Sebastian Cody, Open Media
26 October 2021
Jerome Kuehl – a dedicated member of IAMHIST Council for many years, known to all as Jerry – was my business partner, serving as a director of our production company Open Media from 1986 until he died in 2018. With the support of his estate I am now compiling a book of his writings, published and unpublished, for scholars of film and television as well as historians and a wider public. This is by way of an interim report on the project.
Jerry, probably best known to IAMHIST as a specialist in archive film, trained both as a historian and a philosopher. He was a serious scholar with the great gift of a light touch, both on and off the page. So very intelligent, steely and forensic, so acutely critical – yet also so funny. When necessary he could be severe and uncompromising, such as when confronting bogus people or bad ideas, or fighting for what he believed in (as when he campaigned against those at Channel 4 who chose to abandon our After Dark live discussion series). His writing – rooted in an almost supernatural ability to recall details of what he came to call visual history – has clarity and academic rigour, and is somehow also both amusing and elegantly brutal. His body of work stands as a remarkable testament to a lifetime’s dedication to the highest standards and deserves to be better known.
Originally from the US Jerry studied at the Sorbonne and then came to Oxford as a post-graduate at St Anthony’s, where he met many of his subsequent friends. Jeremy Isaacs was an undergraduate at the time, as were Bernard Donoghue and Melvyn Bragg (Jerry appears in one of Melvyn’s novels). Jerry studied under Sir Isaiah Berlin and travelled around Europe with John Searle.
After teaching history at both Oxford and Stanford Jerry joined the BBC as a historical adviser, to help launch BBC2 with its landmark documentary series The Great War. A forty-year television career followed. He made significant contributions to programmes – primarily about history and politics – in Britain and the US, from Jeremy Isaacs’ The World At War (still, I believe, the most commercially successful non-fiction series of all time); to Destination America; Auschwitz: The Final Solution; Vietnam: A Television History; The Spanish Civil War; Today’s History; The French Revolution; and Cold War.
His work set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives (indeed the Financial Times gave him the title “Officer Commanding Archive Integrity”). He often fought with historians, believing the academy should accord visual material the same value as other historical documents, while at the same time challenging his own colleagues when sloppy in their use of archive footage and thus, as he understood, perpetuating errors into the future. He wanted to prevent nonsense from becoming orthodoxy. For this he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by FOCAL International, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries, in 2004.
In parallel Jerry maintained a steady publication output. The earliest pieces I have found are from the 1950s (they are about what was then East Germany); the last was published posthumously in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. He was a frequent contributor to historical and media publications, including Sight and Sound; Cineaste; the Journal of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts; Broadcast; Spectrum; Focal International (which became Archive Zones); Film and Television Technician; Viewfinder; The Consultant, the Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, as well as the TLS; The Journal of War and Culture Studies; The International History Review and International Affairs.
He lectured all over the world, including at the Royal United Services Institute; the Imperial War Museum; the National Film and Television Archives; the Royal Military College, Sandhurst; the National Archives, Washington D.C; and in France, Canada and at several US universities as well the universities of LSE, Warwick, Manchester and Oxford in the UK.
In the 21st century he became internationally known for fathering The Office Cat, a widely available column (including for a time in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and later the IAMHIST Blog) that pointed out the abuse of archive film by television producers, as seen by a proud but incompetent film researcher. As Jerry explained, “unlike human film researchers the Office Cat can find any film whether or not it exists. Thus the Cat could – and did – find ‘film’ of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker; of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; and of the iceberg which sank the Titanic. Producers and Directors demand such images, and film researchers, often with a heavy heart, try to provide them.”
Juliet Gardiner summed up his life’s work in History Today:
“Jerry stuck firmly to his creed of popularisation without vulgarisation. His mission (was) to make scholarly history accessible”.
The proposed volume of his selected writings – drawn from 60 years of occasional articles, book chapters, reviews, The Office Cat and so on – falls into three parts. The first is a short book (unfinished but self-contained and most interesting) called Looking At History, to be published for the first time. Next comes a selection of his previously anthologised work that is currently out of print (for example his devastating attack on docudrama from the 1990s called, unambiguously, Lies About Real People). Finally, a significant section of important pieces which appeared once in obscure places but, though hard to access at present, retain their salience.
The collection will range across (at least) his 1960s fight with academic historians about visual history; his 1970s assault on docudrama; his significant contributions to the historiography of The World At War; his fight for nitrate film; and his Torquemada-like pursuit of scholarly precision in the use of archive film, not forgetting The Office Cat and Kuehl’s Reels.
Over the years his work has grown more, rather than less, relevant. My hope is that this book will appeal, not only to the general enthusiast for film and history, but to scholars, to those who write curriculum, and to students, specifically in three publishing markets: the niche areas of archival studies, film preservation etc; the larger areas of film/tv/documentary/media/production studies; and finally, those historians who work on the 20th century and seek to take visual history seriously.
Although I have already collected a number of pieces – as well as seven chapters of his book manuscript – there may well be more waiting to be found. If any IAMHIST members have some gems of Jerry’s writing tucked away, please get in touch as soon as possible. I am also looking for collaborators to help prepare this volume for publication.
Sebastian Cody is a senior media executive. A pioneer independent producer in the formative years of Channel 4 he has been responsible for many British network television programmes including the celebrated discussion series After Dark. In 2010 his company Open Media launched an online social history of Britain, InView, alongside the BFI, BBC, The National Archive and others. Recently he has been Associate Producer of documentaries for HBO and the BBC. He has written for many newspapers including The Times and The Guardian and acts as a consultant for companies and NGO’s, such as Universal Music/Decca and IIASA, the international science research organisation where he advised four successive Directors General over the last fifteen years.
From 2001 to 2019 Sebastian Cody was a Visitor at the University of Oxford, variously at the Environmental Change Institute at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment and the Rothermere American Institute. He was elected a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College Oxford in 2004. In 2019 he became Visiting Researcher at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster where his research interests include public service media and transnational cultural diplomacy.
Please contact Sebastian in relation to this project at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.