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.

 

Hands On TV History

John Ellis, Royal Holloway University of London

8 March 2019


Huge amounts of TV material are now becoming available for historical researchers, thanks to digitization. Digitization makes old programming visible, but at the same time it obscures how those programmes were made. As access gets easier, understanding the footage as source material is getting harder.

The proliferation of potential sources range from the carefully curated to the anarchy of YouTube:

  • Learning on Screen’s Box of Broadcasts (BoB) contains thousands of hours of analogue-originated programmes
  • The substantial amounts of ITN news material, once curated by Learning on Screen for Jisc, is now available again through Proquest’s Alexander Street subsidiary: https://alexanderstreet.com/products/mediaplus 
  • Organisations as diverse as Kaleidescope, BBC Archive, Ident Central, Talking Pictures TV and Network Distributing are all actively engaged in making old programming available
  • Europeana, the European Digital Library has over a million TV items from the EUscreen project
  • National broadcaster archives, inspired by the vast resources of France’s INA, are increasingly making their factual material visible to academic or even public users
  • YouTube contains vast amounts of analogue TV, much of it posted from digitized VHS tapes

How TV got made in the analogue era has now become an urgent question for anyone wanting to understand or use this footage, whether for teaching or historical research or even for its value as data. Making TV used to be a rare and difficult activity. It used expensive and cumbersome technologies that required teams of skilled individuals to work them, and the resources of large organisations with the funding to afford them. The TV footage we have from the last century (and the earlier years of this century) are profoundly determined by the affordances of analogue technologies and the systems that went with them. TV tended to record what was convenient or accessible, and in forms that were manageable and predictable. This has determined the nature of the visual record of that time: what was chosen to be shown and how it was shown.

So how do we find out how TV used to be made? The television industry itself provides only clues. There’s only so much that you can learn from looking at old equipment, and even less from photos of them. Broadcaster archives contain very few programmes explaining how TV used to work. Fortunately, many of the professionals from the fifties onwards are still around, and there is an international network of collectors who still maintain “obsolete” equipment in working order.

For the ADAPT research project, funded by the European Research Council, we seized this time-limited opportunity to reunite working equipment with the professionals who once used it. We challenged them to make a programme as they used to. We used contemporary ‘fixed rig’ video methods (14 cameras for one shoot) to produce over 160 videos in all. Our  promotional video gives a good idea of the scope of this work.

They show how TV professionals in the UK filmed and edited using both video and 16mm film. The processes of both video and film are explained at www.adapttvhistory.org.uk, and all the videos can be downloaded from the repository at https://figshare.com/collections/ADAPT/3925603

We have extraordinary revelations: how quickly and economically a film crew used to work; the sheer difficulty of getting a live show on air; the crucial importance of repair and maintenance; the time and effort it took to line up cameras.

We see how the 16mm Éclair camera and Nagra sound tape recorder revolutionised what was possible. We see how one (energetic) person can run an entire film lab. Our footage enables a comparison between film and videotape editing, as well as an appraisal of AVID’s early digital system.  

It shows the combination of many different items of equipment that were required to make the simplest of sound and image material, the heavy cables, the cumbersome tapes, the long waits for equipment to warm up.

We concentrated on the everyday production of everyday TV, to present examples that were as typical as possible. The equipment used is mainly British or European and the professionals involved had all once worked for the BBC. But the work routines and the basic arrays of equipment were similar even then. Many of the crews interact in ways that are startlingly similar to those reported by Beth Bechty in her ethnographic studies of US freelance film crews in the early 2000s. They show the same rituals of exaggerated politeness and mutual respect. The biggest difference is in the social composition of the professional group we were calling on: they were overwhelmingly male and white.  

The equipment (and some attitudes) may be retro, but this work is no exercise in historical recreation akin to a Civil War battle recreation. Instead it is a combination of hands on history and memory work. These professionals recall past actions that, more often than not, are deeply embedded in body memory. The additional challenge to create again brings forward all their professional skills.   The participants are ‘playing’ their younger selves, encountering long abandoned equipment: “Come to Daddy” says one of the cinematographers unselfconsciously on picking up the Éclair camera.

Our videos are edited to different lengths: a bitesized two minutes that can be used in a lecture; a medium length for seminar use and full length versions for research and concentrated study. [See the playlist on YouTube here]. Taken together they show clearly why archival TV is as it is: they reveal the strengths and limitations of a whole, lost, era of television production. It was an era when filming was not the commonplace activity it is now: it involved scarce resources, large expenditure, individuals with highly specialized skills. The decision to film was a weighty one that involved considerable planning. When you watch these professionals at work, and see their demonstrations of the equipment they wrestled with, it seems remarkable that they achieved so much.    

