Fanzine review: “Delia”, by Karen Harte

Delia at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Illustration © Karen Harte. Reproduced on Oscillate Wildly by kind permission of the artist.

Although Delia Derbyshire’s musical talent was rarely credited in her lifetime, the years since her passing have thankfully seen a far wider public recognition of her pioneering legacy. Delia’s profile has grown through a diverse range of publications ranging from academic studies of her work (such as Louis Niebur’s 2010 book Special Sound, featuring detailed analyses of her music), to documentaries such as Kara Blake’s 2009 film, The Delian Mode. And since 2013 the charity Delia Derbyshire Day has celebrated her music with an inventive series of events, concerts, and educational programmes. Karen Harte’s new fanzine Delia: The Story of Delia Derbyshire is a great addition to these tributes, and one of the best starting points for anyone curious to learn more about the woman behind the Doctor Who theme. The comic tells Delia’s story in her own words (quoted from a wealth of archival interviews) with illustrations by Karen which vividly capture not only Delia’s likeness, but her sheer enthusiasm for making electronic music.

The comic begins by recounting Delia’s childhood, distilling key moments to show the formative influences on her music. Karen opens the story with a decorative pattern of complex equations and musical notation, indicating how closely related maths and music became in Delia’s creative process. The reader then discovers how Delia’s aural imagination was also sparked by more concrete sources… most notable amongst these are the electronic noise of the air-raid sirens during the Coventry blitz, and the percussive sound of mill workers’ clogs on cobbles as they went to work.

A glimpse of her school days shows how Delia had to push against authority throughout her life. Here we see the young Delia sitting slightly apart from her classmates, eyes closed in contemplation, cradling her head in her hands. Her thought bubble shows her preoccupation with acoustics, a subject she studied for herself when her teacher refused to cover it in class. The male teacher stands at the front, hands on hips, eyes downcast as he drones on. His lesson had become merely noise to Delia, whilst she raced ahead in a world of her own private intellectual endeavours. The panel underneath shows her taking solace in listening to the radio, an experience she later cited as a valued supplement to her formal education. She came from quite a humble background with relatively few books in the house, and the BBC’s broadcasts were inspirational to her.

Years later Delia clashed with lecturers at the University of Cambridge, whom she persuaded (much against their judgement) to allow her to change her degree subject from maths to music. Upon graduation Delia set out to work in the music industry, and was incredulous at the careers advisor’s recommendation that she should instead work in depth sounding. Shortly after that her enthusiasm for electronic music fell on the deaf ears of a Decca executive, who bluntly informed her that they did not employ women in the recording studio.

Karen’s use of speech bubbles is particularly inventive in this scene. Delia is shown in profile, talking animatedly; her speech bubble contains a sine wave, one of the basic building blocks of electronic music. The adjacent frame shows a bored Decca interviewer, whose speech bubble is filled with ellipses. In tandem with the surrounding quotations, this neatly conveys a sense of the gender discrimination in the music industry at that time. The next panel shows Delia marching out of Decca’s offices, with a clenched fist and expression of steely determination. On the wall behind her the legend NO WOMEN ALLOWED is rendered in large capitals as high as Delia, like graffiti. Fortunately, such closed-minded prejudice seemed only to sharpen Delia’s resolve to follow her dreams.

This sets the scene for a series of panels explaining how, by 1962, Delia had realised her ambition to work for the BBC. Delia wanted to join the Radiophonic Workshop (the corporation’s electronic music studio), but at first composers were only allowed to spend three months at a time in the department. In the early 60s, BBC management thought that spending any longer than that experimenting with electronic sound would send their staff crazy. Recounting this policy years later (in an interview with the musician Peter Kember) Delia joked that it was, at least, “a beautiful way to be crazy.” Eventually the “three month” limitation was abolished, and Delia was at last in her element, creating electronic music for programmes such as Doctor Who. A two-page illustration captures her heyday at the Workshop. It shows Delia smiling with her arms aloft, holding a length of magnetic tape above her head. The tape, glowing gold, cascades from a reel-to-reel deck mounted on the wall, circling round her like the ribbon of a rhythmic gymnast. Her pose seems to capture her dancing, moving to the rhythm of the tape loops she’d set spinning.

But sadly this high note didn’t last, and in the final frames Karen sketches out the context for Delia’s departure from the BBC in 1973. By her own account, Delia rebelled against a lot, doing all sorts of things she wasn’t “supposed” to do; she used whatever techniques were necessary to create her music, ignoring the academic debate over whether it was better to use purely synthetic tones in electronic music, or to include manipulations of real sounds picked up by a microphone. Delia’s music freely combined both methods. Her perfectionism also drove her to work late into the night, and at times she became exhausted in the pursuit of the perfect sound. She was an independent thinker who questioned authority, a fact acknowledged in a birthday card a friend sent her in 1997 (brilliantly recreated here by Karen Harte). The card shows a shoal of fish facing to the right, their mouths all downturned in a display of miserable conformity; one fish faces the other way, smiling with quiet contentment: this is the exception to the rule, the independent thinker to whom the card was addressed.

This cartoon no doubt chimed with Delia as she looked back on her time at the BBC, which by the early 70s had lost the great appeal it initially held for her. In her view the corporation had gone out of tune with itself, reflecting a profound change in the wider culture. She didn’t want to compromise her integrity any further, and left. In these closing panels Delia is shown in silhouette walking away from the BBC; a scratchy black cloud overhead indicates her frustration, and perhaps also her sadness at leaving her friends and colleagues behind.

The comic closes on a poignant series of quotations from interviews that Delia gave late in life. They reveal a humble and self-deprecating frame of mind, in which she regards her own music as not important in itself, but only in terms of a potential ‘stepping stone’ for future artists. At that point (circa 2000), she felt like the process of making her music had been more important than the end result. And in the future, a new generation of musicians might be inspired by the Radiophonic Workshop’s example. In 2018, with Delia’s music hailed as massively influential, we can now see how prescient her remarks were, although I would beg to differ in arguing that the music she recorded has stood the test of time itself. And with Karen Harte’s new fanzine, it’s clear that her story still resonates with fans across the decades. Long may it continue.

Delia: The Story of Delia Derbyshire is available to buy from:

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Review © David Huggins, 23rd November 2018.