FILM REVIEW: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Caroline Catz

This potentially fascinating docudrama about one of Britain’s most experimental composers begins well as Delia Derbyshire leaves Cambridge’s Girton College to join the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, but it get bogs down when it comes to her love affairs. Unfortunately, the unique sounds that Derbyshire made are too often relegated to the back seat.

Derbyshire is best known for the Dr Who theme tune, made in collaboration with Ron Grainer who provided a skeleton of the melody. Even now, her name is missing from the show’s credits. Her original version was one of the first electronic sounds to be heard on TV, and later collaborations with other musicians mean that she is often cited as a major influence on the electronic scene of the 1980s and 90s.

But when she first joined the Radiophonic Workshop, used by the BBC for making sound effects as well as incidental music for futuristic cartoons, ‘music’ was a banned word among the few quirky employees. ‘Don’t mention the M word’ she is told on her first day. While other countries such as Germany proclaimed these kinds of artists as avant-garde heroes, Derbyshire and her colleagues were seen as oddballs and their department was grossly underfunded.

Director Caroline Catz, who also plays Derbyshire in these reimagined scenes, mirrors the experimental work that the Workshop carried out and the makeshift methods that the employers used by casting a layer of theatricality into her film. The Workshop, resembling a recording studio, is shown clearly to be part of a film set where actors double up on roles. Catz makes do in the same way that the Workshop made do with its limited budget.

In these early scenes where we see Derbyshire working on her sounds, and where the history of this kind of music is traced right back to Francis Bacon (the philosopher rather than the artist) the story is gripping. The 1960s’ vision of a work-free future is both comical and frightening.

But the film gets caught up in her collaborations with David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson, and the album they made at the Kaleidophon Studios under the name White Noise. As Derbyshire appears to get involved with drugs, alcohol and snuff, the film loses focus. This may be to underline her own loss of focus, as she falls behind in her work, but the film settles too long in this period and the rest of her life is rattled off too quickly at the end.

Interviews with various of her collaborators pepper this 100-minute film along with endless images of Catz riding a bicycle in front of a projected film as if she is Nerys Hughes in the BBC’s District Nurse of the 1980s. In the same studio where Derbyshire’s life is being recast, we see performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti working with Derbyshire’s tapes and creating a soundtrack for the film. Cosey Fanni Tutti remarks that their lives are very similar, but without further information about her life, it’s hard for the audience to see this connection.

Derbyshire explains that her inspiration is the sound of the air raid sirens of the Second World War, and it’s easy to hear this influence in the Dr Who theme, which has become her most famous legacy. It was the sound of the future. But as this film, and its staging makes clear, this future was very much of it times.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October


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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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