Still from Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes, 2020.
Most people don’t realize how crucial sound is to science fiction. TV shows and films about alternate dimensions or alien planets are only convincing when paired with sounds that also seem otherworldly. In 1958, the BBC launched its Radiophonic Workshop, a recording studio in West London stocked with music equipment that could generate the futuristic audio they needed. For most of the ’60s, the Workshop’s star engineer was a working-class girl with a Cambridge math degree who was obsessed with crafting sounds that had never been heard. Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, an experimental docudrama by first-time director Caroline Catz, offers a sensuous look at the inner life of this pioneering figure, whose mythology is fueled by the fact that she died of alcoholism, alone, and in relative obscurity.
Derbyshire, who is best known for realizing Ron Grainer’s score for the Doctor Who theme song, is revered by electronic music buffs for the bewitching melodies and soundscapes she coaxed out of her rudimentary machines. Her soundtracks and musical themes, ranging from satanic goblin chants to collage-based sound poetry and percussive proto-techno, have since been collected on a handful of highly coveted, out-of-print compilations. Until Catz’s film, however, she’s never received a treatment with such widespread appeal.
The film is an ambitious, interdisciplinary undertaking. There are the archival footage and talking-head interviews, offering a sense of who Derbyshire was and what drove her to pursue such an esoteric path. There’s the dramatic reenactment in which Catz herself plays the protagonist, relating the ups and downs of Derbyshire’s personal and professional life in a style that blends biopic and black-box theater. And then there are the psychedelic vignettes that recreate her improvisational studio sessions, with cosmic ’60s set design driving home the vision of Derbyshire as sonic alchemist. These reenactments are sound-tracked by Cosey Fanni Tutti from the legendary industrial band Throbbing Gristle, who makes cameos in the film alongside Derbyshire’s character in a kind of intergenerational jam session.
While the dramatic reenactment works as an accessory at first, the seams start to show toward the end of the film in the rushed storytelling and supporting characters who lack depth. Catz, meanwhile, delivers a charismatic performance in her role as Derbyshire, which creates some cognitive dissonance because, as we see in the archival footage, Derbyshire herself was not particularly charismatic.
The strength of the film is in its refreshing take on the old trope of the artist before her time. It’s remarkable, for instance, how often Derbyshire’s boundless imagination is hindered by the technical limitations of her clunky, primitive machines. These obstacles, when insurmountable, would send her into depressive benders that often ended with her destroying her tapes. But Derbyshire also hacked her machines to find clever workarounds that pushed the field forward.
Generally, the film is reflexive. It cheekily acknowledges the clichés that now comprise Derbyshire’s myth and legend. In the final scene, her disembodied voice reads out and fact-checks a posthumous profile in the Times, laughing at how tragic her life is made to seem. (“Hopeless alcoholic?” she jokes. “Actually, I was rather a successful alcoholic.”) In laying bare the process by which myths are made, the film asks us to consider why we find certain narratives so appealing, particularly those in which a woman’s vast accomplishments are shrouded by tragedy.