early 2020 – was enjoying some quiet time at home following the birth of her second daughter, Sadie. I’d noticed (on Twitter, inevitably) that she’d been reading the blog, and was impudent enough to drop her a message asking about the possibility of an interview. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the incredibly entertaining 90-minute Skype that that followed, so good grief… thanks Alice for indulging me so generously. And apologies if I’ve held up production of the next film, Timestalker.

Here’s the full conversation:

Bob: Are you writing at the moment?

Alice: Yes, working on a few TV and film projects. My next film as a director has been postponed because of my second pregnancy – and coronavirus.  It’s going to be more of a challenge obviously, as I’ve never actually made a film with a baby. I’ve made a film when I was pregnant, but never with an existing child!

Is this the new film, Timestalker?  

Yeah. That’s next on my slate for shooting. I’m also writing a Delia Derbyshire biopic…

Wow! Really? You should speak to Drew Mulholland, he knew her late in her life, and has some good stories. He was telling me she once got special Delia Derbyshire snuff commissioned from one of the country’s last remaining snuff factories!

I read your interview online! But yeah, I met some of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop people, like Dick Mills. And they said she was a different person to different people, and she had lots of different sides to her. And you think… how the hell do you encapsulate that? With some of the stuff that you find out about her, you think… was she on the spectrum? Which wouldn’t be that surprising when someone’s got that level of genius. But at the same time, she was really sociable, and she had this personality that people were really drawn to. She’s an interesting figure to try to sketch out.

The reason I got interested in her was that she was born in Coventry, like I was. And I only really started getting interested in her when I was doing my radio show because I wanted to make a show that was like the creepy children’s series from the past. And when I write, I like to listen to stuff that I think complements what I’m writing. So I started listening to lots of Delia Derbyshire and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stuff.

And once I found out her story, I started overly identifying with her! Because I saw parallels with the work that I’ve tried to do over the last twenty years, and how I’ve felt quite often that I would be overlooked in terms of what I was contributing. And that sort of happened to her, so it resonated with me. And I felt… “Oh, I understand her!” But I don’t know if I do… the more I find out about her, the more of it I don’t understand.

But I do think that if you’re writing a biopic about someone, you can only come at it from your own personal perspective: that’s what’s going to bring the emotion to it. I think all biopics are coloured by the opinions of the people who make them.

The fact that she actually stopped making music has always intrigued me. She lived up here in the North-East for a while, didn’t she? 

Yeah. But it’s funny, because you talk to Dick Mills about that… she got married to a miner’s son that she met in Cumbria, and that lasted for two years. But I mentioned that to Dick, and he had no idea. For someone supposedly so close to her, he was like: “Did she? Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing she’d do…”

And I thought “Gosh, how weird…” She obviously cut off a lot of people from her life. But that’s kind of what the film is about, about her withdrawing from music and why she withdrew from it. So it’s kind of a psychological piece. If I was trying to be truthful to every single detail, it would probably make a really boring film. So it’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s actually compelling about her as a person, I think.

Have you been working on this for a while? 

I was touting it around for years, trying to get it made. It’s something that I’ve been working on for maybe six years, But I never took it to the level of researching it too much, because I just didn’t have the money to be chasing people around the country. But finally, I’ve got the backing for it now. It hasn’t been greenlit yet, but it is something I’m working on.

People just kept saying “Why has no-one made a film about this woman?” And I was a bit like “I am! I am making a film about her!”

I would take it to BBC Film, and they would say “We don’t think there’s enough of a story”. And I’d say “Well, there’s that film about a man who drives a bus…”

Who’s the guy again? Adam Driver…

Paterson! That’s a great film!

If you can make about a man driving a bus, you can make a film about a female composer.

Plot is overrated anyway. Some of my favourite films are films where nothing really happens. It’s all about character…

…and atmosphere. Mine too. But also, I do think you can make a plot out of anything, and you can make as story out of anyone. They don’t have to be saving the world for it to be an interesting story.

This all ties in neatly with us chatting for the blog, because obviously it’s called “The Haunted Generation” and I think the music and sound made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop played a big part in the slightly unsettled feeling that many of us remember from our childhoods. Is that “haunted” childhood feeling one that you can identify with?

Hauntology is something that I only really, really, really recently found out about. A friend mentioned it to me and said “Do you know about hauntology?” My friend’s really into it. And I said “I have no idea what you’re talking about…” I found it really difficult to grasp what she meant. But when I did actually start thinking about it, I thought “This is something that’s had a huge influence on me…” I’d just never put it together. But yeah – I do like stuff that has a flavour of the past, without really consciously knowing why.

I was definitely into a lot of weird children’s TV shows. I watched Century Falls. I’m slightly too young to have seen things like Children of the Stones the first time around, but I watch those now. But definitely I was obsessed with the weird and the spooky… anything that was slightly folkloric. That’s the other thing that people are obsessed with now, isn’t it? The Folk Horror stuff. That was definitely one of the things that I was really into.

I also remember, when I was about 17, I was really into Portishead. And it was the time that The X Files was on, and it was huge. And I remember my friend had just passed her driving test, and we went for a drive around the countryside, in the dark. Vaguely looking for lights in the sky, in an X-Files sort of way, listening to Portishead in the car! And I remember saying “I think something’s coming that is going to really change everything. I feel like there’s something new coming…”

And really, what I think I was talking about was my own future (laughs). I was 17, and of course everything was about to change, because I was about to go off to university. But there was just something about that particular era, a sort of spooky feeling that that music gave me, and a sense that there was something exciting on the horizon that was spooky and dark and weird.

That’s wonderful, and I’m thrilled that you talk about the 1990s in that way, because there’s a temptation to assume these childhood feelings are restricted to the 1970s. And I’ve been trying to work out whether kids of the 1980s and 1990s – and beyond – had them, too. And I’m discovering more and more that they did.

Well, I mean… Portishead were all about film references and the Radiophonic Workshop, so for me the 1990s was when people started getting really interested in this stuff from the past. I dunno… you look at David Lynch, and he was obsessed with the 1950s, so you could say that what he does is hauntology as well, just from an earlier period. That sense of drawing on the past is always uncanny and spooky, and can go into a fairytale realm.

Yes, particularly when you’re inventing bits of the past that could have happened then, but they didn’t. But when you experience them, it kind of feels like they did. Sorry, that started out as a coherent sentence then kind of drifted away…

No, I know what you mean. And that’s what I read that hauntology was… when I looked at the Wikipedia page, I was like, “What? I have no understanding of what this means!” But the friend who drove me around in her dad’s old Audi was the friend who, 20 years later, pointed out what hauntology was. And it just made me think about my influences, and this patchwork of memories that we have. I think most creative people draw on their childhood all the time. Because that was when you were most powerfully affected by stuff, when everything seemed so much more vivid.

It’s funny discovering that you weren’t aware of this stuff until recently, because there were two TV shows that I saw in the early 2000s that made me think – “That’s it! That’s that feeling of watching TV as a kid, and feeling slightly creeped out by it all!” One was Look Around You, and the other one was Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Oh, right!

So none of this was on anybody’s mind when you were making Darkplace? It’s pure serendipity that it has that feeling?  

I dunno, maybe hauntology gives a respectability to these things! I remember at the time, Channel 4 saying “We don’t want anything set in the past…” and I think they can still be a bit like that. I might be putting words into other peoples mouths here, but I think with something like Raised By Wolves, they said “It can’t be set in the 1980s…”

And when you look at Sex Education, which isn’t set in the 1980s, but it is very 80s in its feel, you sort of ask – why would you make that decision? People love stuff that’s set in the past. They always have. Sometimes it’s budgetary, but quite often that’s the thing that makes something stand out, and makes people love it… that it’s got that strange, eerie nostalgic quality to it. And I think now, if you said to Channel 4, “Oh, it’s nostalgic, there are all of these things that have been set in the past and been proven to be successful…” Maybe there’d be more force to that now. I don’t know.

Was it a battle getting Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace on air, then?

I don’t know… I didn’t write it, so I wasn’t party to those kinds of meetings, but I would hear about them. There was a pilot that was very, very different. It was very serious, like a Lars Von Trier pastiche. And then they decided that was the wrong way to go with it, and that people wouldn’t get it, so made it into a much more 1980s thing.

But I mean… it didn’t get recommissioned! And I think it cost a lot as well. It was shot on film for a start, and I don’t know how they managed to persuade Channel 4 that that was the way to go. I think it was probably more expensive to do it on film then that it would be now… it’s coming back into fashion now, so there are more places where you can get it processed. Back then, it was like – “What?” It was probably the last TV show to be shot on film.

I think that adds so much to it, though. As soon as you see the opening titles to Darkplace, with the juddery film look, and the wobbly synth soundtrack… it’s just so transportative. And I know you’ve made short films [Sticks & Balls and Stiffy] on Super 8 as well. Is format important in conjuring these feelings?

It’s funny isn’t it? I love the results that you get from shooting on film, but I would never let it make or break a project. Richard Ayoade or someone would be a bit more “I’m not doing this unless it’s on film!”. I would never be like that, I’m more “I’ll do what I can to get it made…” (laughs). Which is just the way that it’s had to be.

But my next film, we are shooting on film. Which is scary as well, because if things go wrong it’s so much more expensive, and if you make a mistake it’s an expensive mistake. Hairs in the gate, and stuff like that! But I do think, with something like Darkplace, the reason it has aged well is down to some of those aesthetic decisions. They elevate it above something where, in the grade, they stuck on a grainy finish to make it look like film. You can always tell when it’s not quite right.

And also, I think it lends a different aesthetic. I just did a film called Eternal Beauty, with Craig Roberts directing, and he said something really interesting: that it lends a different atmosphere to the shoot. You’re working in a more old-fashioned way. It’s a bit more hallowed. Every time you do a take, it’s a bit more… “Hold your breath! Is it going to work?” It adds a bit more magic to the performances, because you know you’ve got a limited number of takes, and it can be – “Guys… this one’s got to work, we don’t get to do it again”.

And that can add a really interesting quality. The Super 8 stuff that I’ve done, we only had one take for each thing, and it was edited in camera. So you only get one go, and everybody nailed it. It’s really interesting, the adrenaline you get… it’s almost a bit more like theatre, in a way. And I really enjoy that, that aspect of it. But it can be terrifying! Super 8 is cheap, that’s fine, there’s nothing to lose, really. But doing it with a big budget film, with big costumes, and horses and carriages… that’s more terrifying.

Ha! So have you got horses and carriages on Timestalker?

Yes! (Laughs). Well, at this point there are some in the script… but there might not be in the finished film! It might be – “What were we thinking?”

I remember talking to Frances Castle from Clay Pipe, and her saying that her memories of watching TV as a kid were of the picture being slightly fuzzy, and the signal drifting in and out… it’s the analogue aesthetic, I guess. Which I now find really evocative. And I know people now try to contrive that, using old film stock, or old tape stock if it’s music…

Toydrum, who did the soundtrack for Prevenge, use old machines, and have a studio where they’ve got some of the stuff that Delia Derbyshire was using. The EMS VCS3, or whatever it is! I have to know all this stuff, and it’s the sort of stuff I hate… I’m the least technological person in the world, and I’m having to learn about these machines. I’m like “Oh god, I hate this…”. But that is the world that she inhabited!

But they’ve got these machines, and I love it all. They can make really unique sounds that you can’t get elsewhere. And I do love all that, because I’m very analogue as a person. I’m technologically rubbish. I’ll be that person that will build something by hand rather than using the technology at my disposal.

I directed an advert recently, and they said “Oh, you could do a storyboard for us…”. And most people would use an app, or get a storyboard artist, but I just do drawings! I’d rather do drawings and scan them into the computer, in that old-fashioned way. It’s not that they’re brilliant drawings, it’s just… that’s the only way that I understand how to do stuff. By hand. That’s why I like Delia Derbyshire, because to an extent that’s what she did. These laborious tasks, where she’s sellotaping things together. That’s how she understood how to make something… as a very physical act.

I went to see a talk with Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus, who did White Noise with Delia Derbyshire. They got some young composers to talk too, and it was just so interesting… they’d talk to David Vorhaus and he’d say “I got a length of drainpipe and found this material that was like rubber, but not rubber, and then I built this machine by hand, and soldered some circuitry together…”

And then they’d go to the young composers and say “How did you make your song?” And they’d say “Erm… with my laptop. I’ve got Garageband…” and they’d look quite embarrassed, because they’d realise “My God… I have it on a platter, making this music”. It was interesting.

I don’t how we’ve got onto this, we’ve just drifted!

No, it is interesting! I interviewed David Cain from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in 2012, and he said that he basically lost interest in making music when everybody started playing keyboards. For him, it was about invention, and the technical challenge of cutting bits of tape into half-inch strips and sellotaping them back together down the corridor…

That was exactly Delia, and that’s what’s in the film. That was what I became really interested in: people who became disenfranchised by technology, really. Even though they were once technological before their time. There’s an irony. I’m toying with putting this line in, where Delia says “People have been telling me I’m the future for years, and then suddenly I’m the past…”

I think any creative can understand that. Especially in comedy, which is a young person’s game, similar to music. Someone can be really fashionable, then suddenly they’re the most old-fashioned thing that you can think of. They were part of a period of time that was deemed fashionable, like with The Young Ones or something, then there was a point where everyone just went “Oh, they’re old hat”, even though they were the coolest thing, cutting edge, doing everything that was interesting at that time. By default, there’s suddenly a point where it’s like “Right, everything that was so cutting edge and interesting about you is now old-fashioned”. And it’s just the tragedy of that… it’s horrible. It feels so cruel.

And it’s often through no fault of their own. Their art hasn’t deteriorated in any way, it’s just that their audience – or the media – have become less interested.  

Yeah, people have moved on. And then the irony is that people do return to it… but that person might have died by that time. It’s all those sorts of things that I think are really interesting.

It’s why I’ve moved into film, I think… I wanted to do something that had a bit more longevity. That I felt was a bit more timeless. I think TV and comedy can push you into a remit of writing something that’s of its time… you’re under pressure to write something that’s fashionable at that point. And I’ve never been interested in that. I’ve always been – “How do we make this more timeless? How do we make people want to watch this in ten years time?”

That was my whole thing with Sightseers. I wanted it to be something that people still get in ten years time, and not a comedy that feels of its era. You can’t say you want something to be a classic, but… I wanted it to be a classic! And I think that’s why film appeals to me, really. Telling stories that feel bigger, and more universal.

I was going to ask about Sightseers. I guess you’d dabbled with things that had horror elements before, but Sightseers felt like a bigger move in that direction. You’ve mentioned the creepy TV that you’d watched as a kid, were you an out-and-out horror fan as well?

Yeah, massively. When I started doing Darkplace, I’d been doing theatre stuff that was sometimes a bit scary, and sometimes a bit funny, and sometimes a mixture. And when I started working with Matt and Richard, they’d be talking about Children of the Corn or whatever, and I’d go “Oh is it that one? I’ve seen that…”

And they’d say “You’ve seen that?” And I’d be like… “Yeah, it was on BBC2 at 11pm, years ago!” I’d watch anything. Any horror that was on. I’d look at the paper and circle the Dracula films that were on, and whatever Godzilla film was on afterwards. That’s what I would watch until three o’clock in the morning. I was always obsessed with horror. But that’s not why Matt and Richard wanted to work with me. They were like: “How have you seen all this horror? You weird woman…”

I think we might have watched the same screenings! I remember watching Children of the Corn on late-night telly, sometime in the 1980s.

That was the weird hunting ground, wasn’t it? BBC2, and Channel 4. Channel 4 on a Friday night used to be amazing. I used to watch Four-Mations, then a double bill of weird old horror films or monster movies.

