Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Four

While Time And The Rani was being broadcast, Children's BBC how-it-works show for under-tens Corners suddenly picked up a couple of million extra viewers. This was largely down to the fact that the show's new presenter Sophie Aldred was also set to become the next Doctor Who companion, and as well as the usual standard issue obsessive fan that has to watch every last appearance by every last actor connected with it, there were also a significant number of smitten teenagers who just couldn't get enough of their latest TV crush. While they would have to wait until 1989 to see Sophie dressed as Cleopatra and wearing a Victorian ballgown with a plunging neckline on Children's BBC game show Knock Knock, anyone who was still watching Corners in December 1987 would nonetheless have got a nice surprise of a very different kind.

During an edition devoted to 'Music', Sophie visited Keff McCulloch in a weirdly dingy cellar-based studio for a look at how he put that contentious new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme together. In a fun little interview, he explains how a synthesiser works, and essays not altogether convincing 'flute' and 'organ' tones before breaking out the somewhat less conventional sounds used in the theme, which it has to be said sounded little short of amazing when tearing out of your TV speaker in isolation. Sophie then gets to play the bassline and edit it into shape using a sequencer; she observes that 'you'd need about twenty hands to play all that', upon which Keff launches into a guided tour of the 24 Track Mixing Console, pushing the faders up and down in a way that seems barely noteworthy now but was the sort of thing that you normally didn't get to see or indeed hear back then.

You may speculate, of course, that this feature was originally intended to tie in with the abandoned single release of the Keff McCulloch version of the theme. Which I would normally use as an opportunity to plug my book about BBC Records And Tapes Top Of The Box, except for the fact that Ian Shazam and all the wacky japesters on the Charter Review committee have just announced that promoting anything to do with The BBC is very bad and wrong. Which I'm happy to comply with, as long as they are similarly happy to dodge an incessant hail of sharpened copies of Come To My Party by Keith Harris And Orville.

Anyway, one thing that surprisingly didn't put in an appearance in his actual arrangement of the theme music, but was all over his incidental music as if it was vying for prominence with that pesky banjo, was the dreaded 'orchestra hit'. For those of you who aren't familiar with it... well, let's face it, you are familiar with it. It's a blanket name for those sampler-derived bits of angular and slightly off-key punches of massed musical emphasis that you'll find roughly every three seconds in any given Pet Shop Boys single. It was an effect that had started to creep in during the early eighties, primarily via Trevor Horn, and by the end of the decade was everywhere, from Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth, through Express Yourself by NWA, all the way to that preposterous Sun-Pat 'P-P-P-Peanutritious' advert. Keff McCulloch had no searing expletive-strewn message to deliver about Black America needing to stop fighting itself before it could fight White America, though, nor indeed any phatic air-punching sentiments about how youngsters hold the 'key' if only the grown-ups would listen to them. Not even any reason to extol the nutritional virtues of a spread made from ninety three percent peanuts. He was there, purely and simply, to punctuate Gavrok thumping his fist through a flimsy paper 'loudspeaker', and didn't we know it.

First essayed in Time And The Rani, Keff McCulloch's approach to incidental music has since become one of the most widely derided aspects of the original run of Doctor Who, and in some regards it's not difficult to see why. Heavily indebted to the MIDI-er-than-thou computer-controlled samplings of The Art Of Noise - whose contemporaneous theme for The Krypton Factor would not have sounded out of place in a McCoy story - his contributions rely far too often on clinical and sterile 'funky' motifs driven by all-too-obviously synth-derived brass and piano sounds, with orchestra hits thrown in for good measure whenever a character does something dramatic like sit completely still doing absolutely nothing whatsoever. They are loud, they are mechanical, they are precise, and they are very much of their time. However, they were also perfectly good in their time, succeeding in making Doctor Who at least sound more modern than it had done since, well, ever really, and scoffing at them for having had the temerity to wear a bit badly is a bit like castigating Coldcut Featuring Yazz And The Plastic Population for not being Rich Homie Quan.

Admittedly, even allowing for this, Time And The Rani does not exactly find the beleaguered synth wizard at his best, seemingly weighed down by the need to make a good first impression, and with high-speed atmospherics careering about the place like a copy of Galactic Nightmare had burst all over the soundtrack. There are also way too many 'clever' variations on the basic theme tune melody; you can hear the first stirrings of his notorious 'Latin Version' here, if you're unhinged enough to actually want to. Ironically Keff McCulloch would do a much better job with a much shorter time to work in on the following story Paradise Towers, then really hit his stride when called on to throw in elements of fifties pastiche when they went back to 1959 - The Rock'n'Roll Years! - for Delta And The Bannermen.

There are plenty of decent moments in his Time And The Rani score, though, and the entire soundtrack does at least exemplify the one virtue that Keff McCulloch never gets anywhere near enough credit for - brevity. Unlike Murray Gold and his ceaseless attempts to shoehorn an entire symphony into every single close-up, there is invariably just enough music to make a point or set a mood and then they get on with the controversial business of actually allowing the audience to hear some of the dialogue. So much so that when some of his music was included on The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album the following year, full-length tracks had to be made up from bizarre ill-matching cut'n'shuts of much shorter pieces of music. Although, that said, the two extracts from Time And The Rani were actual full-length pieces, albeit only heard as brief background edits onscreen. Erm, as you were.

More to the point, the alarming modernity of Keff McCulloch's DX7-derived sounds were enough to lull hapless fans into a deluded notion that their 'cool' friends might start to see Doctor Who as 'cool' again. They'd probably deny it now, much like they'd deny that they ever purposefully ate McCoy's crisps in a misguided act of 'solidarity', but the truth of the matter is that every fan went through a stage of believing that the hip fashion-followers in their class could be converted to the cause if only the right 'in' could be found. And now Doctor Who had music that sounded a little bit like what was in the charts; was this the moment they'd all been waiting for? No it wasn't. It would take more than a couple of orchestra hits to tempt juvenile trend-surfers away from The Lost Boys and paisley waistcoats. It was about as liable to connect with them as that dreadful Italio House-themed Vimto ad, and the only time fans would be hearing the Doctor Who theme around school playgrounds was when the 'zany' kid sniggered and sang "OOOOOO-weeeee-oooooOOOOO" at them in a sort of out of tune sarcastic voice. The Beatmasters did not see fit to drag Roberta Tovey out of retirement for a chart-topping collaboration. There would be no We Sing In Praise Of Total War '88 by Eric B & Rakim feat. Robert Moubert.

Nonetheless, there remains a small but significant faction of fans out there who actually quite like Keff McCulloch's incidental music, and in the pre-DVD Extra age many of them would come to treasure that snippet of Corners that they'd hastily recorded between the omnibus repeats of Dick Spanner. Many would also 'treasure' off-airs of Never Kiss Frogs and Melvin And Maureen's Music-A-Grams, but perhaps we'd better not go into that. But of course, Sophie Aldred wasn't in Time And The Rani, and mentioning her so heavily in this context would be a bit like if an earlier draft of this piece had suggested that some of the additional Corners viewers "had turned on too early for Droids", when in fact the BBC didn't start showing the animated adventures of R2D2 and C3P0 until the following year. It's time to turn our attention back to what Ikona and company are up to.

Meanwhile, in a freak coincidence, there actually was a credible crossover between Doctor Who and new-fangled dance music the following year, and it would have wider and longer-lasting implications than anyone expected at the time... but that's another story.