Incidentally Speaking: Appreciating Dudley Simpson

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Guest contributor Shane Spangler celebrates one of the biggest composers of the classic era.

A few months ago, I sent my second-ever fan letter, to classic Doctor Who composer, Dudley Simpson, the 90-year-old Australian conductor and film composer responsible for 60 Doctor Who incidental scores between 1964 and 1979. Simpson’s first Doctor Who score was written for the 1964 William Hartnell adventure, “Planet of Giants,” and utilized acoustic instruments. As the 1960s progressed, Simpson’s scores began to utilize more electronic effects. Some were entirely realized on the state-of-the-art synthesizers of the day, giving us such twangy, eerie scores as the one for Fury from the Deep. Others, such as his marvelous music for The Seeds of Death and The Deadly Assassin are a nearly perfect marriage between acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The incidentals for the entire 1971 series of Doctor Who were realized electronically, and, to my ears, sound like the music that accompanies early 1980s video games – again, very forward-looking of Simpson. In 1972, he was once again working with a blend of acoustic and electronic instruments, and by the time we reached the Tom Baker era, Simpson’s scores had come full circle and were largely acoustic, favoring woodwinds, percussion, and cello. In 1980, incoming producer John Nathan-Turner rather unceremoniously dumped Simpson for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to provide incidental music for Doctor Who, and the Dudley Simpson era came abruptly to an end.

Perhaps you are asking yourselves, “with all the people to remember during Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, why bother to celebrate a composer of soundtracks?” The answer is quite simple: because soundtracks are the lifeblood of our film and television productions. Many people, Doctor Who fans included, fail to grasp just how awful our favorite shows and movies would be, except for the work of the musicians who write and perform the incidental music. Of course, in both film and television, it remains the people in front of the camera that receive the notoriety and praise, while the musicians that fill dramatic voids and connect the ears of the viewing audience to their adrenal glands, (while helping large, fake sewer rats to attain some degree of dramatic impetus) largely pass silently into obscurity.

But, dear reader, ask yourself: Would the movie Jaws have been nearly as memorable without John Williams’ low string “shark theme”; or Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, without Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant “screech, screech, screech” cue in the violins? Dudley Simpson arguably did more than either, by using his musical talent to highlight the action and smooth over the rough edges of classic Doctor Who, which was, as we know, produced on a shoestring budget, and practically recorded live in the 60’s and 70’s. (Would the Master have been nearly as evil without Simpson’s synthesized vibrato augmented-4th “Master theme”? Would the Mandrels have been as heart-stoppingly terrifying without Simpson’s woodwind fanfare?) For these reasons and more, I decided to send the following letter to Dudley:

Dear Mr. Simpson,

This is my very second “fan letter” ever -- the first one I wrote last week, to your colleague Mark Ayres, who kindly offered to forward my note to you.

I am a huge fan of your scores in Doctor Who. Sometimes I will turn on episodes, such as “Stones of Blood”, just to enjoy your brilliant incidental music -- your use of cello and flute in that one captured the atmosphere perfectly, and the muted gong “blood sacrifice” cue still gives me frissons. “The Seeds of Death” score is a phenomenal piece of work too -- with the Radiophonic treatment giving it just the right “edge”. And, of course, there’s your lovely “War Games” score. As a pianist and composer, I often quote your “Civil War” cues when I’m improvising. And if I’m pinch-hitting as a church organist somewhere, I have also been known to play your “General Smythe” theme as the priest comes down the aisle. For me, your all-electronic work encapsulates the early 1970s. All I need to hear are the sweeping tones of your “Mind of Evil” or “Daemons” score, and I’m instantly transported to my 9-year-old self in 1984, on the sofa, late Friday night (which is when the local PBS station aired Who), hoping that the TV reception will last until the end of the episode, so I could get the whole thing recorded on VHS. (We lived out in the country)

Recently, I watched the DVD release of “Day of the Daleks,” and marveled at your electronic score, especially the “Après la Guerre” section -- I love the harmonic movement in that section, which matches the visuals incredibly well, building the right amount of tension and “bleakness”. Your “Spearhead from Space” incidental music was fantastic – I loved Liz Shaw’s theme -- and your versatility really showed in “Ambassadors of Death.” 

And then we have your consistent genius in all those Tom Baker episodes. “Pyramids of Mars”, “Android Invasion”, “Deadly Assassin”, “Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “Invasion of Time”, “Ribos Operation”, “Androids of Tara”, “Armageddon Factor” -- such lovely cues, I frequently will hit the “rewind” just to listen to your music. And, again, your organ solos from “Deadly Assassin” and “Invasion of Time” have often cropped up during Mass as a handy processional/recessional, or if the priest is fiddling about and taking too long to cleanse the vessels.

Listening to your compositions from the 60s and 70s, I can only marvel at the breadth of your compositional style -- everything from lounge music to “James Bond” sleazy saxophone and electric guitar, to musique concrète, to pure electronic sonic effect -- to marches, waltzes, jazz, contemporary, traditional romantic and classical… and to think you did most of it at great speed, with only a handful of performers. Brilliant. I would be jealous, if I weren’t so completely awed. I guess the only things I can think of to say are, “thank you”, and “wow!”

Very sincerely yours, 

Shane Spangler

To my surprise, and pleasure, Dudley responded to my email a few days later:

“Yes, Shane. I am awed by your most welcome comments about my music for ‘WHO’: the biggest challenge of my career since moving to the UK from Australia -- although I must admit there were a few challenges on the way, including conducting at the Royal Opera House without a rehearsal [the orchestra members hadn’t seen me before]…but of course I needed the opportunity, so took it on …eventually becoming musical director for a world tour with Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. However after a performance at the Opera House I met a BBC producer who invited me to produce a score for his program “and thereby hangs a tale”. I got the job, and eventually started on Dr. Who and other programs followed: Blake’s Seven, The Tomorrow People, etcBut back to you Shane…I thank you so much for your comments, and I really appreciate them, I assure you. Yours sincerely, Dudley Simpson.”

A real note from Dudley Simpson! I was so excited; I poured half my morning cup of coffee down my front. (The other half I spilled.) If nothing else, this is proof positive that we should indeed remember to thank those people whose work has positively impacted our lives. Teachers, actors, athletes, cartoonists, writers, artists, and, yes, film composers. You never know: they might even write back. Now, I need to write that letter to Tom Baker…

Author’s note: Dudley Simpson’s musical work is celebrated in a two-part DVD special feature entitled “The Doctor’s Composer”, found on The War Games and The Sunmakers DVDs.