Unearthly Music: Delia Derbyshire and the Doctor Who Theme

From the very beginnings of Doctor Who, there were two remarkable women who in their different ways had a huge impact on the success and longevity of the series.  Verity Lambert has already, rightly, been honoured on this blog.   But we should not forget the contribution of Delia Derbyshire, who turned the theme tune composed by Ron Grainger into the unearthly music that has haunted viewers of the show for almost 40 years.

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop

Delia was born just before the Second World War, growing up in Coventry and then in Preston.   She went to Cambridge – an achievement in itself for a working class girl – and emerged with an MA in Mathematics and Music, specialising in medieval and modern music history.  She found her way in 1962 to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an oasis of serious innovation in electronic sound, where one of her first assignments was the theme tune to a new science fiction series.

She’s not listed as the composer of the theme, although Ron Grainer, who is, wanted her to share the credit with him – as far as one can tell, this wasn’t sexism, but a policy decision that the Radiophonic Workshop staff should not have individual credits.

Delia herself didn’t see things in feminist terms:

‘Women are good at sound and the reason is that they have the ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can read between the lines and get through to them (the producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff, they have sensitivity and good communication. They have the intricacy – for tape cutting, which is a very delicate job you know…. A producer once said to me, “You must be an ardent feminist,”….I said “What!”, I hadn’t even thought in those words.’ (2000 interview with Sonic Arts Network)

She also said that she thought she was a post-feminist before feminism was invented – what she was, was individualistic, single-minded, focused, determined.  She had to be – her first attempts to get into the field were rebuffed by Decca, who told her that they didn’t employ women in the recording studios.  Fortunately, the Radiophonic Workshop was different – it had been founded by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram, with colleague Desmond Briscoe, and in fact the last composer to be based there when it finally closed in 1998 was Elizabeth Parker, who had worked on the score for a 1985 Doctor Who story, Timelash.

The Dr Who theme was one of the first pieces of purely electronic music to reach a massive audience.  It’s hard to imagine now, with the resources available to even the rankest amateur wishing to make electronic music, quite how painstaking the processes were back in 1963.  No synthesisers. No sampling.  No multitracking.   Every sound created from scratch, the whole thing built up and  then tuned, filtered, re-recorded, over and over till she’d achieved the effects she wanted.

It blew Ron Grainer away – he’d provided a simple tune and she’d turned it into something out of this world, technically innovative but also beautiful, haunting.  It blew audiences away too, even generating complaints that the theme tune alone was too frightening for young audiences, with or without Daleks.

The theme, and Delia’s work more widely, were massively influential.   She described herself as having ‘a passion to make abstract sounds.  A deep rooted physical passion’ (interview in Surface magazine, 1999), and her attraction to systems and rules, as a mathematician, was balanced by an instinctive desire to break those rules.  In the 60s, she found herself as comfortable with counter-culture heroes such as Brian Jones and Yoko Ono, as with giants of avant-garde music such as Berio and Stockhausen.

She went through a period of disillusionment with the Radiophonic Workshop, which increasingly seemed to be churning out jingles and turning down more challenging, sophisticated work, and with music more generally, but later in life had begun to make music again.  This interview with Boazine gives a wonderful flavour of her personality – she was just back from a Doctor Who convention, and she was fired up about the music she was making.  Sadly, those new initiatives were cut short by her death in 2001, aged only 64, of renal failure following treatment for breast cancer.

What we hear now, of course, isn’t Delia’s theme as she originally intended it to be heard – the title music has regenerated along with the Doctors.  But her composition is still in there, and always will be.  And every time we hear it, we should raise a glass (metaphorical or literal) to a fiercely independent, passionate, determined pioneer.


 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Kate Elmer says:

    Thank you for this. Really fascinating insight into a woman behind the legendary sounds.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I’ve always wondered about Delia but never known much about her. Lovely to know that there were other women involved in the Radiophonic Workshop, too, which has such an iconic status in the history of British TV.

  3. emily says:

    Nice write-up on Derbyshire. While I have trouble seeing her at the same level as Berio (whom she did work with for two weeks in a summer school in 1962, before she began work on the DW theme) or Stockhausen, she does have an important place in the history of the Radiophonic Workshop and as a proponent of electronic music in Britain.

    It’s also interesting to note that during her time with Kaleidophon she created music for the Standard Music Library, one work of which was used in the DW Serial “Inferno.” So she did, in a roundabout way, contribute some incidental music as well.

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