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.

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