Looking for Diana Pine

Helen Hughes, University of Surrey

17 December 2019


For the past two years I have been working on a project about documentary and nuclear energy. My intention in looking at nuclear energy films has been to uannderstand how radioactivity is represented in contemporary non-fiction media, particularly in the context of environmental concern.

In order to widen the scope of my study of contemporary films to include the history of non-fiction filmmaking about nuclear energy I applied for a British Academy grant and happily received some funding to study a large number of films held in the British National Film and Television Archive. I have become a regular visitor to the viewing rooms in the basement of the BFI building in Stephen Street, helped out by Kathleen Dickson, and also by Steve Tollervey who has taught me how to thread a 16 mm and a 35 mm film on a Steenbeck (and reminded me of the details from time to time). I have also watched films on VHS and some on DVD.

How to remember how to thread a film on a Steenbeck. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

The films I have been watching are a wide variety of non-fiction genres. There are instructional films such as Beta Gamma (1950) about how to work with radioactive materials without touching them or even looking at them. There is a surprising number of films such as Hinkley Point Part 1 (1960) that document the building of the first generation of nuclear power stations, including an observational film Nuclear Cathedral (1967) recorded in Wales that follows a variety of characters from a welder to the project manager. It has been quite absorbing to follow the developing public opinions about nuclear energy through the earnest television studio debates of the 1970s and 80s and then represented on increasingly ironic “hard hitting” chat shows in the 1990s right up to the present focus on decommissioning and the search for a location for a high level nuclear waste repository.

Along the way I have been reflecting on the process which seems as though I am composing an extremely long documentary for myself in the form of research viewing. At a certain point there is a shift and the earlier films are historicized in new programmes and incorporated into arguments about what happened and why, and it is fun to spot what archival material comes from where. The subject of radioactivity runs as a thread through it all with explanations about what it is varying in detail, in scope, and in tone.

I have put together a table which shows a relationship between the changing forms of non-fiction and the coverage of nuclear energy. The two are linked by parallel shifts in the relationship between people and authority, and participants and the camera. The most kindly example of this is a film called simply Nuclear Issues (1986) by the Edinburgh Film Workshop Trust in which Jim Hall, an organic farmer, says: ‘I would hate to think that any government would be so unfeeling that they would not like to take into consideration the wishes of the local people.’

There are of course many stories within my larger story which merit more attention than my survey will give. I have gathered that historians tend to collect more information than they can ever process in their own lifetimes. The question concerns which stories to pursue and in this the archive itself is the major player along with the people who have formed it in the past as they thought about posterity.

A central text for the history of British atomic energy is the official history Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-1952 (1974) published in two volumes by the first historian of science Margaret Gowing assisted by Lorna Arnold. It is really because of her work that archival documents about the beginning of the nuclear project in Britain have survived along with the films. Gowing wrote at length about Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s desire to keep the atomic project out of the public gaze and mentioned the difficulties the Central Office of Information had in gaining permission to issue any kind of information to journalists. She mentioned that the Crown Film Unit made a film about the Atomic Energy Research Establishment and its work in Harwell, Springfields and Windscale, which was not released.

A collection of books. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

Margaret Gowing’s book led me to the National Archives in Kew where I began to look for files about the films I was watching. Putting together the films with the files in the National Archives I came to understand that Gowing was referring to the work of a filmmaker called Diana Pine who started out as a researcher and then took over as a director to organise the filming of the beginnings of the civil atomic project ‘for posterity.’ The process of understanding the context of the documents in a large file of letters, memos and production materials, selected and preserved by Gowing herself, became my introduction to the beginnings of British atomic history. After many trips to the National Archives, and endless amounts of reading, looking at newspapers, and film watching, I set out the chronology of the story in a research report for Screen called ‘The Story of Atoms at Work’. This is the first time I have tried to set out what happened in the making of a film rather than analysing what was meant.

TNA AB 8/215 ‘Scientific film production’ file cover. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

Shot list for proposed film Springfields Factory. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

It is sometimes said that the scholarship on British Documentary focuses too much on the war period and on the work of a few producer/directors such as John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings. I don’t think that this is surprising. World War II is well understood as a period and it is not difficult to understand the information the films provide even today. The period that followed is less well defined and even public facing films such as Atoms at Work take some investigation to see what they are. Diary for Timothy, a film made at the end of the war, is accessible to everyone as it is clearly about hoping for a better life which everyone can understand.

