In 2007, the taped archives of one of the most influential figures in British electronic music were delivered to Manchester University in cereal boxes. It was an inauspicious arrival for the legacy of a relatively unsung hero of British culture, although not unprecedented; even an attempt to get her a co-creator credit on her most famous work was foiled by bureaucracy. That’s why today’s Delia Derbyshire Day events are necessary; her work with electronica was incredibly influential and it deserves to be celebrated.
However, while Derbyshire may not be a household name, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with her work, particularly if you’re from the UK.
Because she’s responsible for the Doctor Who theme tune.
She didn’t compose it (that was Ron Grainer), but Derbyshire’s work is key to the theme’s success. Frankly it sounds like nothing else today, let alone on a cold winter in November 1963. The more bombastic arrangements of the relaunch obscure some of the tune’s weirdness – perhaps that’s in line with depicting the Doctor as a more obviously heroic character, rather than William Hartnell’s unpredictable, unnerving portrayal. The Derbyshire arrangement is scary; not too scary, of course, but disconcerting, promising something alien emerging from the dark. And yet it’s also futuristic, in the sixties sci-fi sense of the world. It’s a soundscape as much as a tune, and you can’t quite identify what instruments or gadgets are being used.
I remember worried internet discussions in 2005 – would Russell T. Davies use the police box? The Daleks? The theme tune? In retrospect it’s unthinkable; the theme tune is a fundamental part of the show’s DNA. When the writers wanted to illustrate the madness of the Master, they had John Simm tap a four-beat rhythm on a table. It was meant to represent the double heartbeat of a Time Lord, but let’s not kid ourselves, it was the bass line for the best theme tune on TV. And much of that is thanks to Delia Derbyshire, who created something that so inhabits a show that it leaks into the fiction.
With 50 years of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine Doctor Who as a newborn programme, with no history or legacy or reputation, no rabid fanbase to fight its corner. It was the new kid on the block, and in an era of casual, institutional racism and sexism, it’s a story in itself how Doctor Who was put together by ‘outsiders’ – a female producer, for instance, and a gay, Indian director. It’s a weird mix of the reactionary and the progressive, which mirrors some of the early themes of the show – Derbyshire falls firmly into the progressive camp. Sure, she’s best known for Doctor Who, but she worked with Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono. A fantastic theme tune would be achievement enough, but Derbyshire’s legacy is more expansive than that. It’s good to see Band on the Wall bringing that to a wider audience. Let’s hope it gets Delia the recognition she deserves.