Delia Derbyshire is probably the most influential and pioneering British figures in early electronic music that you’ve never heard of. As part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop she created electronic music and sound for about 200 BBC TV and radio programmes. In 1963, without access to even the most basic electronic synthesizer, she painstakingly pieced together the original arrangement of Doctor Who theme tune having to fabricate every single note, using the most basic equipment, bespoke.
But her career was frustrated by misogyny and her own impossibly high standards. In 1975 she stopped producing music. Her latter years were complicated by alcoholism. She died of renal failure in 2001.
“Hymns for Robots”, by Noctium Theatre company, is a long overdue attempt to unearth this amazing artist’s achievements. Fresh from a critically-acclaimed run at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival the Shoebox Theatre host a two-night run of the play. And its a hypnotic, yet deliberately jarring, sensory experience.
We venture back-and-forth though Derbyshire’s life and career to the accompaniment of the alien buzz, swoon and whine of electronica being generated, live, on stage. The set in a heap of antiquated technology wrapped in waxy audio tape. Around the stage are a series of smudged wine glasses.
Jessie Coller, playing Derbyshire, is like a ghost in monochrome dress and make-up. Her clipped post-war elocution presents a neat plug to a powder keg of frustrated creative energy. Her performance is a hypnotic tightrope act of movement balanced on the back of the alien soundscape.
Charles Craggs, playing Derbyshire confident Brian Hodgson as well as generating most of the live sound, is the play’s one-man chorus. His interjections add colour to the difficulties of dealing with Derbyshire’s suffocating perfectionism. A ghost haunting a ghost, his voice often suffuse with regret.
The performance manages to be oddly alienating yet compelling. Delia Derbyshire’s strange, sad and oddly satisfying tale flashes by all too quickly and ends with a compendium of footage of the woman herself expounding on her work.
I saw the real Delia Derbyshire on stage, in the late 90’s, being interviewed at a Doctor Who convention. It was mid-morning and she was visibly intoxicated. Halfway through the panel she broke down into tears while talking about Ron Grainer’s generosity in trying, and failing, to get her equal credit for composing the Doctor Who theme tune.
At the time it felt awkward. In retrospect, especially having seen this play, a feeling of tragedy is the overwhelming emotion.