Nevertheless both of these films reward investigation, and the process of connecting them with the historical contexts in which they were made is positively addictive. It has led me from Stephen Street to the special file on Humphrey Jennings at the BFI Reuben library, to two taped interviews with Diana Pine, to a documentary by Robert Vos, to the Royal Institute of Science, and even up to Wick in Scotland, to see the new archive named Nucleus, dedicated to holding records about the British civil nuclear industry.

Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

The comparison between Diary for Timothy and Atoms at Work has revived for me that old vexing question about authorship. Diary for Timothy is a Crown Film Unit production made by a team including Diana Pine who worked on it as a Unit Manager. It is known as Humphrey Jennings’ Diary for Timothy as he directed it, while it was produced by Basil Wright. Atoms at Work was directed by Diana Pine and produced by Stuart Legg, but as Stuart Legg wrote the treatment and the commentary I discussed the structure of the film in relation to his practice which has been described by Timothy Boon as dialectical. In the process I realized I have no sense of what Diana Pine’s authorship might involve even though it is clear from her letters that she had a clear idea of the shots she wished to compose.

One of the things that is very noticeable in tracing the theme of radioactivity over a long period is that with a few exceptions documentary films of the 1950s generally hide the makers more than they reveal them. Noticing the conference at the LSE on British Women Documentary Filmmakers was a spur to think further about the motivations of a film worker like Diana Pine. By a strange process of archival and internet serendipity I have now communicated with one of her nieces and have been thinking about how the personal and archival information we are piecing together can be related to the films and indeed to my project more generally.

What has come out of this new archival venture for me has been a greater awareness of the audio-visual archive as a resource to project a kind of social correlate of technological development. The story of Diana Pine that I looked for in relation to work on Atoms of Work is a way of thinking about the list of credits as a form of evidence in its own right. Contemporary independent documentary has brought the life of the filmmaker, particularly the director, more explicitly into the film but this is not to say that the lives of filmmakers were previously separate from their filmmaking. Rather it clarifies and perhaps choreographs the connections that are there already.

Perhaps it is characteristic of wartime that life and filmmaking become particularly interlinked. The life of Diana Pine, Unit Production Manager, turns out to be linked very closely to her work. The electoral register is a way to find out where people lived at different points in their lives. Like birth, death, marriage and probate, in pre-war Britain it also provides information about occupation. In 1939 she listed herself as Gubbins Diana P, (Pine, Diana professionally), and gave her employment as “Assistant Art Director in Films (unemployed)”. In 1940 her brother joined the RAF and in January 1941 her parents and sister were in occupied Jersey. Her brother was killed in March that year in one of the campaigns in East Africa. The films that Pine worked on as unit manager thus have a personal significance, particularly The Channel Islands 1940 – 1945 (1945).

Two other films make a family link that is a little more distant but which paints a broader picture of the different people who became involved with documentary filmmaking in Britain during the war. The Silent Village (1943) and Two Fathers (1944) were the first two films Pine worked on having at this point changed her occupation from unemployed art director in films to assistant director and film unit production manager. The films both present stories involving the subversive resistance work of the Special Operations Executive in occupied countries.

My first clue towards an understanding of who Pine was and how it connected to her filmmaking career turned up through her Gubbins family connections which trace a journey through British colonial history from her great great grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gubbins’s New Brunswick Journals written in Canada in the early nineteenth century to her great grandfather Martin Richard Gubbins, financial commissioner in Oudh and author of An Account of the Mutinies in Oudh (1858), to her grandfather Charles Edgworth Gubbins of the 3rd Hydrabad Cavalry, and her father who managed to have a peacetime occupation in being a Barrister at Law but even so had fought in World War I. A cousin (once removed) was General Colin McVean Gubbins of the SOE.

The shift that Pine makes from unemployed art director to documentary takes her closer to the traditional male world of colonial administration, war, aviation, and technology from which she is descended. In the immediate post war years it is also a secret world made increasingly public as military technologies are adapted to peacetime. Her film credits for the Crown Film Unit—Dollars and Sense (1949, about the devaluation of the pound), Faster than Sound (1949, about the secret development of a missile during the war), Spotlight on the Colonies (1950, about the British approach to independence), Into the Blue (1950, about the development of civil aviation), The Magic Touch (1950, about the adaptation of materials to new purposes), and Atoms at Work (1952, about the productivity of radioactive isotopes)—represent an unusual female incursion which she sustained for only a short period once the Crown Film Unit was closed.

Non-fiction films in wartime and post war Britain film sponsored by the Ministry of Supply do not generally provoke the search for an author unless there is a particularly striking creative voice such as that of Humphrey Jennings. However, the status of Atoms at Work as the first film released by the government about its enormously expensive and risky atomic research programme, for me provoked curiosity about the secret conditions of production and the people who had been vetted and had signed the Official Secrets Act to be there with the cameras observing and recording it.

Coming back to Stephen Street and the list of films that represent the history of nuclear energy in moving images, the representation of radioactivity in Atoms at Work, with its references to alchemy and its question about good and evil, has turned out to be characteristic for representations right up to today. The most recent film I have watched in the archive was the BBC’s Inside Sellafield (2015) in which my colleague Jim Al-Khalili gives his view that there is a future for nuclear energy. For contemporary films I have largely moved from the celluloid, video and DVD archive to online sources such as the BUFVCs Box of Broadcasts. The dialectic between military and civilian uses has become one part of the debate around what is increasingly seen as an ongoing global mass experiment with nuclear fission. For me, the detour around the story of Diana Pine, as well as the aging character of media forms, makes the war generation situated at the beginning of the experiment more palpable and more connected to us as we work through the physical and psychological consequences now. Down in the basement and emerging online the archive of non-fiction films is both an outcome and an ongoing resource for many more projects like mine.

Christmas card by Diana Pine 1999. (Courtesy of Esther O’Callaghan)


Helen Hughes is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Surrey. She has published a number of articles and chapters on German and Austrian cinema. She is also the author of a book Green Documentary (2014) about contemporary environmental non-fiction film. She is currently working on a new book Radioactive Documentary about non-fiction feature films made on the subject of nuclear energy since the end of the Cold War.


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.

Pride and Prejudice in the Archives: issues with representation and access

Dr Natalie Hayton, Assistant Archivist, Special Collections, De Montfort University, Leicester

1 October 2019


This piece reflects on a session delivered by myself and fellow archivist Katharine Short as part of a Postgraduate Archives Open Day event. Organised by Dr Ellen Wright of the Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI) at DMU, the day was geared towards encouraging archival research and debate in relation to film archives. The title of our session neatly reflects some of the issues raised in the session, while also acknowledging our most significant collection relating to television history: the Papers of screenwriter Andrew Davies, writer of the famous 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Figure 1: Special Collections Manager, Katharine, organising the papers of the Andrew Davies archival collection in the Special Collections reader room at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Still taken from the BBC 4 documentary Andrew Davies: Rewriting the Classics. Last aired on January 28th 2019.

The session was developed with the intention of providing a behind-the-scenes approach to discussing some of the debates within the archive sector around access to archives, their use and how they reflect wider society. We chose five problematic items from our collections and asked attendees to write brief catalogue entries for them, encouraging them to consider issues of physical access, ownership and authorship, and cataloguing language. This blog post will highlight the issues raised in relation to access while touching on representation and copyright. The democratisation process within archives is very important to us at DMU, and through our work with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, the Equality and Diversity Team and regularly reading up on sector guidance and finding out what other repositories are doing, such as the National Archives, Archives For Everyone policy framework and Jass Thethi’s work on ‘creating a space for marginalised voices in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector’, we hope to improve our catalogues and collections. [i], [ii] & [iii] Having said that, we are aware that as archivists, we are still learning how to best catalogue, describe and make accessible problematic records.

Access all Archival Areas?

Providing access to archives is a fundamental part of our job as archivists that is found in sector standards, such as the Principles of Access to Archives produced by the International Council on Archives. Significantly, this creates a tension at the heart of the archivist role: our two core duties are to protect originals from deterioration and to provide access to them, but we believe these should not be viewed as antithetical. Extensive use of an archival item will cause damage, but at the same time it is a human right, not a privilege, to be able to view the information contained within records held in public repositories, even if the original item cannot be produced.

However, as much as we may want to assist our readers, there will always be times when we are bound by legislation, donor restrictions, technical issues or concerns surrounding security and preservation. While we are committed to seeking creative solutions, there will always be instances where access is denied, or at least postponed.

Assessing the Archives/Artefacts: Content Warning

The following examples are the items we used for the session, some of which brought forth some strong opinions regarding privileging access to collections unintentionally and whether promoting access is to the benefit of repositories and readers in all circumstances. Before moving into an examination of the objects, I want to offer a content warning as one of the items discussed is a collection of Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturers Ltd. promotional figurines known as “Golliwogs”, offensive caricatures of African American people inspired by nineteenth-century minstrelsy.

