Cultures Film & TV Music

Delia Derbyshire: A Very Strange Beast

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001), a pioneer of electronic music who worked for the BBC’s avant-garde sound design outfit, the Radiophonic Workshop, between 1962 and 1973, is perhaps best known as the composer of the Doctor Who theme tune. A new film recently broadcast on BBC Four, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, puts some more flesh on those wonderful but rather unrepresentative bones. At one point during this hotchpotch of a docudrama, Derbyshire (played by Caroline Catz, who was also the director and screenwriter) confesses to being “a very strange beast”. It quickly becomes clear that the film itself is aspiring, as a kind of tribute, to the same status.

Stylistically, it’s not always an unqualified success: Catz doesn’t so much break through the bounds of genre conventions as synthesise several of them. One minute, the film is a straightforward documentary replete with archival materials and talking heads; the next, it’s a glossy historical drama; the next, and without much warning, a fantasia or a piece of performance art. Only at its weakest moments does it take on the contours of a type I don’t usually much care for, the kind of thing made to be screened in a modern art gallery, to which one pays homage with ten minutes of respectful bum-ache on a bench with no back support before shuffling discreetly out. Most of this comes at the very start: the contemporary electronic musician Cosey Fanni Tutti musing sotto voce on the conversation she is conducting ‘across time and space’ with the deceased Derbyshire. I’m not sure Delia herself would have had much truck with this. Thankfully, Fanni Tutti’s faux-philosophical musings soon cede the limelight to the truly marvellous sound collage she has constructed from Derbyshire’s leftover tapes, and then the film really starts to get going.

Catz’s approach to the depiction of Derbyshire herself distinguishes the film more amply from the common run. Treatments of remarkable women from the past now like to retrofit their subjects with what feels like a slightly anachronistic brand of go-getting feminism. This film, by contrast, is upfront about the fact that there is nothing especially feminist about Derbyshire’s single-mindedness (a trait she shares with many artists, both male and female), but it is also sophisticated enough to recognise that her career has to be understood as ineluctably shaped by her status as a woman in a world run by men. There’s a strange late snippet apparently set in a kind of postmodern chapel, where a series of stained glass windows depict six women – including Ada Lovelace and Virginia Woolf – whose situations, I presume, might be thought in some way or another to mirror Derbyshire’s own. This feels a little tangential, perhaps, but the film’s oblique nods to feminist solidarity do justice to that aspect without distorting the relatively minor role it seems to have played in the musician’s life at large.

Another refreshing feature is the notable absence of an attempt to frame the more difficult aspects of the story in terms of tragedy. Derbyshire was an alcoholic, and much of her later life was lived, as the saying goes, ‘in obscurity’. It’s emblematic of this film’s approach that it is happy to call the latter what it really was: Cumbria. The extent to which biographers revel with great shows of lamentation in the supposed dissolution of their subjects has always struck me as much too pious, and maybe even a little perverse; I was glad to see that, here, viewers are left to make up their own minds – as well as to consider, perhaps, the more fundamental question: By what sententious yardstick does one presume to measure a life in any case?

Some (myself included) typically cite the Radiophonic Workshop, along with other bygone examples of the BBC’s more outré offerings, as textbook staples of a time in which the corporation was braver, weirder, and more challenging than is now often the case. By drawing attention to the fact that the Workshop did, after all, exist, the film partly upholds this view, but at the same time one gets the sense that the BBC did not support the experiments so much as suffer them. The story that comes across is of a department locked in an unrelenting battle to prove its relevance, simultaneously over-stretched and undervalued, hardly credited even when it did succeed in proving its indubitable worth. “We’re not allowed to say the M-word,” Derbyshire is told by a colleague when she first arrives at the Workshop. By the ignorant definition of polite society, they are not musicians at all; they are ‘sound assistants’.

In fact, what Derbyshire and others were doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s was so unthinkable to the conservative gatekeepers of post-war British culture that they often considered it actively dangerous. Their apprehension is revealing, the stamp of an era in which it was taken as given by the enemies of the New as well as its advocates that artistic innovation always involves trading in the unknown, realising something that did not exist before: ‘adding to the stock of available reality’, as the literary critic R.P. Blackmur once put it. BBC employees sent to the Radiophonic Workshop (and in the main they were, apparently, sent, the place being considered a kind of backwater) were only supposed to stay in the department for a maximum of three months. Any longer, and it was feared that chronic exposure to these strange new sounds might drive them dotty. In the film, David Vorhaus, who helped form the band White Noise with Derbyshire in 1968, recalls the place they used to record their sound experiments. When two neighbours, one in his nineties and one with terminal cancer, died within a week of each other, the blame was laid on the weird noises emanating from the group’s residence, and they were swiftly evicted. 

No wonder Derbyshire was disappointed when the Workshop got its first synthesiser, an EMS Synthi 100. As a machine that manipulated sound electronically, it sped up the process of composition which before had been conducted in a laborious and ramshackle way, often utilising found objects recorded on analogue tape machines. But the synthesiser was also pre-programmed with assumptions about how things ought to sound, and Derbyshire found it constraining. The old methods may have been long-winded by comparison, but they also gave her far greater scope for experiment. One of the joys of the film is the way it communicates her enthusiasm for inventively repurposing things: one scene shows her transforming a sample of her own voice into the sound of a “castrated oboe” (her words, apparently) and in another, she and Vorhaus titter at the prospect of smuggling the recording of an orgasm into the mix. At the very end of the film, Derbyshire comments with bemusement on an obituary that labels her “the godmother of electronic dance music”. This does seem a distinctly inapt appellation: aspiring as she did to create sounds that had never existed in the world before, Derbyshire’s musical philosophy had more in common with Schoenberg than with Skrillex. 

That this film has found a home on BBC Four (soon to cease broadcasting new material entirely) is a testament to the enduring faith in experiment, however qualified, of the organisation that was Derbyshire’s professional home for eleven or so years. It’s not quite a masterwork: the production value is high, there are some beautiful visuals, and the uniqueness of the subject shines through, but the ultimate effect is loose and provisional.  Perhaps that is the point, though, since in her own sound experiments Derbyshire was not so much striving towards a Gesamtkunstwerk as trying things out for the sheer joy or hell of it. If imitation of this attitude is the aim, I think the film succeeds wonderfully: it courts artistry with almost every frame. More strange beasts like this in future, please, Aunty Beeb.

Oscar Jelley is in his second year studying German and Philosophy at Christ Church. Under normal circumstances, his default pint is a Guinness.