Actor, writer and director Caroline Catz and electronic luminary Cosey Fanni Tutti discuss their collaboration on ‘Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes’, a film that takes an immersive trip through the life and work of the Radiophonic Workshop icon
It is an understatement to say that Delia Derbyshire remains an enigmatic figure. For all the retrospective articles and documentaries, for all the posthumous honours, she is a musician whose legend is based as much on what we don’t know as what we do. When she died in 2001, she left us with a story that, like her art, is formed of spliced and filtered fragments. It’s this idea that lies at the heart of Caroline Catz’s 2020 film, ‘Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes’.
Caroline Catz is best known for her acting roles in British television dramas such as ‘The Bill’ and ‘Doc Martin’. As the writer, director and lead actor, she seems as richly embedded in her film as Delia Derbyshire herself. For Caroline, the project is the culmination of a near-lifelong investigation, a process that has gone way beyond the realms of mere fandom and is now something else entirely. Like many of us, however, her relationship with the electronic pioneer started in the familiar way – as a young child huddled behind the furniture while Delia’s mighty ‘Doctor Who’ theme whooshed around the living room.
“I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but what has struck me subsequently is how powerful that piece of music is,” says Caroline. “Some things completely overtake you and you connect with them on some level. When I was in my 20s, I learned more about Delia and I thought, ‘My god, why didn’t I know that was a female artist? Why didn’t I know it was this incredible woman with this massive body of work?’. After her death, her amazing archive emerged and you could actually have access to it, so it was a fascination for me that grew. The whole reason I wanted to make the film was because I kept thinking, ‘Why don’t I know who she is?’.”
In the late 2000s, Caroline made a pilgrimage to the University of Manchester to visit Dr David Butler in the hope of finally finding an answer to that question. Alongside Louis Niebur at the University of Nevada in the US, David Butler had been entrusted with Delia’s archives and was working on digitising the material. In typically idiosyncratic style, everything was packaged in 267 cereal boxes, including numerous scores, notes and diaries. At that point, however, most of the sounds were still only accessible on the original tapes.
“David had just recently received the material from Mark Ayres, the Radiophonic Workshop archivist at the BBC,” recalls Caroline. “When I got there, it was a really exciting moment. It affected me very deeply. It felt like an invitation to enter into the world she had created and that sort of picked up my feelings about wanting to make a film as well.”
The other key protagonist in the story of ‘Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes’ is Cosey Fanni Tutti, who provides the amazing soundtrack. Caroline Catz confesses she’s a long-time fan of Throbbing Gristle and says she has a particular fondness for Cosey’s ‘Time To Tell’ solo album. But it was a 2017 visit to London’s Cabinet Gallery to see Cosey’s ‘Szabo Sessions’ exhibition that first sparked the collaboration. It was there, amid the white walls and bright images of a progressively unclad Cosey, shot in 1977 by American photographer Joseph Szabo, that Caroline had something of an epiphany.
“I was in the basement of the gallery and there was a film that Cosey had made for Hull’s City of Culture festival,” she remembers. “I was just listening to the music and watching the film, and it reminded me of the feeling I’d had listening to ‘Doctor Who’ as a child. There was something really primal and fascinating about this sound – you can’t really understand where it has come from, but you become very emotionally attached to it. It was at that moment it struck me that this was the type of feeling I wanted for my film about Delia. It suddenly dawned on me that it needed to submerge you in sound. So I was having this fantasy, sitting there thinking, ‘God, can you imagine if Cosey would do it?’.”
Although Caroline didn’t know it at the time, Cosey had followed a similar path in her growing fascination with Delia.
“What Caroline said about not knowing where the sounds come from, that was the key for me,” says Cosey. “When I hear a piece of music and I recognise a preset or something else about it, when I know how it’s been done, it can immediately make me turn it off, because I know it’s lazy. It’s a lazy way of making music and it doesn’t give me anything emotionally. But with Delia, with the sounds I heard way back as a child, I had no idea how they’d been done.”
As such, the opportunity to collaborate wasn’t a hard sell for either party.
“I was probably primed before Caroline came up and asked me!” says Cosey. “Carter Tutti had already done ‘Coolicon’, a single dedicated to Delia and the object that was her prized sound-making machine, so I thought the film sounded interesting. I was really quite flattered that Caroline had considered me for it, to be honest. There are a lot of other musicians who would have jumped at the chance, I’m sure.”
Even so, it’s hard to think of someone better suited to the role than Cosey. It was an inspired move to recognise that this project, with its strong emphasis on sound, needed a musician who shared her own sense of kinship with the Radiophonic Workshop star.
“I felt I could do her justice because I think we had quite a similar approach to making music,” continues Cosey. “We both wanted to get in there and find what was possible, not what was already there. Caroline and I hit it off right away and we had the same idea about how we wanted to work with Delia, so it was like the three of us involved in the project. We wanted to bring her along with us. She was always there, no matter what we were doing. She was never at a distance, either visually or musically.”
Their methodology made it seem that Caroline and Cosey were creating something almost in conjunction with Delia Derbyshire, not papering over the cracks or treating her with the shiny objectification of a Hollywood music biopic.
“It was kind of an imagined collaboration because she didn’t have the opportunity to turn us down!” laughs Caroline. But I think both of us wanted to tackle the subject without trespassing into areas we felt belonged solely to Delia. Now and then, we’d touch on something and think, ‘No, we can’t go there…’. I wanted everything to be connected to what she wanted us to know about her, especially to the sounds she made, because she put so much of herself into what she created.”
