Why the British elites were determined to suppress ‘pirate’ radio

Richard Rudin, Liverpool John Moores University

15 November 2018

In August 2017, in the midst of the ‘silly season’, newsrooms around the UK had the excuse to indulge in one of their favourite types of story: an anniversary of an event in popular culture. It was 50 years since the coming into effect of the Marine (etc.) Broadcasting (Offences) Act (MBOA), which was designed, and to a large extent succeeded, in banishing from the airwaves a veritable pop armada of ‘pirate’ radio ships off the British coasts.

The anniversary was marked by numerous broadcast and print features, a special weekend service on BBC local radio from a former Lightship, on the Essex coast, featuring some of the original 1960s DJs, and even a two-day convention.

Contrary to the information in much of the media, the coming into force of the Act did not spell the end of offshore radio. Both of the two Radio Caroline ships (one based off Essex, the other off the coast of the Isle of Man) stayed on air for over six more months, until both were boarded in the early hours of March 3rd, 1968; the transmitters were silenced without warning to staff and listeners, and the ships towed away by a company which was claiming unpaid debts for its tendering service. This March 3rd, Roger Day, who was due to host the breakfast show on the southern ship on that fateful morning 50 years ago, finally put to air that broadcast-that-never-was, on Radio Caroline, now available both on an authorised, albeit low-power AM frequency, and online.

The term ‘pirate radio’ has been used for many kinds and forms of unauthorised services, including, in the UK, onshore, mostly urban stations. This Blog – based on the presentation I made to IAMHIST 2017 in Paris, France – is concerned with the reaction by the UK elites to radio stations broadcasting from ships or former anti-aircraft forts around the British coast, which were able to broadcast without a license through being outside the then three mile legal limit of UK law. They broadcast at a time when the BBC had only a few hours a week of ‘pop’ music, in heavily-scripted and highly produced shows, with the only other radio outlet targeting the British pop-loving audience being the evenings-only Radio Luxembourg, whose output was dominated by programmes sponsored by – and consisting only of releases from – the four big record companies.

Although offshore stations had existed before in Europe, with one even providing a short-lived English-language service, and stations spasmodically continued until 1990, this Blog will concentrate on the best-known period and the one in which the stations had the biggest impact: those of the mid-1960s.

The ‘pirates’ of this period can be firmly seen as part of popular culture and collective memory, commemorated in movies, TV programmes and various forms of media nostalgia. My paper argued though that the real threat posed by the pirate stations was not the flouting of the law – domestic and international – or even their supposed challenge to the mores of the day from lascivious disc-jockey chatter and ‘wild’ rock records, but for the fact they represented a challenge to Britain’s post-war consensus in politics and economics.

Although it was not the most successful – commercially or, probably, in audience terms – it is Radio Caroline which proved to be the most enduring pirate station. It was on air, in various iterations, for over a quarter of a century, and has the name most likely to be suggested if the British public is asked to name one of the offshore, pirate stations.

The choice of the name of Caroline by the station’s founder, Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly –  according to a number of interviews given by him over the years – was inspired by Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F Kennedy. The specific inspiration, O’Rahilly said, was from a photo he’d seen in a magazine, showing the infant Caroline crawling under her father’s desk in the Oval Office during a high-powered meeting. Rather than shoo his daughter out, or call for a Nanny, Kennedy stopped the meeting and took a few minutes to play with her. That, O’Rahilly said, was exactly right for his radio station: playful, disruptive; the most powerful man in the world realising that some things were even more important than conferences. It is not hard to see the attraction of the Kennedys to O’Rahilly: they too were Irish outsiders; they represented youth, idealism and a challenge to the existing order. The outsider taking on the establishment was certainly core to O’Rahilly’s self-image and one which he projected onto the station.

In an interview for BBC Radio 1’s The Story of Pop, broadcast on 26 January 1974, O’Rahilly said:

It was part of the revolution. It was the thing that was in their homes every day. It was the realisation …it was a little ship and a bunch of young people doing it against the entire sort of forces of the establishment. And I think it…totally revolutionised the music scene and it established in people’s heads once and for all that people wanted to listen to music any time they wanted to listen to music, day or night.

The restrictive practices embedded in the then radio monopoly provided the initial impetus of the launch of Radio Caroline. Ronan O’Rahilly was in his early 20s, from a by then wealthy Irish family and was involved in the London nightclub ‘scene’, and was trying to promote a singer from the north of England who was white but had a very black, soul and bluesy sound.

O’Rahilly recalled in an interview broadcast in the BBC TV documentary Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, first broadcast on BBC-2 on 1 March 1991:

We went (to) independent recording which was something that didn’t happen in those days, ever. And having done that I remember taking the acetate along to the BBC, who had I think an hour a week (of pop music), and then there was a few hours on Radio Luxembourg at night, which was a bit intermittent signal-wise, and if you weren’t EMI or Decca (record labels) you couldn’t get on Luxembourg. And at that moment I said to them: “Look, all I want to do is to break Georgie Fame, and get him off the ground and I’ve had to record the guy; I’ve had to start a record label, and now it looks like I’ve got to start a radio station”, and it literally was that kind of moment.

But what started as a pragmatic solution to achieving airplay for a new recording artiste seems to have quickly crystallised into something more profound: Ian Ross, who was also in the London ‘scene’ and also had a wealthy father, recalled in the same documentary that O’Rahilly had accessed some research about the potential for a pirate station:

I remember these were his (O’Rahilly’s) exact words: “A small survey on the south coast has been carried out and we’ve established the fact that if a ship…was parked off the south coast…with a transmitter on it the whole f*****g country would tune in and turn on”, and that’s it.

Ranged against the stations were those who defended the BBC monopoly, not least of course in the BBC, which connived and conspired with the government to silence the pirates and prevent the thing it feared – an alternative, licensed, land-based system of commercial radio. They believed such a service could herald a collapse in the audiences for BBC radio, as had been experienced to its TV service in the earlier days of ‘independent’ television.

The corrupting and self-enforcing nature of monopolies was something that economists and intellectuals of the free market persuasion had long argued. In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Friederich Hayek wrote:

The machinery of monopoly becomes identical with the machinery of the state, and the state itself becomes more and more identified with the interests of those who run things than with the interests of the people.

Undoubtedly, the pirate stations de facto ended the BBC’s monopoly, reaching, according to some estimates, as many as 22 million listeners on Sunday mornings alone.

But on the programming side of the 1960s iteration, a study of the programme schedules and output of the pirate stations, including the two Caroline services, reveals a very different approach than would be assumed from much that has been written and portrayed of the stations, not least in the 2009 Richard Curtis movie The Boat That Rocked (named Pirate Radio for the US release). The idea of pirate disc-jockeys constantly pushing the bounds of good taste and decency on air, using obscene language, surrounded by nubile young women, who stayed on board for the sexual gratification of staff and visitors, not least a 17-year-old boy desperate to lose his virginity, is very far from the reality – at least of most of the stations, most of the time.

Not all the stations even broadcast pop or rock music – several were so-called ‘sweet’ music stations and one broadcast a magazine programme, rather akin to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour.

But perhaps the most interesting misrepresentation in Curtis’s movie is that the anti-pirate government of the day is clearly portrayed as Conservative. In a key scene to establish this, the severe and humourless minister, Sir Alistair Dormandy, played by Kenneth Branagh, describes the listeners to the fictional Radio Rock as: “…the drug-takers and the law-breakers and the bottom-bashing fornicators of our recently great country.”

Unlike the impression given in The Boat That Rocked though, the main political opposition to the pirates came not from the Conservative party (which could number many members of the House of Commons and House of Lords who, even if they did not wholly endorse such stations,  certainly supported breaking the BBC’s continued official monopoly of radio), but from the Labour party. This came to power with a small House of Commons majority in October 1964 and was re-elected with an overall majority of nearly a hundred in the general election of March 1966. The major figure and embodiment of opposition to the ‘pirates’ for much of the key period was not, therefore, a stuffy, reactionary Conservative minister, but the relatively young rising star, the then Labour centrist Anthony Wedgwood Benn, later to be one of the key figures on the left-wing in the party and known latterly as plain Tony Benn.

With the quaint title of Postmaster-General, in public he certainly seemed to have a very severe attitude towards the pirates. In numerous interviews in the press and TV, Benn outlined the chief objections to the stations which can be summarised as:

  • They operated on frequencies which had been allocated to other countries under international agreements and the broadcasts interfered with ‘legitimate’ stations and caused complaints to be made to the UK Government.
  • The broadcasts compromised ship to shore communications and even distress signals, so could endanger life.
  • They used copyrighted music without payment to the various bodies which collected and then distributed money to creators of the recordings, and so were essentially parasites – using the artistic efforts of others for their own financial gain and also threatened the livelihood of musicians.
  • By operating just outside the law, and beyond the remit of any government, they challenged the rule of law, and created an anarchic atmosphere which could affect the stability of society and the public’s faith in the authorities.

Linked to that was a further charge – which, as will be seen, was given substance – that behind the apparent innocence and happy chatter and ‘fun’ of the stations, lay criminal and even sinister forces.

The pirates need not have been explicitly controversial or provocative to have caused a very strong reaction – their very existence and popularity proved a rebuke to the elites and a threat to the foundations of what those elites regarded as the essential characteristics of both a communal identity and a civilised society.

The conviction that personal and group restraint against instinctive actions and desires, especially of a sexual nature, was an essential, even prerequisite for civilisation, has been approved by a very wide range of actors and intellectuals across European nations. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud outlines the “increased stimulation” that is needed for recuperation in modern society – the work was published in 1930 – and notes that: “Our ears are excited and over-stimulated by large doses of noisy, obtrusive music.”

The US, or at best mid-Atlantic sound of the pirates, was only part of the objections by both traditional, establishment conservatives and left-wingers in the UK to pirate radio. On the conservative/establishment right the stations embodied a direct attack on Britain; polluting, vulgarising and debasing a sophisticated, intellectual and civilised culture.

