Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire
Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Background information
Birth name Delia Ann Derbyshire
Born 5 May 1937(1937-05-05)
Coventry, UK
Died 3 July 2001(2001-07-03) (aged 64)
Northampton, UK
Genres Electronic music
Occupations 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 her electronic realisation of Ron Grainer's theme music to the British science fiction television series Doctor Who and for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.



Early life

Derbyshire was born in Coventry, daughter of Emma ("Emmie", née Dawson) and Edward ("Ted") Derbyshire[3] of Cedars Avenue, Coundon, Coventry[4], a sheet-metal worker.[5] She had only one sibling, a sister, who died young,[3] while her father died in 1965 and her mother in 1994.[6]

During the Second World War, immediately after the Coventry Blitz in 1940, she was moved to Preston, Lancashire for safety, where her parents had moved from[3] and where most of her surviving relatives still live.[6]

She was very bright and, by the age of four, was teaching others in her class to read and write in primary school,[3] but said "The radio was my education".[7]

Her parents bought her a piano when she was eight years old.

Educated at Barr's Hill Grammar School 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",[3] won 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[3] and after one year switched to music, graduating in 1959 with an MA in Mathematics and Music and specialising in medieval and modern music history.[3] Her other principal qualification was LRAM in pianoforte.[6]

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".[3] Then she applied for a position at Decca Records only to be told that the company did not employ women in their recording studios.[8][9]

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,[3] then from September to December as Assistant to Gerald G. Gross,[3] Head of Plenipotentiary and General Administrative Radio Conferences at the International Telecommunications Union.[6]

She then returned to Coventry and from January to April 1960 taught general subjects in a primary school there, then to London where from May to October she was an Assistant in the Promotion Dept of music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.[6]

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

In November 1960 she joined the BBC as a Trainee Assistant Studio Manager[3] and worked on Record Review, a magazine programme where critics reviewed music. 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."[3]

She then heard about the Radiophonic workshop and decided that was where she wanted to go. This was received with some puzzlement by the heads in Central Programme Operation because people were usually "assigned" to the Radiophonic Workshop, and in April 1962 she was indeed assigned to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop[6] in Maida Vale, where for eleven years she would create music and sound for almost 200 radio and television programmes.[10]

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.[11]

One of her first works, and the most widely known, was her 1962 electronic realization of a score by Ron Grainer for the theme tune of the Doctor Who series, 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".[12] He attempted to get her a co-composer credit but the attempt was prevented by the BBC bureaucracy, who then preferred to keep the members of the Workshop anonymous.[13]

The theme was reworked over the years, to her horror, and the version that had her "stamp of approval" is her original one.[14]

In 1964-5 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..[15][16]

Unit Delta Plus

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 Anthony 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.[17]


Also in the late sixties, she again worked with Hodgson in setting up the Kaleidophon studio at 281-3 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. Although later albums were essentially solo Vorhaus albums, the début, An Electric Storm featured collaborations with Derbyshire and Hodgson and is now considered an important and influential album in the development of electronic music, prefiguring the sound of Stereolab or Broadcast by 20 years.[18]

The trio, using pseudonyms, also contributed to the Standard Music Library.[19] Many of these recordings, including compositions by Delia 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[20] and Timeslip.[21]

In 1967, she assisted Guy Woolfenden with his electronic score for Peter Hall's production of Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company.[1] The pair also contributed the music to Hall's 1968 film Work Is a Four-Letter Word.[22]

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,[23] 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.[24]


In 1973, she left the BBC and, after a brief stint working at Hodgson's Electrophon studio[1] during which time she contributed to the soundtrack to the film The Legend of Hell House,[22] stopped composing music.

Later career

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

In late 1974 she married David Hunter[25] from Haltwhistle in Northumberland, the labourer son of a striking miner[26] in an attempt to gain social 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[6] and met her life-partner, Clive Blackburn and in January 1980 she bought a house in Northampton where, in May of that year, Clive joined her and gave her stability.

She 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 aged 64 of renal failure whilst recovering from breast cancer.


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 2006 were given on permanent loan to David Butler of Manchester University. While almost all were digitised in 2006, none have yet been published.[27]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Breege Brennan, Master's Thesis in Computer Music, Dublin, 2008.
  4. ^ Christine Edge, Morse code musician: How Delia crashed the sound barrier, Sunday Mirror, 12 April 1970, p.8.
  5. ^ Article by Kisten Cubitt "Dial a tune" in The Guardian newspaper, 3 September 1970
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Blackburn, Clive. "About Delia". 
  7. ^ Delia Derbyshire in conversation with John Cavanagh, 4th October 1998.
  8. ^ Mansfield, Susan (25 September 2004). "Variations on the Dr Who theme". The Scotsman. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  9. ^ Interview with Delia Derbyshire, conducted by Sonic Boom and published in "Surface"" magazine, May 2000.
  10. ^ "Computer Music Journal, Vol 25 No 4, Winter 2001, p. 13.". MIT Press. Winter 2001. Retrieved 26 July 2011. 
  11. ^ Delia Derbyshire's papers at Manchester University.
  12. ^ "Delia Derbyshire Electronic Music Pioneer". Official Delia Derbyshire website. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  13. ^ Ayres, Mark. "Doctor Who—The Original Theme". A History of the Doctor Who Theme. Retrieved 2010-01-15. "The story goes that on listening to playback, he enquired of Delia, “Did I write that?”. To which she replied, “Most of it!”." 
  14. ^ "Delia Derbyshire Radio Scotland interview 1997". Retrieved 30 January 2010. 
  15. ^ Deacon, Nigel. "Barry Bermange Plays". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  16. ^ Guy, Martin (10 November 2007). "Delia Derbyshire - An audiological chronology". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  17. ^ "Unit Delta Plus". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  18. ^ Murphy, Matthew (3 August 2008). "White Noise: An Electric Storm". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  19. ^ Standard Music Library ESL 1104 at Discogs
  20. ^ "The Tomorrow People - Themes and Incidentals". Trunk Records. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  21. ^ "The Music of Timeslip". - The Official Timeslip Website. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  22. ^ a b Delia Derbyshire at the Internet Movie Database
  23. ^ Guy, Martin (10 November 2007). "Delia Derbyshire - An audiological chronology". Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  24. ^ "Circle of Light". The Roland Collection of Films & Videos on Art. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  25. ^ Register of Marriages. Northumberland West 1. General Register Office for England and Wales. Oct–Dec 1974. p. 1761. 
  26. ^ Cook, Fidelma (20 March 2005). "Mail on Sunday". Mail on Sunday. 
  27. ^ Murray, A. "Delia Derbyshire: the lost tapes" in The Wire 297 (November 2008), p.12.

Further reading and documentaries

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