I remember them showing Godzilla films on a Friday, after Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out! In about 1990…

Yes, and that’s all I was doing – I wasn’t going out! That was a good night for me, watching a Godzilla film. And then maybe some weird comedy on BBC2 on a Thursday night. And they might have a weird film on after that, as well.

The nice thing is, you can see all of this in your scripts. Obviously there are horrific elements to what you do, but they’re combined with these beautifully-written observations of everyday life. Sightseers has been compared to Nuts In May, and I can totally see that. And in Prevenge, there’s the contrast between the horror and your character’s day-to-day life, going for job interviews and looking for a flat. Does that fascinate you? That veneer of everyday existence, with the darkness beneath it?

Yeah, I love that. I love British comedy, and to me comedy comes from characterisation and class tension, and all of this observational stuff that I’ve grown with up. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters and Alison Steadman. But also, I really love visual stuff that’s cinematic. So it’s getting a mixture of those things… if it was just observational stuff, I would be bored. I like there to be splashy events: you mix in the observational stuff with splashy events! And then people are surprised… “Oh, I thought this was going to be a chat between two people, but then someone’s head has been chopped off…”

And I think I’ve always done that. My mum and dad recently… (laughs) Well, they live in a total hoarder’s palace of stuff, but for some reason they were clearing out, and they found this book. And they said “It’s you telling these stories, all about these mice…” And I vaguely remembered it. I had these little toy mice who had clothes, and they lived in a shoebox, and I’d built a little house inside the shoebox for them. Very Bagpuss-esque!

And they said: “Yeah, it’s all these stories about the adventures of these mice, and it’s lovely… and then at the end, they all get slaughtered in a bloodbath!”  

Ha! Ha! How old were you when you wrote this? 

(Laughs) I don’t know! I had no recollection of that bit! It sort of rang a bell, but yep… that would be the only way to end it.

All the clues were there! This is your next project. An Oliver Postgate-style animation of this…

My mum and dad thought it was funny, but at the same time they were quite disturbed, I think! Every time I make a film, my mum goes: “Is there murder in it…?”

“Erm… yeah. There is… sorry…”

I just imagine her at Book Club, wondering “How am I going to break it to them? How am I going to break it to Barbara that she’s not going to enjoy this film either?”

So, speaking of Sightseers, did your parents take you on caravanning holidays as a kid, by any chance?  

We did go on camping holidays. We couldn’t afford a caravan, but we did have a tent! But yes, I think my mum was horrified. She was really worried that the mum in Sightseers was based on her…

You did go on caravan holiday recces for Sightseers though, didn’t you? You and [co-writer and co-star] Steve Oram?

Yeah, Film 4 paid for us to go away in a caravan together. And it was actually really useful, because we really annoyed each other, then put that into the script!

I’ve never been on a caravanning holiday, and I’ve no intention of ever going on one…

Going on one with someone that you’re not in a relationship with is really weird.

It’s quite intimate, I imagine!

Yeah, you’ve got a little, thin partition between your room and theirs. It was fun, actually… and it was really useful, because we used exactly the trip that we went on in the film. Steve’s dad is a very keen walker, and he devised that route for us. We said “This is the sort of thing we want to do, and this is the sort of landscape we want…” and he put a route together that I would recommend to anyone as a holiday! Ending with these spectacular views in the Lake District that were so filmic, but nobody ever actually uses them for films. Well, they might use them for a Beatrix Potter film…

I love Ben Wheatley as a director. How was he to work with on Sightseers?  

So much fun. It was one of those filming experiences that spoils you a little bit. When you have a good film experience, and you’ve been doing it for 20 years – I’m showing my age here – you see young people working on the production having so much fun, and you just want to say to them that it’s not always like this! (Laughs) “This is a good one. The next one that you do, will be ‘Oh… it’s not always that brilliant…'”  

He’s funny, and his crew are just really nice, like a family. You laugh a lot, and have a lot of fun, it’s just so relaxed. When you’ve worked with lots of different directors, you start to think: this is how I prefer to work. And that is how I prefer to work. He doesn’t really tell you what to do, he doesn’t really give you any direction, he just sort of says… “Do it again!” Which means you have to trust your own instincts really, and that’s the way that I direct as well.

I’m not going to tell people what to do, I want them to use their instincts and get in the zone. As an actor, when someone gives you notes – and I try to say this to young directors that I mentor – you can get overloaded. All that you get as an actor is “I’m not doing it well enough”. And you start to cerebralise your thinking. But you shouldn’t be thinking as an actor… you should just be being the character. And the more someone talks to you about policing that character, the less you’re going to be in character.

Have you veered towards the Mike Leigh approach, of not scripting too closely, just creating the characters and seeing where they go?

Well, that’s how I write… improvising the characters. And then I encourage the cast to do that, too. But it really depends… with something like Prevenge, you’ve got to work with people who’ve improvised before, and have that as part of their skill set. Because people can take it the wrong way, they think “improvisational” means actually writing a completely new scene. Quite often, you really just want them to do the script, but loosened up a bit. Armando Ianucci has that approach as well – “We’ll do one on the script, and then one off the script.”

Basically you’re doing the script, but putting it in their words… “Relax, don’t worry about remembering each exact word, just make sure that it has the same meaning.” So you’re sort of paraphrasing. It makes them relaxed, and they’re remembering the meaning of the scene a bit more, and starting to own it a bit more. So yeah, I’m all for that.

To me, it’s like – why wouldn’t you do that? You get funny people, and you’re going to say to them “I don’t want any of your special, funny magic?” You’re going to veto it? Some people do. You work on stuff where people are like: “Exactly the script please!” And sometimes the results can be fantastic. If it’s a good script, it doesn’t really matter.

But I can’t help but think; “I could have done a bit more with that. I could have brought a bit extra that would have made some moments.” And that’s what I consider my job to be, as an actress. I’m not Judi Dench, I’m not a Shakespearian actress, but what I do is come in and bring a bit more to it, because I’m a writer. And I add something that maybe they hadn’t thought of before… a little extra moment, you know. So why wouldn’t I employ that from other people, as well?

I guess making any film is a hugely collaborative process. You want everyone, including the actors, to bring their own skill sets to it. 

If you think about it, you get a costume person to design the costume; you don’t draw the costume yourself and say “This is exactly what I want, and I want it this colour.” You go “Oh, I want it kind of green…” and they show it to you. It’s collaborative, it’s back and forth. So why shouldn’t acting be like that as well? You’ve got to hand it over to people and say “This is yours…” and you get better results from that. You’re just a manager, really, as a director.

And the great joy must be when you get something fantastic back that you weren’t expecting at all?

Often those are some of my favourite bits: “Oh my God, this person has made it even better than I could have imagined”. That’s when you get really excited and realise that it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like “Thank God all these people have come and made this thing much better!” (laughs) And you’re grateful for it.

Sometimes, it’s a time thing. A lot of people have asked me if Prevenge was really improvised… and actually, weirdly, it was probably less improvised than Sightseers, because we just didn’t have the time, and we had such a tiny budget. But I don’t think it particularly shows. Maybe it’s just a psychological feeling that it gives people, the feeling that they’ve got the freedom to improvise and play around.

You mentioned your Mum’s horrified reaction to some of the films you’ve made… will you show Prevenge to your daughter when she’s old enough?

It was so weird… last night, someone had given her this book called Little Leaders, which was all about women who’d changed the world. And one of them was Maya Deren, who was a film-maker. And basically my daughter is like – “I really like Ada Lovelace, can I meet her?” And I said “She’s dead, she died 200 years ago…”. And she said “I don’t want her to be dead!” This led to her flicking through the book and saying “Is she dead? Is she dead? And me going “Yes.. yes… yes…” (laughs) “They’re all dead!” She’s only four…

Anyway, we got to Maya Deren and I said “Oh, a film-maker… that’s what Mummy does.” And she said “Are you? Are you a filmaker? Have you made a film with me in?

“Yes… I have, actually…”

“Can I see it?”

And I said “One day…”

She asked what she looked like in the film, and I said “Well, it was before you were born, and you were a baby in it. You were in my tummy.”

And she said “Was Sadie in there as well?”


Literally, this was the first conversation we’ve had about the film!

It’ll pop on BBC2 at 11pm one night…

And she’ll be like: “What the hell is this…” She doesn’t really know what I do. I mean, she was there for the edit of Prevenge, she was a tiny newborn baby, but I don’t think she really knows that I’m an actress. And these days, you see people onscreen all the time. She sees my face on Facebook, or a photo of me on a screen, so to see my face on television… I just don’t think her mind would be that blown by it.

Yes, I guess kids see people they know on screens every day now… I’d never really thought of it that way.

Everybody probably thinks their parents are famous! Not that I’m even famous… but I am on TV. Horrible Histories, that would probably freak her out!

Can I ask about your radio show, Alice’s Wunderland? There’s one episode in particular that I love, and it ties in with lots of things that we’ve talked about. It’s the episode with the ghost of a child who has died in 1977. And everything is in there: there are Public Information Films, creepy school assembly songs, pantomime dames… was that episode a nice way of chucking all of your favourite scary 1970s things in there?

Yeah, basically! I did three series, and I’d done that character as a sketch in the second series. And I thought – “My God, I love this character, and I want to do more with it.” Because it just seemed like it existed of its own accord. I thought “I know exactly how this child talks.”

You know when they used to dub children with adults voices? They thought children couldn’t act, so they’d get some woman to be the voice of a little boy and she’d just be [tiny, squeaky voice] “Ooh, I want to do this!” And you’d think… that’s not a child, that’s just a woman pretending to be one. It just seemed like a funny world to tap into.  

I was a bit worried that the BBC would say we couldn’t have a child that was a ghost, because maybe he’s been murdered or something… but they didn’t at all! [laughs] But that was the thing about my radio show… I used it as a sketchpad really, for loads of ideas. Even arguably Timestalker came from an idea in the radio show. It’s so easy on the radio, it’s not going to cost you anything to be really ambitious. You can set anything anywhere, and do whatever you want. So it was just this sort of blank slate, doing whatever ideas I wanted to do. There was loads of stuff that came up where I thought: I’ve got to do something else with that. That’s what was so fantastic about it, it was just a free hand.

When I first got the commission they asked who I’d like to write the show with, and I said “Can I… write it by myself?” And that’s really unprecedented! I said I don’t see why shouldn’t… if I can write a sitcom by myself, it’s only the same amount of content. So to me, that was a real joy. And I knew then that it was going to be about all the weird sketches in my head. What we were talking about earlier, really… weird stuff from my childhood, and hauntology. I was trawling my mind for stuff that I wanted to write about but had never really had the opportunity to. Usually because there was some commissioner saying: “Will people be interested if it’s set in the 1970s? Will young people like it if you mention David Bowie? They might not know who he is…”

But with this I just had completely free reign to do what I wanted. It’s a very unusual situation to be in.  

The use of language in it always reminds me a little bit of Professor Stanley Unwin. Was he somebody that you had in mind?

Yeah, he was definitely one of the influences! Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley script-edited it, and Stanley Unwin was one of their suggestions. But yeah, that was fun to write. And also this thing of… writing something that had a sort of poetry to it. I wanted the whole show to be about sound, basically. Which was another thing that Radio 4 were unused to! I said “It has to be about sound if it’s a radio show, doesn’t it?” And they were: “No… why would it be?” It was a radical idea!

I asked if I could have a composer, as I had a friend who wanted to compose some original music for it, and they were like: “What? No, we don’t have the budget for that!”

So there were lots of things that I’d gone against the grain to ask for, but luckily they allowed me to have them. I had a brilliant couple of producers who fought for those decisions. I wanted there to be a sense of craft about the show. The poor producers, who were also really the directors – they just don’t get that title in radio for whatever reason – would sometimes have 100 sound cues for a 28 minute show. They had to layer them on, and make it sound spooky and brilliant and exciting. Normally they might have four! On a sketch show where someone’s just talking into a microphone, basically…

I think all of my favourite things in any media create their own world, and invite you into this strange realm, and that’s what Wunderland did. It was lovely.

Well, It was great fun to do.

Can we talk about your upcoming film, Timestalker? I’ve read that it’s about a woman who keeps being reincarnated…? 

Yeah! People keep asking me about my time-travel film, and I say – it’s not really about time-travel! It’s about reincarnation. I don’t want to talk about the plot too much, but it’s a sort of rom-com, really. It’s set over seven different periods in time, with an ensemble cast. I’m in it, I’m playing the lead, but I really wanted it to have the feel of a fun gang show. Like a modern Carry On! That’s what I’d like to do, make modern Carry On films, where all the same people come together and have fun.  

But yeah, it’s quite crazy, and it’s one of those things where I think people are going to struggle to describe it as any genre. It’s almost like a 1980s high-concept film… I started thinking that people don’t make Ghostbusters or Desperately Seeking Susan any more. All these films that are just fun. I wanted to make something slightly lighter… although it’ll probably end up being so dark! [laughs]

I’ll say “I just want to make something light and funny”, and people will say “This is the least light and funny thing I’ve ever seen in my life”

“Really? Oh dear…” And then all the mice got slaughtered. [laughs]

So that’s my problem! So I literally was… “God, there’s so much stuff going on in the world, do I really want to make another dark film? Because I think Prevenge was really dark. Darker than Sightseers, and quite nihilistic in a way. I don’t want to make anything as dark as that, so hopefully it’s just going to be a fun ride.  

Who’s in it? Tell me one name!

I can’t, really! We haven’t made any formal announcements yet. I’m in it!

Changing tack, what’s your relationship with nostalgia like? I was thinking recently that I really can’t get to grips with 1990 being 30 years ago.  

Do you think that everyone feels like this at the beginning of a century? That the end of the previous century was recent? Because the century’s still quite young, it fools you into thinking we’re still living in 2002.

It does! It didn’t occur to me until about the 29th December 2019 that it was the end of a decade! It doesn’t feel like we’ve had “proper” decades for a while.

No! I know, it crept up on people – suddenly was asking “What are the ten best films of the decade?” I think we’re so distracted by so many other things that people didn’t make a big fuss about it. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve just had a baby, but I felt like this New Year, there was the least celebration ever…

I think people were just dreading what 2020 was going to bring.

Yeah, the election happened, and I was just… screw it, let’s just stay at home. I’m not even going to say Happy New Year to someone, because what’s the point?

I can’t work out if it’s just because I’m getting old that the decades don’t seem to have any real defining character any more, or if they genuinely don’t. I’m now the age that my dad was in the late 1980s. So did my dad feel that the 1980s were a really bland, dull decade? I’ve got a feeling that he might have done. Whereas to me, it was like – “Wow! The 1980s have been amazing!”

Oh, bless him. It’s like that with the 1960s, isn’t it? Because my mum and dad always way “Well, we were never offered any drugs…”  

Yes, mine too! Not in 1960s Middlesbrough. 

And you think, for people living in the suburbs or whatever… did the 1960s really happen to them? Or were other people having more fun at that point? I don’t know… I’m sure they do have character, each of the decades. Because I always thought that the 1990s had no really distinctive features, but now I do. It’s just taken me this long to get to that point.

I realised this when I saw some clips of Sex and the City, which I used to watch. And the biggest shock was that now, everybody dresses like Miranda. They put her in the worst clothes… she dressed like a man in these horrible, asymmetrical, architectural clothes, and everybody dresses like that now. It’s really weird, she could be now. Whereas back then I thought – “Everyone is else is so pretty, but they put her in these horrible clothes!” And that’s when I realised that that‘s going to be a defining thing of this era, women dressing exactly like men.

For ages I wondered how you would parody the 1990s. You know, if you want to set something in the 1970s, you give people flares and long hair and tank tops. But how would you do that for the 1990s?

I think it’s stuff that’s sort of… horribly normal! [laughs]. Like strappy things… oh, I don’t know. It does exist. 