These views and objections dovetailed with those on the intellectual left: to them, the pirate stations represented the commodification of culture, the packaging of passive and easily swayed audiences to advertisers, and an imposition of commercialisation into a medium that, they believed, should be used to enrich and nurture people’s lives. They argued this should be financed, as with the BBC, by a communally paid fund in the public interest. Their view was, in short, that the airwaves were a public resource and should be used for public benefit, not private profit.

Hostility to aspects of post-war popular culture from the left and claims about its malign influence, was not new. Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy was published almost a decade before Radio Caroline came on air. In one chapter, Hoggart provides his interpretation of the lives, thinking and influences of teenage boys and young men who frequent what he calls ‘milk-bars’ and are in the thrall of ‘nickelodeans’, or juke boxes. The males who plough their money into these machines are, he suggests:

…living to a large extent in a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to those of an American life…perhaps most of them are less intelligent than the average, and are therefore even more exposed to the debilitating mass-trends of the day.

In his 2007 book Media and Communication, Paddy Scannell argues that there is a more positive approach to the conformity and homogenization of output aimed at a mass audience: the reluctance to offend necessarily requires more tolerance:

This ability to recognize and accept the otherness of people is powerfully augmented by the mass media who are tutors in political tolerance for other-directed individuals…Their style…is emollient. Their manner is sociable and sincere.

In an interview for the aforementioned Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, Benn was clearly in no doubt that the pirate stations were a conscious attack on the nature of British society at the time – a challenge of which he seemed in his latter years to have approved, believing the stations were: “… part of an attack upon a very, very conservative society”.

Reflecting on them later, though, in that BBC documentary, he thought they might have helped the establishment at a time of great social and political turmoil:

The other side of the ‘60s, which was the anti-Vietnam war movement, the challenge to the established order, were never reflected on commercial radio or pirate radio. They just continued to pump out the music, and in a way the establishment came to like the pirates because they offered what I think they realised they had to concede – unlimited pop culture and sexual liberation as a way of diverting and diffusing the pressure for social change.

Benn’s criticism undoubtedly has credence with most of the pirate stations. The diversionary element of the pirates, especially away from challenges to the dominant political ideology of the day, might well have been noted by Noam Chomsky. In his 1989 collection of lectures, Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies, he argues that: “In a democratic political order, there is always the danger that independent thought might be translated into political action, so it is important to eliminate the threat at its root.”

Moreover, as Erving Goffman notes in the section ‘Radio Talk’ in Forms of Talk (1981): “The issue, then, is not what offends the listener, but what a listener might offend some listener or other” [original emphasis].

It is, difficult though, given the nature of their output, to imagine how the pirates might have included a sustained critique of, say, the war in Vietnam, outside the broadcasting of ‘protest songs’. As has been noted, the pirates of the ‘60s were mainly about the avoidance of controversy, even if they did play some records which were excluded from the BBC airwaves (the Corporation has always maintained that it never ‘bans’ records; it just advises producers to avoid some tracks!). As the main purpose for most of the stations was to build as big and loyal audience as possible to sell to advertising agencies, the avoidance of controversy might be seen as imperative.

The shooting dead of a pirate radio operator by a rival in an English country house in June 1966 provided the impetus, indeed excuse, for the government – buoyed by its recent general election success – to introduce an anti-pirate radio bill. Whilst this could not outlaw stations broadcasting outside the UK government’s jurisdiction, it could and did provide for criminal sanctions to any UK company or individual British citizen promoting, advertising on, supplying or working for such a station.

As the MBOA entered its final parliamentary stages in the spring of 1967, the two Caroline stations ran on and off-air campaigns to defeat Labour and promote the Conservatives in local council elections. The off-screen reporter in ‘The O’Rahilly File’, an episode of the ITV-networked World In Action programme, broadcast on 25 September, 1967, some five months after those elections, editorialised that:

The propaganda they broadcast in support for their own interests in the Greater London and Liverpool municipal elections was irresponsible, even in the anarchists’ rulebook, and the threats to smear the character of politicians cost them more in respect than it brought them in sniggers.

After the closedown of most of the stations on or by August 14 1967, the date set for the imposition of the new law, the now out of work DJs were mobbed as they returned to shore, in scenes akin to ‘Beatle-mania’. As noted at the start of this Blog, only one station, Caroline (on its both North and South services) decided to defy the law and carry on broadcasting.

At midnight, in a broadcast that has been variously estimated to have been listened to by between 20 and 30 million across Europe, the South ship of Radio Caroline International, as it was now to be known, broadcast a rousing rendition of the civil rights’ anthem We Shall Overcome. DJ Johnnie Walker, acknowledging that they were now alone, declared that “the station belongs to you…and we love you…Caroline continues.” This was immediately followed by a track from The Beatles from that year, All You Need Is Love.

Within hours Johnnie Walker had recorded and broadcast his extraordinary Man’s Fight for Freedom polemic, which was to be replayed many times over the following weeks. Over stirring, martial music, Walker characterises the determination of the authorities to silence Radio Caroline as part of an epic, historic and continuing battle for liberty, and fantasises about the station being legalised – sailing up the Thames, no less, beaming out love and music to ecstatic crowds and a repentant government. The connection between Britain standing defiantly alone against Nazi-dominated Europe in 1940 – barely a quarter of a century before – and the noble radio station, now the only pirate station to fail to ‘surrender’ and to stay on air, against seemingly impossible odds, was implicit.

Extraordinarily, Labour, which in its 1960s governments had ended official censorship of   theatres, backed a bill to partially de-criminalise homosexual acts between men, legalized abortion, effectively ended capital punishment, and brought in the first anti-discrimination Race Relations Act, had allowed itself to be depicted as the party of repression, and the Conservatives of freedom and opportunity.

In the post-August ’67 period, Radio Caroline certainly developed a critique of society overall and postulated alternatives to the ‘military-industrial complex’, although this may not have found favour with Benn’s ideas of empowerment through collectivism. Through O’Rahilly, a philosophy based on non-violence, individual liberty and free choice, went much deeper than campaigning for alternative radio services to the BBC. In the aforementioned  World In Action programme, O’Rahilly – asked about his political views – states: “I suppose I’m an anarchist.”

A study of interviews with him over several decades suggests that Libertarianism best described his political philosophy. It was certainly virulently anti-Socialist, as he saw Socialism as all about controlling and limiting people’s lives. This view was undoubtedly enforced by the actions of the 1966-70 Labour government in the UK in trying to close down the pirate stations.

O’Rahilly told that programme that he believed his phone was being ‘tapped’, and indeed claimed that “a friend“ of his, an MP, had told him so. Asked if he thought those in authority regarded him as an enemy of the state, he replied that:

I would say one or two official people I have spoken to on the subject who regard me as something far worse than an enemy of the state. I mean some of them believe in their mind that to bring back hanging would be too moderate a view for what is going on….you’re challenging every belief they have in their body and therefore they’re not prepared to compromise. They’re not prepared to consider maybe there’s something else going on and we don’t understand it.

O’Rahilly is clearly more interested in challenging the underlying cause of violence – whether by the state or other actors – rather than the specific manifestation of the war in Vietnam. He believes in challenging authority and ideas that were negative and destructive; in particular the emphasis on materialism and the conditioning of people to the normalisation of violence, through the actions of governments: “We have to challenge because we have to come up with a new system”, he tells the World In Action programme. He advocates the breaking up of countries into thousands of new ones, to prevent a small group of people becoming too powerful and controlling the population. The reporter voice-over says by way of conclusion towards the end of the programme:

What is interesting about O’Rahilly is a lot of what he says represents the feelings of an increasing number of young people who are choosing all sorts of ways of showing their dissatisfaction of the way society is run. Whether they join the rebels of previous generations in the respectable city suburbs is yet to be seen but it would be unwise not to recognise their potential as a political influence.

The fascination with the Kennedys and their promise of change in politics, continued long after the death of the man whose daughter provided the station name, with the focus switching to President Kennedy’s brother, Robert. In Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, Ian Ross recalls dinners organised by an Anglo-Irish society in in London that would receive transatlantic calls from Senator Bobby Kennedy “to the youth of Britain, and Ronan would take the tapes to Number 10” (Downing Street), for Prime Minister Harold Wilson to hear.

Further evidence that O’Rahilly’s views were than a short-lived, vogueish pose, is provided by the fact that the 1970s iterations of Radio Caroline were even more rooted in the hippy-ish ideals of the late ‘60s than they had been during that time. The Times reported on 18 June 1973 that in the previous week the station had broadcast a two and a half minute appeal six times: “…from the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia, aimed at the women of France…It was a plea to the mothers of France to influence their Government to stop the proposed tests.” In 1974 the station supported a ‘Loving Awareness’ festival at Stonehenge which became involved in a High Court battle (The Times, 13 August, 1974).

The pirates’ output, I argue then, in what is an apparent paradox both moulded a mass taste but also privileged individuality and tolerance. It was social collectivism that was side-lined, as this threatened mass consumption of consumer goods and their ‘planned obsolescence’.

The stations can, I think, be seen as part of the sometimes painfully slow, sometimes head-spinningly fast, post-war adjustment for a country that was faced with a loss of empire and uncertainty about its power and position in the world; a boom in young people coming of age; huge changes to social attitudes and sexual mores, and a substantial increase in disposable incomes. The elites – both conservative and socialist radical – were right to be concerned by the challenge the stations posed, both to tradition and of communal ideas of service and public ownership in the ‘post-war settlement’. The pirate stations can be regarded as the outriders to fundamental changes in the British economy and culture, which developed full-throttle in the 1980s.

