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Desmond Briscoe

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Desmond Briscoe was a pioneer of electronic music in the fifties, and co-creator of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.

Under his management of the workshop from 1960 to 1984, scores of in-house composers produced exciting music for hundreds of radio and television programmes, using natural sounds manipulated on magnetic tape.

Briscoe’s constant battle with BBC bureaucracy for more equipment, space and money resulted in the Radiophonic Workshop becoming one of the most influential music studios in the world, whose pioneering work paved the way for the explosion of electronic music in the late 20th century.

Harry Desmond Briscoe, born in Birkenhead on June 21, 1925, joined the BBC in Manchester at the age of 16, as a junior programme assistant. After serving in the Guards in the Second World War, he was transferred to the Education Corps, where he became music adviser to the London area. He rejoined the BBC in 1948, creating sound effects and incidental music in the drama department.

When the BBC set up the Electronic Effects Committee in 1956, Briscoe and his colleagues began to experiment with early tape recorders. He was heavily influenced by the work of the European composers Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

His breakthrough commission, which led to the setting up of the workshop, was Samuel Beckett’s first play for radio, All That Fall (1957). Beckett wanted a blend of dialogue, music and sound effects, which gave Briscoe the perfect opportunity to put his burgeoning expertise to good use.

When the Radiophonic Workshop was established the following year, Briscoe was joined by fellow pioneer Daphne Oram and engineer Richard ‘Dickie’ Bird. In the early days they worked with anything that had the potential to create an atmospheric sound, from scrubbing brushes to watering cans.

One of their earliest successes was the unearthly music for the TV series Quatermass and the Pit (1958), the first time electronic music had been used for a science fiction programme. Later, in 1963, the workshop created the theme music for Doctor Who, from a score by Ron Grainger, little knowing it would become one of television’s most celebrated anthems.

In the seventies, the workshop was working on some 250 programmes a year, including jingles, special effects and the Open University. It was also producing its own programmes, such as the rock opera Rockoco (1979).

Despite being desk-bound for most of his career, Briscoe tried to keep his creative hand in with projects that had a special meaning for him, notably with Narrow Boats (1969), in which he used words and music to evoke the lives of canal boatmen, and A Wall Walks Slowly (1976), in which he used the voices of Cumbrian natives and the poet Norman Nicholson to enliven the Cumbrian landscape. This latter programme brought him three awards from the Society of Radio Authors.

The Radiophonic Workshop finally closed in 1998 as a result of the BBC’s decision to close all departments that were not self-supporting. By then Briscoe had already retired.

Desmond Briscoe, composer, sound engineer and studio manager, died aged 81 on December 7, 2006. He is survived by his son David.

Nick Smurthwaite

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