Delia Derbyshire was a pioneer on so many fronts, but to her list of innovations we can now add the fact that – according to BBC Four’s new docu-drama, at least – she was the first person ever to ask for a job at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.
“No-one’s ever requested to join that department,” says a baffled corporation apparatchik in one of Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes’ dramatised segments. “People are normally sent there. Unwillingly.”
“Like to Coventry?” smiles Delia (Caroline Katz, pictured) – a native of that equally unfashionable city – sweetly.
“May I ask you why?” persists the man from the BBC.
Delia’s reply has a simple clarity: “I’d like to create sounds that have never existed in the world before.”
Which is exactly what she would go on to do – most famously, of course, through the menacing throb and unearthly howl of the Doctor Who theme, a moment of musical and television history that contributed greatly to Derbyshire’s belated recognition as “the godmother of electronic dance music” (a title the film suggests would have amused and baffled her in equal measure).
A labour of love for writer-director-star Katz, The Myths and the Legendary Tapes was made three years ago but is only now receiving its broadcast debut as part of the BBC’s long-running Arena arts strand – the perfect berth, as it turns out, for a boldly original and beautifully evocative piece of avant-garde filmmaking.
Born three years before the start of the Coventry Blitz that reduced so much of the city to rubble, Derbyshire often credited her love of abstract sounds to the constant background drone of air-raid sirens, followed by the shrill whine of the all-clear, that soundtracked her early years.
Ferociously bright, she received offers from both Oxford and Cambridge – pretty much unheard of for a working-class girl in the 1950s – and in the film we see her, freshly graduated from the latter with a degree in mathematics and music, submitting to a dispiriting round of job interviews. “Music is just an expression of mathematics – it’s an idea that was established way back in the sixth century by Pythagoras,” she explains patiently to a careers officer. We also learn that she can find a piece of music on a record just by looking at the vinyl (it’s all a matter of groove modulations, apparently).
At Decca Records, she’s told by a cigar-chewing exec that they don’t employ women in their recording studios – but they might have a secretarial position if she’s interested? (“He was probably the man who turned down The Beatles,” she Fleabags to the camera, knowingly.)
Her persistence at the BBC is rewarded with the offer of a three-month placement in the Radiophonic Workshop’s Maida Vale studio. “You were only allowed to stay for three months in case you went mad,” recalls Brian Hodgson – Derbyshire’s friend, and fellow Doctor Who sonic adventurer, of the perceived psychological impact of prolonged exposure to the experimental noises they conjured up there.
Katz’s film beautifully captures this lost analogue world of sine wave oscillators and magnetic tape, and the delightfully archaic nature by which the Workshop’s technicians – they weren’t allowed to call themselves musicians – created the sounds of the future using milk bottles and lampshades, or writhing about on the floor in a box of gravel.
From the start, Delia is keen combine her musical skills with her knowledge of Pythagorean maths and ancient Greek harmonics. “You can be our enchantress of numbers,” says her boss, Desmond Briscoe – a neat little man with old-school manners and, it would seem, a grasp of sexual politics to match. “I’m a mathematician, Desmond,” she sighs.
One day, Desmond arrives with a request from a young drama producer called Verity Lambert, who needs a theme for her new family science fiction serial, which she would like to sound like the avant-garde Parisian combo Les Structures Sonores, only much, much cheaper. He has in his hand a piece of paper – a scribbled melody and bassline from composer Ron Grainer, along with instructions that the mood of the piece should sound like “wind bubbles and clouds”.
From this, Delia fashions one of postwar Britain’s most instantly recognisable pieces of music – a disorienting journey into teatime terror that famously led Grainer to suggest she should have got half the royalties. As it was, she still wasn’t even allowed to call herself a musician.
Along with Hodgson – whose ’60s self is charmingly brought to life by a twinkly Julian Rhind-Tutt – and synthesiser pioneer Peter Zinovieff, Delia forms the experimental performance troupe Unit Delta Plus, and embarks on a relationship with fellow musical experimentalist David Vorhaus (Tom Meetan), following a flirty date where they get each other excited by talking about frequency shifters. This is very much Delia’s late ’60s stoner period – Psyche-Delia, as David calls her – where Brian Jones drops in to check out the Workshop’s fab gear.
The drama is intercut with footage of musician and performance artist Cosey Fanni Tuttey – a former member of industrial art-op combo Throbbing Gristle, and very much Derbyshire’s spiritual successor – on a mission to source musique concrete from the concrete of Coventry.
Tuttey also provides the film’s hypnotic original score, assembled from 267 tapes discovered packed away in cereal boxes in Derbyshire’s Northampton home after her death in 2001. By sampling and manipulating these lost recordings, Tuttey creates “a phantom collaboration – an exchange of ideas across time”, while Katz’s own dialogue also interlaces and overlaps with recordings of Derbyshire herself, in a manner that honours her own tape-splicing sonic sorcery.
With the production seemingly confined to one soundstage, Katz employs a range of theatrical devices, with a company of supporting players swapping between roles, and extensive use of back projection. (In one particularly witty shot, Katz appears to walk through the backcloth and into a telephone box.) Allied to Tuttey’s score, the result is beautifully trippy collage of sound and vision.
The final reel documents Delia’s long slide into alcoholism and depression with tact and restraint. She grows disillusioned with life at the Workshop, and struggles to adapt to its clunky early synthesizers. (Doctor Who diehards will be pleased to know that the infamous, dead-on-arrival 1972 Delaware synth revamp – the result of which sounded like someone pinging a Coke can – gets a look-in.) “What are you doing?” asks Brian, finding her slumped at her desk. “Decomposing,” she puns miserably.
Though her later years are inevitably a story of decline and wasted potential, the film ends with Katz, as Delia, reading her own, woefully inaccurate newspaper obituary, with lively amusement (“A hopeless alcoholic? Actually, I was rather a successful alcoholic…”)
Brian Hodgson, meanwhile, recalls his friend as being “a bit like a diamond. It depends how you shine the light. You get all sorts of different Delias.”
“She was too in advance of her time,” he adds – a fitting epitaph for a woman who fulfilled her ambition of making sounds that had never existed in the world before, and which may very well never exist in it again.