VOD film review: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes
Ivan Radford | On 16, May 2021
Director: Caroline Catz
Cast: Delia Derbyshire, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Tom Meeten
Watch Delia Derbyshire online in the UK: BBC iPlayer
Delia Derbyshire: The Myth and the Legendary Tapes will air on BBC Four on 16th May.
Where were you when you first heard the Doctor Who theme? That’s a question that fans of the show could probably answer, thanks to iconic theme tune’s haunting, thrilling otherworldly quality. Common knowledge would have it that Ron Grainer was the genius behind the alien-like refrain but that’s overlooking one creative: Delia Derbyshire. Caroline Catz’s The Myths and Legendary Tapes puts her firmly back in the frame.
Derbyshire was the person who arranged Grainer’s core of an idea into the theme tune we all know and wail today. How that was done is a thing of beauty, and Catz’s film drops us right into the experimental madness of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where technology and sound effects met melodies. Derbyshire, who studied maths at Cambridge, was in her element, almost as amazed by the way that others wouldn’t recognise their work creating tunes from sounds as music as others were by the fact that she asked for a job in the Workshop in the first place.
There are heaps of facts, trivia and insights through the documentary, which is framed around the discover of 267 tapes of Derbyshire’s work in an attic. They help to emphasise that Derbyshire was more than just the Doctor Who theme, but also a pioneer of electronic music as a genre as well the co-creator of such soundtracks as TV’s The Prophet, which featured robots creepily chanting backwards.
But rather than just a conventional documentary with talking heads, Catz’s movie takes inspiration from Derbyshire’s own creativity to create something experimental in its own right. And so we’re also treated to docudrama sequences acted out by Julian Rhind-Tutt as composer and technician Brian Hodgson and Tom Meeten as bassist and composeer David Vorhaus. It’s a joy just to spend time with the trio as they try things out to see what happens. Catz intercuts those re-enactments with a framework involving Cosey Fanni Tutti connecting with Derbyshire’s work from the present day – and the result (part collaboration, part homage) forms the soundtrack for the whole film.
The mileage for an almost wayward approach to biopic territory will vary depending on the audience, but there’s a bold ambition and inspiring purpose behind this unconventional exploration of uncharted history; while Derbyshire had a reputation for an alcohol and snuff problem, the film reclaims her legacy away from those footnotes and tries to paint a more complete portrait of her as a complex artist. That it does so with sound as well as with pictures is testament to Derbyshire’s influence, which continues to resonate today.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is available on BBC iPlayer until April 2022.
This review was originally published during the 2020 London Film Festival.