Richard Rudin is a Senior Lecturer in journalism and broadcasting at Liverpool John Moores University. He has been a journalist, presenter, producer and Programme Controller in various UK radio stations, BBC and commercial, as well as British forces’ broadcasting in Germany. He is a past Chair of the International Division of the Broadcast Education Association. HIs publications include Broadcasting in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); he was one of the key contributors to the three-volume Encyclopedia of Radio (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003) and has had work published in journals both on British broadcasting history and on digital radio. In addition to the UK and mainland Europe, he has presented papers at conferences in the US, Japan and New Zealand.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University

Anthony T. McKenna, University of Derby

6 November 2018

Fifteen years ago, I was struggling to decide what the focus of my PhD thesis would be. A lifelong obsession with 1950s and 60s Americana had led me to the name Joseph E. Levine, one of American cinema’s great showmen. Scanning the internet for information about him, I happened across the website of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which informed me that the center held some Levine-related items. The website is now much improved, but it was rather rudimentary then, so I contacted the center for some more information. Alex Rankin, assistant director for acquisitions, replied that they had forty-three boxes of Levine’s personal papers. The focus of my PhD research was thus decided, and I visited the centre seven times over the next thirteen years, researching my PhD thesis and subsequent monograph on Levine.

Levine was the most versatile movie promoter of his generation, and certainly the most diverse. He promoted a dizzying inventory of juxtaposing film forms, from European arthouse to cheap exploitation to teen weirdies to Hollywood blockbusters. It is therefore fitting that his papers should be housed in an archive bearing the name of Howard Gotlieb, who was a considerable showman in his own right. Gotlieb’s unaffected eclecticism and terrier-like tenacity is imprinted on the archive. It holds more than 2000 collections and is a tribute to the indiscriminate appetites and acquisitive nature of Gotlieb, who saw archival acquisitions as a combative, zero-sum contest.

Gotlieb struggled, strategized and schemed to create BU’s archive. Lacking the funds to build a prestigious collection from scratch following his appointment in 1962, Gotlieb asked promising or up-and-coming figures to donate their papers to the archive in the hope that they would one day become eminent. Many remained unknown, but others became significant figures in American culture, including James Clavell, David Halberstam, Dan Rather, and Martin Luther King. Collections belonging to the already notable required a different approach. Gotlieb was relentless in pursuit of his quarry, and would charm, flatter, cajole, grovel, or simply exasperate his targets. He emerged victorious in securing the personal papers of Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, and Bette Davis; but was battle-scarred and defeated when he lost a prize, such as when Gloria Swanson donated her papers to the opposition at the University of Texas, despite Gotlieb’s persistent pestering campaign.

The Joseph E. Levine collection was acquired through more traditional means. Levine was a native Bostonian, and the collection was donated to the center by his son, Richard. The collection spans Levine’s entire career in the movie business but, as with most collections, there are many frustrating gaps. Of interest to even the most casual observer are letters from the likes of Spiro Agnew, Richard M. Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, who ask Levine for advice or thank him for campaign contributions. Horror buffs would be thrilled to meet Fats, the ventriloquist’s dummy that drives his owner to murder in Levine’s production of Magic (1978).  For the Levine researcher, there are many more treasures.

Levine may have corresponded with presidents in the 1960s and 70s, but in the 1930s he was hawking exploitation films around New England. The financial ledger for one of these, The Body Beautiful (c. 1938), a long-forgotten sex-hygiene film, provides insights into Levine’s operation at this stage in his career, and the appetite New Englanders had for disreputable films. The files relating to another of Levine’s early career ventures, a feature-length compilation of silent film clips entitled Gaslight Follies (1945), are especially fascinating. The files contain press clippings from local newspapers, along with press and publicity materials, and photographs of Levine on the road. The portrait of a tyro-showman that emerges from these papers, of Levine promoting his own film in the provinces and proudly mounting related reports in a scrapbook, gives wonderful insights into Levine’s early days as a promoter.

The real gold of this archive lies at the opposite end of Levine’s career, in the wealth of information related to A Bridge Too Far (1977), his biggest production. These files contain letters and telexes to and from the key players: the director Richard Attenborough, screenwriter William Goldman, members of the cast, crew, and many others. The detailed correspondence takes the researcher from casting to completion and is supplemented by the personal diary of Levine’s wife, Rosalie, which provides further detail. Researchers are usually only given glimpses of a film’s production in the archives. It is rare indeed to be given so many pieces of a jigsaw just waiting to be put together.

Other films well represented in the collection include Magic – preview cards reveal that test audiences felt that the evil ventriloquist’s dummy trope was pretty hackneyed back then; Gandhi (1981) – Levine was deeply involved in casting before he abruptly pulled out of the project in 1979; and Tattoo (1981) – Maud Adams was cast as the female lead after Nastassja Kinski failed to show up for a meeting in Paris. Levine’s 1960s heyday is, however, poorly represented. But his appointment book from 1965 reveals many meetings with the then editor of Variety, Abel Green, which may go some way to explaining the paper’s positive accounts of Levine’s antics during this time. There is also Levine’s personal copy of the October 1961 issue of Mad magazine, which contains a strip entitled ‘Mad Visits Joe LeVenal: Hollywood’s Latest Producing Genius’, and it would be interesting to know what Levine thought of seeing himself ridiculed in this manner. One suspects he would have approved, given that the Mad lampoon was only a slight exaggeration of Levine’s own exaggerations – and it was free publicity.

