Soundhouse interview

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In 1993 an interview with Delia was published in Doctor Who magazine, issue 199, 12th May 1993, pp.14-16.

There are two other relevant interviews in other issues:[1]

The interviewer is very discreet and almost all of the article consists of a direct transcription of Delia's words.



Austen Atkinson-Broadbelt continues his investigations into the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop and talks to Delia Derbyshire, the lady responsible for creating the distinctive theme music back in 1963.

Delia Derbyshire made an impact upon the British music industry, by proving that electronic music could not only work within the context of radio and television, but could stand as highly creative and beautiful music in its own right. Derbyshire is better known to Who fans as the person who realised Ron Grainer's legendary score for the Doctor Who title sequence. The unreal quality of her Doctor Who music proved so successful that it introduced the programme for seventeen years.

In 1963, the general public had never experienced a piece of music like it - there was not one element of the signature tune that was performed in real time. Perhaps that is why the original Doctor Who title music is still heralded as the best version, thirty years after it was first heard. With the knowledge that women often found it difficult to pursue a career in the pre-Women's Lib era of the Fifties and Sixties. I asked Derbyshire to explain how she had succeeded where so many had failed.

"At school I wasn't allowed to study music. I studied mathematics, theoretical mechanics and physics. The most exciting part of physics was acoustics, although unfortunately my teacher didn't share my enthusiasm! So I was forced to teach myself. I learnt about acoustics and indulged my passion for music away from school. Later, I won a scholarship to Cambridge reading mathematics. That was a strange year, one third of my fellow students gave the course up and so I was given the opportunity of changing to another subject. Well I wanted to do music; to me that was a forbidden paradise. The eventually realised that I had a natural instinct for music and allowed me to enter the course.

"Radio had a very big influence over me. It was so important during the Second World War. Life was really very basic at that time and radio provided an essential escape and a greatly valued education. That influence stayed with me throughout my time at Cambridge. There were only a few women at the University at that time and so we were treated terribly. But I had the solace of my music. The musicians hated acoustics and the theory of sound, but when we studied that I was in my element. I found myself drifting away from the syllabus to learn about mediaeval and modern music. That didn't go down too well with my tutors. They wanted me to study the period 1650 to 1900, but it bored me. So I didn't do too well there!"

I asked her to explain how she had turned her ambition to work at the BBC into a reality.

"Because radio was so important to me I knew that I wanted to work at the BBC. Before I joined I went straight abroad with the Pembroke University Players doing sound effects for Julius Caesar. I had such fun, I just didn't want to come back to England! Eventually the BBC wrote to me and I went along for an interview. I impressed the interviewers and eventually became a studio manager. That was only just after the Radiophonic Workshop had started, but I had no idea how easy it was to get there. I was really happy as a studio manager until I realised that I could move to the Workshop and before I had even finished asking my boss for a transfer, he had his hand on the telephone. It turned out that I was the first person who had actually asked to go there. Previously people had been sent, usually unwillingly, for a six month attachment. I was allowed to stay longer and became the most junior person there, even though I was the most highly qualified.

"I joined in 1962 and the first thing that I did was to go off and tour around our European colleagues' studios like the ORTF [Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française at Radio France] to see how they worked. I was so brave - just marching in like that! It wasn't long until I returned and began work on Doctor Who. I had only done one other television programme before that called Time On Our Hands, using beautiful abstract electronic sounds. So I was very inexperienced, but making something from nothing was my secret."


Delia Derbyshire was involved with Doctor Who almost from the very start.

"Verity Lambert, the first producer, had just come over from ITV. She struck me as very high powered even then. She and the initial director Waris Hussein came to see Desmond Briscoe, the Organiser of the Workshop at that time and my boss. They said 'We've got a pilot of four episodes for a programme called Doctor Who, can you do some music?' The boss suggested Ron Grainer should compose the score. The title sequence was done first, so Ron had a chance to see it before he created his score. He watched the opening graphics and did all of the timing with a stop watch. It was when Verity and Waris brought in the title graphics to show us that I met Ron for the first time. He was a lovely Australian. What a talent!"

How were the sounds physically created for the Doctor Who signature tune?

