Delia Derbyshire, Dr Who and Allan

Way back in the ’60’s Doctor Who arrived on the tele for the first time and for those of us who have struggled through the ABC’s reprise, you sometimes have to wonder what the fuss was about.

But fuss there was. From the moment the titles rolled you knew that this was different. The title music was composed by Ron Grainer BUT it was executed by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This was music from the future and it sounded like it. This was probably the first time that a lot of us had heard electronic music. Remind me to tell you about Kerry (an old friend) and I doing battle with a EMS VCS3 sometime. Thankfully there is no record of the bleeps and burps… anywhere (but I digress).

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, England, in 1937. Educated at Coventry Grammar School and Girton College, Cambridge, where she was awarded a degree in mathematics and music.

In 1959, on approaching Decca records, Delia was told that the company DID NOT employ women in their recording studios, so she went to work for the UN in Geneva before returning to London to work for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.

In 1960 Delia joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager. She excelled in this field, but when it became apparent that the fledgling Radiophonic Workshop was under the same operational umbrella, she asked for an attachment there – an unheard of request, but one which was, nonetheless,granted. Delia remained ‘temporarily attached’ for years, regularly deputising for the Head, and influencing many of her trainee colleagues.

To begin with Delia thought she had found her own private paradise where she could combine her interests in the theory and perception of sound; modes and tunings, and the communication of moods using purely electronic sources. Within a matter of months she had created her recording of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme, one of the most famous and instantly recognisable TV themes ever. On first hearing it Grainer was tickled pink: “Did I really write this?” he asked. “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire.

DD Workshop
Thus began what is still referred to as the Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop. Initially set up as a service department for Radio Drama, it had always been run by someone with a drama background. Derbyshire was the first person there with any higher music qualifications, but as she wasn’t supposed to be doing music, much of her early work remained anonymous under the umbrella credit ‘special sound by BBC Radiophonic Workshop’.

Before long the Workshop’s TV output had overtaken work produced specifically for radio broadcast. Derbyshire was called upon to do music for drama and documentary programmes set in the distant past, the unseen future or deep in the human psyche – in fact any area where an orchestra would be out of place. Science, arts and educational programmes also benefited from her abstract style. Her work with Barry Bermange on the four Inventions for Radio (clip here)is perhaps the best illustration of Delia’s intuitive way with soundscaping.

While the theme went on to become one of the most recognised in TV history, Delia Derbyshire, who created the eerie futuristic soundtrack, is virtually unknown. Yet she was one of the pioneers of electronic music in Britain. Among Derbyshire’s many credits is the music for a film by Yoko Ono. She also worked with Brian Jones, shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix, even discussed collaborating with Paul McCartney.

Her many achievements have not been entirely forgotten among those working in her field today, and Orbital, Portishead and the Chemical Brothers are among many bands who have been inspired by the pioneering musician.

You can find out more about here at and they have posted some of her works.

And to finish off here is Allan Underhill’s version of the Doctor Who theme. It’s more “lounge” than groundbreaking… but cool, very cool.


1 comment

  1. – I’m humbled to have my ‘unusual’ version of Dr who placed on this site – thanks thatch,and also for the fascinating (but relatively unknown) history of the original theme creator,delia – she did well !!

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