As It Happens

Doctor Who theme's co-creator Delia Derbyshire awarded posthumous PhD

Delia Derbyshire was a pioneer of electronic music and created the iconic sci-fi sounds in the Doctor Who theme song, but her achievements are only now coming to light.
Delia Derbyshire was a pioneer of electronic music in the 1960s, but her accomplishments went relatively unrecognized. She's pictured here at a party in 1986. (Submitted by Clive Blackburn)

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Doctor Who fans will likely know her name, but to many, Delia Derbyshire's musical talents went unrecognized for decades.

The electronic music pioneer, best known for creating the unique sounds in the BBC program's theme song, received an honorary doctorate from Coventry University this week in honour of her work.

Mark Ayres, Derbyshire's friend and colleague, accepted the award on her behalf. He told As It Happens host Carol Off that the recognition has been a "long time coming."

Mark Ayres, left, and Clive Blackburn, Delia Derbyshire's partner, accepted her honorary doctorate at Coventry University. (Mike Sewell)

"Delia has been an inspiration to me all my life and to many people in the U.K. who are interested in electronic music," he said. "We grew up listening to her work — and the work of her colleagues at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop."

Uncredited work

It was at the Workshop that Derbyshire got her start in audio engineering. There, she created music and sound effects for BBC programs. Among them: the theme for Doctor Who written by Ron Grainer. She added the sci-fi sound effects to Grainer's score.

Because of BBC rules at the time, however, she wasn't credited for her contribution to the music. Grainer still remains the only writer.

"She was a BBC employee, so she was employed to do this work and that's the way it was," Ayres said. "It's only really with the benefit of hindsight I think that we can see how groundbreaking it was; how special it was."

Pioneering sound

It was Derbyshire's ability to create electronic sounds before digital musical instruments became common that was groundbreaking.

"There were no synthesizers back then," Ayres said. "This was, in a way, before anyone thought of them; they came in a few years later."

She created electronic music by collecting sounds around her. The technique, known as musique concrete, was often used in the Radiophonic Workshop.

"They would find sounds from strictly non-musical sources," Ayres said. "So the bass line of the Doctor Who theme … is a recording of a single plucked string on a piece of tape. They then played the tape back at various speeds to get the different pitches. Those were recorded on another machine."

'I love these sounds'

Even though she received little official credit for her work, others interested in electronic music followed her career closely.

"I remember hearing [her] name when I was 10 or 11 years old and thinking, 'Who is this lady? What does she do? I love these sounds,'" Ayres said.

Outside of her work at the broadcaster, Derbyshire lead electronic music bands Unit Delta Plus (with Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff) and White Noise (also with Hodgson and David Vorhaus).

White Noise released the album Electric Storm in 1969. "[It was] one of the weirdest things you'll ever hear," Ayres said.

According to The Guardian, Derbyshire eventually became disillusioned from the lack of recognition female audio engineers received. Before BBC, she had applied to a job at Decca Records, but was turned down as they refused to hire women engineers.

Composer and sound engineer Brian Hodgson uses the film viewing machine, right, at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1969. On the left, Composer Malcolm Clarke and sound engineer Dick Mills, centre, are discussing film footage. (Chris Ware/Getty Images)

Doctor Delia

The next season of Doctor Who will premiere in late 2018 and with it, the first female Doctor: Jodie Whittaker.

"I think she'd love it,' said Ayres. "I think she'd think, 'Thank heavens, we've all come a long way at long last.' Unfortunately, in some ways we haven't, but I think the Doctor becoming a woman is a fantastic idea and she would have heartily approved."

Ayres thinks it's fitting that Derbyshire would receive the recognition for her work on the program now.

"Doctor Who is now a woman and Delia is now Doctor Delia. … It's been 17 years nearly since she died," Ayres said. "That's something we've been very keen to promote: her legacy."

That legacy lives on at the University of Manchester, where an archive of her work is being researched.

"It's great, at long last, it's getting the recognition I think it so justly deserves."

Brian Hodgson tunes the audio generators at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop. The workshop provided incidental music and special sounds for radio and television programmes. (Chris Ware/Getty Images)