Interview with Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And Legendary Tapes director Caroline Catz

Jo Hutton talks to Caroline Catz about her Radiophonic Workshop pioneer biopic, and collaborating with Cosey Fanni Tutti

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And Legendary Tapes is an experimental documentary about the composer, mathematician and Radiophonic Workshop pioneer. Directed by and starring Caroline Catz, the film traces Derbyshire’s life and work through a combination of archive footage and dramatisation, interspersed with Cosey Fanni Tutti’s new interpretations of Derbyshire’s archive material (the ‘Legendary Tapes’ of the title). Jo Hutton speaks with Caroline Catz about the work below.

Jo Hutton: What made you want to direct this film and play Delia?

Caroline Catz: Like lots of people, I’m very intrigued and fascinated by Delia. The Dr Who theme tune had been the soundtrack of my childhood, hiding behind the sofa like everybody else. It wasn’t until the late 90s that I knew of her, to be honest, and then I listened to more of her stuff, taking you into worlds that were equally as affecting as Dr Who. After she died, her archive was donated to Manchester University and it said in the newspaper that you could go there. So I emailed David Butler at Manchester University and got on the train. I’m not an academic so I didn’t know what to expect. Back then it literally was just suitcases and boxes and, most importantly, tapes in a cupboard and I was so moved by this sight – that’s kind of the fate of all of us, these old cereal boxes with stuff in it. I felt overwhelmed by that. So I sat there for hours just listening, thinking I’m being pulled into these worlds again, just like I felt when I was a child. Then there are 267 makeup tapes, her library of sounds. All the time you’re listening to it, you have these incredible sounds and feelings and experiences. You’re thinking, this was all created from cutting up pieces of tape.

You have said that the reason you got into acting was “to be able to inhabit your different characters”. How did you go about inhabiting Delia?

Everything was embedded in the research that I was doing with Delia’s archive and the process of starting to write the narrative, so I was feeling very connected to her and it just became this idea of acting, directing and writing this character. She was working on these sound experiments. She had no idea if any of them would work out. It was a very particular focused thinking. She was not a socially conditioned person. I’m really fascinated by her lack of ego and by that idea of making extraordinary things. Is it still possible, in this world of social media profiling, to be Delia? She left the workshop when synthesizers came in, when the laboratory environment gave way to something that was much more about commodifying what they were doing because they were having to keep up with the demand.

Could you elaborate on the ghostly background character of Cosey Fanni Tutti?

When I was listening to all of Delia’s work, as much as I could fit into my ears, it occurred to me that this is an amazing basis to tell her story, but I’m not a musician and, in terms of where she was coming from musically, I needed to be collaborating with Cosey. The idea was to choose sounds from Delia’s archive together and for Cosey to repurpose those sounds to create new pieces. I was interested in Delia working with musique concrète, manipulating material according to a structural method, and that idea of ‘ghosting’ that you hear on the tape sometimes when it’s been repurposed. That is Cosey’s process in her own work but in a very different way because she works so differently to Delia, and the idea evolved of her character being in search of the creative spirit of Delia.

Can we talk about your use of reflections, screens and soft focus in the Workshop scenes, for the contrast of BBC broadcast business and the rather grey figure of Desmond Briscoe with the more colourful and creative characters of Delia, Brian Hodgson and Maddalena [Fagandini]?

That’s part of the magic of the workshop to me. Daphne Oram had to fight so hard didn’t she, to get anybody to understand why it was important to have a place to experiment with electronic music whilst all over Europe were these state-funded studios. It’s that idea of mixing innovation with what Desmond Briscoe called fag-ends and lollipops… using bits of old stuff stuck together to make something. These limitations became this incredible resource, infiltrating the avant garde by stealth within this very BBC establishment whilst also coming from the establishment, that’s what really excited me.

What struck you about the way Delia made this music?

With everything to do with this film, I’ve been pushed to my absolute limits by the genius of Delia and her amazing inspirational mathematical analytical mind. You can see this incredible focus and organisation, but you get the sense there was chaos around her as well, yet somehow these magical things would happen and you’d get these amazing pieces of music. I don’t want to pretend the film was anything other than a construction of what I feel and believe to be Delia’s experience. I definitely didn’t want it to be a biopic but I was very interested in exploring that strange space between imagination and memory. It was anti-biopic in a way: I’m as interested in preserving her mystery as I am in exploring her memory. I felt that very strongly.

The film is described as the story of Delia Derbyshire told through sound. Are there any particular sounds that jumped out at you? 

I really loved the female chanting from Poetry In Prisons (theatrical event, 1970). While she was a BBC employee, she was also doing all this freelance work. She did so many beautiful pieces. I heard the Apollinaire poem in the archive, It is raining womens’ voices as if they were dead” and it just sent shivers down me, it’s a beautiful poem. The way she was working with this fascinated me and in the archive you can actually hear the way she was working with the actress, trying to get her to give the right tone, so we reconstructed that bit with Maddalena (Saskia Reeves). When we come back to the church and they’re looking at all the female stained glass, I used this female chanting from Poetry In Prisons.

I loved the sound of the air raids sequence.

Delia said that was her first experience of electronic music: the air raid siren and the sound of the all clear. You don’t know what those sounds are as a child but they stay with you. It’s like she had that in her emotional memory. I’m very interested in that idea of how experience lives in your body and how that can be generative through art and invention and made into something you can share. That shared experience resonates on a deep level, which could possibly explain that shared experience of all these children ducking behind the sofa in Dr Who. I’ve always been fascinated by the frequencies and sounds that you don’t know are there and I think she somehow had that magic of being able to know what those things are that connect people.

She composes for visual image, whether real or imagined. She knows how to conjure up the right image…

Yes, she must have held these images within her and you also wonder about the snuff, and the wine and the late nights and the focused work of trying to clear everybody out so that she could be alone in her space. The snuff thing was one of the reasons I called it Myths And Legends but there are loads of myths. However she got into that zone was up to her, but she got into her zone where this magic would happen.

Towards the end there’s Delia’s dream with Mary Wollstonecraft and Ada Lovelace, and then you list historical female mathematicians, Aglaonice, Saint Fabiola. Delia would have loved live coding in today’s experimental music, alongside leading contemporary artist/programmers like Joanna Armitage, Kat Lovell. Why was it important to list these historic women mathematicians?

Another reason that I wanted to do the film and the reason why we have these stained glass windows and monuments to women is this idea of who writes history? It’s still problematic, isn’t it? Who gets written about? Who remains? Where do the stories go? And that’s why it’s so important that diversity in all its forms is rising slowly up the agenda, but it is slowly. It annoys me when people say we’ve made so much progress. No, it couldn’t be slower. That’s why the stained glass women are there. The John Rylands library was a gift to the people of Manchester by his wife, like a cathedral for books. An amazing place. It really inspired me for the main space of the film. But they have all these beautiful stained glass windows, all with writers and literary figures and not one female writer. However wonderful this place is, isn’t it such a tragedy? So that’s what made me want to create the main centrepiece of the film to be these stained glass women. Because how many monuments are female? That’s history: what we see and what’s available to us as role models.