A Day at the Archives: BBC Written Archives Centre

Tom May, Northumbria University

9 November 2020


Figure 1: Part of a wall display in the locker room of the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham (Photo taken by author, 15 January 2020).

 

My last trip to the archives was in January 2020 and it was to the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, near Reading, Berkshire. This wonderful resource was originally opened in November 1970, so is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I was actually due to go again for a couple of days in mid-March, but my better half and bioinformatician Rachel rightly told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t best for myself or others for me to travel hundreds of miles down south and back on a train amid the growing public health crisis of Covid-19. It was to take the British government another two weeks or so to start taking the situation anything like as seriously.

But, anyway, for the moment: enough of “These Interesting Times”…! I’ve got an archive to extol. Any researchers of British media, television, history or politics should be chomping at the bit to get inside the unprepossessing white building of the Written Archives Centre whenever this is again possible. Depending on what your research area is, you will be able to access the BBC’s full holdings of micro film, paper files, as well as specialist books on the shelves in the Reading Room and no doubt much else I have yet to discover…

The main thing to be aware of is you will need to book by appointment well in advance to visit. You will be allocated an archivist who will source and bring the archival material you need on a large trolley to the reading room. In a way, this person is like an informal collaborator in how vital their facilitating role is. Across my visits, I have been assisted by two supportive and professional archivists.

Now, I have found the WAC absolutely essential for my personal research: for my PhD, I am writing a history and analysis of BBC1’s influential drama strand Play for Today (1970-84), which is just one month older than the WAC itself! Before I obtained funding to study full time, I had visited the WAC on several occasions in holidays while I was a full-time lecturer in FE. It has always seemed to me like a goldmine, containing not monetisable riches but cultural wealth. To a television and cultural history nerd like myself, this surpasses the Klondike. As well as looking through personnel files and a catalogue of the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I have accessed a full set of audience research reports for The Wednesday Play and Play for Today – which contain the contemporary opinions of the BBC’s carefully calibrated audience panels. As a researcher, you are allowed to photograph such material provided you include the correct copyright card within your photos (either BBC, Crown or third party) and get permission before quoting from or using them in any way.

Figure 2: BBC Audience Research Report of PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Baby Love’ by David Edgar, 3 December 1974 [BBC WAC, VR/74/651] (accessed: 30 July 2015).

See my article on David Edgar’s unduly neglected Play for Today Baby Love at Royal Holloway’s Forgotten Television Drama website here. Suffice it to say, I am not at one with the ‘small group’ of contemporary viewers who found it ‘sordid and depressing’…

In addition, I have consulted BBC Daily Viewing Barometers – which were records of a whole day’s viewing on every terrestrial channel. These are essential to gain detailed audience data from any programme before October 1981 when the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) took over and provided one standardised set of audience measurements. I have also treated myself to the recondite delights of the Television Weekly Programme Review minutes. These were meetings where all the senior BBC managers would gather on a Wednesday morning and mull over what the perceived merits and audience figures of the previous week’s BBC TV programming. You can infer occasional personal animosities and, more frequently, turf wars between departmental fiefdoms. You can even chance upon bizarre, stern addendums which signify something about the organisational culture, such as the fifty-ninth and very last minute taken at a meeting on 24 February 1971. This recorded widespread concerns within the BBC that a non-BBC employee and current TV critic had taken to hanging around the BBC canteen ‘unattended’… The tone of this minute seemed coolly indignant, with a touch of Reithian imperiousness. And it named this transgressor: Elkan Allan, who for many years wrote TV previews for the Sunday Times.

Like the TWPR minutes, you can access the full Camera Scripts of television and radio programmes on the micro film machines. These have been significantly upgraded from the more laborious totally manual system they apparently once were. Once you have fastened the tape in place correctly – during my 2019 visit, this proved a steep learning curve! – the pages will now appear digitally on a computer screen and you can use what is an accessible interface to fast forward and rewind through the reel to find what you are looking for. Especially usefully, you can also take snapshots of pages and then get a PDF emailed to yourself. I did this for several of the Camera Scripts from the thirty or so “missing” Play for Today episodes that were taped over for economic reasons by the BBC in the 1970s. These Camera Scripts are practically the only way to get a detailed grasp of these plays’ dramaturgy and the writer’s prescriptions for visuals and tone. It took around 25-45 minutes to go through a whole script and send the emails to myself. Laborious, yes, but a vitally worthwhile process for gathering missing fragments of televisual history.

Figure 3: Small extract from the camera script to PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Hot Fat’ by Jack Rosenthal, 1974 (accessed: 15 January 2020).