With the project fully underway, Caroline and Cosey travelled to Manchester to search through Delia’s archives together. The director and musician went partly looking for further inspiration and partly, with the blessing of the Delia Derbyshire estate, to source original sounds that could be used for the film scenes and on the soundtrack.
“We were sitting in the library and we both had headphones on,” says Caroline. “We were listening and making notes, and every once in a while we’d look at each other and nod and go, ‘Yes! That one!’. We couldn’t really talk to each other because we had to be quiet, but in a way it was great to have that restraint because it meant we developed a very intuitive connection. We would come out full of inspiration and ideas, which would spark new themes for the film. I’d already written a first draft by that point, but I put a lot of new stuff in after I’d met Cosey and we started working on the music. That made sense because everything had to come from the music.”
“For me, I think it was the sounds that were experiments that really changed my understanding of Delia,” adds Cosey. “A lot of them were similar to things I’d just been doing at home and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, her head was in the same kind of place as mine’. It sent little shivers down my spine. It was all that time ago, but when I think about the early 1970s, that’s what I was doing as well.
“It’s odd to think of us both in London, her at the BBC and me in Hackney. The idea of that appealed to me. It occurred to me, ‘Maybe I do have a place in this story, in this film,’ because we were both active making sounds that hadn’t been heard before – at the same time, but in different places and for different reasons. That’s what shifted my view of Delia from being a listener and an admirer of her work, to feeling like I had some affinity with her.”
The Manchester trip proved highly rewarding. Outside of Cosey’s original material, most of the audio makes use of clips they picked out from the archives. Caroline was keen to break down some of Delia’s techniques and again, in a somewhat topsy-turvy slant to filmmaking that only makes sense in a film about Delia Derbyshire, it started with the sounds.
“When we did the ‘Doctor Who’ scene, for instance, I really wanted to make sure we found a coherent way to present it,” explains Caroline. “You hear it talked about a lot, but it’s very hard to visualise. Then for the soundtrack, it was about having access to those things that Cosey could incorporate and illustrate the film with. So the sound works in two ways. I wrote a kind of scene-by-scene setlist, as if they were album tracks. I gave each scene a fantasy track title and underneath I wrote descriptions of moods. I was trying to communicate to Cosey, ‘It would be great to have a track that felt like this’, because they were very abstract ideas…”
“Actually, that’s very Delia, isn’t it?” interjects Cosey. “She would get things like that on her BBC worksheet.”
“Exactly!” says Caroline. “You can see that when you look in the archives. In the ‘Doctor Who’ soundtrack brief, for example, it says ‘wind, bubbles’ and ‘clouds’, and then something that would sound like ‘a gothic altarpiece for radio’. So I had access to the files when I was editing and Cosey had access for when she did her pieces, but they were two very separate processes.
“I didn’t know the alchemy of what Cosey was doing with her stuff and I didn’t want to know. I never asked what she was using or not using. I’d send my notes over to her, she’d work on them, and then they would appear like these beautiful little packages. So I had Delia and then I had Cosey interpreting Delia, giving her take on the scenes, and I dipped into both worlds all the way through the film.”
‘Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes’ is more arthouse than mainstream cinema. It makes a virtue of the gaps in Delia Derbyshire’s life, jumping between the key points in her story and creating layers in both the visuals and the audio, which feel spliced together, as if not only the content but the entire construction reflects the unique mind of this towering figure in the history of electronic music.
Cosey Fanni Tutti’s soundtrack is a significant part of the experience, enveloping Delia’s original sounds and crafting another narrative thread in which Cosey appears on-screen, showing her involvement in the spiritual quest for communion with Delia. It can be a little disconcerting at first, especially if you’re used to vegging out to ‘The Crown’. But the more you watch, the more that you’re drawn, like a celluloid ayahuasca trip, into Delia’s world.
“I keep coming back to how Delia remains a mystery,” says Caroline. “Even with all the years I’ve spent on the film, all the time we spent at the archives, all the conversations Cosey and I have had about her… I feel more connected to her now, but she’s still mysterious. But that’s as it should be. I think respecting the privacy that she chose for herself at the end of her life was important to me.
“So what we have are fragments of truth. Some are fleshed out more than others, but I wanted to bring the pieces together in a similar way to splicing together tape. I wanted to present them as I found them and understood them. I didn’t want it to be a biopic. It couldn’t be. I wanted to see if I could discover more about this person who had entered my imagination. When you listen to her music, you’re being invited to imagine, and that’s what I wanted the tone of this film to be.”
While Caroline and Cosey were both devoted Delia Derbyshire fans before making the film, it’s clear from the conversation how much closer they feel to her. Most tellingly, they consistently refer to her as “Delia”. After years of research, they are now on first name terms.
“I don’t know Delia, but I’ve an understanding of her through her friends and what we’ve learned from the archive,” says Cosey. “So, yeah, I would not call her anything other than Delia. I think it’s become personal. At the end, it feels like we’ve unpacked that and we’ve found Delia on our own terms. She is no longer ‘Delia Derbyshire, the electronic music icon’. She’s just Delia.”
‘The Myths And The Legendary Tapes’ will be broadcast as part of the BBC’s Coventry City of Culture programming