The Exhibits

Exhibit 1: Correspondence of Andrew Davies from the Papers of Andrew Davies, Screenwriter D/061

Figure 2: Redacted letter from D/061 Papers of Andrew Davies held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

Just from looking at this image, it is fairly obvious that we have some access issues here! Although Davies has given permission for researchers to access any of his letters in the collection, what he cannot give permission for is access to material produced by third parties (the letters he received from others) or that which references living individuals who may have no idea that items relating to them are held in a public archive. In instances such as these it is an archivist’s responsibility and ethical duty to comply with privacy legislation such as Data Protection by either redacting information or closing the item until such a time as those mentioned are deceased. While this can be frustrating for readers and archivists alike, ultimately the protection of 3rd parties (as well as being legally binding) is not something we would want to compromise. It was in relation to this item that points were raised regarding whether it is worth promoting the existence of these letters at all, as such practice can lead to unwanted media attention and once the existence of letters of someone famous becomes more widely known, disappointment will inevitably follow when it is discovered they are off limits (for now, at least). Closures can be made at collection, series or item level and decisions are typically made on a case by case basis. At DMU we have decided to close and redact where necessary while still listing the correspondence in the catalogue in a way that favours promoting the collection as a whole as well as ensuring we are protecting individuals at item level.

Exhibit 2: Picture Show Annuals 1926-1960 held in the rare books section at Special Collections and listed on the DMU Kimberlin Library catalogue

Figure 3: Picture Show Annual, 1955, held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

We specifically wanted the discussion of these books to focus on whether we should use our catalogues to highlight the white patriarchal heteronormative framework inherent to this series (seen in images featuring actors wearing black/brown and yellow face, the complete lack/under-representation of actors of colour and the gender essentialism apparent even on the front cover this 1955 edition in its depiction of complicit sexual violence). However, there are also some important physical access issues surrounding these magazines.

Figure 4: Picture Show Annual, 1955.

Figure 5: Picture Show Annual, 1955.

Like all repositories, we always offer our researchers some friendly instructions when handling items to ensure they are cared for properly when being used and to encourage readers to feel more confident about handling archives. For example, using support cushions, page weights and turning pages carefully using only the corners is not knowledge we take for granted. Unfortunately, like the Picture Annuals, some items may already be damaged, either by age or design. As you can see from the first image, some of the pages have come loose and there is a risk here that pages could become muddled with pages from other books, or taken out of order. As there is no justification for the cost of digitising we do allow access to the originals but ask readers to be mindful of the loose pages and the likelihood that others may also come out if proper care is not taken. The second image highlights a page where a feature has intentionally been removed. This obviously has implications for those readers who may have been looking for a specific piece but it does perhaps offer insight on how the books were used by previous owners e.g. cutting out images for scrap books (Special Collections has two such film star scrap book collections: Film Star Scrap Books, 1930s and Film Star Scrap Books 1925-1945).

Exhibit 3: Interview with Benazir Bhutto (Politician and Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988-2007) from the Anita Anand (Zee TV Collection).[iv]

Figure 6: Betacam tape from the Anita Anand Collection (Zee TV Collection) held at Special Collections, De Montfort University, Leicester UK.

Again, the access issue here will be obvious for those who have wanted to view materials that require obsolete technology. While many organisations will have a way of migrating recordings from VHS (video) to a digital format, unfortunately, transferring the contents of Betamax and Betacam tapes is not so readily available. The newly acquired Anita Anand (Zee TV) Collection comprises over 60 linear metres of Betacam tapes donated by the journalist and radio and television presenter. While we are doing our best to organise and begin cataloguing using the labelling on the tapes, at the moment we have no way of determining what is actually on them and it is proving difficult for us to find the resources needed to provide full access to the tapes (budget, time, storage space, expertise). In the short-term we are attempting to source a Betacam player but we are also discussing options with specialists at Media Archive of Central England and intend to put together a funding bid to get this amazing collection of Asian TV digitised and accessible to all.

Exhibit 4: Robertson’s “Golliwog” Figurines

Another recently acquired collection includes these figurines which were created by the UK’s Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturer Ltd. in the 1960s and 70s. The “Golliwog” was the mascot for the company until 2001 and these figures were redeemed for tokens collected from the labels found on purchased products.