My archivist helpfully located all of the microfilm I needed, including locating the exact position on the microfilm of a Play for Today Camera Script that had been mislabelled on the reel. This showed the intensely skilled nature of the archivist role.

Figure 4: My annotated copy of the sheet specifying the micro-film reels I was looking for.

Due to the large amount of material I wanted to view in my 2019 and 2020 visits, I curtailed my lunch to ten minutes, a Granny Smith’s apple and some water from the locker room tap. In my 2015-17 visits, it had been possible to lunch at the BBC Monitoring canteen within Caversham Park, a Grade II-listed stately home, built in 1850 which the BBC had used during the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was an almost preposterously grand, neo-Classical white building that you were able eat in, provided you obtained a visitor’s pass. But such are the straitened times that the BBC has put it up for sale, in 2017 and again in 2019 after a mystery bidder’s purchase fell through. BBC Berkshire moved out in 2018, ending the BBC’s 75 year use of the building. However, instead, there is the opportunity to fulfil your lunch needs or wants at Bite, an apparently excellent independent café in nearby Emmer Green.

Reading Station is around 37 minutes’ walk from Caversham, but the bus goes from the station to a stop on Peppard Road very close by the Centre. I wouldn’t recommend walking from the WAC to Caversham after the place shuts at 5pm in winter, as the busy roads only have a handful of proper pedestrian crossings with lights! There are plenty of good public houses to enjoy in non-socially distanced times. I have also sampled at least three curry houses on my various visits to Reading and by far my favourite was the one I visited last time: River Spice, overlooking the Thames. The repast was absolutely delicious and I would urge anyone else to go there – and I sincerely hope to go there myself again, when the time is right!

A visit to the cultural motherlode that is the BBC Written Archives Centre is, remarkably, free, given certain conditions. And, not just for UK licence fee payers! Academics worldwide are allowed to visit for research projects, as are those working on specific written publications. I have been fortunate for my 2019 and 2020 visits that my institution, Northumbria University, have kindly paid my train travel and hotel costs. This was massively appreciated given that all of my previous visits were entirely self-funded.

Of course, we are in uncharted territory with a major global pandemic with deeply questionable public health decisions being made by the UK government. So, my recommendations to visit the WAC in Caversham come heavily caveated. When it is safe to do so, and when it re-opens to researchers, go forth, masked if necessary, into this wonderful, vast repository of our cultural pasts.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


Tom May is a Post-Graduate Researcher at Northumbria University, in his third year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations. He has written for The Conversation and has had articles published online about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978).


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.

 

Working in and with German Archives on German-German Media History

Mandy Tröger, University of Munich (LMU)

27 March 2020


This blog post addresses international media scholars whose research focus is Germany and German-German media history. The term ‘German-German’ refers to the history of cross-border media relations between both German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), until German unification in 1990. This research leads you to working in German archives. I want to share my experience of doing archival research for my doctoral thesis on the transition of the press in the GDR 1989/1990. The focus of my thesis lay on structural conditions and shifts; I was particularly interested in the political and economic influences of different interest groups from the FRG. I tried to access archival material showing the dealings of West German political and economic players, however this became a problem and I want to show you the different ways I used to get around it.

In the end, the findings of my dissertation were entirely based on primary and semi-primary sources; I used secondary literature only if primary sources left gaps in the overall narrative. I worked in eleven public and non-public (publishers, association etc.) archives, and seven private collections. In addition, I held seventeen non-biographical interviews. This blog post summarizes what I have learned from this process.

The “Politics of Memory” in Germany

In various ways, archives are places of institutionalized “politics of memory” (Brown and Davis-Brown, 1998). In Germany, the policy of national archives is such that all files classified as “GDR” are generally open to the public (even if they contain material from after 1990). The National Archive in Berlin (BArch) holds the majority of “GDR” records. Files of the same time period labeled “FRG” are closed for at least thirty years to protect individual rights and potentially sensitive information of economic and political interest groups. The consequences of this imbalance for historical research are serious and well-known among archivists and historians in Germany. They relate to a broader political agenda to the writing and construction of German-German history. They also partly explain the often one-sided and GDR-centric approaches in current German-German history writing.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles

Three ways to access archives

However, the transition period in the GDR in 1989/1990 cannot be thought of without the political, economic and social relations, pressures and affiliations to the Federal Republic. Not having had access to these files, made it necessary to adopt different strategies.

