Listening to the Delia Derbyshire Archive

Janette Martin writes:

Even if you don’t immediately recognise her name you will most certainly have heard the work of Delia Derbyshire. Her most well-known achievement was the electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune for Dr Who (1963). During the 1960s and 1970s Delia worked for the Radiophonic Workshop, the avant-garde wing of the BBC’s sound effects department.  Here, in a pre-synthesiser world, she pioneered electronic music using ingenious analogue techniques including oscillators, ‘found sounds’, and even a tatty metallic lampshade which had pleasing percussive qualities. Delia’s innovative work with sound can be heard on many popular programmes in this period.  She also contributed music for theatre, film, festivals and ‘happenings’, working with high-profile figures such as Yoko Ono, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ted Hughes, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

The John Rylands Library houses the Delia Derbyshire papers and sound archive. The collection ranges from childhood ephemera such as school exercise books, drawings, and cards to adult working papers and sound recordings (sadly we don’t have the theme tune of Dr Who) as well as further donations from individuals who knew and worked with Delia, including Brian Hodgson, Madelon Hooykaas, Jo Hutton and Elisabeth Kozmian. Within the archive there are a small number of objects such as 3 gas masks which presumably belonged to Delia and her parents who left Coventry in the blitz. The experience of bombing and the Derbyshire family’s subsequent evacuation to Lancashire had a profound influence on the music she would compose in later life.

The sound archive includes approximately 267 tape recordings, mainly dating from the 1960s and 1970s, along with papers which document her composition practices. The tapes have been digitised by Dr Louis Niebur (author of Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) from the University of Nevada, Reno and Dr David Butler, from The University of Manchester’s School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. The recordings relate primarily to Derbyshire’s freelance work but some BBC productions are represented amongst the tapes. Projects featured prominently in the tape collection include Peter Hall’s 1967 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth, Tony Richardson’s Roundhouse production of Hamlet, Caroline McCullough’s film Lowell, Ron Grainer’s musical On the Level, the first edition of the Brighton Festival, the first two Inventions for Radio (The Dreams and Amor Dei) and the factual series Tutankhamun’s Egypt. Other tapes within the collection contain off-air recordings of interviews with Delia as well as music not composed by her. Thanks to a listening device funded by the Library’s Innovation Fund, Delia’s work can now be heard in the reading room of The John Rylands Library by researchers and anyone interested in her work.

One of the many fascinating aspects of working in the Special Collections at the John Rylands Library is finding how collections speak to each other. The archive of the important Chinese artist, Li Yuan-chia, is shelved on the same floor as the Delia Derbyshire archive which is fitting as the two were great friends in life.  After Delia left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop she spent some time in the mid-1970s living and working at the LYC Museum near Hadrian’s Wall. Here she helped Li Yuan-chia run the gallery and printing press and exhibit the works of artists and poets. 1977 Artist Book No. 4, an artist book issued to LYC friends and supporters, bears the signature of both Li and Delia.

LYC Artist Book no 4
1977 Artist Book No. 4, signed by Delia Derbyshire and Li Yuan-Chia. LYC Archive.

The Delia Derbyshire collection is proving popular with artists, researchers and students. Holly Coutts, a Fashion, Design & Technology student at Manchester Metropolitan University, was one of the first readers to access the Delia Derbyshire Sound Archive on the new listening device. Holly, who is also a professional opera singer, used the collection for her final-year project which explores how sound affects mood and the senses.  Of particular interest to Holly is the way in which Delia visualised sound, most probably influenced by her mathematical training.  Besides listening to the sound archive, Holly also consulted Delia’s school exercise books which document her longstanding interest in how sound can be represented outside the conventions of musical notation. Holly’s friend, Bethany Moran, who is also an opera singer, similarly found inspiration from listening to Delia’s sound archive.

Students listening to Delia Derbyshire
Bethany Moran (left) and Holly Coutts (right), students from MMU.

