Do women dream of electric sheep? Delia Derbyshire and the women of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

A woman works hard at a couple of record decks, creates a few loops. Later her music is played to millions of TV and radio listeners. The dream of a future superstar DJ? No, this woman is a past figure and the music isn’t dance but sounds for BBC programmes made by the members of the Radiophonic Workshop.

When the BBC created the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, its job was to create “special sound” i.e. sound effects or incidental music for BBC radio and TV productions. The prime movers in persuading the BBC to set up its own sound unit in the 1950s were Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram who were both studio managers for the BBC as well as musicians. They weren’t interested in making ordinary music for programmes, they were interested in the possibilities tape manipulation and electronic sound offered. In essence the early products of the workshop were close to musique concrete (translation: music concrete) where any sound could be taken, e.g. the sound made by a key scraped down piano wire, and then manipulated in many ways, by adding echo, passing through filters, playing at a different speed or backwards, splicing with another sound. The original sounds could be made into something quite different, in the key’s case the sound of the TARDIS taking off. The Radiophonic Workshop’s compositions provided an atmosphere even a skilled actor reading a script couldn’t.

As time went on the technology used in the workshop changed from turntables, tape loops (early sampling) and oscillators in the 1950s and ’60s to the introduction of the first large synthesizers (the “Delaware” took up a whole room) in the 1970s. The 1980s saw the use of digital sampling courtesy of the fairlight synthesizer and in the 1990s the use of computers until the workshop’s closure in 1997.

For women who want to pursue a career in electronic music it can be hard to find female figures to aspire to without taking on the skills of an archaeologist

When people talk about radiophonic sound they largely mean the compositions of the 1960s and to some extent the early ’70s. There is less interest in the Radiophonic Workshop’s later efforts due to a feeling that with the use of standardised musical equipment (i.e. synthesizers) the sounds made weren’t as special. Because of the workshop’s use of equipment that was never meant to produce music and the difficulty of assembling tracks in a pre-computer age, many of the works made during the early era sound like nothing done before or since. This may also reflect a wider trend in library music collectors where LPs of the 1960s and ’70s are much more expensive than collections of music from the 1980s onwards.

Which leads me to Delia Derbyshire, perhaps the most famous workshopper who worked in the Maida Vale studios 1962-73. During her time at the BBC, Delia Derbyshire realised Ron Grainer’s abstract directions for the Dr Who theme. She should have had joint composition credit but BBC policy prevented this. Of course Dr Who fans know this and there are a lot of them which is probably why she is the most famous workshopper. The original 1963 Dr Who theme is an eerie, otherworldly one, perfectly matching the abstract shapes of the opening titles reminiscent of “ectoplasm” created by Edwardian spiritualists.

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Delia’s importance as an icon to feminists isn’t just because she produced a natty theme tune once. Derbyshire is important as a female pioneer in electronic music. She did have her battles to get where she wanted. Record label Decca (also notorious for being the label that turned down that little known beat combo the Beatles) told her they didn’t employ female studio engineers. She eventually made her way into the BBC as a studio manager and moved over to the Radiophonic Workshop impressing the manager, Desmond Briscoe, with her studio skills, degree in mathematics and musical ability.

Perhaps unusually Delia had an analytical approach to composing using the mathematics of sound. She said she “analyse[d] everything not just music. The pace, the cutting, the editing of a film.” This didn’t mean her music was cold and without feeling. Delia specifically fitted the rhythm of ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’, a piece about the Saharan Tuareg tribe which was commissioned for the BBC documentary The World About Us, to the pace of camel’s feet on the screen but it resulted in a beautifully sinister piece of music.

It’s easy to see why Delia Derbyshire is an attractive candidate for feminist icon. For women who are fans of or want to pursue a career in electronic music or prove that women can do this type of music too it can be hard to find female figures to aspire to without taking on the skills of an archaeologist. As it turns out women were at the forefront and made some of the best pieces of electronic music as well.

With her mathematical skills Delia also knocks a chunk out of the stereotype of women being unable to handle complex technologies. She was in demand among 1960s (male) bands who wanted to see how these new fangled synthesizers worked. In 1971 Delia herself composed a piece for the IEE’s (Institute of Electronic Engineers) centenary as the Radiophonic Workshop was invited to be part of the entertainment. As reported in Roy Curtis-Bramwell and Desmond Briscoe’s book The BBC Radiophonic Workshop – The First 25 Years, Briscoe rather patronisingly suggested that “the social nature of the event and the presence of the ladies requires that the programme is non-technical.” Nonetheless, Delia was included, and the audience for her piece included the Queen.

There were a fair few women passing through the workshop over the years and the fate that Delia feared for herself has instead befallen them; they have been largely forgotten.

Another point in Delia’s favour is she is comparatively accessible (and all over YouTube). While other early female electronic or electro-acoustic composers tend to be more embedded in the avant-garde, Delia was more pop. As well as creating atmospheric soundscapes, she made witty and fun tracks like ‘Door to Door’, made up of the sound of door bells and was part of the late ’60s zeitgeist.