"On that occasion I worked with Dick Mills. The Doctor Who music was quite a project. First of all it was a matter of translating notes on the page into cycles per second. Then translating the duration of notes into inches of tape at fifteen inches per second. We had to work out how on earth we could do the sounds. The swoops, the rising notes of the tune, were difficult. We used some old valve oscillators to generate the initial sound. I was dead into using as much electronic sound as possible. The boss was on record as saying that it was impossible to make a beautiful sound electronically and it was my pleasure to prove him wrong. I'm sure that Ron expected that oscillator sound. The swoops were done and recorded at half speed. There was a lot of tedious work involved, but not one thing was done in real time. One didn't know where one was going, so it was a great journey of discovery.

"At that time there weren't two machines that ran at exactly the same speed, so synchronising soundtracks became very complicated. Our main recording machines were the BTR2 and the TR90, both of which ran at fifteen inches per second. There were two other machines the Ferrograph and the Reflectograph. Both of these machines ran at seven point five inches per second: half normal speed. It was very hit and miss, in fact it was a nightmare! That's why I'm so fond of the original version of the Doctor Who title music, because of the way it's never quite in synch. It's almost as though there's one dimension of time dragging against another. The bassline works like two notes together. The sounds that accompany the 'time clouds' in the titles were white noise, generated in part by the Wobbulator. That was a wonderful piece of test equipment, we often used it to treat sounds and it worked so well on Doctor Who."

The original Doctor Who theme music was created using a highly innovative technique. I asked Derbyshire if she realised, at that time, that she was creating something revolutionary?

"Oh yeah! We had to wait until the final mix to hear it but - Oh golly! - I just remembered being so delighted when it all came together. Because it was generated by making short sounds on tiny bits of tape we didn't even know if it would work. When I had done the various bits I had a feel for how it would sound, but we didn't expect it to sounds so good. I was thrilled to bits when we did the first mix. I wanted to tell everyone! In those days people were so cynical about electronic music and so Doctor Who was my private delight. It proved them all wrong. It's not the fact that it was done well that's important, it's the fact that it was done at all. But it was Ron's genius that made the tune a success.

"After that first mix we had Verity and Ron over. We played it to them and Ron just stood there and chuckled! He was so pleased. He said, 'I can't believe you've been able to do this! I want you to have half of my royalties.' Unfortunately that wasn't allowed. Ron had intended to book a band to go behind what I'd done. But he was so delighted with what we'd created that he insisted on leaving it intact. Verity liked the music but wasn't sure that it sounded right so she had us add on an extra line. In fact we had many requests for changes to the music from the various producers of the programme, so we cut it up and added a bit of glitter. Oh, it was mutilated! I did some of that, adding another two bars and sounds and so on. I hated doing it.

"I remember an orchestral version came out very soon after the show began, I think it was done by Eric Winston and his Orchestra. He had someone at the back of the orchestra with an oscillator doing the swoops in real time. It sounded like some inane creature wobbling the oscillator, desperately trying to sound musical. I remember hte disc-jockey David Jacobs picked it as his record of the month. I was disgusted!


"Doctor Who seems to be my only label. I remember being in a flat in summertime, with the sounds of the Doctor Who swoops drifting through the open windows. That was lovely. It thrilled me to bits. God bless [[Ron Grainer]]. I was devastated when I heard of his death. He created so many scores like Steptoe and Son, Man in a Suitcase, The Prisoner and heaps of others including film scores. He was so talented. It was almost disastrous when he began to lose his sight. He was quite an ill man. It was cancer that took him in the end. He worked very hard, I miss him."

Realising how fondly she remembered Ron Grainer I asked her of she felt that subsequent versions of Ron's score had been true to his intentions.

"Peter Howell is brilliant! I know Brian Hodgson felt that Peter's version was superb. I think Peter is very talented, his is more accurate to Ron's score than mine. The original is lovely, but Peter brought something new into Ron's work. I was really upset about the more recent versions. I hated them! They just didn't follow the tune. I think Ron would have been disgusted with them."

How did some of Derbyshire's music concrete come to be used as stock music on the Pertwee story Inferno?