I’ll wrap up with a few pointers. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is free to use by appointment, and easy to find – just get the T to Boston University Central Station, and it is on the fifth floor of the Mugar Library Building. The archivists are knowledgeable and keen to discuss their collections. No cameras or electronic equipment is allowed in the reading room – pencil and paper only (and white handling gloves, of course).

Finally, no report on the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center would be complete without a mention of the grand and ornate reading room, one of the most beautiful I have ever worked in. It is such a beautiful place to work in that you may wish to plan your next research project according to the archive’s holdings. Perhaps I might write that book about Leonard Nimoy after all …

Anthony T. McKenna is a senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Derby. He is the author of Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and his Revolutions in Film Promotion, co-author of The Man Who Got Carter: Michael Klinger, Independent Film Production and the British Film Industry, and co-editor of Beyond the Bottom Line: The Producer in Film and Television Studies.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

The Office Cat swipes its final paw(s)…

The Office Cat and Jerry Kuehl

01 November 2018

The Office Cat turns its attention to The Vietnam War

It’s well known that: ‘Whoever Pays the Piper Calls the Tune’, so I was pleased to learn the 18-part series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, transmitted beginning on 17 September 2017 on the American PBS network, was bankrolled by at least 20 people and institutions including The Bank of America, David Koch, and the Blavatnik Foundation. Let me refresh the memory of younger viewers.  The Bank of America saw its property in Santa Barbara burnt down by students in 1971, and in 2014 paid the US Justice Department nearly 17 billion dollars  to settle its obligations resulting from its involvement in toxic mortgages, and about whom Ken Burns has said he is ‘grateful to the entire Bank of America family’ which has ‘long supported our  country’s  veterans.’  David Koch, with his brother Charles, heavily supported the Tea Party.  Leonard Blavatnik, the richest man in England (at least in 2015), gave a million dollars towards the inauguration of Donald Trump, as did the Bank of America. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation all contributed to bankrolling the series, so I was reassured that all would be well, and that the pipers would not permit themselves to play many discordant tunes. They certainly couldn’t find room for Country Joe and the Fish who sang:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He’s got himself in a terrible jam

Way down yonder in Vietnam

So put down your books and pick up a gun,

We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

I suspect that’s because the budget for music clearances was exhausted by the cost of securing rights to use the songs of the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Still, I was delighted to be asked to help on this series by directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, (along with deputy director Christopher Marrion), producers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sandra Bolstein, and writer Geoffrey C Ward. They made sure that viewers couldn’t help but notice, as Mr. Ward so elegantly put it: ‘The war was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstanding, American over confidence, and Cold War misunderstandings.’

Though I took no personal credit for the effort, Burns and Novick were not alone in making this 18-hour series for Florentine Films. As directors, they reported to themselves as producers, but also to producer Sandra Bolstein, and to co-producers Mike Welt, Saliman El-Amin, Ho Dang Hoa, to associate producers David P. Schmidt, Lucas B. Frank, Mariah A. Doran, consulting producer Benjamin Wilkinson, and Jim Corbley, the producer for WETA which transmitted the series in the USA. to Mark C. Edwards the commissioning editor from Arte France, and to the coordinating producer for Ken Burns, Elle Carrière. They had the help of 24 programme advisers, including Todd Gitlin, who says he  grew up believing what he was told by newsreaders on television and Neil Sheehan, who appeared in the series as a ‘Journalist’,  but not Noam Chomsky, or John Pilger, a journalist who also  reported from Vietnam, who did not believe that the war was begun in good faith by decent people:  ‘There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous,’ he said.

The series also benefited from a Senior Creative Consultant, Geoffrey Wave, and even from a Dialogue Editor, Marlena Grazaslewicz.  The credits for sources of film and photographs included 21 film sources and 40 sources for still photographs, but neither a film nor a photographic researcher was named, though Polly Petit, a human film researcher whose work I respect was one of 23 people credited with ‘additional research’. This gave me an opportunity to show off my own creative skills. I was encouraged by the announcement which solemnly intoned as the end credits rolled: ‘Some archive materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators’. I puzzled mightily as to what this might mean, but I understood it as giving me carte blanche to be inventive.  The ‘original creators’ can only have been individual camera operator or still photographers whether on the ground, in the air, on board naval vessels, or in the case of air to ground film of bombing raids, the airman or airmen who set up the camera to make the recording in the first place. Did this mean that some cameramen didn’t actually record in real time, but deliberately reshot ‘staged’ material after the event—whatever that event was?

I found myself asking: why would they have done that? When would they have done that? How could they have had the opportunity, especially in combat situations to do that?  But if what the credit indicates is that some camera operators not always operated on their own but pointed their cameras as they were told to by a director, that would mean another person was involved in the filming and not just the original creator. Needless to say, that is hardly something any military operation could afford, especially in the midst of a fire fight.

