The Fascinating Story of How Delia Derbyshire Created the Original Doctor Who Theme

We’ve focused a fair bit here on the work of Delia Der­byshire, pio­neer­ing elec­tron­ic com­pos­er of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry—fea­tur­ing two doc­u­men­taries on her and dis­cussing her role in almost cre­at­ing an elec­tron­ic back­ing track for Paul McCartney’s “Yes­ter­day.” There’s good rea­son to devote so much atten­tion to her: Derbyshire’s work with the BBC’s Radio­phon­ic Work­shop laid the bedrock for a good deal of the sound design we hear on TV and radio today.

And, as we point­ed out pre­vi­ous­ly, her elec­tron­ic music, record­ed under her own name and with the band White Noise, influ­enced “most every cur­rent leg­end in the business—from Aphex Twin and the Chem­i­cal Broth­ers to Paul Hart­noll of Orbital.” Along with doc­u­men­taries and high praise in the music press, the late Der­byshire now has her own Exhi­bi­tion at the Coven­try Music Muse­um, as of Decem­ber 6 of last year.

Yet for all her influ­ence among dance music com­posers and sound effects wiz­ards, Der­byshire and her music remain pret­ty obscure—that is except for one com­po­si­tion, instant­ly rec­og­niz­able as the orig­i­nal theme to the BBC’s sci-fit hit Doc­tor Who (hear it at the top), “the best-known work of a rag­tag group of tech­ni­cians,” writes The Atlantic, “who unwit­ting­ly helped shape the course of 20th-cen­tu­ry music.” Writ­ten by com­pos­er Ron Granier, the song was actu­al­ly brought into being by the Radio­phon­ic Work­shop, and by Der­byshire espe­cial­ly. The sto­ry of the Doc­tor Who theme’s cre­ation is almost as inter­est­ing as the tune itself, with its “swoop­ing, hiss­ing and puls­ing” that “man­ages to be at once haunt­ing, goofy and ethe­re­al.” Just above, you can see Der­byshire and her assis­tant Dick Mills tell it in brief.

What we learn from them is fas­ci­nat­ing, con­sid­er­ing that com­po­si­tions like this are now cre­at­ed in pow­er­ful com­put­er sys­tems with dozens of sep­a­rate tracks and dig­i­tal effects. The Doc­tor Who theme, on the oth­er hand, record­ed in 1963, was made even before basic ana­log syn­the­siz­ers came into use. “There are no musi­cians,” says Mills, “there are no syn­the­siz­ers, and in those days, we didn’t even have a 2‑track or a stereo machine, it was always mono.” (Despite pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tions, the theme does not fea­ture a Theremin.) Der­byshire con­firms; each and every part of the song “was con­struct­ed on quar­ter-inch mono tape,” she says, “inch by inch by inch,” using such record­ing tech­niques as “fil­tered white noise” and some­thing called a “wob­bu­la­tor.” How were all of these painstak­ing­ly con­struct­ed indi­vid­ual parts com­bined with­out mul­ti track tech­nol­o­gy? “We cre­at­ed three sep­a­rate tapes,” Der­byshire explains, “put them onto three machines and stood next to them and said “Ready, steady, go!” and pushed all the ‘start’ but­tons at once. It seemed to work.”

The theme came about when Grain­er received a com­mis­sion from the BBC after his well-received work on oth­er series. He “com­posed the theme on a sin­gle sheet of A4 man­u­script,” writes Mark Ayres in an exten­sive online his­to­ry, “and sent it over from his home in Por­tu­gal, leav­ing the Work­shop to get on with it.” Aware that the musique con­crète tech­niques Der­byshire and her team used “were very time-con­sum­ing, Grain­er pro­vid­ed a very sim­ple com­po­si­tion, in essence just the famous bass line and a swoop­ing melody,” as well as vague­ly evoca­tive instruc­tions for orches­tra­tion like “wind bub­ble” and “cloud.” Ayres writes, “To an inven­tive radio­phon­ic com­pos­er such as Delia Der­byshire, this was a gift.” Indeed “upon hear­ing it,” The Atlantic notes, “a very impressed Grain­er bare­ly rec­og­nized it as his com­po­si­tion. Due to BBC poli­cies at the time, Granier—against his objections—is still offi­cial­ly cred­it­ed as the sole writer.” But the cred­it for this futur­is­tic work—which sounds absolute­ly like noth­ing else of the time and “which brought to a wide audi­ence meth­ods once exclu­sive to the high mod­ernism of exper­i­men­tal composition”—should equal­ly go to Der­byshire and her team. You can con­trast that ahead-of-its-time orig­i­nal theme with all of the iter­a­tions to fol­low in the video just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

Two Doc­u­men­taries Intro­duce Delia Der­byshire, the Pio­neer in Elec­tron­ic Music

Meet Delia Der­byshire, the Dr. Who Com­pos­er Who Almost Turned The Bea­t­les’ “Yes­ter­day” Into Ear­ly Elec­tron­i­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Chris says:

    Each of us has a most favorite Doctor,I liked Rose Tyler’s Doc­tor very much, but he was the one I have watched the most.The music set the stage for each doc­tor being dif­fer­ent and it is like hav­ing a king whit a fan­fare of trum­pets only played for him and nev­er used again after he dies.
    Every woman who has had a lead­ing or sec­ondary role in the Dr. Who’s has been strong,and brave.
    The sto­ry dur­ing the Lon­don Blitz , Are you my Mum­mie, intro­duc­ing Cap­tain Jack.
    Also the Christ­mas sto­ry where we have a Nar­nia type sto­ry of going to a mag­i­cal world but tied to the Lon­don Blitz, where fam­i­lies were sent out to the coun­try to escape the bombs.The moth­er hides the fact her hus­band did one the way back from a bomb­ing run.She and her chil­dren save the for­est by her inner strength and in exchange her hus­band sees the light from the TARDIS and flies safe­ly home to her with the crew all saved.