Figure 7: 6 musician figurines from the RF Robertson’s “Golliwog” Figurines Collection held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

While still viewed as collectibles and defended by many as ‘innocent and lovable’ characters rather than examples of systemic racism, this is unquestionably a naïve position. The original literary Golliwogg, found in Florence Kate Upton’s children’s books, was inspired by minstrelsy entertainment, which began in the US around the 1830s: minstrelsy typically involved troupes wearing blackface to perform songs and sketches that reinforced white supremacy and dehumanised and degraded African American people. While our discussion for this collection focused on considering the best way of conveying this information in a catalogue in terms of language and description, questions surrounding access were also plentiful. The donor of this collection specifically requested they be used as a tool for highlighting the pervasive and insidious nature of racism in cultural products, so does that mean we should restrict access to collectors or enthusiasts who only wish to view them out of curiosity?

Another issue discussed was that while we are dealing with two very different formats when working with the Anita Anand Collection and the figurines (making them incomparable in some ways), the fact that examples of racist oppression are more readily accessible than a collection that more positively contributes to archival inclusivity and diverse social representation raises questions about whether we are unwittingly upholding oppressive frameworks by failing to provide access to the tapes. This is something of a dilemma for us because obviously we do not want to give items like the figurines more of a promotional platform than collections with a wealth of untapped research possibilities, such as that which is potentially contained on the Anand tapes. It is important for us to reflect on and learn from such comments in order to continually improve our practice and ensure that we are respectful of the needs and opinions of all our users. It is only by listening and acting that we can further develop our understanding of archival access and how we can make archives and catalogues inclusive spaces.

Exhibit 5: Draft Script of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Figure 8: Shooting Draft script from D/061 Papers of Andrew Davies held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

For our final item we return to Davies, and a draft script for the film Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason released in 2004. This script has no less than 5 contributors, including the author of the novel from which it was adapted, creating an authorship and copyright minefield! The discussion focused on if it could be determined who made which revisions and how that impacted on access and use. Can only the parts of the script written by Davies be made available to researchers? Stamped with Davies across the front this is undoubtedly his copy of the script, but again, do the other contributors know their revisions are held in a public archive? Should we be allowing access at all? Certainly, if you wanted to quote sections of this script for a publication, as archivists, we would be advising that you would need to contact all contributors for permission to ensure compliance with copyright regulations. With layers of copyright and ownership, it can be difficult to get permission to use scripts, but happily, much of the Davies collection is solo written and with nearly a third of the archive comprising unproduced drafts, there is a wealth of accessible material for researchers.

Supporting Access for All

As we hope this blog has highlighted, we do not pretend to have all the answers but we are committed to creating a prejudice-free archive and believe that pride in our work is not the same as being too proud to learn new methods and share our expertise. Rather, we encourage a cyclical knowledge exchange with our users where decision-making processes are transparent. While we stated at the beginning of this blog that preservation is our primary duty, all of our work from re-packaging, arrangement, digitisation and migration and cataloguing is, in fact, all geared towards ensuring long-term accessibility for future generations. Even if we can’t make it available immediately, we’ll be working on it.[v]

Natalie and Katharine

To discuss any of our collections or to make an appointment please contact: archives@dmu.ac.uk

To find out more about our collections and work, visit #DMUHeritage Blog

Twitter: @DMUSpecial Colls Facebook: DMU Heritage

Instagram: dmuheritage


[i] The Stephen Lawrence Research Centre features a seminar room and communal study space as well as a permanent exhibition telling the story of Stephen’s life and murder and the legacy of Doreen Lawrence’s tireless work to achieve justice for her son. The exhibition includes several displays of items from the archival collection, Papers of Doreen Lawrence relating to the Stephen Lawrence Case. The collection is currently closed but it is hoped access arrangements will be finalised over the summer and made available to the public at Special Collections and via our online catalogue.

[ii] For further reading and examples of our work on archives and representation please visit our

#DMUHeritage Blog and Twitter @DMUSpecialColls.

[iii] Jass Thethi. Intersectional Glam. https://intersectionalglam.home.blog/ Accessed: 20/06/2019. Website

[iv] While work has started on creating an online catalogue for this collection and access is imminent, arrangements are still being finalised.

[v] The session created for the open day and this blog were both inspired in no small way by a module I have recently completed for the postgraduate qualification in Archives and Records Management at CAIS, Dundee which I am currently undertaking by distance learning.


 

Working with Oral Sources in media history: A personal view

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California (USC)

15 July 2019


The IAMHIST Blog to date has considered issues around study in specific archives and particular kinds of media evidence.  This post concerns a different kind of evidence which I’ve found to be simultaneously the most rewarding even as it is also the most fragile and fallible: oral sources.  This post is not offered as a how-to manual but rather as a frank other-view of my experience, allowing me to reflect on my own practice and share some of the things I’ve learned since first including the method in my research work in 1985.  I do not restrict myself to oral sources.  My research in media history has used oral sources together with written archives and the usual audio visual materials of our field as part of a multifaceted approach.