Because I have such a busy social diary, I watch old game shows on Challenge TV. And if there’s a 1990s edition of Bullseye – and I’m really giving away my lifestyle here – I can immediately spot that it’s 1990s, as opposed to 1980s. But I can’t put my finger on what I’m actually identifying.

I think it was an era when being normal was really prized. If you think of Oasis or something… it’s kind of anti-student, that Paul Calf thing. Anything frilly or bourgeois was looked down upon; being artistic was frowned upon in a way. It was the era when I used to go to Glastonbury, and it was still filled with people with dreadlocks and tie-dye, still a counter culture thing. But there was an anti-counter culture thing at that point, too. It was like “normcore”…

Yeah, even though Blur’s music was often experimental, they still went through a phase of wearing tracksuits to greyhound meetings.  

Yeah, you could be a goth, or into grunge or something, but it would be making a statement to do that. Whereas now, you can be at work with piercings and pink hair, and no-one blinks an eye. But back them, if you made those choices, it was deviant.

I remember a female friend getting a tattoo of a tiny bluebird on her shoulder in about 1995, and it being greeted with absolute shock by the rest of us. “What? A tattoo? Why?” It’s extraordinary, in hindsight.

“You’ve ruined yourself!” (laughs)

You’ve clearly been immersing yourself in “haunted” culture recently. Who has caught your eye, or ear? I think I’ve seen you waxing lyrical about Sean Reynard‘s films, particularly his Quentin Smirhes stuff.

He’s an old friend of mine actually, I’ve known him for years. There’s an actor called Tom Meeten, a comedian and writer, he’s in a film called The Ghoul. He was at art college with Sean, and introduced me to him years ago. Sean lived in Berlin for years, but he’d come over to London for a bit, and we’d see him, then he’d go back. And when he started doing his videos, it was like – “Oh my God!” I’d always known he was talented, and he’s a really good actor, but I didn’t ever feel like he’d made a palatable version of what he does. And that’s what he’s cracked with Quentin… people are latching onto it. Regardless of whether they’re interested in hauntology or not, it’s still crazy and funny and interesting. And so it’s gone a bit crazy for him, because he’s been making stuff for years… but it would be 28-minute short films! It’s quite difficult to get people to commit to that. Although he did an amazing one about Kate Bush…

I haven’t seen that!

Oh, we’re both obsessive Kate Bush fans. It’s worth watching, it’s very funny. So he’s been making stuff for years, but he hadn’t really found a format for it that took off. But I’m really pleased that he has now, and the interview that you did with him – that was the most serious that I’d ever heard Sean! Normally I’ll post something on Facebook, and he’ll put some sort of weird comment underneath. But he was actually intellectualising his process – it was really interesting.

I’d never spoken to him before, and I did wonder how much I was going to get out of him…

He’s fully trained as an artist, which I forget about… but yeah, he actually knows what he’s doing! [laughs]

Any music that you’ve been particularly drawn to?

I’ve been listening to Aldous Harding. Visually, as an artist, I think she’s brilliant. I love the videos, and my daughter loves them as well, which is really weird. She keeps saying “Mummy, I want to watch Zoo Eyes again!”

It’s a kind of overlapping community, isn’t it? There’s sort of a Venn Diagram of people who know each other, and who work with each other in different ways. Which is interesting, because those collaborations bring about new stuff, I think. And that’s why I say I’m interested in hauntology, but it’s not something I’ve exclusively pursued. Because I didn’t really know about it! It is an interesting world, and you want to know who’s involved in it, but without feeling there’s a set of rigid rules that you have to commit to.

You have to be sparing with nostalgia too, I think. If a piece of music transports you to 1979, but you listen to it constantly in 2020, then it’ll quickly start to remind you of the events of 2020 just as much it does 1979…  

It’s really comparable to a smell. When you smell something that you haven’t smelled for years, it triggers a memory. But if you wore it every day, it wouldn’t have any power any more. And I think that is the hauntology thing… it’s like a sixth sense, like a tingle. If you do it too much, it doesn’t work any more.

Completely, that’s why I’m a little cautious sometimes. My favourite stuff from this genre has one foot in the past, and uses the past as an inspiration, but is trying to do stuff that’s new, too. Like Sean’s films… even if you’d never seen any 1970s TV, they still work as pieces of art.

Yea, definitely. And it’s also making stuff unconsciously without trying to obey a rigid set of rules: it’s just come to you and you don’t really know where it’s come from. You don’t analyse it too much. I think that’s why Aldous Harding is so interesting – you know that she’s probably influenced by folk music and films, and there are a lot of film references in her music, but you don’t get the sense that she’s obeying any rules. That’s what makes it so surprising; the films she makes are often quite at odds with the music. They can be violent or scary, and the music’s so not.

Have you seen her live? 

I haven’t. Sean is a big fan, and went to see her live, but I was just a bit too pregnant on the last tour! I was like… “I don’t want to leave the house.”

I’m like that most of the time and I’m not pregnant.

I’m like that most of the time too, I just had a better excuse this time…

Thanks so much to Alice for being amazingly generous with her time, and for a fascinating natter on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Why are Tuesday afternoons always rainy? She’s here on Twitter, if you’d like to say hello.

David Cain, The Seasons and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

I was extremely saddened in October this year to hear that David Cain had died. A stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, he worked on music and sounds for high-profile BBC radio dramas – including famous adaptations of The Hobbit and The War of the Worlds – as well as creating a plethora of gloriously inventive radio stings, stabs and jingles. When the BBC rolled out its exciting network of local radio stations, from 1967 onwards, each was provided with a radiophonic theme intended to reflect the area’s identity, culture and landscape. David’s music for BBC Sheffield was arguably the pick of the crop; its rolling metallic rhythms effortlessly evoking the heritage and history of the city’s steel industry.

But it’s almost certainly for The Seasons that he will be remembered most fondly. This extraordinary 1969 marrying of David’s harsh electronic music with the unsettling poetry of one-time Benjamin Britten libretto-writer Ronald Duncan, all narrated by BBC Schools Radio regular Derek Bowskill, makes for an overpoweringly evocative reminder of a very particular era of British schooling. A period when educational influences collided; when post-war austerity – all boiled cabbage and morning hymns – met a new breed of Guardian-reading, corduroy-sporting teacher, and cold, parquet floors and breezeblock school halls began to echo with the sound of post-hippy singalongs and, indeed, the experimental avant-garde of albums like this.

With 21st century hindsight, The Seasons seems staggeringly inappropriate for the primary school-age children for whom it was intended. It boasts seventeen short tracks; twelve of them dedicated to the months of the year, plus one for each season, and then a concluding instrumental piece entitled The Year. It is darkly macabre, and oddly sensual. Strength is drawn “from the earth’s thighs”, and May “teases with all the orchards of her eyes, and leans with apple, tempts with peach”. There are gaunt elms shuddering “within the groin of grief”, and those of us who had previously associated October with merely the advent of the conker season and the occasional dodgem were startled to be presented with somewhat darker imagery: “Like severed hands, the wet leaves lie flat on the deserted avenue”.

All of this was intended to inspire children as young as five to express themselves via the medium of interpretative dance, almost certainly in a freezing dinner hall, with the whiff of oncoming spam fritters wafting aimlessly amidst the musty smell of unwashed C&A vests. When Trunk Records reissued The Seasons in 2012, I contacted Jonny Trunk to ask if David might be available to be interviewed on my BBC Tees show. I was naturally delighted when David agreed to do this, and we had a fascinating chat over the phone from his new home in central Poland. He was charming, funny, and eccentric… a genuinely warm and welcoming man who was clearly incredibly proud of his groundbreaking work with the Radiophonic Workshop.

This is how the conversation went…

So David, you’re living in Poland these days! Whereabouts?

I’m near Łódź and nobody ever knows where it is… or can actually pronounce it properly! Or can even get there actually, because communication is desperate. But it’s right in the middle. It’s sort of what Manchester would have been like if they hadn’t sorted it out…

Is it good to have The Seasons back out there, and to be “official” again?