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Outside of the BBC she collaborated with fellow workshopper and friend Brian Hodgson, David Vorhaus and other composers at their studio in London. Under the name White Noise, they made the unsettling electro-psyche album An Electric Storm in 1969. Delia also created a number of lucrative library LPs. Her talent and knowledge led Delia to be involved in festivals of experimental and electronic music as part of Unit Delta Plus (with Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff). She came into contact with many of the hip people in the ’60s like Brian Jones (of The Who), pop star Anthony Newley (she wrote ‘Moogies Bloogies’ for him), Pink Floyd, Yoko Ono and The Beatles.

Delia left the BBC in 1973 feeling the workshop was becoming a sausage factory churning out stuff and was less about the artistry of radiophonics. She was also criticised by her bosses for making tracks that were too sophisticated. Following her departure from the workshop, she contributed soundtrack music to three films, but by 1975 she had given up creating music.

I’m not sure Delia would see herself as a feminist icon. She regarded herself as an individualist or “independent thinker.” I don’t think she would have minded the attention though. Delia felt she had been forgotten musically and would be pleased that new people were discovering her work and appreciating it. The interest in Delia that led to the revival of her musical fortunes around the turn of the millennium wasn’t to do with feminists looking for heroines. Peter Kember (as Sonic Boom) first met her in 1998 and encouraged her to get back into music, and then with the release of various Radiophonic tracks from the archives by the curator Mark Ayers, Delia’s came to the attention of lovers of electronic music. She collaborated with Sonic Boom to produce the track ‘Synchrondipity Machine’, and was reportedly working on a new album at the time of her death in 2001.

As in the case of Delia Derbyshire, interest in Daphne Oram has increased after her death in 2003.

Delia Derbyshire is one of the big stars of the workshop and early-ish electronic music but she wasn’t a lone figure. There were a fair few women passing through the workshop over the years and the fate that Delia feared for herself has instead befallen them; they have been largely forgotten.

One reason for this is that many of them were studio managers (like Delia initially) who went on a placement at the workshop for a couple of months to see if they would like doing radiophonics and for whatever reason didn’t stay.

The second reason, mentioned before, is Dr Who. For many the Radiophonic Workshop = Dr Who. Apart from Delia’s theme tune, the recycling of ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’ and ‘The Delian Mode’ in ‘Inferno’, along with Elizabeth Parker’s score for ‘Timelash’, all the incidental sounds and special effects for the original series were done by two men, Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills. For a long while the most widely available source for radiophonic sounds were Dr Who albums of effects.

Things are better now with old non-Dr Who compilations having been released on CD. The 2008 compilation BBC Radiophonic Workshop – A Retrospective features tracks from less well represented members, both male and female. There is also a subjective reason of some workshoppers not being as good as others but I’ll leave that for others to debate.

But what of these other women? I shall cover a few of the more prominent ones. The one most crucial to the workshop’s existence was Daphne Oram. She first approached the BBC in 1953 and eventually convinced them to open the workshop. Oddly for one of the founders, she left the Radiophonic Workshop a year after its opening in 1959. This was either due to a policy of not letting staff stay for too long in case working on weird sounds affected the mind, which Oram disagreed with, or because of having achieved her purpose in creating the workshop she wanted to focus on musical composition in the electronic field rather than “sounds”. Afterwards Daphne felt Briscoe had played down her contribution to the creation of the BBC’s workshop.

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Daphne’s tenure may have been short but her pre-Radiophonic collaboration ‘Private Dreams and Public Nightmares’ sounds as disturbing as it did in 1957. She also composed the first electronic TV soundtrack for the BBC’s drama, Amphitryon 38.

Outside of the workshop Oram set up her own studio and became the first woman credited with creating a new sound recording medium – the Oramics machine. Oramic sounds could be drawn on to a piece of film and played back.

Like Delia Derbyshire, Oram was interested in the mathematics of sound and how it related to physics. She wrote a book called An Individual Note of Music, Sound & Electronics (1972) and created pieces for the theatre, film and TV commercials. She performed her music in public too. In 1968 Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgeson sent her a good luck telegram for her forthcoming performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

As in the case of Delia Derbyshire, interest in Daphne Oram has increased after her death in 2003, with a dedicated trust looking after Oramics and a double CD of her work released in 2004. Before then her work on record totalled an EP of electronic sound patterns for children to exercise to and a couple of short tracks on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop 21 compilation LP in 1979.

Another early member was Jenyth Worsley (1961-62). She stayed long enough to compose music for the BBC schools radio department, ‘Music for a Magic Carpet’ being one of the tracks. Afterwards she became a producer commissioning pieces from the workshop and revamping Watch with Mother in the ’70s.

It wasn’t all about the sound tracking of Sci Fi nightmares though; Maddalena Fagandini (1960-63) made the workshop go pop. Her interval signal for the BBC was so popular with viewers it was given a conventional music backing by Beatles producer, George Martin, in disguise as “Ray Cathode” and titled ‘Time Beat’. Because Fagandini was bi-lingual she was often “borrowed” to help on Italian language series, which made it harder for her to concentrate fully on sound production. Like Worsley, she became a producer and was a producer on Look and Read.