For me, as I expect for most people, oral sources were my first source.  As a child I was drawn to history through long conversations about the past with my parents and grandparents which often revealed a fascinating divergence from the received wisdom of mainstream media.  At secondary school I did a short media history project on the social history of cinema going in the locality where I grew up, mixing material from documents with interviews.  As an undergraduate in International History at University of Leeds it seemed logical to use a similar approach for my bachelor’s dissertation, which examined the career of Lord Halifax as the Churchill government’s wartime ambassador to Washington DC.  My undergraduate supervisor – diplomatic historian David Dilks – was a particular enthusiast for the value and ‘fun’ of engaging directly with survivors of Whitehall.  I started by comparing Who’s Who and the old diplomatic list and mailing the remaining diplomats from the embassy, forty years on from their service.  To my surprise found a number of people still alive and both willing and able to speak about their services.  The experience was wholly positive.  I found the cross generational dynamic between a much older person and a young scholar to be a natural once which was conducive not only to a frank recollection and helpful direction but also to further study.  My interviewees always recommended further people or further written sources to help.  Memorable witnesses at this stage included the great philosopher (and wartime opinion analyst) Sir Isaiah Berlin and the retired head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Inchyra.  That experience established oral sources as part of my standard way of operating.  It was central to my PhD thesis, first book, and all subsequent projects.  Over the years I’ve done interviews with a rich galaxy of sources including diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, soldiers and spies, in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and points between to build up a picture of what would now be called public diplomacy in action.

Even when the center of gravity of a project is archival I have learned that it is worth pursuing contact with survivors of the period or events.  The different kinds of sources support each other.  The archives direct me to interesting people and some of my most helpful written sources were obtained as a result of interviews.  Every now and again an interviewee pulled out a dusty old suitcase and produced their late husband’s diary or a sheaf of photographs; regularly an interviewee alluded to a newspaper story, film or other source they considered influential and worth examining.  The process of repeating my ideas about the story in question and running them multiple survivors becomes an almost imperceptible process of honing and polishing, with each idea becoming like a pebble rubbed smooth through circulation in wave upon wave, hour upon hour of conversation.

I found that it is important not to prejudge who will be useful and who will not.  One of my most important witnesses for my PhD work was Janet Murrow, widow of the legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow who was introduced to me by the veteran BBC broadcaster Leonard Miall.  Some historians would have considered her perspective on media coverage of the London Blitz to be a low priority but not only did she offer a unique view of journalists’ living conditions during the Blitz, and the day to day stresses of that time, she proved to be a person of undiminished authority within the network of surviving Murrow-era journalists who was happy to allow me to use her name in writing to some half dozen of her husband’s colleagues including such legends in their own right as Walter Cronkite, who all proved happy to help too.  I owe her much.

In the process of integrating oral sources into my work I have certainly had to learn the limits of oral testimony. It was of greatest value not as a substitute for written or audio visual sources but as a supplement to it.  It provided an added dimension: adding color to a picture or perhaps flesh to a skeleton.  When researching a workplace like the British Information Services office in New York or the National Film Board of Canada it certainly helped to have insight into the relationships within that environment.  Who was hated; who was loved; what morale was (or recalled as being) at a particular moment or during the creation of a particular media text.   It was always especially fascinating to learn of the humdrum realities behind a choice in a propaganda documentary that I’d assumed to be aesthetic or artistic.  Sometimes the United States Information Agency (USIA) shot a documentary film in black and white because they didn’t have a budget for color.

I discovered sometimes the oral source up-turned the meaning of a document or audio-visual text.  I was fascinated, for example, by a story I’d seen in the March of Time newsreel about an apparently anti-war organization launched in 1936 by Princeton University students called ‘Veterans of Future Wars’.  When based on campus as a visiting fellow in 1989 I managed to track down a founder member, but his account of the organization was not what I expected.  I had understood that the group members were motivated by pacifism, ironically demanding war bonuses while they were still alive to enjoy them.  His account – in contrast — emphasized the way in which the group was not so much protesting the next war from a position of its future victims as much as mocking the survivors of the former war (who had in 1935 demanded early payment of the promised war bonus scheduled for 1945) as representatives of a privileged elite who were stuck with the bill.  The student’s salute was an ‘itchy palm’ outstretched in the direction of DC appealing for taxpayer money.  Even more cynically the prompt for creating the movement was not simply a prank or satire but to create a story on campus so that the stringer for the New York Times could earn a few extra bucks after a slow semester.  The same newsreel clip – and student politics in the ‘ivy league’ — suddenly looked very different.

