Tom May, Northumbria University
9 November 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.
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.
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.
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).
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