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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Delia Derbyshire - The Myths & The Legendary Tapes' is an esoteric look at an electronic iconic

Lose yourself in the esoteric world and lost tapes of the British electronic music pioneer.

A woman dressed as Delia Derbyshire stands in a strange music studio
(Image: Β© SXSW)

Our Verdict

A docu-drama as singular and experimental as the woman it highlights.

For

  • 🎡 The utterly unique format is enchanting
  • 🎡 Highlights the life and impact of a pioneer
  • 🎡 An intriguing look at the history of British electronic music

Against

  • 🎡 The juxtaposition between the docu-drama elements and the more abstract stuff could jar

Delia Derbyshire β€” The Myths & The Legendary Tapes is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

You probably know the most famous of Delia Derbyshire's compositions by heart. The British mathematician, musician, and composer created the iconic theme to Doctor Who. It was during her eleven years at the iconic and infamous BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and that part of her career and life is the focus of this strange and surreal documentary which melds dramatic reenactments with esoteric and trippy visuals as well as a soundtrack created from a box of tapes discovered after Derbyshire's death in 2001. It's an ambitiously weird project directed impressively by British actor Caroline Catz, who also stars as Derbyshire in the film. 

Catz somewhat unevenly weaves her surreal compositions of b-roll, docu-drama, and sound together into an enthralling story about an abstract genius. The dense and esoteric nature of the opening might put some viewers off, though those who are already aware of Derbyshire and her career would probably expect nothing less. Using archival footage and her own tapes, we are often joined by the disembodied voice of the musician even as we watch Catz recreate moments in her life or her sound experiments. We also hear from and occasionally see those who knew her, recalling everything from her talent to her cocaine habit. It forms an unconventional but entertaining look at Derbyshire that feels entirely fitting. 

The other core aspect of the film is the soundtrack by performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti. Her own personal relationship to Derbyshire's work is clear as we see her crafting the soundtrack to the film that she's starring in. These present some of the most ethereal and otherworldly moments as Cosey Fanni Tutti converses with herself, with recordings of Delia, and adapts the lost tapes into a soundscape that washes over the documentary, always keeping Derbyshire's strange and expansive talent at the forefront of our minds. 

Though not a documentary in any normal sense of the word, this is an educational atmosphere piece that highlights vital moments in the life of a woman who composed hundreds of pieces of music over her life. We see the recreated process of composing the theme for Doctor Who and its inevitable success. We learn that she never received royalties--she wasn't even credited on-screen until 50 years after the show first aired--and we see her keep making music in the face of all that. In the moments we join Catz as Derbyshire, her relationships with the people around are little more than inspiration for her music as they shape and manipulate sounds to make new aural experiences. 

For many it may be a surprise that a woman was one of the pioneers of electronic music, but it is a simple fact. And Derbyshire wasn't even the first. She was predated by her fellow BBC Radiophonic Workshop colleague Daphne Oram who many call the Godmother of Electronic Music. But while Oram plays a part, this is Derbyshire's show. As we follow her story, we see a woman driven by creative desire, a contradiction of logic and art. We follow her psychedelic time creating Unit Delta Plus in the mid-60s--the electronic studio was a passion that aimed to bring her art and the technology to make it to the masses--and through her choice to leave the Maida Vale Studios of the BBC. Throughout, her personal relationships get a look in during the docu-drama moments but are never given more prominence than her creations and life as an experimental artist and creator. 

While it might not be for everyone, if you're looking for an enchanting and strange experience that will help you escape the mundane and teach you a little something then Delia Derbyshire - The Myths & The Legendary Tapes is a must watch. And if you're already a fan of the artist then you'll be pleased to see her legacy explored through a diaphanous lens with great care and an experimental spirit that's just as magical and peculiar as the woman and her work.