COMPOSER: ELISABETH PARKER
Elizabeth Parker is a British composer, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for many years. She is best known for providing special sound for Blake's 7 taking over from Richard Yeoman-Clark from Season 2 onwards. She also provided the music for the episode Gambit and for the 1985 Doctor Who story Timelash. She also wrote the score for David Attenborough's ground-breaking 12-part series The Living Planet and has also contributed music for the series Fred Dibnah's Building of Britain, The Human Body and Animal Games. Elizabeth also wrote many well-known theme tunes at the Workshop including Points of View, Horizon and Everyman.
This interview was first published in Issue 5 of Scorpio Attack, 2008.
SA: How did you start out in the business?
EP: I studied Fine Arts and Music at the University of East Anglia. I was very lucky as they funded me to do a postgrad in electronic music. It was during this time that I met Tristram Carey who was a pioneer in the field of sound effects.
SA: How did you get in with the BBC?
EP: There were two ways into the BBC back then – as a secretary or as a studio manager. After University I got in as a studio manager and then I got an attachment to the Radiophonic Workshop. I’d first heard of the Workshop while I was at University and I thought they sounded absolutely fantastic. I was delighted to get the chance to actually work there! I was extremely lucky as it was very difficult to get in there because no-one ever left! I hadn’t been there for long when I landed a job on Doctor Who. It was all very quick.
SA: What was the job on Doctor Who?
EP: It was a story called The Stones of Blood and I handled all the sound effects. The man who normally handled all the effects (Dick Mills) was unavailable so I was thrown in at the deep end. It was very daunting and the equipment was very primitive. I was working with huge tape machines and I’d never done sound effects before. I don’t know if you remember the story, but it concerned huge stone creatures that came alive. They had a strange kind of heartbeat combined with the gravelly sound of their movement. There were a number of other effects in the story and it was definitely a huge challenge. Fortunately I managed to complete the job and it made me hungry for more of the same!
SA: How did you come to work on Blake’s 7?
EP: That came about shortly after I’d completed work on Doctor Who. I took over from Richard Yeoman Clarke who suddenly decided to leave Blake’s 7 in November (1978). He was half-way through the second series and they were desperate for someone to take over. I was feeling rather emboldened from my work on Doctor Who so I put myself forward as his replacement. I knew I could do it but it was one hell of an undertaking. It was the first time I’d ever been in charge and I knew it was going to be tough. It was a steep learning curve.
SA: Were you given a lot of freedom?
EP: Richard had established a number of the key sounds which I had to keep for the sake of continuity. This included such things as the sound of Orac and the interior hum of the Liberator. Apart from that I was free to take it where I wanted. I treated each episode as a new challenge and I tried to avoid using the same effects over and over again. I wanted to create a rich and complex sound. I also wanted to introduce more subtle organic and feminine sounds. I used my own voice in a lot of the effects which was a lot of fun!
SA: Do you have any favourite sound effects?
EP: My favourite episode was Sarcophagus. Blowing up the Liberator was a definite highlight too. I also rather enjoyed providing the vocals for one of the later episodes where the zombies are on the escalator. “You are loved, you are cared for, you are loved”. That was fun!
SA: You composed the incidental music for Gambit. How did this come about?
EP: There’s a thin line between sound effects and incidental music. If I were to work on a science fiction series today then I would insist on handling the music and the sound effects. Dudley Simpson was well established back then so that wasn’t an option. Dudley was a lovely man. For Gambit I can only imagine that the director wanted to try something a little different. It was the first music I ever wrote to picture and I was pleased with the results. It was a fun episode set in a space casino and it needed a larger than life sound. I used a lot of rock chords to create a striking effect.
SA: Did you enjoy working on Blake’s 7?
EP: Of course I did! It could be a little fraught but I absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of rivalry between Doctor Who and Blake’s 7and this was reflected in the relationship I had with Dick Mills. It was a very friendly rivalry though and I learnt a lot from him. I always felt that Blake’s 7 was seen as secondary to Doctor Who and I always fought to challenge that perception.
SA: You are the only woman to ever compose an incidental score for Doctor Who. How did this come about?
EP: I had recently completed the soundtrack to The Living Planet and then Doctor Who was placed in my lap. It was something I was very keen to do and I wanted to do a completely electronic score. It was another wonderful experience and I was very pleased with the results. I heard the soundtrack again recently as the episodes are now out on DVD. I think the score holds up quite well.
SA: Were you upset when the axe fell on the Workshop?
EP: Of course but by the time it all ended I was ready to move on. There were a lot more freelancers around in the 80’s and 90’s as electronic music-making equipment had become a lot cheaper. The Workshop had become outdated and prohibitively expensive. Producers could no longer afford to use its services. This meant that the money dried up and the equipment we had soon became outdated. There was no way we could have kept things going. I was there until the bitter end and it was all rather depressing. It had been such a great place and it was desperately sad to see it grind to a halt.
SA: What did you do when the Radiophonic Workshop was axed?
EP: After the Workshop closed down I went freelance and set up my own studio. I’ve been lucky as I’ve never been short of work.
SA: Is it a stressful line of work?
EP: It can be pressurized as you are always working to tight deadlines. Often you have to be able to deliver the goods at very short notice and for very little money! It’s also a highly competitive industry as there are a lot of people going after a relatively small amount of work. Fortunately I thrive on adrenaline!