My interviews have tended to follow a fairly lose format.  A lot of work is done in the letter requesting the interview.  This letter (or in recent years email) should succinctly communicate the nature of the project, one’s home institution and clearly reference either the person who suggested contacting them or the mechanism by which you obtained their name.  It is a little creepy for a recipient to be guessing how you came to contact them or what your purpose might be.

My next stage is then to prepare by reading or viewing as much as I can about the interviewee so I am familiar at a minimum with any memoir they might have written, with their artistic output or with major interviews about the subject.  This helps me to ensure that I am informed and am steering the interviewee to fresh territory rather than just dropping a coin in the slot to hear a much rehearsed story told one more time.  It can be a nerve-racking process.  I have a recurring nightmare in which I realize I forgot that Sir Winston Churchill was still alive and am due to meet him without having prepared properly.  I wake in a cold sweat from that one!  If something comes up which you don’t understand or recognize, perhaps a technical term or a name, it is fine to stop or double back to that point to clarify.  It can help the interviewee to match their account to your understanding of the event or the place or process in which they were involved.  I am a great believer in the power of a follow up request for detail to help the interviewee unlock further levels of recollection.  I once asked the deputy director of USIA what he was eating for breakfast when a journalist friend leaked news to him of the up-coming Bay of Pigs invasion.  I wish I’d asked the African-American public diplomat John Twitty exact which spirituals he’d sung in Nigeria when an audience demanded a musical prelude to his planned lecture on the Apollo space program.

I have found that it is helpful to agree at the outset how long the interview will be, so I don’t feel compelled to hurry towards a soundbite to justify the train fare.  I also think it helps to establish whether or not you hope to quote the person, which is to say, are they ‘on the record,’ ‘on background’ or on ‘deep background’.   If ‘on the record’ everything can be quoted, if ‘on background’ the substance can be quoted but not attributed and on ‘deep background’ neither quoted or attributed but it can be acted on in looking for further sources.  A good off the record tip can guide future research and sometimes be proven by archive material without any mention of the help that go the scholar to that point.

My first step is always to explain exactly what my project is as succinctly as possible.  If someone has agreed to be interviewed they generally want to help you and explaining the nature of your interest will promote efficient communication and avoid a practiced or generic response.  I find it helpful to have a skeleton script of what I want to know, sometimes asking about broad issues like turning points, sometimes specific people, places or events.  Like many interviewers I sometimes find that it helps to ask about something commonplace, like a work place or location rather than jumping in with a big historical conundrum or controversy.

Some of my interlocutors have been more comfortable talking over food.  A number have smoked throughout our conversation.  Trust me – if the likes of Pik Botha asks you if you mind if they smoke, the answer is ‘feel free…’ Drinks have most often come at the end and are doubtless a seal on the feeling of ‘being on the same page’ with the events in question.

My style as an interviewer is to create a space for testimony rather than badger my interlocutors.  I would ask ‘help me understand how…’ rather than ‘how can you justify…’  An interviewer dealing with controversial matters like crime or prejudice will have to come to their own position on allowing their own judgement to be known.  For my part I have looked for areas of shared experience or outlook to build rapport with a subject early on and held back issues likely to be divisive or controversial till later in the interview lest they prematurely end things.  I have found it useful to guide witnesses away from stories that they have told a hundred times before.  Interviewing Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he spied for the Soviet Union, I got very interesting material by asking him his opinion on cases OTHER than his own.  I began that conversation by saying quite honestly I was convinced of his innocence, but by the end of our talk he had told me enough to convince me that that if he hadn’t actually spied for Moscow he certainly believed that that would be the morally justifiable course to take.  I have found it rare that interviewees ask me point blank what I think of an incident or personality to which they were connected and have never felt it wise or necessary to lie.  That said, I have sometimes chosen my words carefully.   When an old anti-Communist witch-hunter asked me point blank what I thought about Senator Joseph McCarthy I thought it wise to answer tactfully that anti-Communism was too important an issue to be trusted to a person like that.

