The British Entertainment History Project (BEHP): Its history, content, and a call for volunteers

Sue Malden (Secretary, BEHP)

28 March 2024


I am the Secretary of the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP). It was a pleasure to attend the IAMHIST symposium, ‘Hidden Archives: Marginalised and Alternative Collections and Practices’, in Dublin at the end of January, and to have the opportunity to address the Council and post graduate student attendees. I told the assembled academics that the BEHP is a small group of volunteers who record interviews with people who have worked in cinema, television, radio and theatre. This is because many careers overlap from one industry to another.

How it Began

The History Project began back in 1987 when a small group of members of the film and broadcasting union ACTT (Association of Cinema and Television Technicians) – now part of BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union) – decided to record the individual histories of men and women who had made their working lives in the industry. They decided to do something immediate and practical to rectify that cumulative loss of memory and achievement and to bring to the project their wide personal knowledge of the industry and its history. They were led by Roy Fowler our Honorary President, and distinguished film maker. To quote from the Bill Douglas Centre:

Roy was something of a cinematic prodigy; in a typically entertaining piece on his career in our collections (EXE BD 78556) he describes his adventures as a ‘film barmy’ teenager. Obsessed with the film industry he visited sets and met filmmakers, determined that this would be the life he would lead. After service at the end of the war he then published two beautiful books in the Pendulum Popular Film series on ‘The Film in France’ and the first ever book biography of his great hero Orson Welles. He was just 19 at the time!

Faced with austerity and an industry in crisis at the end of its 1940s golden period in Britain, Roy then moved to the USA and worked as a producer in film and television. He returned to Britain in the 1970s and became closely involved with the film industry’s trade union, the ACTT. This proved to be one of his greatest achievements and hundreds of former industry personnel from household names to vital but little-known workers on set were encouraged to tell their stories and the recordings were made available to researchers. Now, the BEHP continues to go from strength to strength and Roy was involved right up to his death in August 2019. Without his passion and energy this testimony would never have been captured for posterity. (https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/news/roy-fowler-a-tribute/)

Roy’ Fowler’s biography of Orson Welles, published in 1946. (https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/news/roy-fowler-a-tribute/)

Roy Fowler’s study on Film in France, published in 1946. (https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/news/roy-fowler-a-tribute/)

Supported by the Union which gave the group the autonomy to get on with the work in hand, they began to create an archive of oral history recordings by interviewing staff from across the sector, from processing workers and producers to sound assistants and directors, including writers and performers.

Vision and Achievement

The vision of those pioneers has resulted in a unique and internationally recognised archive of more than 800 recordings which provide an extraordinary insight into the economic, technical, aesthetic and personal histories of the key cultural industry of the 20th and 21st Century. Some of them are more than 20 hours long and are social documents of our time.

As our industry has grown, we have extended our recordings to new occupations and new media.  We are determined to remain relevant to our time and to future generations.  We welcome the active engagement of all those with the ability and enthusiasm to assist us in our work.

What is it?

The BEHP is organised and operated entirely by volunteers who select interviewees and undertake the interviews. Interviews were originally recorded on audio tape but are now recorded audiovisually.

Our archive is unique and the majority of those whose working lives are recorded within it cannot be heard in any other place.

We have over 800 interviews on audio (in the early days) and video since 2000. Since 1987 a substantial database and website have been developed of fascinating interviews covering careers in the industry as well as many social history issues. We continue to record interviews – recently Bruce Robinson, writer/director of Withnail and I (1987), and Ronald Grant, the founder of the Cinema Museum. We welcome suggestions – Tobias Hochscherf has suggested Jodi Routh, grandson of Hein Hechroth, set designer who won an Oscar in 1949 for his visionary work on The Red Shoes (1948).

