The World Assembly of Youth and Archival Serendipity

James Fenwick, Sheffield Hallam University

19 January 2021

[print-me]

This blog post is a reflection on the process of archival research I conducted for my book Stanley Kubrick Produces. Specifically, I want to focus on the idea of archival serendipity: how unexpected results and discoveries in the archive can reframe scholarly understanding of historical objects, figures, and events and even debunk prevailing myths. In the course of researching and writing Stanley Kubrick Produces, I wanted to uncover the truth behind a film that Stanley Kubrick was reputed to have been involved with in some capacity: World Assembly of Youth. But in tracking down archival evidence, I did not find what I was looking for, but instead came across an altogether different story. What I discovered was evidence of Kubrick’s own mythmaking and audio-visual material of a film that might have otherwise been forgotten.

What we thought we knew

I begin my story not in an archive, but at a conference. A room full of Kubrick experts, fans, and researchers. It is July 2019. I am part of an international workshop at the University of Leiden titled Life and Legacy, Studying the Films of Stanley Kubrick. Over fifty delegates from across the world are in attendance. And for five days, we debate, deconstruct, and overanalyse the films associated with Stanley Kubrick. It is an invigorating space, one in which we openly and freely debate the filmmaker’s career, wider production contexts, and of course the inevitable ‘meaning’ of the films. But one conversation stands out: on the third day we discuss ‘the unknown’ Kubrick. We deliberate over what we know, sketching it out on laptops, a blackboard, pieces of paper, anything we can find. Every nook and cranny of Kubrick’s life and career is raked over to find the holes in what we think we know.

The conversation turns to the 1950s and mention is made of a film, World Assembly of Youth. No one asks what the film is about. No one asks what Kubrick did on the film. It is taken as a given that he must have, in some way, been involved in the production of this film. No one has even seen the film. A throwaway remark is made about it being some kind of ‘CIA’ sponsored effort after a quick Google search. And then, after much scholarly digression, we move on, with no more made of the conversation.

Throughout the morning’s deliberations, I had largely remained silent. This briefest of mentions of World Assembly of Youth, what amounted to a few minutes at most, resonated for I was deeply involved in writing about the film and undertaking archival research at that point in time. I was in the middle of email discussions for material to be sent across to me that contained, I hoped, a copy of the film. It was in the process of being digitised. And I was excited because, on reflection, I realise that all of us deep down perhaps believed, even hoped, that World Assembly of Youth was some kind of ‘lost’ Kubrick film. It is why I remained silent. I was nervous at the prospect of what I might find in the coming days.

So just why was it that a room full of some of the world’s foremost Kubrick experts included World Assembly of Youth in discussions of Kubrick’s career? What made us so sure that the film was a Kubrick film? It goes back to a biography written by John Baxter in 1997, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, in which it was claimed that Kubrick had been involved in the production of the film in 1952. Baxter describes the film as being, ‘an early attempt by the US State Department, which sponsored the film, to mobilise college-aged kids to carry out socially worthy projects, an initiative that was to have its pay-off in John Kennedy’s Peace Corps’.[i] Baxter’s discussion of the film is limited, with no reference of his source or of what Kubrick’s role was on the film.

Baxter’s claims seemed to be further substantiated, however, by contemporary reports in the press. A. H. Weiler published a column in the New York Times in June 1952 that summarised Kubrick’s filmmaking activities. I have highlighted in bold the relevant section concerning World Assembly of Youth:

PRODUCER: Proof that a producer-director need not be a man weighed down by years is here in the person of Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who is 23 and is currently negotiating for the release of “Shape of Fear,” his first feature and the fourth film he has turned out thus far. The picture, a study of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, developed from a story by Howard Sackler, a 22-year old friend of Kubrick’s, was made on location in California’s San Gabriel Mountains with Frank Silvera, Steve Coit, Ken Harp, Irwin Mazursky and Virginia Leith, professionals whose names obviously have not been in lights. The youthful producer-director, whose credits already include “The Day of the Fight” and “Flying Padre”, short subjects released by R.K.O., and a short on World Assembly of Youth, made for the State Department, has “a few stories he would like to film.” But his approach to the future seems to be both realistic and wise. “There’s no point in talking about my next picture,” he said, “until we see how ‘Shape of Fear’ does both critically and financially.”[ii]

Weiler’s column only mentions Kubrick’s work on World Assembly of Youth in passing. But importantly, the column seemed to validate what John Baxter had claimed. That Kubrick had worked on another short film, one that was not officially included in his filmography. What this limited evidence seemed to indicate was that there was another Kubrick film out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.

