Christopher Morley pays tribute to the lady with the green lampshade...
It seems only fitting that amongst our many Doctor Who retrospectives we should pay tribute to the woman who, in a way, started it all. After all the first thing that was heard on Saturday November 23rd 1963 was a certain iconic theme tune...
Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry on May 5th, 1937, and would later claim that during her early years "The radio was my education". Parents Emma & Edward took note and bought her a piano at the age of eight - a possible portent of her future career choice. Later on, though, she would become bored of it!
"I took a great dislike to the piano, and took up the spinnet. At the time I had a little flat near the workshop and I got so addicted to the sound of the spinnet and the way the high frequencies fill your mind, that I’d walk home at lunchtime and just play Bach and Bach and Bach.Her aptitude for mathematics eventually saw her accepted by both Oxford & Cambridge after the completion of her studies at Barr's Hill Grammar School, which given the time was as she noted "quite something for a working class girl in the Fifties, where only one in 10 [students] were female". Young Delia opted for Cambridge and Girton College, studying maths once more - this lasted a year before she opted to switch to music and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music & mathematics, having specialised in medieval/modern music history.
It was only a small room but you couldn’t hear the telephone ring while playing the spinnet because it totally absorbs the whole spectrum of the sound. Also it doesn’t pass through walls or floors so nobody else can hear it."
It was time for a trip to the careers office...........
But she was to be frustrated. Informing them that she wished to specialise in "sound, music and acoustics", a recommendation was made that she might want to consider "a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding". Overtures to Decca Records met with a similar lack of success when she discovered they did not then employ women in their studios.
Fast forward to November of 1960 and Delia would join the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager. An assignment working on Record Review revealed an unusual talent.
"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."Such foresight would of course set her in good stead for a career with the Radiophonic Workshop! By April 1962 she had managed to secure a transfer, and worked with Italian composer Luciano Berio that same August. The following year she would begin work on Doctor Who!
Though as Mark Ayres would later say:
"If you were a child of the sixties in the UK, you couldn't but hear Delia's work. We were surrounded by it but it wasn't often credited. I remember hearing things like The Dreams on the radio in the background and not knowing what it was, but on a Saturday night you got Doctor Who, which was weird music. .. If you went to school in the sixties, we had a programme called Music And Movement and I remember standing in a playground pretending to be a tree to the sound of Delia Derbyshire. You couldn't but hear this stuff; it was the soundtrack to our lives to a very large extent."He would later go on to work with her as a colleague!
"It took me a while to realise what was going on - she'd ring up, she seemed to be talking at random, and then I realised she'd pick up a conversation exactly where you'd left off. I got used to this eventually, and I used to make a note of what we'd been talking about when we'd finished talking..."
After her death on July 3rd 2001 (which came soon after being persuaded to return to music-making by former Spacemen 3 man Peter Kember aka Sonic Boom, who'd got her aboard as part of his EAR (Experimental Audio Research) project on their Vibrations & Continuum (2000/01) LPs), no less than Sir Paul McCartney told Q magazine that he had once sought her out with a view to the creation of an electronic rearrangement of the Beatles' Yesterday.
While it ultimately never happened, he did admit to being a fan of the Workshop, and discussed the time the pair met:
"The Radiophonic Workshop, I loved all that, it fascinated me, and still does. I even found out where Miss Derbyshire lived, and went round to visit her. We even went into the hut at the bottom of her garden."What he came across there proved of great interest!
"It was full of tape machines and funny instruments. My plan in meeting her was to do an electronic backing for my song Yesterday. We'd already recorded it with a string quartet, but I wanted to give the arrangement electronic backing."She did at least get to work on the theme for a Doctor who looked a bit like Macca in his Beatles days!
An interview for Jo Hutton's Radiophonic Ladies shortly before she passed away made clear she was interested in the theory of sound - what made things tick sonically. She recalled of a spell working for the UN as a piano/mathematics tutor:
"I was teaching piano to a child in Geneva, and the first thing I did was to show the child what is happening inside, you press this, and the hammer hits the string and it bounces off again and what happens when you use the two pedals.Ron Grainer was suitably impressed by what he heard of her embellishments to his initial score for Doctor Who!
As for synthesisers and presets, it's only recently that I picked up a few devices very cheap, second-hand and I realised that what I thought was a problem with synthesisers was in fact a problem with people using them and that they’re much more flexible than how people use them."
"Ron Grainer brought me the score. He expected to hire a band to play it, but when he heard what I had done electronically, he’d never imagined it would be so good.A treasure trove of tapes would later be found, as reported by the BBC's Entertainment page in 2008. And her green lampshade finally got the credit it was long overdue.
He offered me half of the royalties, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it. I was just on an assistant studio manager’s salary and that was it.... and we got a free radio times. The boss wouldn’t let anybody have any sort of credit."
"This was a stroke of genius from Delia Derbyshire, who died in 2001 and famously created the Doctor Who theme tune from Ron Grainer's score. She would hit the tatty-looking aluminium lampshade to create a sound with a natural, pure frequency. After recording it on tape, she would play with it to make the desired sound effect."
Just four years after her passing Doctor Who was back, her theme arrangement used for early edits of Rose, Episode One of Series One.
Composer Murray Gold retained several elements of her version for his own attempts, one attempt sounding like this...
...but later abandoned.
A clear debt is owed to her, and we salute the late great Delia's musical foresight!