Delia Derbyshire arranged the first version of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune, back in 1963. The music itself had been written by Ron Grainer on a beach in Portugal, but it was Delia’s job to put it all together. In this BBC Radio Scotland interview from 1997, she talks about recording the music for the show, and also about some of her later work.
I also recommend reading the full interview with Delia, in which she talks in more details about some of her non-‘Doctor Who’ work.
Q: What you achieved in the Radiophonic Workshop is something we should perhaps define for people who don’t understand the processes that went into making that kind of music.
A: It was only by gradually infiltrating the system that I was able to do music. I think you’d call that music, wouldn’t you? I did try to use electronic sounds wherever possible, and I think some of the sounds were bits cut out of other things after editing.
Q: You said that these pieces were put together using very simple devices, very simple compared to what’s available today, but at the time they were state of the art. One of the most famous pieces you did was the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune, tell me how you did that. I believe it was with some dozen or so oscillators?
A: Indeed, yes, we did have a bank of a dozen oscillators, but one couldn’t use them all at once. The first producer of ‘Doctor Who’, Verity Lambert, she had in her mind ‘Les Structures Sonore’, I don’t know whether you’re old enough to remember this group from Paris. Their music sounded extremely electronic, but in fact they were all acoustic instruments.
Q: Did they use glass rods in their music-making?
A: Yes, exactly, and so Verity Lambert couldn’t possibly afford ‘Les Structures Sonore’ from Paris, and because the Radiophonic Workshop was a below-the-line cost, she came to the Radiophonic Workshop, and the boss recommended Ron Grainer because he’d done something called ‘Giants of Steam’ there earlier. Ron saw the provisional titles, as usual something like a black and white negative, and he took the timings and went away to his private beach in Portugal and wrote the score. He came back with the score, with abstract things on, like wind clouds and sweeps and swoops, wind bubble, all beautiful descriptions, but with a very carefully worked out rhythm. It was very subtle, the way he wrote the rhythm, and so I got to work and put it all together. It was a magic experience, because I couldn’t see from the music how it was going to sound, it was Ron’s brilliant aural imagination.
Q: The original version of the theme is the one that has your own stamp of approval, I believe?
A: I’d say that, yes. I think every time a new producer came or a new director came, they wanted to tart up the title music, and they wanted to put an extra two bars here, put some extra feedback on the high frequencies, they kept on tarting it up out of existence. I was really very shocked with what I had to do.
Q: Where did the inspiration for ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’ come from?
A: This was a documentary programme about the Tourec tribe. The Tourec tribe are nomads in the Sahara desert, and I think they live by bartering, taking salt across the desert. In the piece, I tried to convey the distance of the horizon and the heat haze and then there’s this very high, slow, reedy sound. That indicates the strands of camels seen at a distance, wandering across the desert. That in fact was made with square waves on the bay of oscillators we just talked about. Square waves put through every filter I could possibly find, to take out all the bass frequencies, and so one just hears the very high frequencies. It has to be something out of this world.
Q: Your job tended to run counter to your formal training. You studied music, and also mathematics, and it was a time in the British musical establishment when you weren’t supposed to do that kind of thing, and there you were swimming completely against the tide.
A: You should see my last birthday card, it’s a lovely one from America with a whole shoal of fishes swimming with their mouths turned down, fishes in silhouette, and one fish swimming the other way.
Q: That’s you, is it?
A: Yes, well with a smile on its face, and printed on the card was ‘To an independent thinker’. (laughs) I think that sums me up, I did rebel against… I did all sorts of things I was told I couldn’t do, I think I’ve always been a very independent thinker. I must say that I go back to first principle when it comes to music, I go back to the Greeks, well, the simple harmonic series, I think that’s a very healthy thing to do for anyone.
Q: I’d like to turn our attention to the time you took the Radiophonic Workshop out of the BBC and worked on an album by the group ‘White Noise’.
A: I think my forte is, well apart from having an analytical mind to do electronic sound, at the opposite end I’m very good at writing extended melody, for which there was not really an opening at the BBC. So I met this guy, I was giving a lecture at Morley College in London, and he came up to me afterwards. He played the double bass, the same as I did, and he was already doing tracks for the Ballet Rambert, and we got together and started this album.
Q: ‘Firebirds’ from ‘White Noise’, with a touch of the original Russian folk music that Stravinsky used for his Firebird suite coming in at the end, from the album that came out in the late 1960’s on the Island label but has, I believe, been reissued in Sweden of late.
A: I don’t know when it was reissued, but yes, it must get played because I do get some royalties from it.
Q: Some of the music you made tended to be a little too challenging for producers at the time, and were rejected for their original purpose. That must have been fairly difficult to take?
A: (laughs) Yes. Indeed. And, let me see, I think… let us go back to the late 50’s, ealry 60’s… Dave Brubeck had done ‘Take 5’, and in about ’61 he’d done ‘It’s a Raggy Waltz’ in 7-time, so I thought fine, I’m into the numbers game, I’ll do 11-time and 13-time, continuing the series of prime numbers. But unfortunately I was told at the time that it was too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience. And about that time the choreographer Irving Davis happened to be walking down the corridor and his feet started tapping and he said “I want that”, and I said “No, you can’t, I’ve done it for the BBC” and so he implored me to do something in the same style, in 11-time and 13-time, for his dance group, which I did, in fact it was for the Frankie Howerd and Cilla Black show, but it had to be scrapped for that but there was rather delicate music as the opener to the second act. That was their problem.
Q: Not a particularly clever bit of sequencing, I’d imagine.
A: No, and I didn’t have a television in those days but friends told me, by one means or another, it ended up being used as the backing for a deodorant commercial on television, which of course we were forbidden from doing. It was rejected by BBC2, and there it was on a commercial… I tell you what, I did films, I did the first electronic fashion show, I did feature films and art films, I don’t know what is up in my loft, it’s probably been eaten by the wasps and the mice.
Q: I did actually have a letter from you saying that you had a demo of one of your songs recorded by Anthony Newley, now that’s something I’d love to hear.
A: Yeah, I’d quite like to find it. He came to my little one-room flat above a flower shop in Maida Vale to hear the backing track he’d aske me to do. He said “Don’t put a tune on it, I’ll write my own tune, but I’d like a backing track, an electronic backing track”. He said “You’ll probably want to put on a tune, your own tune, just to make sense of it, but I’m not going to use it.” Anyway, he took it away and not only did he use it, he double-tracked it, he was thrilled to bits with it. He said, and I felt quite insulted at the time, “I’ll soon get you out of this place.” In fact, the people who’d driven him there were Joan and Jackie Collins.