First, the filing of “requests to shorten the term of file protection” (Antrag auf Schutzfristenverkürzung) to be granted access to classified federal documents in the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin. The archive in Koblenz holds the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) responsible for media related issues. Berlin holds, for instance, those of the trust agency Treuhandanstalt. These requests are generally complicated and can take years. I was granted access to files of the BMI at the National Archive in Koblenz; two requests for the trust agency Treuhandanstalt in Berlin have been in process for four years and were just recently granted.

Second, the issue of classified access made the archives of political foundations affiliated with individual parties (Stiftungsarchive) more important. These archives are in general dispute with the national archive over new acquisitions. At times, they hold files of politicians who worked on a federal level. For instance, the Archive of Liberalism of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP), holds the record of several members of the FDP’s federal media commission. The Green Memory Archive (Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis) of the Böll Foundation and the Green Party in Berlin holds the estate of Gerhard Bächer, former representative of the Green Party at the Media Control Council (Medienkontrollrat, MKR) founded in 1990 (see Becker-Schaum, 2009). The Archive of Democratic Socialism (Demokratischer Sozialismus, ADS) of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the leftist party DIE LINKE in Berlin holds the estate of interim prime minister and later member of the German Bundestag, Hans Modrow (see ADS, n.d.). These archives have individually negotiated classified periods, and are generally easier to access.

The third way around the issue of access lay in the “GDR” files themselves. Since classification matters, not content, detailed communication between various East and West German interest groups can, if traced thoroughly, be found in these files. The part of my thesis telling the complicated story of early West German market interests in the building of a monopoly-like press distribution in East Germany was based on the files of the East German Ministry of Postal and Telecommunication (Ministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen, MPF). Labeled “GDR,” these files are open for research, even though several still-existing German interest groups might have good reasons for wanting to keep this communication off record.

Other relevant archives

Another important archive for GDR-media in 1990 was the ID-Archive at the International Institute for Social History (IISH/ID-Archive MKR) in Amsterdam. It holds an extensive collection (forty-two boxes) of the East German Media Control Council (MKR). This collection was transferred to the IISH/ID-Archive MKR in 1997. It contains minutes of the MKR-meetings, correspondence and documents regarding the reshaping of the media landscape (radio, television, newspapers and publishing houses) in the GDR in 1990, and an extensive collection of press clippings 1989-1990.

Also, the extensive library on media (policy) books in the corporate archive library of Axel Springer Publishers and the collection of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles were valuable. Both allowed access to a variety of media-related sources.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum include the estate of the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honeker, including his library

In particular the private (personal) collections took a central role in the original research. During the transition period, with fast institutional changes, it was common for those working at ministries, newspapers, publishers or in civic groups to take files home once the job was done and no archive was in charge of storing documents.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews further contributed greatly to my thesis. The communication with over twenty interview partners was, at times, extensive. The interviews were non-biographical, my questions related to a specific subject matter at hand, such as the dealings of a ministry, a newspaper or media policy institution. My goal was to fill gaps that could not have been filled based on archival material alone. This is important, especially for the transition period. During this fast-paced period, much of the communication happened verbally and/or was not documented systematically but noted by hand on pieces of paper. This was partly due to the grassroots like character of reform institutions (such as the Round Table or the MKR) and the often non-professional background of their members, as well as to institutional shifts more generally. Thus, archival holdings often contain numerous pieces of hand-written notes and papers that require context to make sense of them, and this context can often only be provided by those who were directly involved. This is an encouragement to step out of the archive and reach out to them.


Bibliography

ADS, n.d., ‘Bestände/Findbücher, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’, https://www.rosalux.de/stiftung/historisches-zentrum/archiv/bestaende-findbuecher/ (accessed: January 10, 2018).

Becker-Schaum, Christoph, 2009, ‘Der Archivbestand Gerhard Bächer und die Grüne Partei in der DDR’, Grünes Gedächtnis, pp. 71-76, http://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/06/jb_2009_-_cbs_archivbestand_gerhard_baecher.pdf (accessed: May 25, 2016).

Brown, Richard Harvey, and Beth Davis-Brown, 1998, ‘The making of memory: the politics of archives, libraries and museums in the construction of national consciousness’, in History of the Human Sciences, 11/2, pp. 17-32.


Mandy Tröger, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. Dr Tröger received her doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2018. From 2015 until 2017, she was a PhD-Fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Parts of her dissertation, ‘On Unregulated Markets and the Freedom of Media: The Transition of the East German Press after 1989’, have been translated into German, and have been published in a German-language book, Pressefrühling und Profit, in 2019.


