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… Centre National De L’Audiovisuel (CNA)

Alessandra Luciano, CNA

9 October 2018


This blog post will focus on the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in Luxembourg, which can be summarised as the national audiovisual archive. However, it is more than a repository for national heritage, situated at the crossroads of multiple roles; it often reflects the current status of Luxembourg’s cultural landscape.

I will briefly address its politics and missions, but as I am the collection manager for the moving image archives at the film-tv department, I will focus primarily on our film, television and amateur film collections.

The Centre national de l’audiovisuel (CNA) is at the crossroads of multiple and different institutions. Indeed, we are an archive which has to preserve the Luxembourgish moving image, photography and sound archives for the future. We are also a museum, with two permanent collections on display Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man in Clervaux Castle in the north of the country (location chosen by Steichen himself), and The Bitter Years located in Dudelange on a renovated industrial site. These collections are complimented by rotating exhibitions in our gallery spaces. These mainly photographic exhibitions are either contemporary or archival. We also produce and help to further young talent or established artists. The film-tv department, amongst other tasks, sponsors pre-production of films that either use archival material from our own collections, or sometimes, when budgets and time permit, produce documentaries. Similar, the sound department records new CDs and also assists in the recordings of new musical pieces. One of my favourite projects is the recording of new scores by historical Luxembourgish musicians that have never been recorded before, thus not only preserving the paper records but creating new archival items. The photo department also, besides its archival work, sponsors new photographers and their activity through different scholarships. These can either be used to encourage an artist’s development or to help an existing photographer to publish her work. Finally, we also have a pedagogy department, which sets up various workshops and training opportunities for kids, adolescents, adults, but also professionals. These are often in collaboration with international experts. Thus, the CNA is both an open platform for the general public and a professional institution.

Figure 1: © CNA, photograph or original document outlining the CNA’s mission by Minister Robert Krieps 1988

The CNA is placed under the helm of the Ministry of Culture, and has been governed by the 2004 laws that have re-organised the cultural institutions in Luxembourg. This is crucial as this legislation defined the different missions and roles the CNA has to play in Luxembourg and denotes boundaries in terms of what we do in regard to other cultural heritage institutions. However, the Centre national de l’audiovisuel was created much earlier in 1989. Its creation was a clear and conscious attempt at creating an infrastructure that would be responsible not only for the preservation of audiovisual heritage (film, photography and sound), but also the education of new means of communication and storytelling that would capture the present, preserve the past and work toward the future. Its missions are the conservation and enhancement of Luxembourg’s audiovisual heritage and to ensure that all members of the public can access its sound, moving image, and photographic collections through exhibitions, publications, screenings, conferences and other events.

The end of the 1980s is not coincidental, but can be attributed to a larger understanding of shifting cultural perspective and production. Concerning film for example, the 1980s are often referred to as the birth of modern day cinema in Luxembourg. Whereas of course Luxembourg already had a history in commercial broadcasting (radio and television), and several films were made (professionally and amateurishly), during the 1980s tax incentives were created to allow a professional movie making industry to grow. Thus, with it was also born the notion that Luxembourg needed a national centre that would reflect these changes, but also preserve these legacies in the making.

Moving image collections, digitisation efforts and philosophy

CNA’s moving image collections are hybrid. We hold photochemical prints (8mm, S8, 9,5mm, 16mm, 35mm and some less standard formats such as 17,5mm and 28mm) and several videotape formats (1”, 2”, 3/4”, different Beta types), as well as either digitised or digital born items. The CNA acquires through two channels: legal and voluntary deposit.

Figure 2: © Archives CNA, sometimes this is how we roll

As such, since its inception the film-tv department has been tackling several collections that have been deemed a priority. The film-tv archives comprise some 200,000 items (film and video combined), many of which have not yet been itemised, or else only broadly. The archives also already contain many native digital documents. 56,000 documents have been transferred (from photochemical or magnetic to file based media), a portion of which will have to be rescanned to a higher quality. More than 400 feature-length and short films, as well as documentaries made in Luxembourg since the early 20th century (35mm/16mm), are archived at the CNA. The archives also house more recent productions in digital format, which have been added via the legal deposit route.

The film prints people deposit voluntarily, (and for which they are not always the rights holder) are mostly home movies, industry films or semi-professional productions. The CNA collects only national productions; international deposits are offered to the Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Figures 3 and 4: © Romain Girtgen, CNA cold storage vaults for photochemical prints (6°C/ 40RH)

Under the legal deposit law, producers have to deposit every movie produced or co-produced in Luxembourg, with or without state subsidies. Broadly, this includes a preservation copy (a film print is highly encouraged) and an access copy. Legal deposit is the statutory obligation for every film, television, radio, DVD, Blu-ray and music producer to deposit the entirety of their production and co-production at the CNA. As a result of the digital revolution, the conservation of thousands of hours of audio and visual material prompts up many challenges in terms of technological adaptability. Consequently, the CNA aims at staying ahead of all the developments in terms of production and preservation formats, and storage media, which inevitably entails considerable budgetary and human efforts.

