The ‘woman behind the wobbulator’ and ‘Sculptress of Sound’ Delia Derbyshire helped to create the iconic themes to science fiction programmes Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People and Timeslip. Image EMOTICON Live Art Performance by Tom Estes
Delia Ann Derbyshire (5 May 1937 – 3 July 2001) was an English musician and composer of electronic music and musique concrète. She is best known for her electronic realization of Ron Grainer’s theme music to the British science fiction television series Doctor Who and for her pioneering work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Educated at Barr’s Hill Grammar School from 1948 to 1956, she was accepted at both Oxford and Cambridge, “quite something for a working class girl in the ‘fifties, where only one in 10 [students] were female”, winning a scholarship to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge but, apart from some success in the mathematical theory of electricity, she claims she did badly. After one year at Cambridge she switched to music, graduating in 1959 with a BA in mathematics and music, having specialised in medieval and modern music history. Her other principal qualification was LRAM in pianoforte. She approached the careers office at the university and told them she was interested in “sound, music and acoustics, to which they recommended a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding”.
The ‘woman behind the wobbulator’ once approached Decca Recording Studios in London, only for them to tell her unequivocally that they did not employ women in their recording studios. Instead, she took positions at the UN in Geneva, from June to September, teaching piano to the children of the British Consul-General and mathematics to the children of Canadian and South American diplomats, then from September to December as assistant to Gerald G. Gross, Head of Plenipotentiary and General Administrative Radio Conferences at the International Telecommunications Union. She returned to Coventry and from January to April 1960 taught general subjects in a primary school there, then to London where from May to October she was an assistant in the promotion department of music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.
Despite various companies knocking her back, she continued to pursue her passion, and in November 1960 she landed an opportunity with the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager and worked on Record Review, a magazine program where critics reviewed classical music recordings. She said:
“Some people thought I had a kind of second sight. One of the music critics would say “I don’t know where it is, but it’s where the trombones come in” and I’d hold it up to the light and see the trombones and put the needle down exactly where it was. And they thought it was magic.”
She then heard about the Radiophonic Workshop and decided that was where she wanted to work. This was received with some puzzlement by the heads in Central Programme Operation because people were usually “assigned” to the Radiophonic Workshop, and in April 1962 she was indeed assigned there in Maida Vale, where for eleven years she would create music and sound for almost 200 radio and television programmes.
In August 1962 she assisted composer Luciano Berio at a two-week summer school at Dartington Hall, for which she borrowed several dozen items of equipment from the BBC. One of her first works, and the most widely known, was her 1963 electronic realization of a score by Ron Grainer for the theme tune of the Doctor Who series, one of the first television themes to be created and produced by entirely electronic means.
An excerpt from the theme music to Doctor Who
When Grainer first heard it, he was so amazed by her rendering of his theme that he asked “Did I really write this?” to which Derbyshire replied “Most of it”. Grainer attempted to get her a co-composer credit but the attempt was prevented by the BBC bureaucracy, which then preferred to keep the members of the workshop anonymous. Derbyshire’s original arrangement served as Doctor Who’s main theme for its first seventeen seasons, from 1963-80. The theme was reworked over the years, to her horror, and the version that had her “stamp of approval” is her original one. Delia also composed some of the incidental music used in the show, including Blue Veils and Golden Sands and The Delian Mode.
A senior studio executive, Desmond Briscoe, soon realised the tall, quiet, auburn-haired Delia was not only enthusiastic, but enormously creative and talented. He invited her to join their experimental and innovative Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, where she was to stay for over ten years.
In 1964–65 she collaborated with the British artist and playwright Barry Bermange for the BBC’s Third Programme to produce four Inventions for Radio, a collage of people describing their dreams, set to a background of electronic sound.
In 1966, while still working at the BBC, Derbyshire with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff set up Unit Delta Plus, an organisation which they intended to use to create and promote electronic music. Based in a studio in Zinovieff’s townhouse at 49 Deodar Road in Putney, they exhibited their music at a few experimental and electronic music festivals, including the 1966 The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles’ “Carnival of Light” had its only public playing.
In 1966, she recorded a demo with Anthony Newley entitled Moogies Bloogies, although as Newley moved to the United States, the song was never released. After a troubled performance at the Royal College of Art, in 1967, the unit disbanded.
Also in the late sixties, she again worked with Hodgson in setting up the Kaleidophon studio at 281–283 Camden High Street in Camden Town with fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus. The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and in 1968 the three used it to produce their first album as the band White Noise. Although later albums were essentially solo Vorhaus albums, the début, An Electric Storm, featured collaborations with Derbyshire and Hodgson and is now considered an important and influential album in the development of electronic music.
One of the trio, using pseudonyms, Delia Ann Derbyshire also contributed to the Standard Music Library. Many of these recordings, including compositions by Derbyshire using the name “Li De la Russe” (from an anagram-esque use of the letters in “Delia” and a reference to her auburn hair), were later used on the seventies ITV science fiction rivals to Doctor Who: The Tomorrow People and Timeslip.
In 1967, she assisted Guy Woolfenden with his electronic score for Peter Hall’s production of Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The two composers also contributed the music to Hall’s film Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968). Her other work during this period included taking part in a performance of electronic music at The Roundhouse, which also featured work by Paul McCartney, the sound-track for the Yoko Ono film, the score for an ICI-sponsored student fashion show and the sounds for Anthony Roland’s award-winning film of Pamela Bone’s photography, entitled Circle of Light.[
One of her first assignments was to realise one of the first electronic signatures ever used on television: Ron Grainer’s score for the new science fiction series, Dr. Who. Delia, and her engineer, Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch; they were on the cutting edge, though Delia had no way of knowing how influential her work at the Radiophonic Workshop would become.
In 1973, she left the BBC and worked a brief stint at Hodgson’s Electrophon studio during which time she contributed to the soundtrack to the film The Legend of Hell House. The Electrophon and Kaleidophon were electrical musical instruments made by Jörg Mager in pre-war Germany. She then stopped producing music and worked as a radio operator for the laying of a British Gas pipeline, in an art gallery and in a bookshop.
You can watch the whole ‘Sculptress of Sound’ documentary here
Derbyshire returned to music in the late nineties after having her interest renewed by fellow electronic musician Peter Kember and was working on an album when she died of renal failure due to chronic alcoholism, aged 64. After Derbyshire’s death, 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand papers were found in her attic. These were entrusted to Mark Ayres of the BBC and in 2007 were given on permanent loan to the University of Manchester. Almost all the tapes were digitised in 2007 by Louis Niebur and David Butler but none of this music has been published due to copyright complications. In 2010, the University acquired Derbyshire’s childhood collection of papers and artefacts from Andi Wolf. This collection is accessible at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.