While Parker composed jingles for BBC local radio, she also composed more prestigious soundtracks like David Attenborough’s Living Planet and sci-fi FX for Blake’s 7

Moving to the ’70s Glynis Jones (who joined in1972) was a fine composer and made good musical landscapes like ‘Crystal City’ as well as supernatural atmospheres. Biographically there is very little information available on her. Jones compiled and wrote the sleeve notes for the Out of this World LP of fantasy sound effects from 1976 and was a trained musician. Jones was obviously at the workshop for longer than a placement yet she’s a shady lady.

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Elizabeth Parker joined the Workshop in 1978 and stayed until it’s closure in 1997. Before joining the Workshop Elizabeth Parker was the first person to do a post-graduate music course at the UEA, on electro-acoustic music. She put this knowledge to good use at the workshop. In the 1980s synthesizers like the Fairlight had been installed at Maida Vale, and while Parker was impressed with the sounds they made, she thought they were limited because they only produced electronic noises. She got round this with some old-fashioned tape manipulation.

While Parker composed jingles for BBC local radio, she also composed more prestigious soundtracks like David Attenborough’s Living Planet (which was released as an album) and sci-fi FX for Blake’s 7. Elizabeth Parker survived the workshop’s closure and carried on making music for TV programmes. Like Delia, Parker made friends in the workshop and fellow member Peter Howell designed a studio for her.

Reading more in-depth accounts of the Radiophonic ladies suggest they tended to be very methodical, technically and mathematically minded, all skills needed to produce material for the BBC on time, but with great individuality. The new owners of Daphne Oram’s coast house home, after her death, found wires running everywhere through the building, whereas Delia made a tape loop stretching down the corridor of Maida Vale and back. Elizabeth Parker was a methodical worker, using her maternity leave to mark up time codes to plan out her scores length.

Their success in their chosen field was partly due to knowing what they wanted to do from a young age which got them through many a hurdle. Daphne Oram became interested in the possibilities of electronic music at 18, in 1944, and had to put up with fellow studio engineers thinking she was wrong to do so along with the expense and scarcity of suitable equipment in the ’50s. Delia had to persuade her college at Cambridge to let her study mathematics and music. Elizabeth Parker knew from a young age she wanted to make music for programmes.

Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram weren’t merely names in a history of electronic music; they were at the forefront of technology trying to push the boundaries forward, picking up a clutch of electronic “firsts”. Elizabeth Parker used the difficult to programme Fairlight, which was one the most technically advanced synthesizers to make music. And behind those who could produce radiophonic sounds were more female producers, sound engineers and “balancers”; they may be hidden away and forgotten but they were there.

Below is a list of (almost) all of the women who passed through the Radiophonic Workshop’s doors. The list dates to 1983, and the final full member of the Radiophonic Workshop would have joined in about 1985. The list is derived from The BBC Radiophonic Workshop – The First 25 Years by Roy Curtis-Bramwell and Desmond Briscoe. The names of the women are followed by the year they joined the Radiophonic Workshop.

Daphne Oram 1958

Maddalena Faganini 1960

Jenyth Worsley 1961

Delia Derbyshire 1962

Margaret Etall 1963

Janet Gibson 1965

Bridget Marrow 1965

Glynis Jones 1972

Sue Cassini 1974

Trina Hughes 1975

Val Doulton 1977

Elizabeth Parker 1978

Amanda Alexander 1980

Isobel Sargent 1980

Gill Pell-Hilley 1981

Diana Howell 1981

Sue Thomas 1982

Alison Taylor 1982

Anna Antoskiewicz 1982

Interested in the Radiophonic Workshop? Michelle has compiled a YouTube playlist for your enjoyment, which you can listen to by clicking here. Clips are sound only, no videos:

UPDATE: click here to read about Delia Derbyshire Day 2013!

First image is the sleeve to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop musical compilaton BBC Radiophonic Workshop: A Retrospective

Second image is of Delia Derbyshire at work by mashroms, used via a flickr creative commons licence. Image shows Derbyshire leaning over a sound desk.

Third image shows some psychadelic artwork in lurid shades of pink and green. Image is entitled ‘Roundhouse visuals at Radiophonic Workshop’. These images relate to a reunion of members of the Radiophonic Workshop at the Roundhouse in London. Image by Rain Rabbit and used via a flickr creative commons licence.

Fourth image is of Daphne Oram at work by linearclassifier, used via a flickr creative commons licence. Image shows Oram sitting at a desk surrounded by wires and machinery. An unidentified colleague is stood just behind her left shoulder and appears to be looking over her shoulder.

Fifth image is of the BBC’s Radiophonic Music compilation. Text is in white on a swirly background made up of various shades of pink

Michelle Drury has powers of coincidence and is not a writer but frequently scribbles against silence anyway.