The name Delia Derbyshire may sound like a superhero sidekick from the pages of 80’s limited comic series, but the moniker actually belongs to one of the most undervalued pioneers of contemporary electronic music. In fact, Derbyshire’s influence across the English music scene remains one of the industry’s most underappreciated ?? , with many of her innovative techniques, derived from a genius level intellect, having established a quantum bridge between technology, creativity, and the real-world applications of sound mapping. No small feat for a woman who, during the 1960’s often found herself shackled under the patriarchy of BBC management and the prevalent misogyny of the era.
And while Derbyshire has finally found some recognition for her work posthumously – thanks in part to the discovery of 267 reel-to-reel tapes accompanied by thousands of pages and personal notes relating her work – the imminent release of the superb docu-drama, deftly crafted and executed by acclaimed actor and director Caroline Catz, that will likely connect audiences on a more intrinsically personal level with the complex, troubled and accidental feminist. A complex woman who not only gave the world the instantly recognisable theme music to Doctor Who, but whose tenacity and creative soul remains an essential foundation 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, inherent allegories and why Delia’s legacy continues to resonate.
Fletcher: One of the more fascinating aspects of Delia Derbyshire is the anonymity that surrounded her name for so long. Much of her work was simply credited to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or published without any associated credit. When did you personally become familiar with the name Delia Derbyshire?
Caroline Catz: I’d had this idea to make the film for years, ever since Delia’s Archive appeared at Manchester University. It was literally her boxes of quarter inch tapes, 267 tapes, a thousand papers, all stored in cereal boxes… all of which I’d read about in the newspaper.
They had been donated, these cereal boxes to the university, so I just asked if I could go and see them. This was 2009, 2008, something like that.
As soon as I started playing the tapes, you were listening to these beautiful sound experiments, makeup tapes for all of Delia’s tracks, you’re listening to separated out bass tracks, melody tracks and all kinds of different sounds and sweeps and sweeps and amazing electronic worlds that she was creating. And I was like, “I have to tell the story.“
But also, I grew up as a Doctor Who fan. And I was haunted by the theme tune every Saturday at teatime, never knowing that this fascinating female composer had 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 in on itself. But 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. I guess that’s where it all really started for me.
F: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes paints a portrait of a very complex woman, and by all accounts she was quiet a unique individual. How did you go about the process of unravelling the various versions of herself that Delia presented, to capture her core self so to speak, as both as a director building a narrative and as an actor looking to craft an authentic portrayal?
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 the 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 had struck me as the best way to tell the story.
F: And as an actor, I would imagine your research offered to a wealth of insight in how to portray Delia? Was that always your intent, to have yourself cast as Delia for the film?
CC: Yeah. I guess so, because as an actor, that’s essentially what we’re always doing; you’re meeting these characters. You often find ways of investigating how to do that, and it’s usually with a lot of research, background and finding layers and ways in. It was a very natural process, that part of it.
However, when it comes to interpreting or working with an archive, you usually hear of it being done by historians, academics, or artists. You rarely hear of actors, and yet a lot of our work is research and digging. It actually felt like quite a dramatic process to me, all this unfiltered material, and to consider how we tell the story with this stuff?
But ultimately, it felt quite natural, and my connection to Delia was embedded in the research really. It just seemed like it would be nuts to try and then have to translate that to somebody else
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. And while Delia was very present within the chaos and culture of the sixties and seventies, do you think she herself was a catalyst for that movement, 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 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 help fuel her creative experimentation. You acknowledge her substance abuse in the film, but are you able to elaborate with any personal insights as to the consequences her addiction wrought on her professional and personal life?
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. But I think she was also self-medicating. She was somebody, I think, who had a fragility to her as well as a strength. Somebody 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.
It had to have been 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.
So she would go in there and just 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 have been on record saying that she was never drunk, that she just sipped all through the day. That was how it worked for her.
F: Now that Delia is finding some recognition for her work, the taglines that accompany most of the articles or profiles written always seem to include the words ‘influence’ or ‘pioneer’. And while journalists are those mostly responsible for the accolades, there’s been some highly distinguished and diverse outfits such as Pink Floyd, Portishead and Kronos Quartet, to name a few, also singing her praises?
CC: There are loads of people that have been influenced by Delia. There’s lots of artists working now, some well-known and some 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 or early ’90s, but which was actually 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 analogue tech, 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 garnered all this insight through your research into her work and exploring her private life so extensively, do you think there is a particular piece of muisc or project that she was most proud of, that she would want to be remembered for?
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. There’s a wonderful piece called, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, that’s featured in the film.
It’s a very, very beautiful piece where she’s describing the desert, and camel trains. You could imagine that Delia, who probably had never visited a desert was actually there, it certainly sounded like she was there.
What she said was that 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 really encapsulates her. 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, 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 favourite pieces from what I understand.
F: And finally, as a hypothetical, if you’d had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Delia in person, to really get to know her over a cup of tea or a gin, and share your experiences as women in the entertainment and creative fields, do you think you would have become 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, and 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.