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Delia's Dr Who theme broke sound barriers but not glass ceilings

Hymns for Robots, Belgrade Theatre, September 22

Delia Derbyshire is having a moment. The electronica pioneer, composer of the Doctor Who theme music and former Barr's Hill grammar school girl, languished in relative obscurity for years,unknown to all but the most dedicated Dr Who aficionados or soundscape seekers. However in the early 2000s the tide began to turn with the introduction of the now sadly defunct Thing About Machines Coventry arts festival, which adopted Derbyshire as its centrepiece, and the introduction of the annual Delia Derbyshire day, suggested by archivists at Manchester University which now holds the majority of Delia's Coventry memorabilia, including old school reports discovered in the attic of her childhood home in Cedars Road, Coventry.

It's fitting that in this year, when Coventry is bidding for the City of Culture title, fledgling theatre company Noctium, made up of three young performing arts alumni from Coventry University, are producing a play based on her life.

With the working title Hymns for Robots, a taster of the production in development was showcased at the Belgrade Theatre this weekend. And what a show it was. Set on a stark stage decorated only with two chairs, a four track tape recorder and mixing desk, and devoid of colour, the action begins as Delia (Jessie Coller) emerges, monochrome 60s secretary from shoulders down, ghost-faced geisha from neck up. Her mechanical movements, jerky and staccato, which punctuate her interactions with besuited drones from the Radiophonic Workshop and Decca, mirrors the internal struggle against the corporate stifling of her creativity.

But In her relationship with lifelong friend and collaborator Brian Hodgson (Charles Craggs), Coller comes to life, her movements by turn languidly sexual and playfully exuberant. As she unfolds memories of her childhood in Coventry, set against the backdrop of the Blitz, Delia's story becomes chilling.

She explains how the insistent wail of the air raid sirens became the basis of the electronic music that consumed her life, while a screen shows flickering films of Coventry and London burning. But it is in Coller's matter-of-fact recount of Delia's struggle against a patriarchal society which refused to recognise female talent or to grant her credit for best known work, t

the Dr Who theme tune, that we glimpse the bitterness that would eventually set her on a the path to alcoholism.

Delia Derbyshire's story is a strange one. Sometimes amazing, often painful, the play can be bleak and almost uncomfortable to watch. Delia was an avant-garde artist, operating in the vertices between popular and counter-culture - just like her home city itself, which fell in and out of popular favour as the boom of the fifties gave way to the ghost town of the seventies, through to the sweaty psychedelia of the nineties and the working class heroes of the 2000s. Similarly, the show treads the delicate line between experimental and traditional, sometimes eerily schizophrenic as it juxtaposes the two. But it does so successfully, drawing thought-provoking metaphors while maintaining the narrative of Delia's life.

To paraphrase the motto of the armchair pundit, I don't know much about theatre, but I know what I like. And I liked this

.Hymns for Machines is set to tour nationally next year. For more information visit

Fantastic taster...when to we get the full creation?

Based on the life and career of Coventry icon Delia Derbyshire, this was a short 'in development' performance by Noctium Company.

It may be in development, but what was presented in this one-off, was a superb slice of Delian folklore, all wrapped up with the company's own interpretation of what may or may not have happened in the extraordinary life of this very complicated genius of a human being.

Jessie Coller makes a superb Delia, her face painted like a Japanese Geisha, making sure no eye movement, or facial contortion was missed by the audience.

It was a genius idea to use Kabuki style face paint in a play about a Coventry electronic music pioneer.

Who would have thought of that? Well these guys did (so they do indeed have a lot in common with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop especially in the creative sense). The script was charming, often irreverent, but always entertaining, and you really didn't know what would transpire next (just like the lady herself). The multi-layered music was all original, and in my opinion well up to the Delian standard.

It was followed by a Q&A session, with some insightful questions, although the big question: when do we get to see this wonderful creation in all its glory?

Pete Chambers

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