What’s more, since 1995, the CNA has been actively collecting, digitising and preserving amateur films  (9.5mm, 8mm, Super 8, sometimes even on 16mm) documenting everyday life in Luxembourg. This is still on-going; however, we had to limit our criteria of acceptance since we already hold over 10.000 amateur titles. This collection represents a unique eyewitness account of the life of Luxembourgers. It is widely used in documentaries, exhibitions, and conferences. Starting in 2015, we have also aimed at collecting and preserving some amateur films shot on video. This has proven to be challenging because not only were video cameras more affordable and easier to use, thus increasing the amount of items, but also the very bad quality of the tapes often make it harder to retrieve and reuse the content.

Figure 5: ©Archives CNA, amateur film collections – Kodak cardboard box for 16mm film – stamp reads “Belgisch Congo Belge”

Whereas our collections on photochemical prints are in good condition (we suffer some damage from vinegar syndrome), the state of our magnetic tape collections is in parts unknown. Therefore, we have shifted our focus onto our very large television archives. The television video formats, used primarily during the 1970s and 1980s, are very fragile and must therefore be processed as a priority. Audiovisual heritage on magnetic tape is generally prone to faster decay and obsolescence, not only because the tape may be damaged but also because the playback and records machines have become sparse and the knowledge to use them has most often not been passed onto next generations.

Our television collections encompass all the events that shaped life in Luxembourg and the Greater Region from 1955 to the present day. The State is committed to preserving and making available the entire CLT-UFA historical archives. These archives (news bulletins, documentaries and miscellaneous reports) consist of 16mm film (from 1955 to 1980) and video material (from 1969 until the switch to digital media). The particularity of the collection is that it is not only Luxembourgish but we hold a large collection called Paris Television, as well as French and Belgium broadcast news adding to the diversity of our collections. Our archives are therefore often requested and used for international productions, film and television, but also for transnational research projects.

Figures 6 and 7: © Romain Girtgen, CNA cold storage vaults for magnetic media (16°C/ 40%RH)

Unfortunately, we can only provide access to our collections either on-site or via a file server system, if the item is available digitally. This however entails that the CNA staff has to research the requested moving image in our database, as such we cannot always follow up on every request, and we have to sometimes remind our public to be as specific as possible when looking for footage. Nevertheless, we collaborate on numerous film, television, exhibition or research projects.

However, the CNA is in the process of developing a new database, which will in the long term enable its archives to be available online, and for some registered users it will even be possible to buy archival items through the web portal. This is a large-scale undertaking that will take place in several phases. Following the structural work of the database (2014/2015) and data migration (2015) stages, a lengthy process will commence to bring the database up to standard and to correct the data contained therein. When the new database will be available for internal use, a later stage will enable Internet users to search thousands of photographs, films, television broadcasts and audio documents on an online portal. This project has further underscored the necessity of good and qualitative metadata collection, upkeep and information structure. Currently the Ministry of Culture is also aiming toward a national platform for all of Luxembourg’s cultural institutions to be available online for viewing.

The collected, catalogued and archived audiovisual documents constitute an essential part of Luxembourg’s national memory, which future generations can continue to experience, view and listen to. They also constitute an inexhaustible source of testimonies for those who not only wish to study Luxembourg’s history and society, but also that of its neighbouring countries. If any of this speaks to you or you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch.

As a sort of “appendix” I would like to briefly point out some of CNA film projects which feature parts of our collections that may be interesting to some of you:

HISTOIRE(S) DE FEMME(S)
a film by Anne Schroeder, produced by Samsa film in co-production with the CNA.

The film traces the great history of the emancipation of women and of the feminist movements from the very personal perspective of individual stories from the lives of Luxembourg women during the 20th century.

This documentary features private films from the CNA collection, as well as “official” archives.

Figure 8: © Archives CNA, Collection Gerty Beissel

ASHCAN
a project by Willy Perelszstejn, produced by Les Films de la Mémoire in co-production with the CNA.

Ashcan was the code name for the secret prison in Mondorf-les-Bains where the Allies kept Nazi officials imprisoned from May to August 1945. One of the young American officers in Ashcan was John Dolibois, of Luxembourg origin and the future US ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

How did the Allies treat their prisoners? What were they hoping to achieve by holding the prisoners in incommunicado detention? What information did the Allied interrogators seek to draw from their prisoners? How did they try and make them talk?

Based on the interrogation accounts, the documentary will plunge us into a fascinating investigation into an episode of the Second World War in Luxembourg of which little is known.

208
Co-production of CNA, Grace Productions and Samsa
Film, currently in development

Figure 9

In 1933, “Radio Luxembourg” began broadcasting in England, despite fierce opposition from the BBC, and became Europe’s most powerful commercial radio station. In its heyday during the 1950s and 1960s, “208 Radio Luxembourg, The Station of the Stars” was THE radio of the rock ‘n’ roll and pop revolution, a promoter of and source of inspiration for the greatest music stars of the time, from Paul Anka to Cliff Richard, from the Beatles to the Osmond Brothers. “208” represented the voice of freedom throughout Europe, even beyond the “Iron Curtin” and across Scandinavia, and left its mark on an entire generation. The film retraces this unique history, in particular via Villa Louvigny’s famous DJs: Pete Murray, Barry Alldis, Kid Jensen, Bob Stewart, Dave Christian, Tony Prince Benny Brown and Stuart Henry.

Figure 10


Alessandra Luciano has a bachelor in film studies from the University of Exeter and a master in film studies from Columbia University. She also graduated from the Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image Master from the University of Amsterdam. Since 2013 she has been working as lead film archivist and collection manager in CNA’s moving image archive.


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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