  • M-R says:

    Oh, Don­na Noble — eas­i­ly ! Won­der­ful to have a real adult, with zero ref­er­ence to a behind-the-scenes pash going on. Or per­haps I mean a wannabe pash, eh ? :)

    And David Ten­nant remains indis­putably the great­est Doc­tor of them all …

  • Evelyn Carnate says:

    Why are these com­ments about much lat­er Doc­tor Who (made in a dif­fer­ent cen­tu­ry!) & not about Delia Der­byshire at all?

  • Skychazz says:

    The com­ments seem non-sequitur because peo­ple are watch­ing the theme com­pos­ite video embed­ded above and fol­low­ing the instruc­tions to “leave com­ments below”–without real­iz­ing that those instruc­tions are for the YouTube loca­tion and NOT Open­Cul­ture. The prop­er place for com­ments about The Doc­tor are on the orig­i­nat­ing YouTube site (from which this video is embed­ded) and not this site.

    How­ev­er, peo­ple will be peo­ple.

    I am DELIGHTED to see the won­der­ful Delia Der­byshire get­ting some recog­ni­tion here again. Unless you have actu­al­ly spent much time assem­bling ana­logue tape projects, you real­ly can’t imag­ine the INCREDIBLY hard work and cre­ativ­i­ty that went into the orig­i­nal theme. Every­thing is SOOOOOO much eas­i­er to do these days that one can’t real­ly appre­ci­ate what the elec­tron­ic artists of the past had to do to con­struct their cre­ations. It was more akin to archi­tec­ture and build­ing (or sculp­ture) than today’s “word pro­cess­ing with sound.” Delia and her ilk deserve tremen­dous recog­ni­tion for what they were able to achieve with the most basic of equip­ment. That’s *real* inge­nu­ity and cre­ativ­i­ty!

  • Rod Main says:

    “An Unearth­ly Child” — favourite episode because it was the first ever. Theres some­thing about the crotch­ety William Hart­nell Doc­tor that Peter Capal­di has picked up. Well done Peter.

    Delia Der­byshire’s them is sub­tle and haunt­ing, weird and won­der­ful. Lat­er themes have added more body, more pomp and cir­cum­stance but lost the haunt­ing feel of the orig­i­nal.

    Hard to pick a favourite doc­tor. Tom Bak­er and David Ten­nant have a sim­i­lar imp­ish style which is invari­able why they both still score high­ly. I was­n’t sold on Matt Smith’s “bumbly” style. Paul McGann nev­er got to show his true colours — I sus­pect he could have been great. Peter Capal­di is doing a great job cur­rent­ly.

    Com­pan­ions — the ones with brains in their heads and can find their own way out of trou­ble. Clara Oswold prob­a­bly did it best. Per­haps due to the scriptwrit­ers real­is­ing that damsels in dis­tress is just a con­cept that has had its day. Its so bor­ing if com­pan­ions only get into trou­ble in order for the doc­tor to res­cue them. Peter Purves was good …if a tad on the “needs res­cu­ing” scale.

    The doc­tor’s daugh­ter — cre­at­ed by a genet­ic device in David Ten­nants time. Not exact­ly a daugh­ter but hard to explain as any­thing else. And, of course, Susan — alleged­ly the doc­tors grand-daugh­ter (tak­ing us back to where I came in). So pos­si­bly two female timelords still at large some­where in space and time. Things to make you go hmm­m­m­mm

  • Scott Liddell says:

    Just fin­ished read­ing this great book which cov­ers Deila and the work­shop real­ly well.

  • snakester says:

    Daugh­ter jen­ny grand daugh­ter susan favorite doc­tor David ten­ner he was fun­ny favorite episode day of the doc­tor had all the incar­na­tion of the doc­tors Includ­ing the war doc­tor and the unknown doc­tor aka the next doc­tor

  • Gyran says:

    Doc­tor Who has been a series I’ve grown up with and while I love the new­er doc­tors for hav­ing bet­ter con­struct­ed sto­ry arcs and stronger char­ac­ters all round there is a spe­cial place in at least one of my hearts for the orig­i­nal doc­tors even if I was gen­er­al­ly too young to appre­ci­ate it at the time.

    The music of Doc­tor Who is, quite sim­ply, icon­ic and what’s inter­est­ing is that it’s one which has nev­er got­ten tired or bor­ing. Even when I’m watch­ing sev­er­al episodes one after anoth­er the theme song isn’t some­thing which gets skipped in order to get to the show itself.
    Thank you Delia Der­byshire.

  • ploktak says:

    Tom Bak­er

  • Jeremy says:

    The mod­ern incar­na­tions of the Doc­tor Who sig­na­ture tune do not com­pare with the orig­i­nal, which is mag­nif­i­cent. The orig­i­nal elec­tron­ic sound should be revived.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.