This material can serve as a guide for those students and researchers fortunate enough to have access to hands on collections of old equipment. There is a growing network of ‘hands on history’ collections which allow students to handle old equipment, the better to understand its limitations and capabilities. This is not yet common in the UK, but there are interesting initiatives at Groningen, Colorado and Humboldt universities. 

The videos can help decode the mysteries of circuitry and reveal the industry work-arounds. It is also a miracle that this equipment is still in working order, and this is due to the dedicated private collectors, the owners and maintainers. Museum display equipment may look spectacular, but if it is not maintained, it loses its ability to speak to us. Our material is intended to restore at least some of that ability, to bring the  back to life.

The ADAPT project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 323626).


John Ellis has been Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London since 2002 and was the principal investigator on the ADAPT project. He began his career teaching film studies at the University of Kent, and published Visible Fictions in 1982. That year, he set up, with two other producers, the independent TV company Large Door www.largedoorltd.com and produced TV documentaries for the next two decades. He is now the chair of Learning on Screen and an editor of View, the online peer reviewed journal of European TV history www.viewjournal.eu His other books include Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (2012) and Seeing Things (2000). The ADAPT project was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 323626).


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 IFI Irish Film Archive, Dublin

Ciara Chambers, University College Cork

27 November 2018


The IFI Irish Film Archive recently launched The Irish Independence Film Collection on the IFI player amidst a flurry of media attention in Ireland and beyond. The project, funded by the Irish government’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht through the 2016 project office, has repatriated newsreel stories covering Ireland by Pathé and Topical Budget between 1914-1930. The IFI Irish Film Archive worked closely with British Pathé and the British Film Institute, encouraging a return to the original nitrate stock to digitise it to the highest possible quality, offering much sharper digital transfers than the older, low resolution standard-definition telecines. This is groundbreaking work in the preservation of newsreel material, and it has happened at a time of acute reflection, nostalgia and re-evaluation of national identity. Setting aside Ireland’s complex relationship with Britain as the Brexit crisis unfolds, the country is currently in the middle of a ‘decade of centenaries’, a period between 2012 and 2022 marked by a range of public commemoration as modern Ireland reconsiders the twentieth-century events that were part of the founding of the state, with a particular focus on the Easter Rising (1916), the War of Independence (1919-21), the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23).

Courtesy of LMDÓC / Patrick Jordan / Roman Garcia Albir

This is just one of a range of innovative projects undertaken by the Irish Film Archive. It recently restored, digitized and catalogued 8000 rolls of 35mm film containing a large collection of Irish advertisements. An important focus of this project, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, was to make the material accessible to the general public, and it can now be viewed here: https://ifiplayer.ie/adverts/ The Irish Film Archive also collaborated with University College Cork on Capturing the Nation (funded by the Irish Research Council) which focussed on the digitization and cataloguing of small-gauge Irish amateur film. With innovative projects like these, the IFA strives to achieve a balance between preservation and access, always ensuring that material is made available to the general public through screenings, the IFI player and DVD projects (some of these, for instance GAA Gold – depicting archival material covering Irish sports – were bestsellers in Ireland). The expert team, headed by Kasandra O’Connell, works tirelessly and often with limited funding to preserve and contextualise Ireland’s filmic heritage. The innovative nature of IFA projects has not gone unnoticed by the International archive community; Access and Digital Collections Developer Kieran O’Leary was awarded Focal International employee of the year in 2018.

Founded in 1986, the IFI Irish Film Archive includes in its vaults a range of indigenous film production from 1897 to the present day including feature films, documentaries, newsreels and amateur material. The work of prominent industry directors is preserved alongside films made within local communities, capturing representations of Ireland that chart shifting social attitudes and conditions.

