Want to know what the Doctor Who theme tune was originally going to sound like (sort of)?

As you probably all well know (those of you who are Doctor Who fans, that is), Ron Grainer composed the original theme tune to Doctor Who. It said so in the credits of the show for 50 years, just to emphasise the point. What fewer people know is how much debt that theme tune owed to the person at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop who ‘realised it’ – Delia Derbyshire.

I did the Doctor Who theme music mostly on the Jason valve oscillators. Ron Grainer brought me the score. He expected to hire a band to play it, but when he heard what I had done electronically, he’d never imagined it would be so good. He offered me half of the royalties, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it. I was just on an assistant studio manager’s salary and that was it… and we got a free Radio Times. The boss wouldn’t let anybody have any sort of credit.

– Delia Derbyshire, in the Radiophonic Ladies interview

Indeed, it wasn’t until The Day of the Doctor that Derbyshire finally got an onscreen credit for her work:

Delia Derbyshire credit

Even in the BBC’s recent dramatisation of the creation of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time, Derbyshire’s contribution was downplayed considerably, giving her little more than a couple of lines about how the TARDIS dematerialisation sound was created using piano strings and a house key. I don’t even think they gave her name in the show.

Want to know how much of a difference she made? Well, here’s the version she composed, which is probably familiar to you.

But a little known fact is that Ron Grainer did arrange a version of the theme himself on the album “The Exciting Television Music of Ron Grainer”, which was released in 1980. Although it includes instruments that were unavailable to him in 1963, this is the closest version you’ll hear to what Grainer originally envisioned for the show and is similar to a lot of his work from the time.

What a difference Derbyshire made, hey?

  • Craig Grannell

    No atmosphere, and it just sounds flat and soulless, like many other shows from the time—which when you consider the melody and general arrangement, is about right anyway. The Who theme in and of itself isn't anything special; like a lot of music, it's the arrangement and sound that makes it something different. It's a pity Derbyshire won't get another credit like that, because it'll all be Grainer/Gold now, even though many of the recognisable parts of the track (the bass, the electronics) are Derbyshire's.

  • JustStark

    When I first heard this, I couldn't help trying to imagine what on Earth the Doctor Who TV series with that theme would be like.

    And… you know, it would just be the Pertwee era, wouldn't it? You can imagine it playing over shots of Jon driving Bessie around like Patrick McGoohan in his Lotus 7, the Brigadier running up to the camera and drawing his gun, Jo doing something kooky and falling over, and lots and lots and lots of Stuart Fell being blown into the air by explosions.

  • The fact it does sound a bit disco as a result of the synthesisers Grainer uses does make me think it's still not quite what we would have got in 1963 and is a bit more post-70s. I'm not sure what instrument he would have used instead, but it suggests at least that even Grainer couldn't separate his own score from Derbyshire's arrangement at some levels.

  • JustStark

    It's not so much the synths that get me as the, oh, I don't know the correct music theory term, the bounciness. So while the Derbyshire arrangement has that driving bass line that makes it feel like something dark and unknowable is inescapably advancing on you from within your television set, the Grainer one feels like, 'Hey, let's come on a jolly adventure romp! Zap! Pow!'

    And that reminds me a lot of both the general trends in '60s themes (The Avengers, <i.danger i=”” man<=””>, The Man From UNCLE) and Grainer's own theme for <i.the i=”” prisoner<=””>.

    Obviously it's not what Grainer would have done himself in 1963 but I doubt it's a million miles away, as it does sound like a standard sixties theme. Whereas what we got was altogether more special.. and I can't help but think that without Derbyshire's work on the theme, Doctor Who would not have worked at all. You couldn't have shown Verity Lambert's programme after a standard theme — the progamme would have had to become more like a standard sixties adventure programme — and, well, let's just be glad that didn't happen.</i.the></i.danger>

  • I can see what you mean and that might well be the case. But I wonder to what extent what we have is influencing our perception – that what we now see as the necessarily 'weird and futuristic' couldn't be repeated with what was then 'weird and futuristic' or even something else? If you consider Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel as well as plenty of other non-SF shows of the time (eg The Champions), I'm not sure how much of a mesh there is between the content of the programme and the theme tune. Even with The Avengers, if you consider what the show was like and then map it against the various themes, they don't quite match at all times, particularly around the end of the Blackman era.

    But I think without Derbyshire's incidental music as well as title music, the show would simply never have been as popular and we wouldn't still have it.

  • zushiomaru

    First of all Grainer didn't realise it!! Never did, he wrote the basic melody, which he was going to conduct with a big band,that's all. Delia Derbyshire amazed him, with her tape-looped based (not synthesizer, the first models were designed later by Peter Zinovieff in the UK, she worked with him in the White Noise band, EMS was his company, the VCS3 was the synth's name).
    She cut sounds of her mining kettle(?) & few other pitched sounds. I shudder to think how they made it sound these days on Who..
    just my 2 cents..:)

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