A wonderful example of real experience being brought to life in a film is the cimematographer for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Christopher Challis, talking about his WWII experience:

They said the Hague had fallen and Amsterdam. So I set out to go to the Hague in the Oyster because we were dropping food to the Dutch. They were in a terrible state, they suffered more than anyone else, they were all starving and we were dropping food. We got about half way and we realised, the pilot and myself that there were no sign of any of our troops and there were still German sentries on the bridges across the canals and things. And although they didn’t attempt to fire on us we hadn’t got enough fuel to go back so we had to carry on and we flew right at N and got to the suburbs of the the Hague. And there was a football field and some cows and a little house all around. We decided we could land there. And we landed with these cows going in every direction. Hundreds of Dutch people swarmed out of these houses and said what at you doing. They spoke English. We said we’ve come to film you. They said the Germans are still here and they surrounded us and took us to a house and a German half track appeared at the edge of the crowd which numbered several hundred people and they just stood and watched, they did nothing and went away. The Dutch resistance people turned up by then and said you’ve got to get out of here because although the war is virtually over for us it’s not and the Germans are still here. (https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/christopher-challis)

Some of this chaotic experience must be visualised in the movie!

Now that many of the interviews are accessible we welcome anyone who would like to curate elements of the collection by identifying themes, technology, film titles, TV productions, personalities for academic projects. For example we have done work on Dr Who (1963-1989, 1996, 2005 -) , a BBC TV classic to mark the centenary of the BBC. We embarked on  research into this iconic BBC series to establish if we hold recordings with  any interviewees who worked on the production over its 60 years, as the winner of 118 Awards and 215 nominations from among others – BAFTA – Scotland, Wales and England, Broadcasting Press Guild, and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (USA). There have been thirteen actors portraying the Doctor and many more behind the scenes contributing to its success.The 50th anniversary was broadcast In 94 countries and screened to more than half a million people in cinemas across Australia, Latin America, North America and Europe. The scope of the broadcast was a world record, according to Guinness World Records. Truly a major BBC production! So, in alphabetical order, here you go:

  • Robert Beatty no 50 https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/robert-beatty, in ‘The Tenth Planet’. He played General Cutler;
  • Bill Cotton, Controller of BBC1, no 153 https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/bill-cotton was involved in the 1985 postponement of Doctor Who. His precise impact on the production was that he hired John Nathan Turner and is likely to have signed off on Peter Davidson’s casting as the fifth Doctor. His biggest contribution (according to https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Bill_Cotton) is that he was the bridge by which Michael Grade joined the BBC and when Cotton moved up the management structure, he became Grade’s boss  and on 28 Feb 1985 announced the BBC had to live within its income, but a year later he told the DR Who Appreciation Society that Dr Who would be returning!! I’m sure he talks of other very significant BBC issues in his time as a senior manager!
  • A. Englander no 22 https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/tubby-englander – Camera operator on two serials, the season 7 adventure ‘The Ambassadors of Death and the season 8 ‘The Claws of Axos’.
  • Waris Hussein no 655 https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/waris-hussein –  director of the very first Dr Who serial. In fact he directed the pilot episode of Doctor Who in September 1963 plus all of ‘An Unearthly Child’;but he only directed 6 of the 7 episodes of the ‘Marco Polo’ serial.

All these interviews have been transcribed and are readily accessible on the above links. The following have been digitised, but we do not have a transcript for them. These interviews can be put through OTTER ( an automatic speech to text recognition software, but they will still need to be proofread and corrected). WE NEED VOLUNTEERS!

We asked people to name the most significant people who we do not hold an interview with and should be interviewed. They nominated

  • Philip Hinchcliffe, producer – being recorded by Paul Vanesis
  • Mat Irvine, – Visual Effects –  now done, but needs transcribing
  • Ken Westbury – He started at Ealing, working on films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (*) as a clapper loader, focus puller and camera assistant and when the BBC took over the studio, he came with it. He worked of the Patrick Troughton serial ‘Fury from the Deep’. – this has now done by Steve Brook Smith,  but needs transcribing
  • Marcia Wheeler, production manager – this has also been recorded, but needs transcribing

We have curated themes on Powell & Pressburger, Alexandra Palace, the starting place for Television to name a few, but there are so many more!

