In a darkened upstairs room knots of untamed magnetic tape spill down from surfaces and across the floor and an oscilloscope flickers as the sounds of the future fill the air, the electronic tones and ethereal shapes of sound which form the basis of Noctium Theatre’s Hymns for Robots.
Described as “an experiment, an exploration,” devised by the company, written and directed by Connor Alexander and with Charles Craggs performing the role of Brian Hodgson and providing live “special sound” (for we are prohibited by BBC guidelines, notoriously aware of the demarcation of the realms of the different guilds within that establishment, from allowing it to be associated with the more grandiose “music”), Jessie Coller is the great Delia Derbyshire.
Her name unjustly unfamiliar to the masses, conversely her most famous creation is instantly recognisable the world over, her realisation of Ron Grainer’s main title theme for Doctor Who, first heard in November 1963 and capturing the attention of a nation with the promise of mystery, excitement, adventure, danger and the unknown, encapsulated in less than a minute, a journey still continuing more than half a century later.
Charting Derbyshire’s early life, memories of air raid sirens as she was “born, bred and blitzed” in Coventry, her interests and ambitions were unusual, the only person to actually request assignment to the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale where she was given the temporary post of assistant studio manager and first met Hodgson.
The two apparently mismatched, she driven, ebullient, a perfectionist open to abstract inspiration from the most unexpected sources, he is quiet, reserved, gentle and loyal in his devotion to her, yet as an ambitious, eccentric woman within the hallowed halls of the BBC Derbyshire was an outsider whose now-recognised genius was frustrated by the stagnant conservatism which could not comprehend either the woman or her work.
A reconstructed history in the same way as Derbyshire created art from recombining elements, repurposing them and transforming their nature, Hymns for Robots warps time and narrative with the same skill as which Craggs shifts pitch and tone, with insight into the personalities of those involved, the tin can used as a telephone receiver emphasising how relatively primitive this technology was, and painting a picture with sound and memory Noctium have succeeded in their aim of “provoking a truth from the life of Delia Derbyshire.”