“And now the first of a new series.”
Following those eight simple and seemingly unremarkable words, at precisely 5:16pm and 20 seconds on the evening of Saturday November 23rd 1963, the living rooms of just under four-and-a-half million UK homes would reverberate to an opening theme of a television programme, the likes of which had not been heard before.
The world was already reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy some 24 hours earlier, and what could have gone otherwise unnoticed – wedged in between Grandstand and The Telegoons, and rather modestly billed in Radio Times as “An adventure in space and time” – was the first episode of Doctor Who. Still an unknown quantity, but only mere weeks from becoming a national TV institution, the quite ominous and foreboding twang of a then-unfamiliar bassline would transport viewers into another dimension of entertainment – and younger audience members firmly behind the sofa (or other convenient item of home furnishing).
The music track which accompanies the opening and closing credits of a TV programme is commonly referred to as either its ‘theme song’ or ‘theme music’. However, one phrase that appears to have fallen into disuse is ‘signature tune’, and this is perhaps the one that most befits Doctor Who’s distinctive clarion call to adventures in the fourth dimension. Saturday teatimes – and the scope of British television music – would never be the same again, all thanks to a curious combination of an already legendary composer for the small screen being paired with an avant garde ‘Sculptress of Sound’, who would bring to life a single sheet of paper, using quarter-inch tape, razor blades, sine waves, and mathematics.
Up to that point, any forays into the worlds of science fiction would be soundtracked by orchestral or classical scores, like Quatermass’ use of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, Bringer of War’. In the case of Doctor Who, its title track was both both mould- and groundbreaking. Here was the series’ modus operandi writ large, a strange alien soundscape made up of noises not found either in the orchestra or even in nature. With the first episode called ‘An Unearthly Child’, the theme fitted the idea of otherworldliness perfectly, and dragged electronic music kicking and screaming into the nation’s homes through that box sat in the corner, which would become a weekly portal to everywhere and everywhen.
So noteworthy would this finished piece become, it would be listed in BBC Music Magazine as being one of “20 works that defined a century”, alongside compositions from the likes of George Gershwin, Carl Orff, Dmitri Shostakovich, John Cage and Richard Strauss. Things could had been rather different, as the vital job of coming up with this crucial track could have gone elsewhere. Producer Verity Lambert had given thought to engaging the services of French musicians Les Structures Sonores, who had crafted sound sculptures and made music without the use of conventional instruments, their style best described as ‘musique concrète’.
One of Les Structures Sonores‘ pieces would one day make it to a UK television show, their track ‘Manège’ accompanying the titles of 1970s schools’ programme Picture Box, and its spooky, hauntological sound perhaps gives some idea what could have been. However, as it would seem that they were either unavailable, unaffordable, uninterested, or possibly some combination of the three, this meant Lambert had to look elsewhere. Enter Ron Grainer, a composer who – nearly six months to the day before Doctor Who’s debut – would be the subject of a show entitled Master of the Signature Tune, which showed his eminent suitability for the task.
A native-born Australian who had moved to the UK in 1952, Grainer already had the memorable themes to a number of television series under his belt, from Gallic detective drama Maigret, to sitcom Steptoe and Son (and the series which spawned it: Comedy Playhouse), and the satirical live show That Was The Week That Was. Grainer had collaborated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop earlier in 1963, working on documentary Giants of Steam, which saw the alchemists of sound provide a backing track made of manipulated noises from steam locomotives, over which Grainer would compose a conventional score to be played by an orchestra .
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With their previous joint effort being seen as the basis for a way to put together the signature tune for this new science fiction show, it was thought that the Radiophonic Workshop could again do the backing in their own inimitable style, and Grainer would then do an orchestral piece to be overlaid onto it. However, the wunderkind and musical enfant terrible Delia Derbyshire had other ideas, and using analogue technology of the time – which was then cutting-edge – she then realised the show’s theme in full, fleshing out Grainer’s piece, which had been written out with such descriptive notations for all the kinds of sounds to be used as “sweeps”, “swoops”, “wind clouds” and “wind bubbles”.
