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Lost tapes of Dr Who composer reveal hidden treasures

18 Jul 2008

The secrets of a long-forgotten collection of recordings, correspondence and scores by the influential composer who created the original Doctor Who theme have been revealed to researchers at The University of Manchester.

Delia Derbyshire with permission from the BBC
Delia Derbyshire with permission from the BBC

A team from the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures has begun the long job of cataloguing and preserving fragile audio tapes made by Delia Derbyshire from 1962-1973, when she was based at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Following Derbyshire’s death in 2001, the collection was entrusted to the composer and Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres, who donated the 267 tapes - most of which have been unheard for over thirty years - to the University’s Dr David Butler to catalogue and preserve.

Among the jewels found in the collection is one of the earliest electronic “dance music” compositions, written by Delia for radio twenty years before the style was made fashionable by bands such as Orbital and 808 State.

Rare recordings feature Shakespearian actor Nicol Williamson’s 1969 performance in Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse Theatre, with Derbyshire providing haunting sound effects.

Other finds include a revealing recording of the way she created her celebrated piece ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’ using electronic manipulation to transform the sounds of her own voice.

Dr Butler said: “Many of the tapes have no labels so it’s a case of using detective work to find out what they are – we can’t even be certain Delia composed all of the music.

“But it’s already proved to be an Aladdin’s cave and we’ve just started to scratch the surface.

“The collection includes her freelance work and really does give us a better sense of her range as a composer.

“It’s fitting that we’re doing this almost exactly 50 years after the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was launched in 1958.”

He added: “Delia Derbyshire never really received the recognition she deserved as one of our most influential composers of the past 30 or so years.

“And though brilliant, the Doctor Who theme is just one small example of her genius which was held in high esteem by figures across music, television, theatre and film, including Paul McCartney and the DJ John Peel.

“But her association with ‘functional’ music for television and radio resulted in her contribution to the development of electronic music in Britain often going unacknowledged.”

Delia used a combination of musique concrète techniques, tape manipulation and electronic gadgetry to create her sounds including the magnificently-named wobbulator.

But her favourite instrument was a green lampshade which she would strike and then transform the resulting sounds to create the desired effect.

”The tragedy is after leaving the BBC in 1973, she withdrew from composition until 1996”, Dr Ricardo Climent from the University’s Novars Research Centre said.

“That can be attributed to her struggle for acceptance but also the rise of the synthesizer in electronic music - she wasn’t comfortable with that as she felt the off the peg sounds removed the creativity of her compositional techniques. But at long last her pioneering sounds can be heard again.”

Notes for editors

The tapes were played on a Studer A80 machine (used in the 1960s) which has been lent to the University by BBC Oxford Road studios.

The transferral of the tapes into digital format was carried out by Assistant Professor of Musicology Louis Niebur, who visited Manchester from Nevada University, in tandem with David Butler.

Dr David Butler, Ricardo Climent and David Berezan as well as Mark Ayres are available for comment.

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567
michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk