Delia Who?

Delia Derbyshire’s archive of strange sounds that she produced for BBC TV in the 60s is opening up to the public online.

Delia feature

Delia Derbyshire was a sound artist whose most famous work is still used on TV today. Derbyshire pushed her way into the British television industry during the 1960s, when the BBC was as much of a boy’s club as you might expect. She created the original theme song to the British sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Derbyshire used analogue mixing techniques to create soaring sounds for the show’s 1963 opening theme, manually slicing together noises from ordinary objects at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. The theme music itself was written by an Australia composer, Ron Grainer, and realised by Derbyshire’s unusual electronic techniques. The overall effect was achieved by physically cutting, speeding up and slowing down tape recordings. These tapes included the sound of a single string being plucked (the dum-dum-dum-dum if you know the theme), white noise and harmonics created by instruments normally used to test sound calibrations. Derbyshire’s original recording has been remixed many times throughout the show’s long history, but is still the base for the theme song today.

Undoubtedly, Doctor Who does not have a perfect track record on its portrayal of women (the character Liz Shaw was written out for being a little ‘too smart’), but there have been plenty of strong female characters throughout its history. Sarah Jane, Barbara, Romana, River, Tegan, Leela (I could go on) were independent, skillful and could hold entire episodes together at a time when other TV shows depicted women as walking stereotypes. Delia Derbyshire showed these traits on the show’s production side and deserves to be known for it. Using funds raised through the annual celebration of ‘Delia Day’ in Manchester (12th January), an archive of Derbyshire’s sound and paper collections are to be digitised and made publically accessible. The collection will include 267 audio tapes, newspaper cuttings and even Delia’s old school notebooks.

Delia 2

Derbyshire was born in Coventry, 1937. The sound of air raid sirens fascinated her in childhood, later serving as inspiration for her work. Despite studying Mathematics and Music at Cambridge, Derbyshire’s early career was stagnated by 1950s expectations. She was turned away by Decca Records in 1959, being informed that the company did not employ women. So instead she packed herself up and went off to Geneva to work for the UN! Upon returning to London, she managed to wrangle herself a trainee position at the BBC and, despite remaining on a temporary contract for many years, was a trailblazer in her work. For many viewers at home, Derbyshire’s strange creations were the first pieces of electronic music they had heard. When Grainer, the composer, heard her interpretation he was reportedly impressed and asked “did I really write this?” Derbyshire confidently responded, “most of it”.

Derbyshire’s work is also a perfect example of mixing physics and maths with art and culture. Her work manipulated sound, distorting ordinary noises (‘found sound’) using basic principles from Physics and Mathematics (Derbyshire’s academic background shone through here). The Radiophonic Workshop also created the characteristic whooping sound of the TARDIS taking off using a key scraped along a piano string.

Delia tapes

For now, if you want to access the collection you’ll need to find your way to John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester at least until it is digitised. There is a catalogue of Derbyshire’s papers here The full archives are yet to be digitised entirely, but you can hear some of the original recordings here:

This documentary’s got some great snippets of a very 1960s-style Delia Derbyshire.


And there’s a fun documentary about Derbyshire here too:


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