"News to me! I was still at the Workshop then. I'm sure nobody told me that it was being used. It often happens that my music is used without my knowledge. I heard some of my music on the radio last year but I didn't get a credit. Sometimes when people use my music they change its name. For example, a few years ago I heard my music on The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I wrote to the Producer who said ‘Yeah, it's called Dreaming'. I've never done anything called that. They had picked out a piece which I wrote for a programme about the Aztec and Mayan civilisations. They put a new title on it and used it behind Peter Jones voice. Such is life!"

"Even after the success of Doctor Who was established, I still had to fight prejudice against electronic music. But I suppose that the Workshop did influence the pop world. I was visited by Paul McCartney. In fact we lent his band, Wings, some speakers because theirs weren't good enough. I remember some crazy antics with Pink Floyd. Yeah they did want to learn our secrets. But there was still a lot of resistance to my work at the BBC. I remember bounding into the canteen and saying to my boss 'This producer's just listened to my music and he's going to use it!' His reply was 'You call that stuff music?!' I think that's why I was asked to take over the Workshop quite early on, but I wanted to do the actual stuff, to be hands on. I was desperately keen on creating new sounds. I could not have stood all of the bureaucracy."

What does Delia Derbyshire think of the pioneering sound effects work of Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills in the Sixties and Seventies?

"They have a talent for making something out of nothing, using ingenuity. The magic is to get sounds that are just lifted far enough away from reality. It's not the real sound of a volcano, it's not a real spaceship, it's like our perception of those sounds but different. They had to imagine sounds and make them a reality with very little equipment. Brian used to get me in to listen to some of his Doctor Who voice treatments on things like the early Cybermen, to see if I could understand what they were saying. Oh golly, sometimes he had to go back a notch because he had taken the voices too far away from reality. If ever I wanted a big dramatic sound he would lend it to me. They are a good pair, they work so well together. The Workshop wouldn't exist without them!"

Many people in the music industry have called Delia Derbyshire a unique talent. I wondered how she felt about this label.

"I'm not! I have certain way of analysing sound in my mind and creating a specific sound from scratch, which is unusual. I've never wanted to be on the inside of the music world, I've always wanted to be on the fringe. What I hate is the way it went eventually, just pressing a button to generate a sound. Voltage control synthesisers were the great new flavour of the age in the early Seventies. It was being used more like a glorified electric organ. I don't like the idea of replacing a musician with presets."

It is obvious that her music means everything to Delia Derbyshire. I asked her to explain why she had left the BBC after only ten years into her career as a composer.

"I ended up working during the night. I was fed up with the petty bureaucracy at the BBC during the daytime. I remember one occasion when they interrupted my work just to query a sixpence claim for a bus journey! But the main reason for working at night was that I could plug equipment through from all of the rooms in the Workshop into my room. I would always have to beg for equipment during the day. But at night I could just do it all myself. It was a very great physical strain. I couldn't see myself going on working all night, every night for the rest of my career. I gave my whole life to my music. The Workshop was a creative treadmill. I was trying to do an original sound for every programme. The only way to survive was to have a library of sounds. But I wanted at least one brilliant creative idea for each programme. That's why I worked for so long at night. I was a strange person as far as the night porters were concerned. I finally left the Workshop in 1973. I regard life as a joke, a game, so I don't have any bitterness. I made my own choices.

"The Doctor Who music was the only time in my whole career that I realised someone else's score for television. Thereafter I did my own scores for hundreds of television and radio programmes. I loved creating the score for the TV programme The Long Polar Walk, I had to get the feeling of trudging through snow. I worked all night on that one, until the cleaners came in. I remember using one of them as a guinea-pig on that track. I asked her how my music made her feel and she said, 'Oh really shivery!' I knew I'd succeeded. I created the music for a TV series called Great Zoos of the World. The producer called the boss and said, 'I want some music made from animal noises.' The boss replied 'That's impossible! But if it's impossible, Delia can do it!' i sorted a tape of twenty-four animal noises into rhythmic ones and tuneful ones and they put it all together. I was very proud of that. The most successful TV title music that I've composed is probably Chronicle."

Finally, I wondered if Derbyshire is pleased that she contributed towards Doctor Who's longevity?

"Yes! I'm delighted that Doctor Who is still so incredibly popular. Now that Ron has gone, I feel that Doctor Who is my baby and I have single-parent responsibility for it. If the programme were reborn, I would dearly like to be its midwife."


  1. Special Sound, note 42 on p.228