Ronnie Noble, a Second World War cameraman who was with the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert of North Africa, wrote as part of one of his shot lists:

I find that when in the very front line it is impossible to build up or follow through a complete story, the situation is far too fluid and when under constant shell fire and continual bombing it is impossible to ask units to stunt shots to build up a story. The only way to do this is to stay in the back areas, and then, none of the action shots are genuine.

For ‘stunt’ today’s reader might like to substitute ‘fake’.

I was troubled by a further, nagging, point: what is the force of ‘may’ in the context of the announcement? If it means sometimes ‘original creators’ may have ‘stunted’ elements and sometimes they didn’t that would mean the viewer, when he or she tried to establish the authenticity of any archive material is faced with a daunting, if not impossible task.  Without access to the original shot lists—similar to those written by Ronnie Noble—it’s simply not possible to determine which elements are genuine and which are ‘stunted; or to put the matter bluntly, faked.  In today’s Post Truth era, we might call them Alternative Facts. I took that to be an encouragement for my creativity. I also thought it might help me to learn more about still photography because of the number of photographs used in the series.

Provided it had been staged by its ‘original creators’ there could be no objection to the inclusion of a still of Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Gordon Lonsdale and John F Kennedy seated around a conference table in Hanoi, or even Saigon or Dien Bien Phu. A whole new vista opened up but somehow I felt the series Communications Manager, Jessica Shuttleworth, might have been asleep at the wheel when the wording of that end credit was agreed. But it’s certainly good to know that Mr Burns and Ms Novick along with their fellow directors, consultants, advisers, and original creators, have made a substantial contribution to our era of Alternative Facts and Post Truth.

‘War is Hell’, as the 79 interviewees (but not including John Kelly, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger or John McCain since I believed they had nothing useful to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the Vietnamese conflict) showed. I’m a sensitive Cat, so I made sure that Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia, was described as ‘Army’ rather than ‘Triple Amputee/Army’ and ensured the camera person filmed him only in close-up. I felt there was enough bloodshed in the series and didn’t want to give the impression that he might have been damaged in the service of his country.  When it came to the other side, I made sure that Bao Dinh was described as ‘N. Vietnamese Army’ rather than as the author of ‘The Sorrow of War’, since few Americans will have heard of his searing account of the conflict in Vietnam.  In talking about Neil Sheehan, I thought it would be inappropriate to point out he was an adviser to the series, so I simply made sure he was described as a ‘Journalist’. As for John Negroponte, in the wrap up in program 10, I decided not to allude to his activities as Ambassador to the UN, where he propagated the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, since I felt that after watching the series, viewers would have seen enough about senior officials lying to the American people.

Since  I’m  really a film researcher, and not a fact checker, it’s not for me to call into question anything Mr Ward has to say, though one of my human colleagues, Edwin Moise of Clemson University—who was conspicuously not one of the 24 programme advisors—has  pointed out  the  story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in program 3 was based on his own mistaken speculation in 1996, even though he has now corrected the error. This is what he says:

When I looked at Episode 3 of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series “The Vietnam War” on PBS, I was slightly embarrassed to realize that one of the errors came from me.  In my book on the Tonkin Gulf incidents published in 1996, I had looked at American reports on a North Vietnamese radio message intercepted on August 4, 1964.  The US government interpreted the message as describing preparations for an attack on US Navy destroyers.  I said that interpretation was unlikely; it was “far more likely” that the message was about preparations for defense against an attack by 34A raiding vessels operating out of Danang.   It is now clear that both interpretations were wrong.  The message had not been about preparations for a combat operation of any sort, offensive or defensive.  It was about plans to move two damaged North Vietnamese vessels to a port where they could be repaired.

The documentary treated my incorrect guess for the likely explanation as simple truth.’

That means the film which I chose to illustrate the scenes on the 4 August 1964, which include a close up of an American radio operator, though they may be authentic shots of a U.S. Sailor, can’t really claim to show what really transpired off the Vietnam coast. It’s a fine example of an Alternative Fact, and I was able to find many more instances. In program 1, when Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1952, the vehicles shown on the Interstate Highways were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Alternative Fact.  The A-4 Skyhawk jets were in fact F-4 Phantoms. Alternative Fact. It was Charles de Gaulle, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump who finally brought lasting peace to Vietnam. Alternative Fact.


Das Reichsorchester, a film about the Berlin Philharmonic during and immediately after the time when Hitler controlled Germany was first uploaded to YouTube on December 16, 2007, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the orchestra.

I know I should have talked about it then but like many of those in the orchestra, and those who spoke on their behalf, my memory is a bit selective about what really happened all those years ago.  The programme was made by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, directed by Beata Romanowski, and produced for Gala Productions.

Because the Berlin Philharmonic was the jewel in the crown of Nazi musical culture, I didn’t have much difficulty in finding film of its performances not only in concert stages, but on the shop floor of AEG in 1941 which was then—as it still is—a   giant manufacturing concern. I found lovely shots of Wilhem Furtwängler conducting the prelude to Die Meistersinger while the faces of the clean-shaven workers seemed to express rapt attention, though since cameras can show nothing of the life of the mind, they might have been dreaming about their girlfriends.

