Tag Archives: Nicola McCartney

159: Standing Wave

27 Aug

Nicola McCartney’s Standing Wave is a portrait of and tribute to the wonderful Delia Derbyshire. If, like me, the only Derbyshire you were aware of was a county in England, then this play will surprise and astound you.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire at work at the BBC

It was delightful to discover this remarkable English woman through Nicola McCartney’s writing. Delia worked in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, creating sounds, splicing tape and making music before synthesizers were invented. She created all the sound effects and the recording of Ron Grainer’s ‘Doctor Who’ theme. “Did I really write this?” he asked when he first heard it. Apparently he was so impressed that he suggested she should get half the royalties. But the BBC insisted on no staff names being attached to any work, so that never eventuated.

Nicola McCartney makes this more than a straightforward biographical work by creating two Delias in her play. One is Delia Derbyshire in 1964, working at the BBC, the other is Delia Hunter (her married name) in 1973, two weeks married and escaping her husband to stay at the gallery home of artist Li Yuan Chia. The two Delias overlap, feed into each other and reflect the times and the amazing mind of a woman who saw music as equations and heard maths as music.

DELIA DERBYSHIRE: Mathematics is the music of reason; music, the mathematics of the sense. Yeah?

There is a third actor on stage, a male actor who plays a character much like Doctor Who, taking Delia Hunter back in time, and who also plays the men and women in Delia’s life. And her list of lovers and friends is a little like a who’s who of the 60s and 70s. There was Brian Hodgson (her dear friend and work colleague), David Vorhaus (her lover and musical protege), Paul McCartney and many more.

BRIAN HODGSON: It’s a wonderful idea… I love it that you’re collecting sounds from the pyramid artefacts. Beautiful. Simple. Genius.

DELIA HUNTER: Oh, it’s obvious. What else was I going to use? You can’t create the sound of Tutankhamun’s tomb with a sine wave generator! And the sound of the ram’s horn… Exquisite… Like this…  It’s the equation for it… the shape of a ram’s horn. I sent it to Angela on a postcard… Beautiful…! That’s how it feels – the sound of… Of blackness… Isn’t it…? To die so young…

When Delia created music she used everything at her disposal in the most imaginative and artistic ways. In the play she describes creating the music for moment when camels ride off in a film. She recorded her own voice and broke it up for the ‘hooves’ and used the sound made when she struck her lampshade.

DELIA HUNTER: So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs…

In McCartney’s portrayal Delia drinks much too much and is obsessed by sound and recording. She practically lives at the BBC, staying up all night to perfect the pieces on which she’s working and drinks wine through a straw while riding her bicycle to and from work. She is a marvellously eccentric and brilliant character and I’m grateful to McCartney for making me aware of the incredible Delia Derbyshire.

As the two Delias say: The best thing about having rules is that when you break them it makes something beautiful.

Listen to some of Delia’s music and recordings here.

Standing Wave is currently unpublished. (The title comes from the term for when sound bursts between two reflective surfaces.)

Cast: 2F, 1M

84: Lifeboat

13 Jun

Scottish playwright Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat is a gorgeous play for two female actors, based on the true story of the WWII torpedoing of a ship carrying children who were evacuating Britain. Two girls, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, spent 19 hours clinging to an upturned lifeboat, willing each other to survive. Of more than 90 children, only 11 survived including Bess and Beth.

Bess Walder in 1940

Bess Walder in 1940, aged 15

It’s an incredible story and McCartney has written it to be accessible to children and young audiences, but it would be just as moving for adult audiences.

Between them, the two actors play an array of characters, including the girls’ parents, teachers and friends, giving an intimate picture of life in Britain in WWII and, of course, of hanging onto a lifeboat in the freezing ocean.

BESS: Waves are dark, icy, angry – bump – the boat keeps
BETH: Bang – rocking me
BESS: Thump Throwing me up side bump side down.
BETH: Need to keep my
BESS: Head out of the water
BETH: It – smack hurts…
BESS: Glasses, must keep hold of my –
BETH: Mum…I want my mum.
BESS: Can’t see anything without my glasses… Look!
BETH: Hanging on…
BESS: Hanging on…Other hands. Grown up hands hanging on too.
BETH: Mr Leather gloves.
BESS: Mrs Jewelled hands
BETH: Mr Gold watch

One by one the adult hands let go and sink, until it’s just Bess and Beth, clinging to the same rope, facing each other and telling each other to keep going.

The respite for the audience comes in all the humour as they re-enact their stories, showing how they came to be on the boat.

BESS: The air raid shelter’s underneath the school down our road. It’s… packed… bodies everywhere… You all have to jam in together – mums and dads and children and babies and grannies and grandpas and neighbours and.dogs and – hey wait! Get that dog out of here…! Sometimes we have to sleep down here all night until the All Clear sounds.

BETH: What’s nice is that you feel safe… You know it’s dangerous but you go to sleep with all the adults around you, talking, whispering, singing …in the dark. [The people in the shelter start singing.]

BESS: And in the morning when the all clear sounds, I can go out and collect souvenirs – shrapnel.

BETH: I’ve got two bits of German bomber tail fin and six empty bullet cartridges! My mum says:

BETH’S MUM: Ladies do not collect bits of old scrap metal… [Inspecting.] Oh, that looks interesting, where did you find that?

Lifeboat has been performed internationally to great acclaim and will be published later this year.

Cast: 2F