6 January 2017

Audio taping Doctor Who

Growing up, we didn’t have what Doctor Who kids have these days where all the existing episodes are relatively easy for them (or their parents) to obtain. Back in the Seventies Doctor Who was actually quite a fleeting thing. Beyond its 25 minute Saturday evening broadcast an episode would rarely be glimpsed again. It might be repeated on a Bank Holiday. A photo might show up in a magazine but basically all you then had was your memory of it and the Target novelisation. There were not even video recorders in general circulation then but one thing that you could do – if you had the equipment- was make an audio recording. Nowadays Big Finish produce new audio adventures but they are made for the medium knowing full well that things will have to be explained verbally for listeners to know what is going on. Audio recording television is another matter altogether. 
"Doctor, it's like we're hearing the same wild animal noises again and again" "Er, come on Jo, they must just be moving around alot." "Mmmm"

There were two types of recorder you could use. One was the older reel to reel recorder which used the spools of tape you used to see on programmes made in the 60s but supposedly set in the year 2000. In those days computers were always imagined as being ginormous things that took up a whole room rather than using the micro technology we actually carry in our pockets today. These tape reels would record a considerable amount of material but the sound quality was always rather tinny while the recorder itself was heavy and cumbersome despite being technically `portable`. The alternative was the much newer  cassette recorder which was easier to use. 

Both recorders shared a problem when it came to the microphone. There was no option to record directly as you would later with videos or dvds; instead the microphone had to be set up in front of your television set’s speaker. This practice was liable to alienate the Doctor Who fan from the rest of their family or at least increase the alienation already in play thanks to their having to endure whispery Spirodon voices. Though the microphones may have looked primitive they could pick up the slightest noise from nearby. Thus some fans would ban their family from entering the room while they were recording otherwise the results would be peppered with assorted “Ssssh” and much tutting as someone walks in just as the Doctor is considering whether he has the right to touch those two wires. Or your sister will start giggling when Morbius is first seen not quite the desired effect the programme makers might have intended!

Bizarrely I never used to even record the whole programme at first. I recorded the theme music and then turned it off! After a while though I was recording it each week. Of course however carefully the recording process was managed and even if you could keep the family out of the room, the end results would more often than not turn out to be disappointing. This is because it was a television programme. More than half of the information you need to follow it is visual so whole scenes might roll by with nothing more than some of Dudley Simpson’s prime clangs and shuffling of shoes on the studio floor. 

Thus my early memories of the show are strangely mixed up with these audio recordings. I could always tell for example when the third Doctor walked into a room because he had a very distinctive shoe shuffle when he came to a halt. It’s why I remember the Pertwee era Crow, a bird that would caw every time we were on location! Once Dudley Simpson's music parped it was impossible from an audio recording to know what was going on at all.

I knew the incidental music and dialogue of episode 6 of Frontier in Space by heart but visually I’d forgotten just how awful the Ogron monster was! Perhaps the worst episode to record was part 3 of `The Deadly Assassin` which consists mainly of people clambering over rocks. Oddly the one story which did not lose as much from audios was `Robots of Death` whose menacing soundtrack and sibilant robot voices worked almost as well in sound as in vision.

Ultimately recording Doctor Who from the tv stopped after a while I wasn’t really listening to them. However I now realise that there is no period of the series which remains as vividly in my memory as those stories I taped; somehow the sounds have enhanced them even from this distance. Another thing too- the `creatures` you can hear on Spirodon during `Planet of the Daleks` are surprisingly repetitive! 
"You're actually taping this! What whippet s##t!"

1 comment:

  1. Here in Brisbane, you used to be able to pick up the audio of the local ABC channel on an FM frequency. It did not take me long to put 2 and 2 together. Some of my favourite memories of this time included the fantastic scores of Logopolis and Castrovalva.

    I had a box full of these tapes in the end, from The Mind Robber through to Revelation of the Daleks, and many points in between. It took up a great deal of pocket money!