Hymns For Robots

The life of Delia Derbyshire - the unsung genius behind Doctor Who's theme tune and electronic music
The Old Fire Station, Thu 28 February 2019

March 1, 2019
Painting Pictures With Sound

Even if you don't know Delia Derbyshire's name, you'll know her work. Heading up the BBC's Radiophonics Workshop in the 60s, she took a bare-bones composition by Ron Grainer and turned it into one of the most recognisable TV themes in the world - the theme to Doctor Who. Despite Grainer's best efforts, Derbyshire was not credited for this accomplishment, one of the many reasons why she is referred to as 'the unsung heroine of British electronic music.' Enter Noctium Theatre, with their innovative two-person play about Derbyshire's life and work, to redress the balance.

Hymns for Robots, rather appropriately, skips backwards and forwards through time, looking at Derbyshire's childhood as a precocious student, her unprecedented move to be the first person to actually request a job at the BBC's Radiophonics Workshop (as the disembodied voice interviewing her noted, 'most people are assigned there'), and her life after leaving the BBC. The narrative was threaded together by Derbyshire's enduring friendship with fellow Radiophonics sound creator Brian Hodgson, and the back-and-forth between the two characters in these scenes was where the acting in the play was at its strongest, with Brian's deadpan stoicism providing the perfect counterbalance to Delia's effusive enthusiasm.

While I loved the concept, Hymns for Robots was rather hit-and-miss for me. The extroverted, mime-like performance of the actress playing Derbyshire worked well for some scenes, particularly the comic ones, but drew focus away from the emotional heart of the play's more serious points. There were a couple of odd tangents that slowed the pace, including a scene where Delia and Brian discuss quitting the BBC and opening an 'enema restaurant', and an awkward faked orgasm that could have been implied rather than acted out. Overall, though, the performances were charming, and the energy never dipped throughout the play.

The greatest triumph of Hymns for Robots, as one might expect, was the use of sound throughout the play. From the opening moments, where the actor playing Brian walked onto the stage and mimed tapping a microphone, to later points in the play where music slowed, distorted or wavered depending on how Delia was manipulating tape, the sound effects were perfectly-timed. Even perfectionist Delia Derbyshire would have been proud of the experimental playfulness of Hymns for Robots' sound engineers, who used their audio techniques to flesh out the sparse set and, as the on-stage Delia remarked, 'paint pictures with sound'.

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