This blog is not only about publicising the new listening device but also to highlight the recent completion of a second catalogue for the adult working papers of Delia Derbyshire which can be found on Elgar here.  The catalogue for the juvenile papers of Delia Derbyshire, which were purchased by the University of Manchester Library in 2011, is available here.  Access to these collections are by prior arrangement only and users should note that the collection is subject to copyright restrictions. If you would like to use the Delia Derbyshire Archive please contact the curator, Dr Janette Martin (email: janette.martin[at]

6 comments on “Listening to the Delia Derbyshire Archive

  1. Nick Stone

    Are there any plans to license the music in the archive for release to the public? I remember the release of music from the Daphne Oram archive a few years ago was a big hit

    • The Delia Derbyshire Archive

      Hallo Nick,

      There are indeed plans – and have been for several years – but they have been thwarted, unfortunately, by complex rights situations.

      The University is not authorised to release the music (e.g. in a CD like the Daphne Oram release you mentioned) so any releases would have to be authorised by the Derbyshire Estate and the respective rights holders of the works and projects in question, which is often the BBC. Through cross-referencing with related archives (e.g. the Royal Shakespeare Archive and the BBC Written Archives Centre) we have been able to clarify who holds the rights for a number of projects represented in Delia’s archive but there are still many areas of uncertainty, which is due partly to the fact that many of the tapes in the archive lacked labels identifying their contents and the authorship is not always Delia’s. There are off-air recordings of music not by Delia and projects where the music and sound is also clearly not by Delia – whether in full or in part e.g. quite a few reels contain sounds created by Brian Hodgson and Delia and Brian often shared sounds on freelance projects. Similarly, a number of Delia’s freelance projects re-purposed sounds and cues that she had created for an earlier BBC production (sometimes an earlier cue was augmented, sometimes it was re-used exactly e.g. extracts from Delia’s music for Amor Dei resurface in some of her later freelance projects), which, sadly, runs into problematic rights areas given that the cue(s) in question originated in a BBC project, created on BBC premises using BBC facilities.

      We would love to see a release along the lines of the Oramics two CD set and remain hopeful that this will be able to happen if the relevant parties can reach an agreement but it is not something that we are permitted to do and, as mentioned, it would need the support of the Derbyshire Estate and the respective rights holders for the recordings and projects. There are ongoing negotiations and research being carried out, however, to make releases of recordings from Delia’s archive a reality wherever possible – many of these recordings were created for public performances and broadcasts and it is our hope that they will reach the wider public again. Members of the public are already more than welcome to arrange a visit to the Delia Derbyshire Archive at the John Rylands Library. We know how much love and interest there is for Delia’s extraordinary work and achievements as an artist so please rest assured that there is no institutional conspiracy to hide Delia’s archive away and restrict access to a privileged few – we have been doing outreach work with schools and children from disadvantaged backgrounds where they get to visit the archive, learn about Delia and her methods then create their own music and theme tunes inspired by Delia’s techniques, so Delia continues to inspire new generations and we hope that her music will continue to reach as wide an audience as possible.

      • nickstone01

        Thanks for the explanation! Fingers crossed that all the parties involved can come to an agreement soon, because there really is tremendous demand for this.

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  3. So what’s the difference between making an audio archive available to the visiting public using your listening device and making it available to the non-visiting public using their own listening device, via Internet access; or is this a means to restrict access for the privileged few for their own gain?
    There appears some insincerity in this approach to access and the stated hope for both disadvantaged children, or any other, and the reaching out to as wide an audience as possible!

    • Hi Field Recordist
      The difference is we have permission for members of the public to listen to the recordings in situ here at the John Rylands Library. We do not have permission from the respective copyright holders of the recordings in the archive (Delia’s Estate, the BBC etc) to make the recordings more widely available on the internet however much we might want to. We have clear guidelines from the rights holders over what we can and can’t do and have to abide by that so it’s certainly not a case of restricting access for the privileged few for their own gain – we would love to be able to disseminate the recordings to as wide an audience as possible but don’t have the permission to do so.

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