How to Join us

We welcome all offers of practical assistance in undertaking the interviews themselves or in providing the camera and sound skills needed for the recordings.  Members of the project do not have to be or have been members of the Union, although many are.  We are a broad church, and we want to reflect the gender, ethnic, geographical and sectoral range of our industry in our interviews.

There are many, many more productions, personalities or themes than can be researched, however, there is still work to do. All this involves a lot of work digitising and transcribing the interviews. As I told everyone at the IAMHIST event, we welcome assistance managing the project such as transcribing interviews and proof-reading transcripts we have produce using automatic speech to text transcribing. For example, Llewella Chapman will be studying interviews we hold with costume designers and wardrobe personnel as well as assisting in possible recording interviews for the BEHP.

The challenges to free up this valuable collection for access and research have been considerable – we needed  clearance from all interviewees to digitise and make their contribution accessible. Jill Balcon (daughter of Sir Michael Balcon and mother of actor Daniel Day Lewis) had not given her consent so we had to find some one in her family to give us permission to digitise – her son did!

So this is an appeal to scholars and practitioners  to be in contact with me to explore academic project ideas making use of the BEHP collection of interviews and of course help us with funding to sustain the collection. Please get in touch with me at: Sue.Malden@btinternet.com.


Sue Malden is the recipient of the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries (FOCALInt) in 2023, Formerly Head of BBC Broadcast Archives, conference planner for FIAT/IFTA; member of RTS Archive group. Currently chair if the Board of Trustees for MACE (Media Archive of Central England) and Secretary of the BEHP (British Entertainment History Project) (formerly BECTU History Project).


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… Media Archive for Central England (MACE)

Kat Pearson, University of Warwick

7 April 2021

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I am a PhD student at the University of Warwick, and my work on Cities of Culture (linked to Coventry’s year in 2021) is co-supervised by Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media, and also by Dr Clare Watson the Media Archive for Central England (MACE). This collaborative way of working has given me a unique perspective on the work that MACE do. I encounter the archive both as a researcher (using the archive for my PhD thesis) and as a kind of representative for MACE because I am engaging communities in Coventry with the archive’s collections.

Founded in 2000, MACE is the charitable regional film archive and strategic lead organisation for screen heritage in the Midlands. The archive is based at the University of Lincoln but the area it covers is vast, stretching across twelve counties and regions in the East and West Midlands

Because I live in Birmingham, have previously studied in Birmingham and Leicester, and am now based at the University of Warwick – which is actually in the Coventry suburb of Canley! – I am fairly familiar with a lot of MACE’s geographical area. Before the pandemic I made a number of trips to MACE, spending days with their staff and collections to see and understand their work which was fascinating and really beneficial in understanding the inner workings of a media archive. However, rather than only talking about what I’m doing with MACE, I also spoke to Dr Watson (Director of MACE), to find out a bit more about how they work with the research community. She told me that, ‘MACE is proactively engaged in supporting the research environment in many more ways than beyond a simple repository.’ MACE is very interested in collaborating with researchers and students, for instance on research projects and through academic networks, and my Collaborative Doctoral Award comes out of that. In terms of more traditional access, MACE’s collections are available for research, and researchers have access to viewing facilities which can also be used to view external BFI content. Two recent research projects that have used MACE’s collections are Dr Christine Grandy’s article, “‘The Show Is Not about Race’’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show,”[i] and Dr Rachel Yemm’s “Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election.”[ii]

Supporting access, MACE Senior Curator Phil Leach is an invaluable resource for projects which have public engagement outputs: for example, my supervisor Professor Helen Wheatley’s ‘Ghost Town’ project focussing on Coventry’s screen heritage. All this is to say that MACE’s role extends beyond preservation it is an active and engaged partner foracademic research and can help to translate outputs to the public.

Something that really highlighted to me the importance to MACE of the collections being used and engaged with was the experience of my friend Andy Howlett who produced Paradise Lost,[iii] a film about Birmingham Central Library. MACE worked with him to find footage of the library that fitted with his film and to organise rights clearances. I asked Andy about his experiences of working with MACE to get the filmmaker perspective and this was his response:

When I first searched MACE’s online catalogue for material pertaining to the modernist rebuilding of Birmingham, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content. It was difficult to know where to begin so I got in touch and explained my needs and they very kindly invited me to come visit the archive to see the footage in person. When I arrived they had everything set up and I spent a fascinating few hours viewing everything from regional news footage to construction firm propaganda to polemical documentaries. The formats ranged from 16mm film to VHS and I got a real sense of the materiality of the archive and the incredible level of technical know-how required to maintain and operate it. It was like being given a glimpse inside a treasure trove and I came away with a much clearer idea of what I needed for my film and how to proceed with the licensing process.

Use of archive footage in this way usually attracts licence fees. Unlike some private collections, however, MACE tries to support non-commercial uses of its collection through reduced fees. In Andy’s film the archive footage is an important feature, adding historical context to a building that (at the time of making) was under-threat, controversial and familiar to many as a neglected part of Birmingham’s built environment. When constructed, the building looked and functioned differently, so the footage from MACE helps to contextualise the building and the ethos of planning in the city at different points in time. In support of MACE’s mission ‘to make film, video and digital materials of the region as accessible as possible,’[iv] the archive is very happy to work with film makers, local organisations and researchers like me to make sure that their archives are not only preserved but ‘discovered, watched and enjoyed.’ If you are interested in using material from the MACE collection within a project, just contact the team with your brief and they’ll be able to assist with research, access and that all importance copyright clearance. You can find out more about how to license footage on the MACE website.[v]

As part of my research, I was recently awarded a small grant to run a collaborative project and screening in Foleshill, a community suffering from economic deprivation just outside of Coventry city centre. Due to the impact of Covid-19 the screening was reconfigured to a small socially-distanced event hosted by the Foleshill Community Centre and Social Supermarket with an accompanying online version.[vi] Both events featured the same films from MACE’s collection focused on the local area and on food and drink in Coventry. We also included an introduction on the work that MACE does and the variety of material that exists within their collection. Although we were limited in number of participants and room layout, we even managed to facilitate a socially distanced group discussion afterwards. Having worked on this for over eight months (including a visit to Lincoln and then countless Zoom calls and planning meetings) it was really exciting to hear people’s opinions about these films which had become familiar to me, and which Phil and I had worked so hard to curate. Because these films really showcased Foleshill and Coventry, this screening brought home to me the importance to people of seeing their communities and histories on screen and the fact that this was obviously a very new experience to most of the people in the room. This was made even more obvious by people highlighting the communities and people who weren’t visible in the films that we had chosen and asking for future events to redress this absence.

While it is not often possible to bring people together to watch archive footage in this way, MACE’s collection is very easily searchable on their website[vii] and over 7,000 of their videos are available online. Over the years MACE’s cataloguers have done an impressive job of making the text associated with the films available as part of this search tool, so you can search via various criteria, like date ranges, key words and even whether the films are in colour or have sound. If there are films which you would like to view but which aren’t digitised then you can contact MACE and arrange an appointment for viewing. Depending on the format of the footage you want to view you will either need the help of MACE staff (for example if celluloid film needs to be viewed using the Steenbeck machine) or will be able to view it on your own.

MACE is based on the University of Lincoln campus around a 10-minute walk from the train station and overlooking Brayford Pool. Should you (in non-pandemic times) wish to visit MACE to view their collections, or to view BFI material (which is arranged through the BFI but MACE act as a screening facility) then you will find yourself in the heart of the city. You might also want to visit some of the sights of Lincoln such as the medieval Cathedral, the castle and my personal favourite Steep Hill. I recommend Coffee Aroma on Guildhall Street for excellent coffee and cakes, and the Tiny Tavern if you like a micropub, but as I learned when I stayed in Lincoln for a few days, the city centre pubs and restaurants are strangely quiet in the evenings, especially for a university town.

While I have used MACE for my research and for public screenings, I have also spent hours just browsing their collections online and finding videos which made me think and/or smile. This really short introduction reel which showcases things about Coventry from MACE’s collection gives you a sense of the variety of things they hold, as demonstrated by this short film put together about Coventry’s film history.