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… Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter

Amelia Seely, University of Exeter

28 January 2020


Bill Douglas had a unique scriptwriting style of poetic prose and a filmmaking style that has been compared to European Art filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Luis Buñuel. Douglas’s influence is discernible in the works of filmmakers such as Lenny Abrahamson, Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay. His films – The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972, 1973, 1978) and Comrades (1987) – have repeatedly been praised by critics and have regularly made appearances in top British Films lists. For example, in the Time Out poll of industry figures The Trilogy was number 27 in a poll of the best 100 British films of all time. In 2019, My Childhood was included in Little White Lies 100 list of Best British films. As well as being a filmmaker, writer and actor, Douglas was also an ardent and devoted collector of cinema ephemera. He and his friend Peter Jewell amassed one of the largest collections of moving image memorabilia in Europe. Over several decades the pair collected anything relating to film culture and history, and it is this which forms the heart of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s collection.

The museum is both an accredited public museum and an academic research facility, the rich resources of which are used not only by researchers, but also in the classroom. The extraordinary collection is used for a diverse range of subjects, including Film Studies, English, History, Theology, Geography and even a number of Science disciplines. The collection holds over 80,000 items dating from the seventeenth century to the present day, covering all aspects of cinema, pre-cinema and the history of the moving image. In short, the collection is incredibly diverse and provides a totally unique and varied experience of the moving image.

My own research project is concerned with the British film industry in the 1970s and 1980s and looks closely at the production of Bill Douglas’s films as a case study of an artist filmmaker working during this time. Along with the large assembly of cinema memorabilia, the museum houses Douglas’s Working Papers which were donated by Peter Jewell 2014-2016. These are an incredibly rich and valuable collection of materials that also include production materials from Douglas’s colleagues such as Script Supervisor, Penny Eyles; Editor Mick Audsley and Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad.

Along with Bill Douglas’s working papers, the museum holds several other archival collections which have been generously donated by key figures in British cinema. These archives have a strong emphasis upon modern British independent filmmaking and include the collections of: Don Boyd, Bob (Robert) Dunbar, Ossie Morris, James Mackay, Gavrik Losey, Anthony Attard and Peter Cotes.

The museum is located in the Old Library building on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The museum shares resources with the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, including some staffing, as well as spaces such as the Reading Room. The online catalogue lists the items that are held in the museum and you can create a collection of items online that can be retrieved for consultation in the reading room when you visit. In some cases, there are images to accompany the description of the item, however, to see most items they will need to be consulted in the Reading Room.

The reading room is comfortable and well-lit and working there has often provided me with many great opportunities to meet visiting international researchers. There are lockers available just outside the reading room where you can store your personal belongings. Items allowed inside the reading room are laptops, phones, notebooks and pencils and although the archive does allow photographs for personal use, usual guidelines of up to 5% of published works are followed. Permission from donors are required to take pictures of archive material.

The museum has two Galleries which provide a great way to spend your lunchtime or a break from research. The Upper Gallery looks more at the experience of going to the cinema and includes all sorts of objects and ephemera such as beautiful issues of Picturegoer, a lovely display of Chaplin materials (Chaplin was a special favourite of Bill’s), to Harry Potter lunchboxes and an R2-D2 shaped soap. The Lower Gallery, on the ground floor, displays an incredible collection of early and pre-cinema machinery and objects, such as one of two hundred Lumiere Cinematographe machines ever made or the camera on which we believe Battle of the Somme (1916) was filmed. It is an absolute treasure trove and a delight to explore. The museum galleries are free and open to the public between 10am-5pm seven days a week (except between Christmas and New Year). The curatorial team are available Monday to Friday and research facilities are open 10am – 5pm by prior appointment, except for bank holidays. You are asked to give at least one working days’ notice of your visit.

There is ramp access to the museum, a lift between the two gallery spaces and a disabled parking space outside of the museum. A great resource is that if you are arriving by train into Exeter St David’s train station then you can catch the University’s free minibus service. The collection point is at the right-hand side of the exit as you leave the train station. There is no signage, but you will probably see a small queue forming just beyond the taxi rank. These buses run throughout the year except from bank holidays and closure days and there is an early morning and evening shuttle service.

I am very fortunate that I am based at the University of Exeter so I am able to visit this fantastic resource regularly as well as use materials from the collection for my own teaching. It is an invaluable resource for academic research as well as wonderful place to visit.

For further details about the shuttle service: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/campushelp/minibus/

To search the collection and to find out more about the museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

A map to find the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum:


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr Phil Wickham, Mike Rickard, and Gemma Poulton for their assistance.


Amelia Seely is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter. Her thesis – ‘Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry’ – draws on the work of the Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas, and utilises his Working Papers held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. She is also the Founder of F | Screens – a monthly film event that celebrates women filmmakers and screenwriters. Follow her on Twitter @amelia_seely.


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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