As the once all-powerful Nazi state came to its own Götterdämmerung – a Twilight of the Gods – with the triumphant Red Army besieging Berlin, I wished I could have found film of the Reichsorchester’s last concert on April 12, 1945–which concluded with the final scenes of the Götterdämmerung. But no cameras were there to record it – the improvised concert hall was dark, with only the lights on the music stands providing illumination.

I did the next best thing by finding colour shots – taken some time after the war – of the ruins of Berlin which I thought perfectly conveyed the ruins of Valhalla, where Richard Wagner’s Gods lived. The shots were made from a low flying aircraft, which I imagine represented Valkyries, just as the women who cleared Berlin’s rubble – the Trümmerfrauen – who were also filmed in colour, might have been Niebelungen, the dwarves who toiled in the bowels of the earth to amass treasure. I’m aware that it’s accepted that Valkyries were not aircraft, and that Trümmerfrauen were women, and full grown women at that, but if my account is seen as a way of providing alternative facts, all becomes clear.


Channel 4: When will they ever learn?

Pearl Harbor: The New Evidence was transmitted by Channel 4 on 4 November 2017.  Though the ‘new evidence’ seems to have been confined to a disputed allegation that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt conspired to bring the United States into the Second World War, I was able to help the production team with other aspects of this film. The programme was directed by Jo Macgregor and produced by Rebecca Hayman and Alan Handel for Handel productions; Arrow International Media; The Movie Network, a division of Bell Media Inc; A+E Television Network; Channel 4; and BBC Worldwide.

A number of films of the events on 7 December 1941 are already in circulation, but I was delighted to offer a new one: images of an aircraft carrier and shots of an American sailor who had seemingly been swept overboard and was struggling to stay afloat.  The fact that no aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor didn’t bother me at all because of the poignancy of the shot of the sailor in danger of going under.  I thought this shot was so striking that I used it twice.  When it came to speaking of the torpedoes used by the Japanese, I set the scene with film of the British assault on 17 November 1940, at Taranto in Italy, when aircraft of the Royal Navy seriously disrupted the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. The attack was carried out at night by a group of carrier-based Swordfish, but no one can see very much at night, so I shifted the time to daylight hours.

I illustrated the principal of how those torpedoes worked with shots of a Grumman Avenger, an American torpedo bomber whose first action was at the battle of Midway in 1942.

In later life, we were told Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, in charge of naval forces at the time of the Japanese attack and who was the scapegoat for American failings, came to believe that ‘Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy to get American into the war, and that it went right up to the President’.  I’d certainly want to work on that film.


Holocaust—the Revenge Plot was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 27, 2018.  The programme was produced and directed by Nick Green who reported to Executive Producers Phil Gurin, Tim Bock, Dinah Lord, and Matthew Barrett for Global Road Entertainment. Since so much of the production took the form of a drama-doc, I wasn’t able to help the team very much, but I did manage to sneak in one of my favourite episodes when it came to showing Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. As Jews were evacuated from the city, I illustrated the scene with shots of the Dutch transit camp in Westerbork, a mere 1640 kilometres distant.


Nazi Victory: The Post War Plan—Transporting the Reich was one of a series of programmes about what might have happened if the Third Reich had won the Second World War. It was produced and directed by Danny O’Brien who had as his assistant producer Matt Bone, and a ‘production for Germany’ Lars von Lennet. It was written by Matt Bone and Guy Walters. They all reported to executive producers Henry Scott and Bruce Burgess for Like a Shot Entertainment and for Adrian Wiles and Emma Sparks. for UKTV (the series was made for Like a Shot Entertainment Production in association with UKTV). It’s been transmitted several times on UKTV, most recently on 30 March 2018.

The fact that Germany had to actually win the war before it could put into effect its plans for the post war period didn’t perturb me at all. I took that as an invitation to explore the ‘what ifs’ of European History. I discovered that when Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he ‘obtained his first private aircraft’, a Junkers JU-52, so I found splendid scenes of that same machine flying over the roofs of Nuremberg during the Nazi party rally of 1934, filmed for the Triumph of the Will, released in 1935. When the invasion of Poland in September 1939 marked ‘the beginning of World War 2’, I illustrated the event with film of German troops re-occupying the Rhineland in 1936. Later, when the fortunes of war turned against the Thousand Year Reich, I found I could illustrate the training of Hitler Youth volunteers to fly jet fighters with scenes of gliders, filmed when what purported to be a time before the establishment of the Luftwaffe in 1935. Perhaps my most ambitious enterprise was to persuade Mr Bone and Mr Walters to speak of death camps in Poland and to assert that Auschwitz received prisoners from 1941 to 1944. The film I found to illustrate that came from a 1948 Polish production by Wanda Jakubowska, of The Last Stage (Ostatan Etap). She herself was a survivor of Auschwitz, so she probably should know when it was made.


The Office Cat, 1931-2018

Jerry and the Office Cat © Vincent Yorke

Jerry Kuehl was an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest was visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of archival footage. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He produced Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries. Jerry sadly passed away in September, and his obituary written by Taylor Downing can be read here.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.




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