MACE’s collection was originally formed around the ATV regional television archive so features a lot of news footage, but now includes a wider range of materials and I have really enjoyed trying to understand Coventry’s history, heritage and different communities through this lens. I considered the fashion trends (and sexist attitudes) of the 1970s while watching this piece about a milkman looking for a wife[viii] and enjoyed seeing some much loved (and now slightly neglected) Coventry architecture in the context of modernity and forward-thinking.[ix]

MACE’s collection has also provided me with opportunities to understand more about Coventry’s history of industry and industrial action. There are lots of moving films about people in various trades especially striking miners and automotive workers, but one of my favourites is a more light-hearted film about a strike over the amount of tea given to workers which both the presenter and a striking worker take great delight in calling ‘a storm in a tea-cup’.[x]

In 2020, while thinking about Black Lives Matters protests across the country, Coventry as a City of Sanctuary, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, I have looked at the MACE archive to reflect on the history of race in Coventry. I watched films ranging from this difficult to watch 1966 vox pops clip capturing public responses to the first black policeman,[xi] to a film about racial tensions in the 1980s[xii], but also to a celebration of the 2-tone scene and the importance of the ‘Coventry Sound’ to a new generation of Coventarians.[xiii] All of these examples demonstrate that even if the collections at MACE don’t seem to fit with your research at first glance, it is an excellent resource for understanding aspects of socio-cultural histories captured on film.

As I’ve been writing this, I have become increasingly aware that I am essentially composing a love story to MACE! Perhaps because I have spent pretty much all of the last year in the West Midlands, I have found MACE an invaluable resource not only for my work but as a way of encouraging myself to look at the region through fresh eyes.


[i] Christine Grandy, ‘‘The Show Is Not about Race’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show’,  Journal of British Studies, 59: 4 (2020) 857–84.

[ii] Rachel Yemm, ‘Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election’, Contemporary British History, 33:1 (2019) 98-122.

[iii] Paradise Lost: History in the Unmaking http://paradiselostfilm.uk/ [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[iv] MACE, About MACE, https://www.macearchive.org/about-mace [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[v] MACE, How to License Footage, https://www.macearchive.org/how-license-footage [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[vi] Vimeo, MACE Archive- Foleshill Community Centre Screening, https://vimeo.com/468531427 [Accessed 19 October 2020].

[vii] MACE https://www.macearchive.org/ [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[viii] MACE, ATV Today: 05.02.1970: Coventry milkman looking for a wife, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-05021970-coventry-milkman-looking-wife [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[ix] MACE, Midlands News: 01.05.1962: Opening of Rebuilt Coventry station, https://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-01051962-opening-rebuilt-coventry-station [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[x] MACE, ATV Today: 13.07.1972: Coventry Tea Strike, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13071972-coventry-tea-strike [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xi] MACE, ATV Today: 08.02.1966: Vox Pops on Black Police Officers, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-08021966-vox-pops-black-police-officers [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xii] MACE, ATV Today: 06.05.1981: Coventry Racial Tension, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-06051981-coventry-racial-tension [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xiii] MACE, ATV Today: 13.12.1979: The Coventry Sound, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13121979-coventry-sound [Accessed 16 February 2021].


Kat Pearson is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Warwick studying television and UK Cities of Culture.  Because Kat’s work is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, partly supervised by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), archival television is central to her research. Kat’s thesis will use television programming and archives to look at the two previous UKCoCs (Hull and Derry) and at Coventry’s year in 2021 and evaluate the role of television in placemaking and reputational change. Alongside, and feeding into- this research, Kat is working with MACE to create and run outreach events (including one in Foleshill which was reconfigured due to the pandemic https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/tvhistories/blog/foleshillscreenings). These events aim to take the archive out into the community and during Coventry 2021 will hopefully also provide opportunities for new material to be added to the archive. Another strand of Kat’s PhD is working with Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media (an independent production company) who have been commissioned to make an archive focused documentary about Coventry Cathedral which will be screened in 2021.


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: BBC Written Archives Centre

Tom May, Northumbria University

9 November 2020

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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.

 

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