Delia Derbyshire 

17 January 2014


Recently I acquired a DVD of a horror film from the early seventies, The Legend of Hell House, exploring that long term favourite of horror film directors, a haunted house where the guests are not guaranteed to get out alive. Whilst a good film, if not quite as good as The Haunting, it was made better by a sinister soundtrack that would not have sounded out of place in a Doctor Who of the period, and was credited to a certain Delia Derbyshire of Electrophon Ltd, a company that supplied electronic music to the film industry. Being a curious sort of person, I decided to do some research into Delia Derbyshire, a name I vaguely recalled from a Guardian obituary praising her contribution to electronic music and found that she was a hugely influential member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop between 1962 and 1973, creating one of the most enduring television themes of all time.

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry in 1937 and was educated at Coventry Grammar School. An extremely bright pupil with a talent for mathematics and music, she attended the prestigious Girton College at Cambridge, achieving a double first in mathematics and music. Wanting a career in the music industry, Derbyshire applied to join Decca Records (a major producer of classical music at the time), but this being the era before feminism, was told in no uncertain terms that the company did not employ women. A brief spell at the UN and music publisher Boosey and Hawkes followed before Derbyshire joined the BBC in 1960 as a studio manager at Broadcasting House. However, she discovered that there was a temporary vacancy at the Radiophonic Workshop, which had been set up to create sound effects for radio dramas a few years previously, and was sent on temporary attachment to their studios at Maida Vale. The “temporary attachment” was to last 11 years.

Derbyshire joined the Radiophonic Workshop just as it was moving into making music and sound effects for television as well as experimental music for the BBC Third Programme. She happened to be in the right place at the right time as the Radiophonic Workshop was asked to create music for Doctor Who, which would provide it with plenty of work for the next 26 years, and Derbyshire was asked to realise a score by Ron Grainer, which was to become the show’s theme tune and which survives in a modified form to this day and is one of the most recognisable theme tunes of all time, ranking alongside Coronation St and Eastenders.

The theme music to Doctor Who was highly innovative, as most television themes of the time used musicians and conventional instruments, often full orchestras and jazz bands were used. However, as Doctor Who was a futuristic series, it was decided to use an electronic track. Also in 1963 this was highly innovative as synthesisers had not been created. Derbyshire’s technique was to create each note by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue recording tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise and using test tone oscillators. The melody and pulsating bass rhythm was created by manually adjusting the oscillators to a time pattern and the hissing sounds in the theme tune were created by cutting recordings of filtered white noise.

Once this very complicated and time consuming piece was completed, the music was mixed on separate tape machines as the BBC did not have multitrack tape recorders. Again this was a difficult procedure, as the technology of the time was not particularly reliable, and each length of tape had to be placed on a separate machine and all the tapes had to be started simultaneously and in sync. Sometimes the tape machines did not start in sync or developed problems, such as starting at the wrong time, so the tapes were cut slightly and submixes created. Finally the theme was completed shortly before the first series of Doctor Who started and Ron Grainer was very impressed with the finished result. He asked Derbyshire “Did I write that?” to which she modestly replied, “Most of it”. However, on the credits the theme is credited to Ron Grainer as the BBC preferred to keep Radiophonic Workshop staff anonymous and Derbyshire received no royalties, even though she did most of the work on creating the theme tune.

Although the Doctor Who theme is Derbyshire’s most famous, uncredited work, she became well known in the industry for her work for the Third Programme and for BBC Television. At the time the BBC’s Third Programme was the BBC’s most intellectual and challenging radio network and Derbyshire was asked to collaborate with poet and dramatist Barry Bermange. Bermange’s 1964 piece The Dreams was a collage of people describing their dreams and nightmares with a musical background of pure electronic sound. A second Bermange piece, Amor Dei, concerned people’s beliefs in heaven and hell. This took months for Derbyshire to perfect the soundtrack of voices and electronic music, using the primitive technology of the time, and she described this as her “reverse adrenaline”. She is quoted as saying, “When other people speed up, I slow down.”

Among her television work in the mid sixties, she composed music for a World About Us documentary about the Tuareg people of North Africa. Derbyshire used her own voice to create the sound of the horses hooves and the Workshop’s oscillators to create the electronic backing. However, the inspiration for the sound came from a highly unelectronic source, an old BBC lampshade. Derbyshire revealed, “My most beautiful sound at the time was a tatty green BBC lampshade. It was the wrong colour, but it had a beautiful ringing sound to it. I hit the lampshade, recorded that, faded it up into the ringing part without the percussive start.

“I analysed the sound into all of its partials and frequencies, and took the 12 strongest, and reconstructed the sound on the workshop’s famous 12 oscillators to give a whooshing sound. So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs.”

However, for all Derbyshire was a highly respected member of staff at the Radiophonic Workshop, she was becoming disillusioned with the BBC hierarchy and her fixed BBC salary. She was particularly annoyed when a manager told her that her music was “too lascivious for 11-year-olds” and “too sophisticated for the BBC-2 audience” (whatever this meant as BBC-2 at the time was mostly watched by very well educated viewers who would understand her music). Derbyshire, while still a BBC employee, decided to branch from the BBC and formed Unit Delta Plus with Workshop member Brian Hodgson and electronic composer Peter Zinovieff in 1966, an electronic music act that was just right for the psychedelic era that was emerging. Derbsyhire recalled of Unit Delta Plus’s first performance in 1966, “We had an evening of electronic music and light effects. The music was indoors in a theatre setting with a screen on which were projected light shows done by lecturers from the Hornsey College of Art. It was billed as the first concert of British electronic music.”

Derbyshire was determined to make a name for herself in the music scene and her electronic music found favour with psychedelic based acts like Pink Floyd and her name was well known in the music industry. According to her Guardian obituary, “In those days, the Radiophonic Workshop received a stream of visiting musicians, composers and writers – from Berio to Brian Jones – and she entranced them with her intellect and the joy of her company.” Also in 1967, when the psychedelic movement was at its peak, Unit Delta Plus performed at an event whose name was over 20 years ahead of its time, “The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave”, like the raves familiar to people who remember the early nineties, a festival of electronic music with a psychedelic light show. This festival was significant for being the only time a Beatles recording “Carnival of Light” was played in public. However, a disastrous performance at the Royal College of Art saw the trio disband.

She worked on Guy Woolfenden’s electronic score for Peter Hall’s 1967 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth with Paul Scofield, and on Hall’s film Work is a Four Letter Word (1967). It was at Zinovieff’s Putney studio that she first met Paul McCartney.

Later, Derbyshire, David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson set up Kaleidophon, a Camden Town-based independent studio. There she worked on the album “Electric Storm” (1968), now considered a classic, which was credited to White Noise and released on Island Records. “Electric Storm”, while not a huge success commercially, was a pioneering album that blazed a trail for electronic music several years before Kraftwerk brought it to the mainstream. Music created by Derbyshire, Vorhaus and Hodgson was later used on ITV science fiction dramas Timeslip and The Tomorrow People.

Derbyshire continued to work for the BBC, composing an electronic introduction to a compilation album of music from the Radio One show Top Gear and for the natural history series Great Zoos of the World, but she was becoming disillusioned with her lack of prospects at the BBC and decided to join Brian Hodgson full time at Electrophon, his new venture after Kaleidophon, in 1973. It was Electrophon, as was pointed out at the start of the article, that provided the sinister electronic music for The Legend of Hell House that added to the sense of menace of a house being haunted by the ghost of a depraved millionaire who massacred his guests at a party in the twenties and who was terrorising four researchers at his dilapidated mansion. A moderately successful film that could have given Derbyshire a lucrative career as a composer of film music, she spectacularly quit Electrophon at the end of 1973 to become of all things a radio operator on a gas pipeline project in the North of England. Apparently Derbyshire was disillusioned with the lack of progress in electronic music, which was still largely confined to science fiction and horror films, and also was annoyed at the increase in the use of the synthesiser, which she considered was making music too easy to produce. Derbyshire enthusiast Paul Hartnoll of electronica act Orbital commented on her decision to quit music, “I’ve got a shedload of synthesisers and equipment, whereas Delia Derbyshire got out of the Radiophonic Workshop when synthesisers came along. I think she got a bit disheartened and it all became a little too easy.”

This retirement from the music world proved to be rather a disaster for Derbyshire. A marriage to the son of a miner in Northumberland to fit in more in the local community was shortlived as the cultural differences were too great. Derbyshire then went through a series of jobs in art galleries and bookshops, ending up at one stage in my home county of Cumbria, while her alcohol consumption and disillusionment with the music industry grew throughout the seventies. In 1980 she met Clive Blackburn, who was to be her partner for the rest of her life. Probably for the first time, she found happiness and settled into what, for her, was a normal existence.

Derbyshire found encouragement with the growth in popularity of electronic music in nineties, which was at times during the decade far more popular than conventional guitar based rock music. Electronic acts such as Orbital, The Chemical Brothers and Portishead cited Derbyshire as an influence and I am sure William Orbit’s successful electronic album of classical covers, “Pieces In A Modern Style”, was influenced by Electrophon’s 1972 album, “In A Covent Garden”, which did the same with well known classics. Derbyshire also came out in support of the new generation of electronic acts and offered them support.

However, sadly in July 2001, Delia Derbyshire died after a long battle against alcoholism and depression. Her collection of music, which comprised of 267 tapes and scores, was entrusted to a former Radiophonic Workshop employee, Mark Ayres. Some of this music, which had been recorded on open reel tapes in the early seventies, was in poor condition and could only be played on vintage tape machines before it was sent to Manchester University’s School of Art, Histories and Culture to be digitised and catalogued. In 2008 her whole back catalogue was released. Commenting on Derbyshire’s contribution to music, Dr David Butler of Manchester University told The Times in 2008, “Delia Derbyshire never really received the recognition she deserved as one of our most influential composers of the past 30 or so years.

“Though brilliant, the Doctor Who theme is just one small example of her genius which was held in high esteem by figures across music, television, theatre and film, including Paul McCartney and John Peel, the disc jockey.”

Indeed Derbyshire would probably be delighted that her best known piece of music, the Doctor Who theme, is still being played, though in a modernised fashion, for this hugely popular show 50+ years after it was created and that her other contributions to electronic and avant garde music are widely admired today. A shame that she never prospered from her most famous creation and died in relative poverty.

You Say

1 response to this article

bogan 10 March 2014 at 12:02 pm

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has been restarted, with Matthew Herbert a very suitable appointee as Creative Director.

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