It allowed Derbyshire’s imagination to go into overdrive, and she played a major part in making Grainer’s composition into such a memorable, lasting part of the television firmament. The final product involved the twanging of a flexible panel, according to one account, or a steel string in another, which was looped and played back at different speeds to create the desired notes for the bassline. When it came to the melody, it was produced by manipulating oscillators – which included the wonderfully-named ‘wobbulator’ – in order to make the eerie portamento. Finally, beneath all of it were white noise hisses and swoops, done in a kind of Doppler effect, rushing to and fro, suggesting motion and momentum.
Appropriately enough, the finished piece does have a kind of timeless quality, and one which defies reproduction today, even with all of the technology and synthesisers we now possess. What makes it even more remarkable is that the theme tune was not actually ‘played’ as a continuous piece like it would be nowadays, but painstakingly assembled from lengths of tape spliced together to make the tune from a veritable pot pourri of notes and sounds. The assembling of those three separate layers which would be synchronised to then form the finished theme is a remarkable story, and Derbyshire’s Radiophonic Workshop colleague Dick Mills – who assisted her in producing it – explains it well here.
The original version of the theme makes the music as much Derbyshire’s baby as Grainer’s, to the extent that he not only dropped any plans to have an orchestra play over the top, but also offered half his royalties to Derbyshire, only to have the plan nixed due to BBC policy to keep Radiophonic Workshop members anonymous. Derbyshire passed away in July 2001, before her vital contribution to the Doctor Who theme was publicly acknowledged, and it was only in the programme’s 50th anniversary special – ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ – that she finally received the credit “Original Theme Arranged By Delia Derbyshire”. Now, for the show’s 60th anniversary, the Delia Derbyshire Day project is highlighting her work once more, through a series of activities.
To see how things could very been very different, you only have to track down a recording of 1980 album The Exciting Television Music of Ron Grainer, in which the composer is heard to put his own spin on the tune. Sounding very much the tail end of Disco, with some synthesisers accompanying an up-tempo orchestral arrangement, Grainer’s own notes on the album sleeve describe this as “a rhythmically aggressive new treatment”. While certainly not how Grainer envisioned it to be realised originally, it shows how a more conventional approach could have changed the whole complexion – and, perhaps, fortunes – of the piece.
Along with the TARDIS and the Daleks, the signature tune is one of those elements of the programme which are the most easily identifiable amongst the general public when it comes to Doctor Who. Across the decades, many different versions have been put together, from perhaps the most radical shift in 1980 when a new arrangement was used for the first time, to more orchestral takes since the series returned in 2005. When Segun Akinola took over as the resident composer in 2018, his arrangement of the theme music paid homage to Derbyshire’s original, using elements of her work from 55 years earlier, and even the newest iteration by Murray Gold has pieces of Derbyshire’s recording incorporated.
The word ‘iconic’ is often thrown about with abandon, but in the case of the Doctor Who theme, its use is justified. It has been used by likes of Pink Floyd, with it being heard around three minutes into the track ‘One of these Days’, and it also looks to have been an influence on Muse in ‘Uprising’. Even before the series’ return, Orbital closely evoked Derbyshire’s original with their 2001 piece ‘Doctor?’. Although tastes and fashions may change over time, quality never ages, and Delia Derbyshire’s work sounds as fresh and revolutionary as it did some six decades ago, when it reportedly took her as long to create as the exact same length of time that Jesus was in the wilderness.
So, 60 years on from the first broadcast of what was not just a seminal piece of television, but also a truly innovative and unconventional aural wizardry, let us take a moment to raise a glass to Ron and Delia, the father and mother of something which was there from the programme’s very first second on air, and heralded the beginning of the truly epic adventure in space and time that is Doctor Who.