Delia Derbyshire

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Delia Derbyshire
Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Background information
Birth name Delia Ann Derbyshire
Born (1937-05-05)5 May 1937
Coventry, England, United Kingdom
Died 3 July 2001(2001-07-03) (aged 64)
Northampton, England, UK
Genres Electronic music
Occupation(s) Composer
Years active 1959–2001
Associated acts White Noise, Unit Delta Plus

Delia Ann Derbyshire (5 May 1937 – 3 July 2001[1]) was an English musician and composer of electronic music[2] and musique concrète. She is best known for "creating a howling masterpiece"[3] in her electronic music arrangement of Ron Grainer's written theme music to the British science fiction television series Doctor Who and for her pioneering work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.[4]


Early life[edit]

Derbyshire was born in Coventry, daughter of Emma (née Dawson) and Edward Derbyshire.[5] of Cedars Avenue, Coundon, Coventry.[6] Her father was a sheet-metal worker.[7] She had one sibling, a sister, who died young.[5] Her father died in 1965 and her mother in 1994.[8]

During the Second World War, immediately after the Coventry Blitz in 1940, she was moved to Preston, Lancashire for safety. Her parents had moved from there originally[5] and most of her surviving relatives still live in the area.[8] She was very bright and, by the age of four, was teaching others in her class to read and write in primary school,[5] but said "The radio was my education".[9] Her parents bought her a piano when she was eight years old. Educated at Barr's Hill Grammar School[10] from 1948 to 1956, she was accepted at both Oxford and Cambridge, "quite something for a working class girl in the 'fifties, where only one in 10 [students] were female",[5] winning a scholarship to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge but, apart from some success in the mathematical theory of electricity, she claims she did badly.[5] After one year at Cambridge she switched to music, graduating in 1959 with a BA in mathematics and music, having specialised in medieval and modern music history.[5] Her other principal qualification was LRAM in pianoforte.[8]

She approached the careers office at the university and told them she was interested in "sound, music and acoustics, to which they recommended a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding".[5] Then she applied for a position at Decca Records, only to be told that the company did not employ women in their recording studios.[11][12] Instead, she took positions at the UN in Geneva,[1] from June to September, teaching piano to the children of the British Consul-General and mathematics to the children of Canadian and South American diplomats.[5] Then from September to December, she worked as an assistant to Gerald G. Gross,[5] Head of Plenipotentiary and General Administrative Radio Conferences at the International Telecommunications Union. She returned to Coventry and from January to April 1960 taught general subjects in a primary school there. Then she went to London where from May to October she was an assistant in the promotion department of music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.[8]

BBC Radiophonic Workshop[edit]

In November 1960, she joined the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager[5] and worked on Record Review, a magazine programme where critics reviewed classical music recordings. She said: "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."[5] She then heard about the Radiophonic Workshop and decided that was where she wanted to work. This was received with some puzzlement by the heads in Central Programme Operation because people were usually "assigned" to the Radiophonic Workshop. But in April 1962 she was indeed assigned there[8] in Maida Vale, where for eleven years she would create music and sound for almost 200 radio and television programmes.[13]

In August 1962 she assisted composer Luciano Berio at a two-week summer school at Dartington Hall, for which she borrowed several dozen items of equipment from the BBC.[14] One of her first works, and the most widely known, was her 1963 electronic realization of a score by Ron Grainer for the theme tune of the Doctor Who series,[15] one of the first television themes to be created and produced by entirely electronic means.

When Grainer first heard it, he was so amazed by her rendering of his theme that he asked "Did I really write this?" to which Derbyshire replied "Most of it".[16] Grainer attempted to get her a co-composer credit, but the attempt was prevented by the BBC bureaucracy, which then preferred to keep the members of the workshop anonymous.[17] Derbyshire's original arrangement served as Doctor Who's main theme for its first seventeen seasons, from 1963-80. The theme was reworked over the years, to her horror, and the version that had her "stamp of approval" is her original one.[18] Delia also composed some of the incidental music used in the show, including Blue Veils and Golden Sands and The Delian Mode.

In 1964–65 she collaborated with the British artist and playwright Barry Bermange for the BBC's Third Programme to produce four Inventions for Radio, a collage of people describing their dreams, set to a background of electronic sound.[19][20]

Unit Delta Plus[edit]

In 1966, while still working at the BBC, Derbyshire with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff set up Unit Delta Plus,[1] an organisation which they intended to use to create and promote electronic music. Based in a studio in Zinovieff's townhouse at 49 Deodar Road in Putney, they exhibited their music at a few experimental and electronic music festivals, including the 1966 The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles' "Carnival of Light" had its only public playing.

In 1966, she recorded a demo with Anthony Newley entitled Moogies Bloogies, although as Newley moved to the United States, the song was never released. After a troubled performance at the Royal College of Art, in 1967, the unit disbanded.[21]


Also in the late sixties, she again worked with Hodgson in setting up the Kaleidophon studio at 281–283 Camden High Street in Camden Town with fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus.[1] The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and in 1968 the three used it to produce their first album as the band White Noise.[22] Although later albums were essentially solo Vorhaus albums, the début, An Electric Storm, featured collaborations with Derbyshire and Hodgson and are now considered an important and influential album in the development of electronic music.[citation needed]

The trio, using pseudonyms, also contributed to the Standard Music Library.[23] Many of these recordings, including compositions by Derbyshire using the name "Li De la Russe" (from an anagram-esque use of the letters in "Delia" and a reference to her auburn hair), were later used on the seventies ITV science fiction rivals to Doctor Who: The Tomorrow People[24] and Timeslip.[25]

In 1967, she assisted Guy Woolfenden with his electronic score for Peter Hall's production of Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company.[1] The two composers also contributed the music to Hall's film Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968).[26] Her other work during this period included taking part in a performance of electronic music at The Roundhouse,[1] which also featured work by Paul McCartney, the sound-track for the Yoko Ono film,[27] the score for an ICI-sponsored student fashion show[1] and the sounds for Anthony Roland's award-winning film of Pamela Bone's photography, entitled Circle of Light.[28]


In 1973, she left the BBC and worked a brief stint at Hodgson's Electrophon studio[1] during which time she contributed to the soundtrack to the film The Legend of Hell House.[26]

The Electrophon and Kaleidophon were electrical musical instruments made by Jörg Mager in pre-war Germany.

She then stopped producing music and worked as a radio operator for the laying of a British Gas pipeline, in an art gallery and in a bookshop.[1]

Experimental Audio Research[edit]

In 2000 and 2001 she worked with Sonic Boom as adviser and co-producer of the EAR LPs Vibrations and Continuum.

Personal life[edit]

In late 1974 she married David Hunter[29] from Haltwhistle in Northumberland, the labourer son of a miner[30] in an attempt to gain local acceptance; the relationship was brief and disastrous although she never divorced. She also frequented the gallery space of Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia at his stone farmhouse in Cumbria. In 1978 she returned to London[8] and met Clive Blackburn. In January 1980 she bought a house in Northampton where, four months later, Blackburn joined her.


Derbyshire returned to music in the late nineties after having her interest renewed by fellow electronic musician Peter Kember and was working on an album when she died of renal failure due to chronic alcoholism, aged 64, in July 2001.[1][31]


After Derbyshire's death, 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand papers were found in her attic. These were entrusted to Mark Ayres of the BBC and in 2007 were given on permanent loan to the University of Manchester. Almost all the tapes were digitised in 2007 by Louis Niebur and David Butler, but none of this music has been published due to copyright complications.[32] In 2010, the University acquired Derbyshire's childhood collection of papers and artefacts from Andi Wolf. This collection is accessible at the John Rylands Library[1] in Manchester.

Dramatic and documentary portrayals[edit]

In 2002, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio play entitled Blue Veils and Golden Sands as part of its Afternoon Play strand, telling the story of Derbyshire and her pioneering musical work.[33] The play starred actress Sophie Thompson as Derbyshire[34] and was written by Martyn Wade.[33]

In 2013 the BBC showed a television docudrama depicting the creation and early days of Doctor Who in 1963, called An Adventure in Space and Time, as part of the celebrations for the programme's fiftieth anniversary. Derbyshire appeared as a character in it, portrayed by actress Sarah Winter.[35]

Episode 5 "Derbyshire" of the BBC children's science TV programme Absolute Genius with Dick & Dom is an exploration of Derbyshire's creation of the Doctor Who theme recording using her techniques on equipment archived from the Radiophonic Workshop.[36]


Her hometown Coventry named a street after her in november 2016, the 'Derbyshire Way'.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hodgson, Brian (7 July 2001). "Obituary: Delia Derbyshire". Guardian Unlimited. 
  2. ^ Wrench, Nigel (18 July 2008). "Lost tapes of the Dr. Who composer". BBC News. Retrieved 22 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "An Adventure in Space and Time - Delia Derbyshire - BBC Two". BBC. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  4. ^ Andy Kellman. "Delia Derbyshire". AllMusic. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Breege Brennan, Master's Thesis in Computer Music, Dublin, 2008.
  6. ^ Christine Edge, Morse code musician: How Delia crashed the sound barrier, Sunday Mirror, 12 April 1970, p.8.
  7. ^ Article by Kisten Cubitt "Dial a tune" in The Guardian newspaper, 3 September 1970
  8. ^ a b c d e f Blackburn, Clive. "About Delia". 
  9. ^ Delia Derbyshire in conversation with John Cavanagh, 4 October 1998.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Mansfield, Susan (25 September 2004). "Variations on the Dr Who theme". The Scotsman. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  12. ^ Interview with Delia Derbyshire, conducted by Sonic Boom and published in Surface Magazine (May 2000).
  13. ^ "obituary" (PDF). Computer Music Journal, Vol 25, No. 4, Winter 2001, p.13. MIT Press/Project MUSE. Retrieved 26 July 2011. 
  14. ^ Delia Derbyshire's papers at Manchester University.
  15. ^ a b Pearce, Vanessa (28 November 2016). "Doctor Who composer has a Way to go". BBC News. Retrieved 2 December 2016. 
  16. ^ "Delia Derbyshire Electronic Music Pioneer". Official Delia Derbyshire website. Retrieved 30 January 2010. 
  17. ^ Ayres, Mark. "Doctor Who—The Original Theme". A History of the Doctor Who Theme. Retrieved 15 January 2010. The story goes that on listening to playback, he enquired of Delia, "Did I write that?". To which she replied, "Most of it!". 
  18. ^ "Delia Derbyshire Radio Scotland interview 1997". Retrieved 30 January 2010. 
  19. ^ Deacon, Nigel. "Barry Bermange Plays". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  20. ^ Guy, Martin (10 November 2007). "Delia Derbyshire – An audiological chronology". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  21. ^ "Unit Delta Plus". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  22. ^ "Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) - The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive". 
  23. ^ Standard Music Library ESL 1104 at Discogs
  24. ^ "The Tomorrow People – Themes and Incidentals". Trunk Records. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  25. ^ "The Music of Timeslip". – The Official Timeslip Website. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  26. ^ a b Delia Derbyshire at the Internet Movie Database
  27. ^ Guy, Martin (10 November 2007). "Delia Derbyshire – An audiological chronology". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  28. ^ "Circle of Light". The Roland Collection of Films & Videos on Art. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  29. ^ "Register of Marriages". Northumberland West 1. General Register Office for England and Wales. Oct–Dec 1974: 1761. 
  30. ^ Cook, Fidelma (20 March 2005). "Mail on Sunday". Mail on Sunday. 
  31. ^ "Daily Mail article on Delia Derbyshire". 
  32. ^ Murray, A. "Delia Derbyshire: the lost tapes" in The Wire 297 (November 2008), page 12.
  33. ^ a b Jackson, Harold (23 December 2002). "Pick of the day". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  34. ^ "Blue Veils and Golden Sands". BBC Online. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  35. ^ Foster, Chuck (10 February 2013). "Delia Derbyshire cast in An Adventure in Space and Time". Doctor Who News. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  36. ^ "Derbyshire". BBC Online. Retrieved 27 March 2013. 

Further reading and documentaries[edit]

  • BBC 4, "Alchemists of Sound", Saturday 28 May 2005. Television documentary on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
  • BBC Radio 4, "Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire", Saturday 27 March 2010. Radio documentary about Delia Derbyshire, her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the ongoing digital archiving of a collection of her recordings.
  • Book by Louis Niebur, "Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop", Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Short documentary "The Delian Mode" was released in 2009, written and directed by Kara Blake.
  • James Percival's dissertation, "Delia Derbyshire's Creative Process", describes some of her sound-construction techniques and an appendix with the most complete catalogue of her known works.
  • In "An Adventure in Space and Time", a 2013 BBC documentary about the Doctor Who TV series,[1] Delia is played by Sarah Winter.[2]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ "Doctor Who Guide: An Adventure In Space And Time". 
  2. ^ "An Adventure in Space and Time" on