Tag Archive for verity lambert

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.




Let’s Talk About Verity

There’s a rumour that Mark Gatiss is producing/writing a TV special docudrama about the original creation of Doctor Who, back in 1963. The more I think about it, the better this idea sounds – as Waris Hussain, first ever director of the show, pointed out recently on panels at Gallifrey One and in an interview with Radio Free Skaro, you couldn’t make this story up!

The youngest ever producer, and only female producer in drama at the BBC, 27 year old Verity Lambert. 20-something West Indian director, Waris Hussain, who got the job because he was the most junior director at the BBC, and the only one who couldn’t say no. Brash Canadian with the big ideas, Sydney Newman. No budget. The crappiest, oldest studio available. And, oh, the first episode they made was so bad that they almost all got sacked – and had to make it from scratch, all over again (there was no such thing as a “pilot” at the BBC at that time). Together, they made magic, a show that is still being made nearly 50 years later. THIS IS A STORY THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Verity Lambert fascinates me – I’m a sucker for stories about real life women who had amazing careers against the odds, and she is particularly intriguing. Despite an immensely privileged education at Roedean and the Sorbonne, she started out as a shorthand typist, and worked her way up through the admin ranks before making it as a production assistant, where she famously argued and fought for her opinions with her bosses, and somehow still managed to get promoted to producer! (though as she admits in the YouTube interview I posted below, she wanted to be a director, and simply couldn’t get into it because of her gender)

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