Whatever Happened to Delia Derbyshire? Delia Derbyshire, Visual Art, and the Myth of her Post-BBC Activity

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Abstract

The composer and musician Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001) joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and by the end of the decade had made a major contribution to the British public’s awareness and understanding of electronic music. Much of that awareness was generated by Derbyshire’s celebrated realisation, in 1963, of the original theme tune from Doctor Who. Over the next ten years, Derbyshire’s creative activity as both a BBC employee and a freelance artist would see her providing music and ‘special sound’ for television, radio, film, theatre, and live events such as the first edition of the Brighton Festival in 1967. By 1973, however, Derbyshire had left the BBC, citing the fact that she was “fed up” with how her work was being treated by the Corporation because it was “too sophisticated” and that the BBC was “increasingly being run by committees and accountants”. For many years, the standard account of Derbyshire’s life has been that, following her departure from the BBC in 1973, she withdrew from creative activity until the final few years of her life when she began to collaborate with Peter Kember (Sonic Boom). These accounts have sometimes veered into sensationalist cliché—a 2008 article in The Times characterised Derbyshire as a tragic and self-destructive artist who abandoned music for “a series of unsuitable jobs” and became a “hopeless alcoholic”. Recent discoveries and donations to the Delia Derbyshire Archive, however, have pointed to a more complex understanding of Derbyshire’s activity after she left the BBC. Far from withdrawing completely from music, Derbyshire would collaborate on a number of short ‘art’ films in the mid- to late 1970s. This paper draws on this archival material to provide a clearer and more detailed account of Derbyshire’s work in the 1970s, including an unreleased recording from an unfinished project in 1980. Without denying the complications that Derbyshire encountered during this often difficult phase of her life, the article demonstrates that Derbyshire remained creatively engaged and also active as an artist far longer than has often been reported or assumed. In particular, Derbyshire’s creative activity during these years saw her working with visual artists, most prominently Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield. In doing so, Derbyshire furthered her long-standing interest in the relationship between electronic music and the visual arts. The article thus provides not only a revisionist account of Derbyshire’s post-BBC activity but also enhances our understanding of the inter-relationship between electronic sound, music, and the visual arts in Britain as well as the nature and extent of Derbyshire’s influence.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Art Studies
Issue number12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2019

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