It has been one of the nation’s most recognisable pieces of music for more than half a century but the theme from Dr Who has its roots in the streets of Preston, explains Jennifer Smith
It’s one of the most instantly recognisable television theme tunes of generations, the one that transports you in your own Tardis to a world of science fiction.
But it’s a little known fact that Dr Who’s original electronic score, recorded in 1963, was inspired by the clip-clop sounds of Preston’s mill workers, walking to work on the city’s cobbles in their clogs.
The eerie masterpiece, which had children quivering behind their parents before even a glimpse of a Dalek or Cyberman, was the creation of one woman who many call the unsung heroine of British electronic music,
Delia was born in Coventry in 1937, just two years before the start of the Second World War. Despite the government’s advice at the time, Delia stayed in Coventry with her parents, even seeing through the famous ‘Coventry Blitz.’
In a rare interview in 2001, Delia credited the war sounds as inspiration for her work: “I was there in the blitz and it’s come to me, relatively recently, that my love for
abstract sounds came from the air-raid sirens: that’s a sound you hear and you don’t know the source of as a young child, then the sound of the ‘all clear’ – that was electronic music.”
After the horrors of the Coventry Blitz, Delia was evacuated to Preston, where her parents originated.
She lived in Preston for the remainder of the war, and it was the sounds she experienced there that inspired her future musical creations. “It’s only today that I’ve realised that the sound of clogs on cobbles must have been such a big influence on me – that percussive sound of all the mill workers going to work at six o’clock in the morning.”
Delia was a very bright child. By the time she was four, she was teaching other children to read.
She had a real flair for maths and even went on to gain a scholarship at the University of Cambridge to study Mathematics and Music – a rarity for a working class
female in the 1950s. It was this marriage of congruent talents which led her to become an innovator of electronic music.
But Delia’s success was a battle to achieve, the rife misogynistic attitudes of industry professionals saw her talents rejected.
After graduating from Cambridge, and determined to pursue a musical career, she applied for a job at Decca Records, only to be told “the studio was no place for a woman.”
Undeterred, and armed with a mind full of creativity, Delia went on to gain a trainee studio manager post at the BBC in London.
Two years later she applied successfully for an attachment to the Radiophonic Workshop, where they created sound effects and music for radio and TV shows. Speaking to in 2005, Clive Blackburn, Delia’s partner of 21 years, explained: “Suddenly, everything she had ever wanted and dreamed of was here. She had found her heaven.”
Delia revelled in the opportunity to create inspired music daily and hang out with like-minded musicians. She wrote for more than 200 programmes and produced a redoubtable volume of work.
But it is the futuristic Dr Who tune which stands out as her most recognised creation, and maybe her most painstaking, too.
When Ron Grainer wrote the melody, he supplied Delia with only abstract direction. Delia recalled just how abstract: “On the score he’d written ‘sweeps’, ‘swoops’... beautiful words... ‘wind cloud’, ‘wind bubble’... so I got to work and put it together and when Ron heard the results... oh he was tickled pink!”
At a time when there was no such things as synthesizers, every single note was individually created using musical instruments, oscillators never designed for musical application, filtered white noise and a test-tone generator affectionately named The Wobbulator.
All these individual notes then had to be combined in a painstakingly long process as there was no multi-track technology, as Delia explained: “We created three separate tapes, put them on to three machines and stood next to them and said ‘Ready, steady, go!’ and pushed all the start buttons at once. It seemed to work.”
The authentic tune was one of the very first TV themes to be entirely composed of electronic sounds, crediting the much loved series with its innate eeriness.
When Ron Grainer first heard the result of Delia’s work, he was so shocked he asked her in wonder: “Did I really write this?” to which she sarcastically replied, “Most of it.” They both knew it was Delia’s talents that were to be attributed for the tune’s success.
Grainer even tried to get her a co-composer credit, but the BBC refused because they preferred to keep their workshop staff
anonymous and uncredited. Delia formed a notable reputation as an innovator in sound among her peers, colleagues, and icons – with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney requesting her collaboration.
In an interview with Q Magazine in 2013, McCartney revealed how he once asked Delia to remake one of the most covered songs in music’s history,‘Yesterday.’
“I even found where Miss Derbyshire lived, and went round to visit her.
“We even went into the hut in the bottom of her garden. It was full of tape machines and funny instruments. My plan in meeting her was to do an electronic backing for my song Yesterday.
“We’d already recorded it with a string quartet, but I wanted to give the arrangement electronic backing… The Radiophonic Workshop, I loved all that, it fascinated me, and it still does.”
Despite her renown within the profession, Delia remained largely unknown to the public.
Her partner, Clive Blackburn, said: “She was badly treated by the BBC. Her name was never recognised on recordings of her works and she never received a penny in royalties for Dr Who.”
Her frustration prompted an alcohol fuelled lifestyle and disillusionment with the industry, eventually causing her to leave her job and life in London and move for a life in Cumbria, working as a radio operator.
In 1980 she met her partner, Clive; they would remain together for the next 21 years of her life.
Clive explained how she continued to live dependant on alcohol, and at the age of just 63 she died of renal failure. Clive said: “From the day she walked away from composing until she died she never published another piece of work.
“But in private, she never stopped writing music either. She simply refused to compromise her integrity in any way. And ultimately, she couldn’t cope. She just burnt herself out. An obsessive need for perfection destroyed her.”
Delia was not credited on-screen for her Dr Who musical creation until Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special – 12 years after her death.
And since her passing she has been widely acknowledged as a pioneer in electronic music, inspiring the likes of chart toppers the Chemical Brothers and Portishead.
And while her recognition wasn’t realised during her lifetime, the continuum of electronic music and her influence still remain – something she hoped and believed years previous.
Her friend and colleague Brian Hodgson remembered in the obituary he wrote for her in 2001, recalling a night in the 1960s when she said: “What we are doing now is not important for itself, but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forward and create something wonderful on these foundations.”
Last year a blue plaque was unveiled at her childhood home in Coventry as part of BBC Music Day.
It was one of just 47 of the plaques placed to celebrate iconic musicians and venues across the UK and was unveiled alongside the likes of David Bowie, broadcaster John Peel, and the Marine Hall, in Fleetwood, where tenor Alfie Boe gave his first public performance in 1987.
The Delia Derbyshire archive was donated to the University of Manchester in 2007. The archive contains hundreds of audio tapes, working notes, letters, and her childhood school notebooks and drawings.
The archive is housed at John Rylands Library and is open to the public.