Delia Derbyshire was a pioneer in electronic music who created one of the most well known TV theme tunes of all time.
Delia was born in Coventry in 1937, only two years before the outbreak of the Second World War. When the war began the government encouraged parents of young children like Delia to send them away to the relative safety of the countryside, however many chose not to. Initially, Delia’s parents were amongst them. She stayed in Coventry and lived through the famous Coventry Blitz, which razed the city to the ground. The sound of the air raid siren sounded night after night made a lasting impact on Delia, in her later life she reflected:
“I was there in the blitz and it’s come to me, relatively recently, that my love for abstract sounds [came from] the air-raid sirens: that’s a sound you hear and you don’t know the source of as a young child… then the sound of the “all clear” – that was electronic music.”
After the horror of the Coventry Blitz her parents, along with many others, decided it was time to evacuate her. She was sent to live in Preston where they had family, and remained there until the war had ended.
Delia was a bright child who did well at school, and at the age of 8 was bought her first piano – an instrument in which she became very accomplished. She loved listening to the family radio and said that ‘the radio was my education.’ From those early days sat around the wireless, listening to the BBC, she vowed that she wanted to work for t hem one day.
After attending Barr’s Hill school in Coventry she was offered places at both Oxford AND Cambridge Universities! Neither had many women in those days, so to receive an offer to both was exceptional, and a sign of Delia’s talents. She took up a scholarship to read maths at Girton College, Cambridge. While she had always had an aptitude for maths, music was her passion. For her the two were inextricably linked. After a year at Cambridge studying maths she switched to music, bringing her mathematical understanding of the art with her.
Upon her graduation Delia was determined to get straight to it with a musical career. She applied for a position at Decca Records, but was curtly dismissed and told that they didn’t hire women! So for a time she worked for the UN in Geneva, as a piano teacher to the children of diplomats there. When she returned she taught for a time in her home city of Coventry, before making her way to London and taking up employment at a music publishers.
A hop, skip and a jump later, in 1960, she accepted a position working for the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager! She was finally living her dream! While there she also worked on the Record Review magazine, reviewing classical recordings, where she began to develop a reputation for her gifted musical ear.
A new department at the BBC had recently been established, called the Radiophonic Workshop. Here sound technicians made sound effects and incidental music for radio and TV shows. When Delia heard about what they were doing she wanted in! The Radiophonic Workshop was a fairly unpopular division to work in by many accounts, and people were bemused when she requested a transfer to the department, but they obliged and in 1962 Delia took up a post which she would stay in for the next 11 years – and where she would create some of the most iconic music and soundscapes of her generation.
In 1963 a new show was due to air, Doctor Who. A piece of music had been written by Ron Grainer to serve as the theme to the show, which ended up in Delia’s hands to be ‘brought to life’. Don’s piece received the Delia treatment, where she used valve oscillators and all number of other innovative techniques to create the now famous sci-fi track. When Don heard Delia’s realisation of his score he asked “Did I really write this?” to which she replied “Most of it”.
While today Delia is most synonymous with that one track, it is in fact but the tip of the iceberg of her huge body of work. She composed and recorded multiple pieces of music which were used in over 200 radio and TV shows during her time with the Radiophonic Workshop, and collaborated with other electronic musicians on projects outside of TV. These included Unit Delta Plus, Kaleidophon and Electrophon and brought her into contact with artists such as Yoko Ono, Brian Jones and Paul McCartney amongst other big names.
She continued to work for TV after leaving the BBC, bringing her style and talents to a number of other popular shows, and rising to any challenge set for her. One show about zoos asked for a theme tune made entirely of animal sounds – which she obligingly created and with some success!
In 1975 she abruptly stopped making music. She worked as a radio operator, in an art gallery and in a bookshop. She also married, but her marriage was not a success and she ended up settling down with another man who was her partner to the end.
In 2001 shortly before her death, Delia returned to music once again – creating sounds for Pete Kember’s albums.
Delia has recently been called ‘the unsung heroine of British electronic music’. Her name only finally appeared in the Doctor Who credits on the 50th anniversary special – despite her arrangement being so distinct and gaining such notoriety. When reading the interviews she gave later in her life the picture appears of a women full of spirit and humour, not afraid to do things her own way. She said in one, “I did rebel. I did a lot of things I was told not to do.”
As a postscript to this blog post, it’s a shame that over 50 years since Delia wrote the Doctor Who soundtrack and battled her way onto a male dominated playing field, there are still people getting upset that the new Doctor will be played by a woman actor! You’d like to think that things may have changed a little more since then. However, it’s fantastic that Delia’s name is finally becoming more recognised, and the show which she is so famously connected to is putting another woman centre stage (even if it took them 50 years!)
Find out more…
You can also check out the similarly named, Delia-Derbyshire.net!
If you’re in Coventry visit the brilliant Coventry Music Museum, which has a display all about Delia.
Listen to her music! On this BBC page you can hear some of the pieces Delia created while working there.
This timeline is a brilliant resource about women and the development of electronic music.
There is loads on YouTube which you can watch about Delia. Here’s a short video to start you off: