This past week marked the 78th birthday of Delia Derbyshire, who infamously realised the Doctor Who theme music in 1963. The theme has been remixed and reimagined countless times since its first inception, but it was that initial composition that won the hearts, minds and imaginations of people across the world.
Derbyshire began her career by approaching Decca records in 1959. She was not hired, unfortunately, due to the company’s incredibly sexist policy of never employing women. It was another year before the BBC hired her as a trainee studio manager.
Her talents were recognised, but rarely given wings, again due to the socially imposed sexism of the industry (much of which continues to this day). She found a love for the newly formed Radiophonic workshop and was soon assigned there which she took great joy in (much to the confusion of many in the corporation who regarded it as an odd job not worth serious consideration).
Delia had found a place where she could combine her interests in sound and electronic instrumentation. Ron Grainer was hired by the BBC to compose the theme music for Doctor Who and he recounts the story of how it came about after he hurriedly scribbled down the theme on a scrap of paper before handing it to Derbyshire to realise.
With the assistance of Dick Mills, Delia used “musique concrete” techniques, white noise, and the harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators (which were supposed to be used for calibrating equipment, not actually making music). The bassline was created from a recording of a single plucked string, played over and over in different patterns. The swooping melody was created by hand-adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a = timed pattern. The hissing sounds, “bubbles” and “clouds”, were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.
When he heard the finished product, Grainer is reported to have asked, “Did I really write that?”
To which Derbyshire replied, “Most of it.”
The BBC, however, refused to credit Delia as a co-composer, given that she was considered more of an engineer than a musician officially. No matter how hard they fought, Derbyshire never saw a penny of the royalties from the theme.
A recent Guardian article called her ‘the unsung heroine of British electronic music’. She continued to work with the Radiophonic Workshop for many years after, creating more and more unusual and inspired pieces.
But however many times the theme is re-arranged, reimagined or re-scored, it is Derbyshire’s original that will always reign supreme.