Well, I don’t know about “official”… I’m not sure it was official in the first place, really! The programme was official, of course; it was a schools programme, and I was given some lovely poetry. Brilliant poetry, I thought. Beautiful. Not easy, and not the first thing you’d choose for eleven-year-olds, but I was asked to do the music for it. And that was my job, so I did it.

And now it’s quite amazing that I’ve suddenly come into contact with… one or two slightly strange people, and I mean that in a very positive way, actually! When people start saying “Your cult music”, I say… “Pardon?”

“People are asking for this…”

“Are they?”

And then I saw that somebody was asking £260 for it on eBay!

Yes, the original vinyl became a very collectable album…

Well, mine’s not collectable. The first two tracks, January and February, disappear under a rash of scratches. But now I’m OK, because I’ve got a beautiful CD, and the beautiful white vinyl that Jonny Trunk has done. It’s absolutely fabulous.

How did you get involved with making these recordings, back in 1969? Obviously you were working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop… did the commission just come in, and get passed onto you?

Yeah. With the Workshop… you sort of sat and waited for people to come and ask you to do things. And I hadn’t been there very long, actually. I’d done some stuff – some radio drama – and some BBC Schools, which was a big department in those days, they did a lot of stuff. And there was one producer, David Little, who I did a few things with.

David came and said “Listen… I’ve got these poems about the seasons, there are twelve for the months, and four for the seasons, and I’d like you to do some music.” For a drama workshop… it wasn’t Music, Movement and Mime, that was something else.

And I said fine. OK. And we talked about it, and what he wanted… and he wanted something to get kids to move about and do things, to respond to the poetry and also to the sound. So that was it, really.

I’d worked with David before. I had great respect for him, I thought he was a super producer. One or two other people didn’t like him very much, because he knew what he wanted. Ha! Which meant that if you thought that you knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t what he wanted, you were in trouble. Ha ha!

But no, super… that was it. I was asked to do it, and I did it. There you go. And maybe a year or so later they said “Well, we’d like to produce a record because quite a lot of schools have asked to have a copy.” Because in those days you couldn’t copy stuff… well, you could I suppose, but you did it on all sorts of funny little tape machines with reels of tape. I don’t think there were even cassettes in those days, were there?

Not the mini cassettes, no… I started school in 1977, and it we still had the big, reel-to-reel tape machines.

Well there you go, goodness me! So in 1969 people just had to turn on the radio, and wait for it to happen.

So the poetry was written by Ronald Duncan, and voiced up by Derek Bowskill. Were the recordings of the actual poetry just given to you as a fait accompli?

Yeah. I got the poetry, and then was asked to do it. If you haven’t got an enormous amount of time, it’s probably the best way to do it, I would think. Because the poetry stands by itself. And the idea was that what I did would not only stand by itself too, but – together with the poetry – would maybe offer some kind of stimulus to the kids.

Did you have any contact with Ronald or Derek?

Ronnie Duncan, no – never. Derek Bowskill, yes. I knew Derek… not that well, but I knew him because I was more widely involved with drama in schools, and educational drama, and Derek was also very heavily involved with this. He was then down in Devon, but he was linked up with people that I knew in London. I met him, and we talked about it… but he’d done it, you know. He didn’t do it with me there, doing any kind of production. I just got the tapes.

The music has a very earthy, rustic, almost Pagan feel to it. Was that something you were aiming for?

[Laughs] I dunno! Remember, this was the 1960s… everyone was being Pagan then! 

There was a lot of it about, then?

We were all wandering around in wonderful Afghan coats. I had one of those! It was brilliant. Pagan? I dunno… maybe sort of earthy. Different. Slightly disturbing. That was definitely there. I think David Little wanted that, because if you’ve got kids wandering around in shorts in very cold gymnasiums in schools, then you need to get them stirred up a bit, otherwise they’ll sit down and do nothing!

I’m glad you brought that up, as I’m intrigued to ask… a lot of books and music and TV for kids in the late 1960s and 1970s have a kind of creepy quality. There’s a darkness that I find incredibly evocative now. I’ve often wondered if that was something you were aware of at the time, making this stuff?

I was. I was aware of that, because there were one or two writers… the obvious one being Roald Dahl. You can’t call Roald Dahl a laugh-a-minute man! I mean he was, but in a slightly creepy way. There was Doctor Seuss, and then there was a Polish guy whose name I can’t remember now… doesn’t matter, not important, we mustn’t go into all that! And then there was The Wicker Man… I’ve jumped to films all of a sudden now.

It’s all part of the same feel, though…

It was, and maybe these kinds of things go together with the sort of music that was very upfront and… “WAFFF!” You know, if you’ve got The Rolling Stones and The Beatles going on at the same time, maybe also there was this feeling that kids can cope with a little bit more than Enid Blyton. Remember Enid Blyton?

Of course!

They were a bit creepy actually, but in a slightly different way. But yeah! It was meant to provide something that was not “Oh yeah, we know music like this, we can dance about…”

Did you ever take into account the age of your audience, and what might be appropriate for them? Or did you just make the music that you thought worked?

I did the second one. I didn’t actually think, “I must write this to appeal to…” No, I didn’t. Absolutely not. I have enough trust in them, especially now that I’ve been involved in education… I can trust kids like that. If it works, it’s gonna work. You don’t write down to them, you write up to them.

How was the music for The Seasons created? Were you using exciting things like wave generators?

Exciting things? Hahahahah!  

They are to me! But OK, maybe not to someone who had to work with them every day…

Ha! I know what you mean! Exciting… what was exciting…? We had a lot of ex-MOD stuff like oscillators, things like that. They were just basic things, they’d got “WOOWEEEWOO” That was all it was, you got different frequencies.

And then we had all these things that we pinged and panged, and banged and binged, to provide sound sources. And those gave you notes, which you then played… it was a fairly primitive system, really. We didn’t have any multi-track machines, we didn’t have any synthesizers, so it was all basically… you made a note, stuck it on a piece of tape, and then you sped it up and slowed it down.

We did have a machine that changed the speed, and that was it, really. You filtered it, played it backwards, forwards, upside down, whatever… and then you did the mathematics, which was OK for me, because that’s actually my first subject. It was 15 inches per second, so a lot of things had “Crotchet=120” because that made the maths easier! If you had “Crotchet=77” you were in real trouble…

And therefore you knew that that note was going to have one and a half inches of tape.

So you’re literally sitting with bits of tape, cutting them up to specific measurements, and piecing them back together?

Yeah! Stupid really, isn’t it?

No, it’s fabulous!


How did you first come to join the Radiophonic Workshop in the first place, were you recruited?

No, they didn’t recruit. That was MI6.

There wasn’t a press gang, then?

Oh no! I worked as a studio manager, a sound engineer at first… in 196… oh, God… 1963 it was. Bloody hell, it’s nearly 50 years ago. Right, OK! And I very quickly got into radio drama, which was really where I wanted to work. Doing sound and all those things, and working in the studios with actors. And from radio drama, it was possible to apply for a sort of three-month attachment to the Workshop, to see how it was. And I’d been in touch with bits of it, because I’d done some plays where there was Workshop material.

So I went there for three months… maybe longer in the end. This was about 1965, 1966, and it was great. I really, really loved it, because there was time to do what you wanted to do, and to talk to producers and directors and create sounds that they couldn’t create… for dramas and plays that you couldn’t direct. So you had mutual respect for each other. I loved it, and I went back to radio drama as a studio manager, and then a job came up… so I applied, and I got it.

It just seems like the most extraordinarily creative place to be working. Cards on the table here, I’m a Doctor Who fan, so for me hearing things like the work that Delia Derbyshire did in those very early days… and Dick Mills, and Brian Hodgson… they seemed to be just left to make the music that they made without any kind of outside interference. Was the culture really as nice as the picture I have in my mind?

The word is trust. It doesn’t exist much any more, does it?

I don’t think it does unfortunately, no.

I think Mr Birt has a lot to answer for that one. Basically, we were employed to do what we had to do, and there was a trust that we were going to do it. And if we hadn’t done it, they would have thrown us out, it was very simple! But they didn’t check what we were doing by being there all the time, looking over our shoulders. And obviously if the producers kept coming, and wanting more and more and more, then it seems to me that we were doing what we should be doing.

And that’s what happened. It was only later that it turned the other way around, and well, you know… the problem was that razors, sticky tape and so on are a bit extreme in terms of primitive systems. But I think what happened later was – of course – that the synthesizers came, the keyboards came, the multi-track machines came, and suddenly it was a completely different situation.

And my theory is very simple. When we were there in the 1960s, the creative impulses and ideas were far ahead of the theoretical technical possibilities. But what happened later was that it turned the other way around, and the technology started to drive the system. You only had to press a button and you’ve got… “dumdumdoodledoodledumdum”. You’ve got it! If you don’t like it, you can change it a bit. But what it means is, before you do anything, you don’t have to think very much about what you’re going to do. Whereas with what we were doing… if you didn’t plan very carefully before you started, you were in real trouble!

That’s my deep theory, that there was a moment when the technology went past the creativity.

Are you still making music at the moment?


Nothing at all?

Well no, that’s not true, actually. What I’ve done for the last few years is one kind of music-making, at mathematical conferences. Ha ha! Which means that I write some bits of music, do an arrangement of some kind, and then I write parts out for all the people who say they’re going to bring an instrument. And then for an hour and a half I send them off with bits of music, and then they all come together and play it. So it’s not really a great composition job, but it’s good because some people say… “I’m going to bring a wind-up torch.” You know what that is? They’re brilliant, there’s no batteries, you turn the handle very fast…

Like a clockwork torch?

Yeah! The point is, this is the Radiophonic Workshop… because if you turn the handle slowly, it goes “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”, if you turn it fast it goes “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”, and if you turn it really fast it goes “ZZZWWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”! This is the Radiophonic Workshop, isn’t it?

This is fabulous! You have to compose a symphony for wind-up torch!

The woman who brought it was chuffed to bits, because I wrote her a part! So that’s what I’m doing… but it’s not composing, I did that! If you are a down-the-line, 100%, super-duper composer, then you can keep going until the end of time. But you know… I did that. I composed, I composed for kids later, I kept writing stuff for the BBC, and then I thought “Well, I’m into maths now.”

So I got really heavily, heavily into mathematics as a teacher. And I still am, so I’m now lecturing at a teacher training college in Poland, to young students. It’s a joy. I’ve got ten hours tomorrow, and it’s going to be really good! So I’m doing that, and I’m digging the garden, walking the dog, and I go occasionally here, there and everywhere, travelling about. Sinking into the twilight of my days, really.

It sounds like a lovely life…

It is, actually. The weather’s a bit dodgy, but other than that…!

You do it, and then you’ve done it. I think it’s actually quite important, once you reach a point, to say yeah… you stop. The dangerous thing is to try and hang onto it. I didn’t do that. But I’ve still got these reels and reels of tapes sitting here, some of which I’ve transferred, and Jonny Trunk has played one or two.

But I’m delighted to sit here and hold this vinyl disc [of The Seasons], Mark 2, and think that it’s very nice to know that somewhere there’s a small group of people who enjoy listening to it.

I’ve played the whole album on the radio now, night by night, and had some lovely comments from listeners.

I think that’s amazing, I really do. I’m really chuffed to bits. There’s only one thing I can say… most of my music, because it was written as instrumental music for radio drama, and I’ve got about 60 hours of it, I suppose – you can’t play it because it was done for one programme. And if you want to play it again, you’re going to have to pay lots of money.

This is the BBC here, you know what it’s like…

In that sense it hasn’t changed!

Honestly David, thanks so much for doing this.

It’s been a real pleasure. In my life, you sit down and you think – “I can ‘blah blah blah’ for ten minutes about what I’ve done, and that’s really very nice, and somebody might be interested.”

So thank you very much for asking me.

Heartfelt condolences to all who knew David; we swapped the odd e-mail back and forth for a little while after our conversation, and he was always incredibly friendly and flattered that I was so interested in his work. And The Seasons will stay with me forever as a wonderfully inventive and stirring encapsulation of everything that was strange and beautiful about the 1970s childhood experience.

And it’s still available to download from Trunk Records, here…

Delia Derbyshire, Drew Mulholland and Three Antennas in a Quarry

“The most striking thing about the whole programme was the music. Until then, as far as I know, there hadn’t been any pure electronic music. In the early sixties there was still a fair amount of the old 1950s rock and roll around, but then this music came out… no instruments… purely electronic… and I’d never heard anything like it before…”

It was only a matter of time before my Uncle Trevor made an appearance in this blog. Trevor is a lovely bloke, and with the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see what a important influence his tastes exerted on my 1970s childhood. He liked electronic music. He liked Doctor Who. And the above quote is his abiding memory of watching the first episode of the show as a 10-year-old, in November 1963. Yes, he remembers William Hartnell emerging from the TARDIS in a murky Shoreditch scrapyard, but it was the whooshing, swooping, radiophonic theme music that truly captured his imagination. To the ten-year-old 1960s child, the experience of hearing music without any discernable instrument was… well, unearthly.

Although Doctor Who‘s theme had been written by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose title music for Maigret, Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week That Was had already built him a solid reputation in the TV industry, it was arranged and realised by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire. Surrounded by piles of sliced analogue tape and test-tone oscillators, she painstakingly transformed Grainer’s notation into a resolutely avant-garde slice of musique concrète. Is it, alongside The Beatles’ Revolution #9, perhaps the most widely-heard piece of experimental music ever produced? Grainer himself was certainly taken aback. “Did I really write this?” he famously pondered, as Derbyshire played him the final mix. “Most of it,” she laconically replied. His subsequent noble attempts to secure her a co-writing credit were thwarted by grey-suited BBC beaurocrats, who preferred members of the Radiophonic Workshop to skulk in shadowy anonymity.

Nevertheless, Delia Derbyshire became a pivotal figure in the development of experimental, electronic music, firmly entrenched in that intoxicating middle-ground between art and technology, her life almost defined by the delicious power of contrasts: she was a working class Coventry girl who gained a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University; a tweed-skirted former primary school teacher who found herself at the very farthest edge of the 1960s counter-culture. She exhibited music at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, the 1966 ‘happening’ at which The Beatles’ other experimental opus, the since resolutely-unheard Carnival Of Light, was aired. And – alongside fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson and US-born electronica enthusiast David Vorhaus – formed the band White Noise, whose 1969 album An Electric Storm is a captivating mix of psychedelia, occult-tinged folk-pop and eerie, disturbing soundscapes.

By the 1990s, Derbyshire had seemingly long-since stopped making music, however – towards the end of the decade – she befriended musicians Pete Kember and Drew Mulholland, collaborating with the former on a 2001 track entitled Sychrondipity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream), and passing onto the latter the score for an unfinished piece of electronica, dating – as far as she remembered – from the late 1960s. I knew of Drew from his recordings as Mount Vernon Arts Lab, particularly his wonderfully atmospheric album The Séance at Hobs Lane, originally released in 2001, and then reiussed by Ghost Box Records in 2007. So I was intrigued to discover, earlier in 2019, that he had finally realised Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” score, transforming it into the album Three Antennas In A Quarry, now available from Buried Treasure records.

Drew’s interpretation is incredibly evocative of Deliba Derbyshire’s 1960s work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Doctor Who fans with a particular love of the William Hartnell era may find themselves drifting dreamily to a long-forgotten front room, or – indeed – to a gleaming corridor on a hostile alien planet. I might even buy a copy for my Uncle Trevor. I spoke to Drew Mulholland for my BBC Tees Evening Show, and this is how the conversation went…

Bob: I’m assuming that even before you got to know her personally, you admired Delia’s work a lot?

Drew: Yeah, even on my first records, on the run-out groove it said “Delia Derbyshire we salute you”! So she was always around. One of the things that I ‘fessed up to was that, when I was a 12-year-old, I did shoplift quite a bit… and one of the records I got was Out of This World by the Radiophonic Workshop. And I remember – because there were 100 tracks or something on it – writing down the ones that really stood out for me, and they were all by someone called “DD”. So I checked the index, and it was Delia, of course. And for me, as a 12-year-old, they were head and shoulders above everything else.

That is pretty esoteric music taste for a 12-year-old… like lots of us, did you come to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through their work on Doctor Who?

Yeah, but also… I’m writing the story of how I got involved in music, and I had to – as Syd Barrett would have said – tread the backward path. So I was thinking about all of this, and it came from… not necessarily Doctor Who, but BBC Schools music. Those weird programme that we’d listen to, maybe on the World Service, that had all these sounds, rather than music. I think that sensibility was very quietly going on in the background, and I was soaking it up.

It’s odd, last week I watched Georgy Girl, the Lynn Redgrave film, and she’s a nursery school teacher, and in the opening five minutes she’s teaching kids to interpret what is clearly an experimental Radiophonic Workshop track! And you’re right, we did hear this stuff at school. Music, Movement and Mime

That was one of them… I think that was a series of LPs. A lot of the stuff that Ghost Box have picked up on, that whole ethos, is very much based on that time. Now we’ve got so much distance from the 1970s, we can look back as adults and go “Actually, that was pretty weird…”. You know, the Public Information Films and all those hauntological tropes. It was a strange time.

It was a time when it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary to give really small kids some quite avant-garde things to listen to. It was seen as quite a healthy thing. I mean, the BBC produced this stuff for kids… the state broadcaster!

How times have changed!

So how did you get to know Delia? Did that happen in the 1990s?

Yeah, the late 1990s. It was Pete Kember from Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R… we were making a record together, and he phoned one day – very excited – and said “You’ll never guess who I’ve just been talking to…” and I said “Right, can you phone her back, and ask if it’s OK if this guy in Glasgow phones her?”

And I’ve told this story before, but I called her at seven o’clock, and she said “I’m really busy just now, can you call at twelve tomorrow?’ So right on twelve o’clock, I picked the receiver up and dialled the number… so her phone rang at about a minute past twelve. And she just picked the phone up and said “You’re late!'”

Ha! Rumour did have it that she was somewhat eccentric… and also quite reclusive by the 1990s. How did you find her as a person?

I’ll be diplomatic… it depended what time of day you spoke to her. If it was early on, she was sweetness and light and very helpful. She was great. Other times, not so.

I’ve seen you say that she was the only person you’ve ever encountered who could say “Oh Crumbs!” and not make it sound remotely contrived. Did she have that kind of sweet, old school quality to her?

Very much so. “Gosh and golly”, things like that! You didn’t even question it, it was just… that’s Delia. It was very natural, and hilarious of course.

So how did Three Antennas in a Quarry come into your posession? Was it something that you’d talked about working on together?

No, I think she was doing some recording with Pete Kember, it was around that time. We did a kind of mini-tour with E.A.R… Experimental Audio Research, one of Pete’s many groups. This would be summer or autumn 1998. And she’d phone up, and just say… without any pre-amble… “Do you use spices? I can get you some spices! My man works in a spice factory…”

And then she’d phone up and start talking about snuff…

Oh, I’d seen that she was a very enthusiastic snuff user…

Yeah! She said to me once that she’d had a special mix made up at the Sheffield snuff mills.

We need to find that, someone could market it… branded Delia Derbyshire Snuff. I suspect the market for snuff is quite niche these days, but you know…

One of the things that really annoys me is that Pete gave me one of Delia’s snuff tins… and I’ve lost it. I’ve no idea what happened to it.

If your house is anything like mine, it’ll be down the back of a radiator or sofa. So in what form did Three Antennas in a Quarry come to you? From listening to the album, it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to traditional notation.

No, not at all… it was a graphic score, which can be anything – a drawing, a sketch, dots on a page, a graph… it was very much the classic “scribble on the back of an envelope”. It was a sheet of A4, and there was a lot of numerical notation, and references to reel-to-reel tape recorders and what speed they would go at. So it was quite intense tying to find a route into it, because apart from the tape recorders and speed there wasn’t any direction as to how the music should go, the tempo, that kind of thing… but I like that, because I’m a researcher!

Where did some of the titles come from? ‘Calder Woodward’, for example?

A mixture of Calderwood, where I lived briefly as a child, and… Edward Woodward. You’ve got to have fun when you’re making a record!

Any idea what Delia had intended to do with the score? She even seems to have been quite vague about when she’d written it… the late 1960s, but she wasn’t quite sure…

No, she wasn’t sure. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be for the Radiophonic Workshop, or if it was a theatre piece… because she did lot of stuff for television and theatre… or if it was even an idea that she pursued. It was just one of those things that was either abandoned, or drastically transformed into something else.

Did you speculate at one point that she might have intended it for Syd Barrett, or Pink Floyd?

I don’t know… obviously it can never be proven, but I know that she invited Pink Floyd to the Radiophonic Workshop. We got the calendars out, and it would have been October 1967. And Syd was still in the band then, so the idea of Syd and Delia in the same room together fires the imagination.

She seemed to have this connection with the biggest rock stars of the day, and they had a fascination with her as well… didn’t Paul McCartney and John Lennon visit her at one point?

Yeah, Paul McCartney had written Yesterday, so this was 1965. And he knew that he didn’t want the full band to play it: he didn’t want the normal bass, two guitars and drums. So he asked George Martin -“What do I do with this?” and he said ‘”There’s this woman at the Radiophonic Workshop, go and have a word with her…”

I’d literally just read about that in Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney, and I called her straight away, and said “What’s all this about?” And she now famously said “Yes, he came to see me… with the other one… the one with the glasses”. I said “That’ll be John Lennon, then?” She said “Lennon, that’s it… golly!”

So she lived in a separate world to the pop music of the era, then?

I think so, yeah. I visited Girton College in Cambridge [where Delia studied in the late 1950s] to give a talk there, and I did some field recording, and stayed there for a couple of days… and really started to get a sense of separateness. From the world, basically.

Although she did seem to have a certain fascination with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones…

Yeah, we spoke to her up here for a radio interview, and she said that when she heard the news that he’d died, she was doing he washing up, and she cried into it. She said he was really nice, and remembered his frilly cuffs! But the spooky coincidence is that they both died on the same day… July 3rd. Which was also the day that my Dad died… and Jim Morrison!

Don’t throw any more in, it’s getting spooky! She’s such an extraordinary figure, and an ahead-of-her-time figure… my Uncle Trevor, who is a big influence on me, saw the first episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 1963, when he was ten… and he said it wasn’t so much the programme itself that stuck in his mind, it was the music… he and his friends had never heard music before where you couldn’t discern any particular instrument. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for an early 1960s kid. Incredibly forward-thinking.

Oh, incredibly! It’s like a stun grenade going into a room… there were only two channels on TV at that point, and not only did you have the introductory music, but you also had those visuals as well. The video feedback… it was the first time that had been used. And this wasn’t some out-of-the-way arts programme, it was teatime on a Saturday. I was two then, so I don’t remember it, but we’ve all grown up with the Doctor Who theme, and more and more television channels, and CGI and all this… but at that time, it must have been a bit of a cultural shift. Suddenly… this is what’s possible. And perfectly timed, in the early 1960s.

Yes, psychedelia, just before actual psychedelia…

Well that’s why they called it psyche-Delia!

Twenty years in regional radio, and I’m still being beaten to solid-gold opportunities for brilliant puns. “Pyschedelia Derbyshire”! Good grief, I hang my head in shame. Thanks to Drew Mulholland, and to Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records. A limited vinyl edition of Three Antennas in a Quarry has now sold out, but the full album can be downloaded here…