29 December 2018 | j-arnold9
A film as quirky and confident as it's subject
BBC 4 music documentaries are great. I love them. I love the eclectic mix of subjects, and I love settling-down late at night and letting the passion of the film-makers give me an appreciation of individuals or bands or genres I didn't think I cared anything about. Or learning about ones I already DID care about, but about which I knew far less than I thought.
Delia Derbyshire is one of those musicians about whom I've always hoovered-up any information I came across, and, also being a fan of Caroline Catz and having seen a couple of her earlier music documentary films, I was delighted to hear that Catz was producing a short film about Delia's life and music.
Caroline Catz is one of those British TV actors who everyone recognizes but not many can name, and she has a talent which - when you begin to pay proper attention - you quickly realize is deserving of infinitely bigger roles than she receives. Music has perhaps always been her first love though, and Delia Derbyshire, The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is her latest self-produced and very personal short film focusing on a musician or musical subject in which she's had a long interest.
After the simple-but-atmospheric Tapestry Goes West - not much more than a home-movie with interviews - Catz's next film was the much more ambitious A Message To The World, a very credible 40-minute documentary in the aforementioned BBC4-style charting the career of 1970s garage rock star Jesse Hector. Entirely self-funded, filmed over a number of years and with an often recalcitrant subject, the end result is as much a tribute to Catz's skills as a producer and director as it is to Hector's boundary-breaking energy and innovation. With sound design by Luke Haines and additional artwork from Sian Pattenden, Catz very successfully fleshes-out limited amounts of original footage into a compelling story of a maverick artist who soared high and left an indellible impression on the musical canvas of his time- but then, entirely by choice - faded from view and into anonymity
Strong parallels could thus be drawn between the story of Jesse Hector and that of Delia Derbyshire and I expected that Catz's most recent film would apply a similar treatment to the subject, and that Delia Derbyshire, The Myths and the Legendary Tapes would thus fit comfortably and competently into that well-trodden BBC4 music documentary format.
I was wrong.
The first clue that something different was afoot was hearing Luke Haines on Boogaloo Radio say that Catz's new film - which is only 13 minutes long - had been made as a sampler and part of a fund-raising campaign for a much more ambitious full-length feature film of the Delia Derbyshire story. Yes - just as new bands record demo tapes to impress radio stations and record companies, Delia Derbyshire, the Myths and the Legendary Tapes has been made as part of a pitch for something much, much bigger.
Truly groundbreaking and unfettered by convention, Delia Derbyshire applied a mathematical understanding to the invididual sounds that she created, recorded, distorted, rerecorded, speeded-up, slowed-down, re-recorded again - and eventually spliced together into some of the very first compositions in the genre we know today as Electronic Music. But even these creations were almost a sideline to the main output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where Derbyshire worked, whose primary purpose was the never-ending supply of TV and radio sound effects, theme tunes and background music.
Many of the most popular BBC shows of the 1960s featured Derbyshire's work, although BBC policy at the time prevented her from ever receiving credit as a composer. Even managing as a woman to get a job in music production at that time was a testament to Derbyshire's redoubtable character - and her combination of bright-burning talent and fearless innovation - together with a bemusement with deadlines and fondness for red wine and snuff - no-doubt made her a force to be reckoned-with in that most infamouly-hide-bound megalith which was the British Broadcasting Corporation of the time..
Caroline Catz's film is as quirky, idiosyncratic and confident as it's main character and features Catz herself in the role of Derbyshire in a montage of scenes played against almost theatrical sets. Whether she's leaping-about with wine bottle and magnetic tape against an illuminated backdrop of studio equipment, trying frustatedly to record the sounds of (stuffed) zoo animals, or verbally slicing-and-dicing an unseen careers advisor, this made-on-a-budget one-woman show leaves the audience both reveling in the unconventionality of Delia Derbyshire, and wanting more.
So this isn't the type of documentary I had assumed it was going to be. In fact it isn't a documentary at all but a showcase of story-hooks around which a conventionally-filmed feature-length biopic could be built - and one which would have an appeal stretching far beyond a mere audience of music geeks. The ingredients are all there - London in the Swinging Sixties, the troubled birth of the most modern musical genre, and a young, attractive, vibrant, brilliant-but-flawed central character battling against the establishment and her own demons - think Made in Dagenham meets A Beautiful Mind meets Walk the Line.
Delia Derbyshire The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is being shown at the London Short Film Festival early in 2019 and is well worth a trip. Let's hope some film studio commissioning editors make the journey too.