When I began interviewing in 1985 an early witness asked me not to bring a recording device and so I for some years I only took notes in long-hand, pausing and drawing attention to my writing from time to time to confirm a thought or statement.  I’ve found that the best interviews develop as a kind of co-creation where the interviewer is checking back that they have understood correctly, sometimes agreeing at that moment what a final quote or sound bite might be.   I would type up an account of the interview at the end of each day, which extra impressions about manner or environment or exact words used were fresh in my mind.   From 1995 or so I would bring a tape recorder to all interviews with senior figures.  Now I bring a digital recorder to everything.  I never use only a recorder just in case the device fails.  I have never attempted to film an interview as I think this adds another level of concern or self-consciousness for the interviewee.  I have found that sometimes in mid-interview a subject might ask me to turn off the recorder for a particularly sensitive part of the interview or conversely ask me to stop taking notes.  I am happy to oblige.  Strangely perhaps, I have never been asked to cease both.

I have found that using the same skeleton structure of questions with multiple witnesses can bring interesting results, allowing directly comparative answers that can clearly point up the ways in which individual perspective is subjective and memory is partial.  I’ve found asking witnesses to identify a turning point in a historical process to be an especially fertile avenue.  It can be fascinating to note the informal methods used to fix a date in a stream of recollections: ‘that would be around the time that X happened’ or ‘soon after Y happened.’  In fact, the use of a particular event in fixing the date has served as an excellent indicator of the salience of the event, which is of its own value.

Thinking about media history specifically I’ve found it helpful to speak to technicians ‘in the trenches’ as well as star ‘auteurs’.  Documentary film makers and radio journalists have proven especially helpful in part because they haven’t had the same exposure to scholars as fiction film makers or TV journalists.  Interviews with fiction film makers have been some of the most jaded and least revealing.  They have been asked it all before.  It is, however, an amazing experience to ask a question of an artist which is wholly new and unexpected to them and which triggers a moment of self-revelation or a new insight on their part.    Sometimes showing a filmmaker one of the documents you’ve found can be a revelation to them.  The great American government filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn was stunned when I showed him a letter Jackie Kennedy had written in the days following her husband’s murder in which she mentioned that she and the President’s father had viewed Herschensohn’s films in order to feel close to JFK once more.  It seemed all the more appropriate that Herschensohn had been commissioned by USIA to create the president’s official obituary film.

My dealings with sources are not always limited to an hour.  The experience of sharing an interest in a historical moment or experience can be powerful and some witnesses have initiated multiple visits and many conversations and become genuine friends.  To be honest, I have sometimes been criticized for becoming too friendly with my sources.  The criticism has some merit.  One can easily take on the prejudice or institutional perspective of ones sources, written or oral, even without realizing it.  When working on the history of Voice of America radio I was introduced to a succession of veterans of the service who styled themselves the ROMEOs (an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out).  I found an easy rapport with them and knew my interest in their careers provided a welcome external validation.   In this process I missed the extent to which the network was essentially masculine and skewed my account of VOA away from a female experience.  This was a significant omission given that the Voice was cited in a massive anti-discrimination class action law suit called the Hartman case.  My ultimate take-away from this is that a researcher must consider how exhilarating the process of being passed from one interviewee to another can skew perspective, and maybe seek additional witnesses as a corrective.  Yet the most carefully constructed interview program can be skewed.  Ultimately we will always need others to identify our biases for us and the corrective may not come from a supervisor or a peer reviewer but from a critic of the published text.  Ouch.  Despite the danger of human contact skewing the work, I feel that can happen with any set of sources.  As with the stock market it pays to have a diverse portfolio!  I have found my emphasis on oral work has helped me to remain aware of the subjective nature of my research and the way in which scholars are, like the oral sources, mortal prisoners of a flow of time.  Knowing that my sources will not last forever has at some points given my work an urgency that an exclusively archive-based project would not have had.  Needless to say the eventual loss of witnesses is a sad reality of the work – some deaths have been considerable blows — but one feels a sense of pride when one was part of their leaving something more of their story behind.

If you are going to bring oral sources into your work it is important to check your institution’s ground rules.  Some regard oral sources as a form of ‘human subject’ work and require formal preparations and legal disclaimers for participants.  Others have no formal requirements.  It is important to ensure you are in compliance.  Some publishers – including one of my own, Palgrave – will only allow an oral source to be quoted if they have a waiver signed by that source.  This can cause problems if the source has died since the interview, which is not uncommon when one is interviewing people because of their historical value who necessarily are much nearer their end than their beginning.  In one case I was able to get round the problem only by using the quote in a blog post and then citing the blog as my source rather than the interview.

One final rule I have is always to make a point of writing to thank my interlocutors.  It helps for them to know that their time has been appreciated and I would hate to think that my neglect closed them off as a source for future historians.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400


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.

 


 

  • Archives