Odd Man Out

The Quiet Man

The portrayal of Ireland on film has been a largely problematic one due to a lack of a sustained indigeneous film industry until the 1970s.  Prior to this, in narrative filmmaking, Ireland was depicted by external filmmakers and often appeared as rural idyll (particularly in American depictions like John Ford’s The Quiet Man, 1952) or as dark, violent and dangerous territory (as in some British portrayals like Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, 1947). Even the majority of newsreels produced for cinema audiences (and the only source of onscreen news available to the Irish population before the advent of television in the 1950s) were, with a few exceptions, produced by external companies with a tendency to depict scenes of rural primitivism and an inherent violent Irish disposition. This meant that Ireland watched a portrayal of itself which was tinged with postcolonial connotations and often at odds with day-to-day reality.  However, throughout this time amateur local filmmakers were capturing events which hold valuable clues to an internal social and historical perspective on twentieth-century Ireland. Digitizing and exploring this material poses questions on how the Irish amateur gaze depicted modern Ireland and offers the possibility of constructing an alternative narrative to that of mainstream cinema. Sitting alongside professional representations of Ireland in the Irish Film Archive’s facilities in Dublin and Maynooth, this material is a significant cultural resource for researchers keen to understand the development of filmic portrayals of Ireland.

Visiting the Irish Film Archive, located in Temple Bar, the heart of Dublin city centre, is a pleasure. It is attached to the Irish Film Institute, a bustling three-screen arthouse cinema space which hosts a range of festivals and special events and runs an extensive lifelong learning education programme. Local filmmakers and artists often use the IFI’s busy café bar as a meeting spot and you never know who you might bump into there at any time of the day or evening.

Bookings need to be made in advance, and often the viewing facilities are booked out for extended periods of time so it’s vital that you make a reservation and liaise with staff about the material you’d like to see, particularly since the catalogue is not available online. Preliminary enquiries should be made in writing, addressed to access@irishfilm.ie. If the material you need to view is held on film and has not yet been digitized, it will be added to the transfer list and this could take up to six weeks to complete, so it’s important that you plan your visit well in advance. The staff are generous in sharing both their time and expertise and it’s likely that after a visit you’ll come away with even more information about the collections than you anticipated. And if you’re looking for contextual material, the IFI also hosts the Tiernan McBride library, one of the largest collections of film-related publications in Ireland.

https://ifi.ie/archive/research-library/

A large collection of books and DVDs are also available for purchase in the IFI shop:

https://ifi.ie/shop/

Ever proactive in facing the challenges of a small nation with a contested and problematic history, the Irish Film Institute is currently compiling a Moving Image Register to better assess the range of material in need of preservation. A similar survey of archival material is being conducted in Northern Ireland, which does not have a dedicated physical space for the preservation of moving images. However, in 2000, the Digital Film Archive (DFA) was launched by the Northern Ireland Film Commission (now Northern Ireland Screen) and a range of material has been added to it since. The DFA holds narrative and experimental film, television, news, animation and amateur material from 1897 through to the present day and is currently available at a range of museums, libraries, universities and heritage-related locations in Northern Ireland. A full catalogue and a range of the collections are available for viewing here: www.digitalfilmarchive.net

If you are looking for material related to Northern Ireland, it is worth checking on both the Digital Film Archive and in the catalogues of the Irish Film Archive. For queries related to the DFA, and to learn more about its educational outreach programme, see here: https://digitalfilmarchive.net/contact

Northern Ireland Screen is also working closely with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) to preserve the archives of local broadcaster UTV and it is hoped that some of this invaluable material will soon join other UTV gems on the DFA http://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/news/utv-archive-preserved-public-record-office-northern-ireland/

If you’re visiting Dublin from outside Ireland, a large amount of accommodation is available within walking distance of the Irish Film Institute and you’ll find numerous pubs and eateries along the cobbled streets of Temple Bar. Be warned though, it’s a lively spot, particularly on weekends, so if you need some quiet time to reflect on your research, you may want to stay somewhere a little more serene. Dublin, of course, is the home of Guinness, so if you’d like to indulge in a pint or an Irish coffee after a hard day’s research, neither will be hard to find… Sláinte!


Dr Ciara Chambers is Head of Film and Screen Media, University College Cork, author of Ireland in the Newsreels (Irish Academic Press, 2012) and co-editor of Researching Newsreels (Palgrave, 2018). She is a member of the editorial board of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, book reviews editor for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and a member of the IAMHIST Council. Her research interests include newsreels, amateur film and the recycling of archival images. She has worked on a range of archival projects and digitization initiatives with the Irish Film Archive, Northern Ireland Screen, Belfast Exposed Photography, UTV, BBC, and the British Universities Film and Video Council. She is scriptwriter and associate producer on Éire na Nuachtscannán (Ireland in the Newsreels), a six-part television series broadcast on TG4 in autumn 2017 http://www.irelandinthenewsreels.com

https://www.ucc.ie/en/filmstudies/people/


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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