The genius of sound pioneer Delia Derbyshire is at last being recognised

Arena: Delia Derbyshire - the Myths and the Legendary Tapes airs tonight on BBC Four.

Doctor Who

When she died in 2001, “Delia Who?” seemed a reasonable question. The obituaries described her as a forgotten pioneer, a “lost genius of British electronic music”. She was the woman who had used valve oscillators and magnetic tape to conjure the eerie howls of the Doctor Who theme, and made avant-garde electronica part of everyday life. But Delia Derbyshire’s name had never once appeared on the programme’s credits.

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There was a note of agony in her story, too. A Catholic girl from Coventry, she’d become an audio radical by detecting an experimental soundscape in the roar of the Blitz. She’d studied maths at Cambridge, been rejected by Decca Records on the grounds that women were not employed in recording studios, then found a home in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a dark suite of rooms at the end of a corridor in London’s Maida Vale. She’d flourished there, crafting hymns for robot revolutionaries and raising a shimmering desert by giving alchemical treatment to the clang of a metal lampshade.

She thrived beyond the BBC, too, making mind-bending music from white noise and orgasmic breaths, and a lascivious psychedelic blues track with Anthony Newley. Then, in the mid-1970s, there was a crisis – caused, it was said, by her dislike of the new generation of synthesizers, which replaced her careful acts of sampling and transformation with a repertoire of pre-set sounds. She retreated to Cumbria, took a job supervising the laying of a gaspipe system, drank too much red wine and fell silent. She had been lost but also seemed to have lost herself.

The process of finding Delia Derbyshire is now two decades old. It’s been extraordinarily successful. The disordered fragments of tape that were discovered packed into cereal boxes after her death 20 years ago are now part of a collection at Manchester University. She’s been celebrated with academic symposia and a spool of documentaries. Her credit appeared on Doctor Who’s 50th-anniversary special. Dick and Dom’s CBBC series Absolute Genius canonised her alongside Charles Darwin and Marie Curie. This week, another posthumous garland – an Arena docu-drama directed by the Doc Martin actress Caroline Catz.

The film, like Derbyshire’s music, is made from eclectic material. Catz plays her own subject, perfectly reproducing the spiky waveform of her voice. She’s recruited Cosey Fanni Tutti, alumna of art music collective Throbbing Gristle, to hunt for echoes of Derbyshire in the Coventry concrete. Catz also foregrounds her collaborators – notably Brian Hodgson, who was a Radiophonic Workshop colleague and co-founder of her electronic performance groups Unit Delta Plus and White Noise. Six decades after they first met, he positively glows with love for his former comrade.

Caroline Catz as Delia Derbyshire in Arena - Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (BBC)
Caroline Catz as Delia Derbyshire in Arena – Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes

It has become customary to tell Derbyshire’s story of as one of a female talent squandered by the arts establishment and then by itself. Catz wants us to rethink the last act, taking us to Cumbria to see that her subject’s job on the gaspipe project was an extension of her interest in sound waves. And she describes how Derbyshire became part of a community of artists in a gallery founded by abstract painter Li Yuan-chia. Suddenly, it’s not a tale of decline, but of a restless search for a space in which to live a free and truthful life. She doesn’t require rescuing by us, nor need Dick and Dom to affirm her genius.

Delia Derbyshire may have fallen silent, but her music never did, thanks to Doctor Who, and to all she left, finished and unfinished, in the Radiophonic Workshop archive and the contents of those cereal boxes. Like much of the best art, it invites others to make more. Those cascades of bleeps and occult electronic atmospheres have a promiscuous life. They live in her work, and in the work of her successors. And their reverberations are endless.

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Arena: Delia Derbyshire – the Myths and the Legendary Tapes airs tonight at 9pm on BBC Four. Visit our Sci-fi hub for the latest news, or find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide.