When Delia Derbyshire arrived at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, she was expecting shiny chromium equipment and men in white coats, not a Victorian harmonium with mouse-proof pedals and a framed engraving of Francis Bacon (the workshop, which opened in 1958, took its inspiration from Bacon’s utopian novel New Atlantis). But still, this cut-price realm of way-out noise suited her very well. Ordinarily, sound engineers were dispatched to the workshop, a kind of aural Siberia, for only three months at a stretch in case they went “mad”. She lasted 11 years, during which time she composed, among other things, the Doctor Who theme tune and a song that was performed by some cardboard-box robots in a drama called The Prophet.
It’s possible that you might not have heard of Derbyshire, who in 2001 died at the age of just 64, leaving behind 267 tapes in cereal boxes in her attic and a lifetime’s work for sci-fi bloggers of a certain disposition. But even if you have, I doubt you’ll have considered her as lucidly as has Caroline Catz, who plays her in Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (16 May, 9pm), a film for Arena that she also writes and directs. How to bring to life such a brilliant, mercurial woman, and how on Earth to put her experiments in psychoacoustics on screen? Having thrown absolutely everything at the job – documentary, drama, a soundscape by Cosey Fanni Tutti sampling Derbyshire’s compositions – Catz emerges 90 minutes later absolutely triumphant. If this was the work of Adam Curtis (which it isn’t: I mean, it makes total sense) rather than of a woman best known for her role in ITV’s Doc Martin, by now everyone would have acclaimed it as the second coming.
Derbyshire, who was born in Coventry, became captivated by what we might call the music of the everyday during the Blitz (the sound of the air raid sirens was fascinating to her because no one could see the source of the noise). At Cambridge she read music and mathematics, after which, having been informed by Decca that, no, it did not employ females in its studios, she “infiltrated” the BBC, where the “fellows on Record Review” were awestruck by the way she could find any track on a vinyl disc just by looking. During her years at the workshop, she was hugely productive, combining commissions for the BBC with collaborations with her colleague Brian Hodgson and the composer David Vorhaus. But by the mid-Seventies she’d burned out. Pressure, she said, never did her any good, deadlines only inducing a paralysing “reverse adrenalin”. She ran away to Cumbria, where she drank too much and ill-advisedly married a guy she met while he was working on a gas pipeline.
How can I hope to do justice here to this marvellous film? I loved hearing, in old radio clips, Derbyshire’s loopy-sounding, edged-with-laughter voice (the product, I’d guess, of elocution lessons), and I loved listening to the men who’d worked with her (of course they were all men) as they struggle to describe her. She sparkled, they say, like a diamond. Catz, in mini-dresses, a witchy cape and a semi-beehive, makes her seem so utterly free and unconventional – a modernity the actor does not allow to be eclipsed by Derbyshire’s depressions.
Above all, I thought it was so clever, the way that Catz’s film mirrors aspects of its homespun, meagrely funded subject (even if partly due to necessity as well as design). A small cast – a perfect little repertory company that includes Saskia Reeves and Julian Rhind-Tutt – play all the parts, just as the tiny staff of the Radiophonic Workshop once made every noise themselves, at least before they began playing around with it on tape. If the existence of this renegade enterprise devoted to the creation of bizarre, wibbly-wobbly sounds has always seemed improbable, there is something equally unlikely about Catz’s achievement. I keep thinking that I might have hallucinated it, a feeling that is surely set to grow when BBC Four becomes, as we’re told it soon will, the home only of reruns of To the Manor Born, spliced bits of The Old Grey Whistle Test and nothing else that is terribly exciting or novel.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy