Decoding the Legendary Tapes of Delia Derbyshire.
Although the name Delia Derbyshire may sound like a superhero sidekick from the pages of an early 80’s limited series comic run, the moniker actually belongs to one of the most underrated pioneers in the diverse realm of electronic music. In fact Derbyshire’s influence across the English music scene remains one of the industries best kept secrets, with her innovative techniques, and genius level intellect having established a quantum bridge between technologies, creativity and sound mapping. No small feat for a woman who, during the 1960’s often found herself shackled under the patriarchy of the BBC and general misogyny of the era.
And while Derbyshire has finally found some recognition for her work posthumously, thanks to the discovery of 267 reel-to-reel tapes and thousands of pages relating her work, it’s the recent docu-drama from acclaimed actor and director Caroline Catz that will likely connect audiences on a personal level with the complex, troubled and accidental feminist who not only gave the world the instantly recognisable theme music to Doctor Who, but whose tenacity and creative soul built the foundations of today’s house, dance and electro music.
Marking its Australian premiere at the 2021 Revelation Film Festival in Perth, we connected with director and star Caroline Catz to discuss her exceptional new film Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes, its origins and Delia’s ongoing legacy.
Fletcher: With so much of Delia’s work simply credited to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, when did you actually become familiar with Delia’s name and who she was within that organisation?
Caroline Catz: I grew up as a Doctor Who fan. I was haunted by the theme tune every Saturday at teatime, never knowing that this fascinating female composer created it.
It had a very powerful effect on me. I was always more terrified listening to the theme music than I was watching the show. It was like listening to the sound of the universe expanding or the whole world collapsing or something. And It wasn’t until the nineties that I realized that Delia Derbyshire had created it, and her story really intrigued me. I found it baffling that she wasn’t a household name. That was how it all started for me.
F: Your film paints a portrait of a very complex woman. Was it difficult to unravel her essence in order to tell her story; both as a director with a narrative to build and as an actor looking to bring her to life, if retrospectively, to the screen?
CC: I think the starting point for the whole film were the tapes, listening to her stuff. That’s when she really entered my imagination and this relationship began to develop.
I was also really attracted to Delia’s tenacious and singular energy. She was someone that was very deeply interested in the sound of the world around her. That’s what drew me to her, her activist approach and her lack of personal aggrandizement. She had a very, very unique way.
I guess I wanted to know, how did this person – who was not socially conditioned in any way – what was it that made her truly counter-cultural? Then, how do we get into her uniqueness and how do we find a way to really express that very, very unique quality? At the same time, I knew this had to be a very subjective response.
So I was thinking about those kinds of things, and I thought we should really bring the audience to a stage-like setup. You’re exposing the structure of the film and you’re asking people to bear witness to a construction of a narrative, to the idea that we’re all entering into the story; but also with this idea of me having investigated the archive and finding a genuine way of embodying Delia.
This idea of biopics? I’m always a bit allergic to them because there’s no shortage of conventional biopics. They can be quite crude and reductive sometimes. My feeling was that it tends to be undramatic to shape a life and a career into a coherent narrative when the reason, the inspiration for wanting to tell the story might spark something more interesting.
So, that’s what I did. I decided to bring Delia’s Archive into the story and to find a way of Delia being present as a narrator in her own life. That’s what we had to mix into the structure, along with the archival footage and interviews with Delia’s colleagues and friends as well. That struck me as the best way to tell the story.
F: You could argue that Delia was at her creative peak during one of the most significant counter-culture movements the UK has ever experienced. Do you feel Delia was herself a catalyst for that movement during the sixties and seventies, or was she just along for the ride?
CC: I think she was this very singular person. She was an activist in a way, because it requires a kind of activist’s approach to keep going and to keep on track with explorations, not knowing if they’re going to work, yet pushing forward all the time.
She was not socially conditioned. I think those are the things that make her counter-cultural, not that she was going to parties with Paul McCartney and God knows who else, which I’m sure she did.
But I don’t think that’s the thing that makes her an interesting, iconic person from that time. I think it was very interesting that so many people came to her, that Brian Jones came to the studio to see her, that Paul McCartney came to visit to find out whether or not they could do some work using similar methods to hers on Yesterday. People were coming to her because of her unique qualities, rather than it being the other way around, of her just being part of a scene.
F: And inevitably, moving in those circles exposed her the drug scene, which we know she embraced to fuel her creative experimentation. You acknowledge her substance abuse issues in the film, but are you able to elaborate on the consequences of her addiction?
CC: From what I understand, it was something that plagued her and I think probably ultimately killed her. That’s the sad story. That’s the sad part of it. I think she was also self-medicating. She was somebody, I think, who had a fragility to her and also a strength. And who also was trying to do this pioneering work in an environment that was not designed for her, and continually having to deal with her contributions being downplayed.
I think it was an exhausting process and I think she found ways through it. She would work late into the night as a way of finding some space and solitude. She wanted it to be a laboratory environment for herself, which is very difficult when you’re all crammed into this tiny corner and there are loads of other composers and sound engineers all trying to do the same thing.
She would go in there and exhaust herself. I think her addiction to alcohol and to snuff was probably just a way of managing a very unconducive lifestyle of being in a permanent state of jet lag, just managing to stay afloat. Also, many people say that she was never drunk; she just sipped all through the day. That was how it worked for her.
F: It’s hard to read an article or profile on Delia without the words ‘influence’ or ‘pioneer’ being used. And by such distinguished and diverse outfits such as Pink Floyd, Portishead, Kronos Quartet to name a few?
CC: There are loads of people that have been influenced by Delia. There’s lots of artists working now, well known and not so well-known, where you can hear her influence in their music. Even listening to those bands like Kraftwek etc. and thinking, all that stuff, it was all going on at similar time, but she was there before them. Her music sounds like it could have been made today.
In the film there’s this clip of what seems like a techno track that could have been from the late ’80s early ’90s, but which was cut together with magnetic tape. And it’s some ridiculous amount of beats per minute. And yet it was painstaking cut together note by note. So even with the technology she was using, strange old analog technology, she was creating this very futuristic and incredibly inspiring sound that I think has touched a lot of musicians.
F: Towards the end of the film, there’s a monologue where Delia’s reading a review of her work, in which the Doctor Who theme inevitably comes up. And the general theme of her response is ‘I wish they would let that bloody go’. Having researched her so extensively, was there a particular work or project that she was most proud of?
CC: I think that’s a really, really good question. I asked Brian Hodgson this and also Mark Ayres. I think the pieces that she really loved were the pieces where she could really express herself and spend time on them. There’s a wonderful piece called, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, that’s in the film.
It’s a very, very beautiful piece where she’s describing the desert, and camel trains. You could imagine that Delia, probably, has never visited a desert, I don’t know, maybe she had, but it certainly sounded like she was there. What she said was she wanted the sound of the lampshades to exist whilst walking off into the distance. She wanted the sound of the lampshades shades to be riding off on the backs of the camels or something like that.
I just thought that encapsulates her really. That she really entered the work on a very, very deep level where she became part of the sound, and she manages to conjure up these worlds. They’re almost, in sound terms, they remind me of virtual reality in a way. That’s what I think is so unique about her stuff, is that she does take you on these very emotional journeys where you actually do feel either fear, or wonder or all kinds of emotion. It’s very powerful. She was very interested in psychoacoustics and the effect that music has on the psyche and the imagination. I think that was one of her favorite pieces from what I understand.
F: And finally, if you’d had the opportunity to meet and know Delia in person, do you think you would have been friends?
CC: I’d like to think so… I’d like to think so. But I could only hope, really. I mean, I feel like I have this relationship with her now that’s quite strange. It’s across eras and it’s from a distance, but I have felt her nudging me along the way. I felt that she was there on my shoulder.