What we didn’t know

With Stanley Kubrick Produces, my aim was to situate Kubrick’s career within wider industrial and production contexts and to do so through archival research. This meant undertaking extensive research at archives around the world: the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London, the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Wisconsin, the University of Liverpool, the British Library, the British Film Institute, Lambeth Palace Archives, The National Archives, and others besides. Yet, none of these archives contained any information whatsoever about World Assembly of Youth. The only evidence I could find was the fleeting mention by Baxter and a news report in the New York Times. My determination to uncover the secrets of World Assembly of Youth, perhaps to even find a copy of the film, looked to be hopeless.

That is until by sheer chance I noticed details of the film in an archival catalogue at the American Heritage Center (AHC), University of Wyoming. A brief aside to quickly tell you about this archive – after all, this is IAMHIST and archives are what we live for. The AHC is one of the largest non-government archives in the world, with over 90,000 cubic feet of archival material. If you want to find something about American history, chances are you will find something, however small, in the AHC. Its film and media archival collection is vast, with the AHC priding itself on being one of only a few institutions that took seriously the work of preserving the heritage and history of the film and media industries in the 1960s and 1970s.[iii]

I had been consulting the AHC because it houses the Richard De Rochemont papers. De Rochemont was an American film producer, most noted for his work on the March of Time newsreel series. He was also prominent in the early career of Kubrick; Kubrick had initially pitched his first short film, Day of the Fight (1951), for inclusion in De Rochemont’s March of Time series. De Rochemont rejected the film, but took a keen interest in Kubrick’s career, becoming something of a mentor and giving him opportunities to work on television series such as Mr. Lincoln (1952-53).

The Richard De Rochemont Papers are expansive, containing 216 boxes. As the archive catalogue states, the papers are made up of, ‘manuscripts and articles, scripts, research files, and other documents relating to projects produced by and associated with De Rochemont.’[iv] There is material in relation to March of Time and to De Rochemont’s production companies, such as Vavin. The papers also include a large amount of audio-visual material.

I had consulted the Richard De Rochemont papers early on in my research, but I was very specific, consulting personal papers and files relating to the project Mr. Lincoln. Then in spring 2019, I returned to the Richard De Rochemont papers archival catalogue to simply browse. Catalogue browsing is what I do at times, for no purpose other than to familiarise myself with a collection. It’s part of a wider process of archival serendipity that I now embed within my approach to archives generally. Rather than setting out with a hypothesis that I need to prove, I follow the archival evidence down unexpected paths and foreground its material realities: the absences, gaps, coincidences, and unexplained items. In perhaps one of the most poetic accounts of archival serendipity, historian Michael Hoeflich describes it as follows:

We [scholars] set out upon uncharted paths in libraries and archives, never really knowing what we will find. Scientists construct vast and complex experiments in the hopes of proving an hypothesis. But too many brilliant hunches have turned out to be nothing more than signposts on the road to dead ends. It is the lucky scholar or scientist who, setting out with a goal in mind for his or her research, achieves that goal quickly and directly. […] But serendipity and its relations do not come uninvited to the scholar’s table. Rather, serendipity visits those scholars and researchers who set out with open minds and the flexibility of plan that allows them both to recognize the fortuitous discovery and to pursue it to its logical end.[v]

Hoeflich insists upon the need for mental flexibility in the use of archives. By this, he means the need for archival researchers to prepare for unexpected paths that take them away from their planned research. It does not mean that the planned research must be given up, but it does mean being ready to take detailed notes of new findings and ideas that are of, ‘potential worth.’[vi] The process of ‘aimless’ catalogue browsing can aid in this endeavour. It certainly has done for me over the years. And it certainly did in the case of World Assembly of Youth.

As I browsed the catalogue of the Richard De Rochemont papers, scrolling through the hundreds of rows of metadata, I happened to notice the following entry buried within the series ‘Projects 1935-1982’:

World Assembly of Youth scripts, 1952        Box 163

I had not expected to see such an item in the catalogue. I was excited and, spurred on by this serendipitous encounter, I began to search more precisely. There was another entry, buried within ‘Sub-series 4: Information and Other, 1952-1972, undated’:

“World Assembly of Youth” (b&w), undated           Box 9

And there was one final entry, with the series ‘Photographs, circa 1916-1969, undated’, aligned with material from the March of Time collection:

March of Time – World Assembly of Youth, Ithaca, New York, 1951         Box 200

After facing a virtual research dead end, I was suddenly confronted with three separate boxes of potential archival evidence. More than that, one of the items was possibly the World Assembly of Youth film itself. I immediately began the process of contacting archival staff to arrange for duplications of the material. I also requested further information about the archival film footage. After several weeks of emails, one of the archival staff had managed to locate the film and view it. He emailed me his findings:

I had a chance to go into the cold vault to examine the motion-picture film that you requested more information for. It is black and white. It does have a soundtrack (I don’t know if there is actual audio, but there is a track for audio.) It appears to be about 30 minutes in length. The film is titled World Assembly of Youth. The next screen is: A Report on the First Triennial General Assembly of WAY, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. The third credit screen is: Filmed in Conjunction with Young Adult Council U.S. Assembly of World Assembly of Youth. The next screen is: Produced by News of the Day. Then the film starts. The first scene appears to be of an airport tower.[vii]

Perhaps not the most enthralling of descriptions, but still this email furthered my excitement. After further discussions, it was agreed that the film could be digitised and sent across to me. I received that file, along with digital duplications of the other archival material, as I was leaving the University of Leiden Kubrick conference in summer 2019.

The material I received consisted of fifty-three black and white production photographs, a fifty-three-page script, a thirteen-page spot sheet document, and a digitised copy of the film. I have embedded the latter into this blog post for anyone that is curious to watch it.

Figure 1: The opening title of World Assembly of Youth

Now, I will be honest, I genuinely thought in the days leading up to receiving these documents that I had located a ‘lost’ Kubrick film. As such, the first thing I did upon receiving the documents was to watch the film. And as I watched the film, I became increasingly bored, baffled, and disappointed: what on earth was this film, I thought to myself. Obviously, it was a thirty-three-minute-long informational documentary about the first international meeting of the organisation the World Assembly of Youth at Cornell University in 1951. But a lost Kubrick film? As the film came to an end, I gradually started to suspect that everything I thought I knew about the film was in fact wrong. Kubrick’s name was absent from the credits. If he had been involved in the production, surely his name would have been included?

I hoped the surrounding archival documentation would provide a clue as to Kubrick’s involvement in the production. The script contained several pages of credits, but once again Kubrick’s name was absent. He had not produced the film. He had not directed it. He had not operated the camera. Nor the sound. Nor was he present in any of the production stills, some of which were images of the crew.

My disappointment turned to deflation as it dawned on me: World Assembly of Youth was not a ‘lost’ Kubrick film after all.

What we now know and what it tells us

In the days after first viewing World Assembly of Youth, I slowly came to the realisation that my serendipitous encounter had revealed an altogether different history to the one I had expected, and in fact arguably told me much, much more than I had intended to find out.

The fact that Kubrick was not involved in the production in any obvious way did not mean it did not reveal something about the history of Stanley Kubrick. It may well be that Kubrick was involved in the production, say as a stills photographer: the name of the photographer is not detailed in the available archival evidence and we can therefore speculate that it is Kubrick taking the pictures. He was, after all, a photographer by-trade up to 1950, working for Look magazine. Of course, it might also have been someone else that had taken the photographs.

Could Kubrick have been involved in an alternative, as of yet undiscovered production about the World Assembly of Youth? What I have not discussed in this blog post is the history of the organisation, of its connections to the U.S. State Department, or the fact that there were other productions, including radio productions, produced during this time period. Was Kubrick involved in those? I suspect it is highly unlikely. This film is located in the Richard De Rochemont papers with dates that correspond to a period in which Kubrick was closely affiliated to De Rochemont. If Kubrick was involved in any film about the World Assembly of Youth, the chances are that it was this one.

Perhaps more interesting is the way Kubrick clearly used the film, whatever his tangential connection, as a means of self-promotion. If we return to the column in the New York Times quoted above, the likelihood is that Kubrick had supplied the journalist, A. H. Weiler, with written copy. This is something he had done before when promoting Day of the Fight and his planned production of Fear and Desire. Kubrick also talked up his role in the production of Mr. Lincoln to the press. He was not averse to self-promotion or brand management, but made it a central tenet of his producing personality from the very beginning of his career.

Kubrick was building a myth about his prowess and abilities in order to advance his career at a time when he still had little prospects of making it in the film industry. There was no reason for A. H. Weiler to report on Kubrick’s activities other than if Kubrick had supplied the journalist with the story in the first place. As such, the sources that have been used to associate the World Assembly of Youth with Kubrick are unreliable.

The Kubrick myth, however, one propagated by Kubrick himself, still dominates. Yet, by conducting detailed, empirical research, it is possible to begin deconstructing this myth to get at wider truths of who Kubrick was and how his career developed. Of course, sometimes fortuity in the archives is what is needed to be able to break down some of these myths.

There is one final point I want to make about this serendipitous archival encounter. My attempts to discover a ‘lost’ Kubrick film failed, but in the process I succeeded in finding out something else: a forgotten history, if you will, of a film that might have otherwise remained sealed in the AHC Cold Storage. There is a much more detailed story to tell about World Assembly of Youth, particularly its connections with the CIA: that is for another blog post.

There is perhaps also a wider issue here of the failed, or ‘bad’ film histories, that prevail within our profession. By this I mean that archives are filled with such overlooked and forgotten artefacts like World Assembly of Youth, a whole hidden history of films that are not digitised and not accessible to film historians. One of the reasons this is the case is because of the way in which cultural value is ascribed to archives and archival objects. Typically, it is those films and filmmakers that are ‘established’ and the most popular that receive overinvested scholarly investigation. The result of this, however, is the neglect of other histories.

I for one was too focused on Stanley Kubrick and on the film canon, in the process overlooking and even overshadowing forgotten or banal archival objects if they did not serve the wider history of Kubrick’s career. What archival serendipity led to, however, was a realisation that the archive can deconstruct Kubrick and bring to light other histories of film and media that are just as important, even when it is a film as seemingly banal as World Assembly of Youth. And that has been for me the key lesson I have learned in archival research over the past two to three years: that as an archival researcher you have to be prepared to focus on the material realities of the archive, not on the archive as a means of reinforcing existing myths. It is a point more eloquently put by Nancy Lusignan Schultz:

Serendipity, however, requires that the mind be prepared in two special ways: with the flexibility to set aside the object of a quest, and with the wisdom to recognize that a collateral discovery may be equally important.[viii]

So, that is my story, how I failed to discover a lost Stanley Kubrick film, but instead found something altogether unexpected but just as important. And now that I have talked about this film for several thousand words, you might just find yourself wanting to watch World Assembly of Youth or even to read more about. The film is embedded as a YouTube video below, uploaded with the permission of the American Heritage Center. You can read more about the history of the film in Stanley Kubrick Produces, while David Maunders provides a comprehensive of the World Assembly of Youth organisation in his article, ‘Controlling Youth for Democracy: The United States Youth Council and the World Assembly of Youth’ (2003).[ix]


World Assembly of Youth, Richard de Rochemont Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Produced by News of the Day for World Assembly of Youth, Richard De Rochemont.

Directors: D. Corbit Curtis and Richard Millett

Producer: Richard De Rochemont

Camera: George Stoetzel and George Hinners, with Rody Green, Leo Rossi, and T. Rickman

Sound: Anthony Girolami, with Fred Fenton and Abe Landau

Chief Electrician: Alfred Shaw Editors: Lawrence Sherman, Gene Milford, and Robert Collison

Assistant Directors: H. O. Keith Ayling, Robert Daly, Sam Locke

The film received the approval of the Department of State on February 15, 1952.

Link to World Assembly of Youth https://youtu.be/PWaMXsak0tk


[i] John Baxter, Stanley Kubrick Produces (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 51.

[ii] A.H. Weiler, ‘By Way of Report: Of Disney’s Dog Cartoon Feature – Other Items.’ New York Times, June 29 (1952), X3.

[iii] ‘Guide to Entertainment Industry Resources.’ American Heritage Center. https://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/_files/collection_guides/ent-ind-guide-2009-ed_jan_2017.pdf

[iv] ‘Inventory of the Richard De Rochemont Papers.’ American Heritage Center. https://rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=wyu-ah05940.xml#idm45852611782320

[v] Michael Harlan Hoeflich, ‘Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.’ Law Library Journal, vol. 99, no. 4 (2007), 813.

[vi] Ibid., 826.

[vii] Correspondence with the author, July 2019.

[viii] Nancy Lusignan Schultz, ‘Serendipity in the Archive.’ The Chronicle Review (2011): https://www.chronicle.com/article/serendipity-in-the-archive/

[ix] David Maunders, ‘Controlling Youth for Democracy: The United States Youth Council and the World Assembly of Youth.’ Commonwealth Youth and Development, vol. 1, no. 2 (2003), 22-51.


James Fenwick is a senior lecturer in media and communications at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the author of Stanley Kubrick Produces (2020), editor of Understanding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (2018), and co-editor of Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (2020). He has written numerous journal articles and book chapters about the life and work of Stanley Kubrick that aim to deconstruct the auteur myth that surrounds him by focusing on the material, social and cultural conditions of production of those films with which he is associated. This includes the forthcoming article, ‘Problems with Kubrick: Reframing Stanley Kubrick Through Archival Research’ (2021) for the New Review of Film and Television Studies.


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.


Ambitious Amateurs – European Amateur Film Clubs in the long 1960s

Julia Wack, Institute for History, University of Luxembourg

23 November 2020

[print-me]

Most of us have starred in amateur films, more than ever since we’ve hit the digital era, a lot of people however still have videos or small gauge films made of our childhood benchmarks, such as first steps, first day at school or family Christmas. These latter formats, 16mm, 8mm, 9.5 mm and super 8, which were permanent and not editable, used to reign the world of non-professional film until the 1980s. Yet, there is much more to ‘amateur film’ than what is categorically regrouped under terms like ‘home movie’ or ‘family film’.

Particularly in the decades immediately following World War II, there was a major surge of amateur film making, due to technical development in mobile cameras, projectors and film material and a decrease in price of the aforementioned equipment. For example, every tenth French household, as well as every fifth German household owned small gauge camera and projection equipment in the late 1950s. In addition to home movie making, the newfound accessibility led to a wave of newly founded amateur film clubs and soaring membership rates during this period. Film making turned from an elitist leisure time activity of the upper class to a popular middle-class hobby.

Figure 1, courtesy of Family Archive Christiane Ensch, Luxembourg.

Worldwide, a target group of mostly middle-aged, middle class men got together in local groups that collectively purchased, or even developed and tuned equipment, and spend an important part of their free time socialising, working on film projects or competing in local, national and international amateur film championships. In case of West Germany this development is not only based on economic rise, but partly on the fact that, after a period of hesitation, the allied powers granted the right to found leisure time associations in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The social life of these clubs went largely beyond film making and included excursions, frequent gatherings and public parties or film soirées.

Figure 2, courtesy of Family Archive Christiane Ensch, Luxembourg.

Considering the role of the amateur film maker as a chronicler of the contemporary, academia has shown increasing interest in amateur film as a research subject of since the 1980s, with Roger Odin and Patricia Zimmermann among its most notable scholars. Amateur filmmakers in organised associations and competitions have – with few notable exceptions[i] – however not been studied extensively, even less in a transnational context. My doctoral research at the University of Luxembourg focuses on the cinematic and socio-cultural practices of such amateur film clubs or societies in the long 1960s (between 1955 and 1975) in the so-called Greater Region: a border region comprising the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium, Lorraine in Northern France and Saarland in Germany on a comparative transnational level. A financially rather less affluent cultural periphery during that era; economically and culturally united by the heavy industries of the European Coal and Steel Community, but separated by languages, borders and state forms, the amateur film clubs of the Greater Region show striking similarities in terms of production content and activities.

My project is part of a transnational collaboration Popkult60 between Luxembourg and Germany about Popular Culture in the long 1960s. I am thus not only interested in the medium amateur film, but also in the clubs’ social and cinematic practices as a popular cultural expression. Besides the existing body of peer-reviewed literature about amateur film, I use a base of oral history interviews with film club members of the period in question, as well as an analysis of the medium itself and other artefacts, such as equipment and files, provided by the club members and archives, as primary sources. The search for these primary sources proves challenging due to the archive situation of amateur film in most countries and the fact that most amateur film makers of the research period have passed; these obstacles providing an explanation why the subject had underrepresented in academic research for a long period.

Considering that the demographics of these clubs were (and are) largely homogenous, mostly consisting of middle-aged men of the more affluent part of the working class, on the one hand, we encounter a unique insight in this, by academia rather neglected, target group, and on the other hand, access to a source body that is – while comprising diverse genres – equally homogenous on a transnational level in terms of narratives, imagery and design. An important part of the productions are nature documentaries, family films, travel and Sunday excursion films, fewer feature films and very rarely experimental or avant-gardist films.

At this point, the explanation for these preferences seems that most film makers resorted to what is nowadays called ‘scripted reality’. Even despite the increased financial accessibility of the material, the fact that it could not be edited, made it a very valuable resource, and film makers recall that, due to financial constraints, they were frequently confronted with a decision between the purchase of film rolls or a holiday trip. The often heavily staged and directed family or travel films strongly feature the element of the ‘male gaze’ as described by Laura Mulvey, due to the fact that everyday life and its heydays like weddings, birthdays and other festivities were mostly filmed by men. In rare exceptions, the male film makers would direct their wives using the camera, so they could be featured themselves as actors in their own productions.

Figure 3, courtesy of Family Archive Christiane Ensch, Luxembourg.

Only with the invention of Super 8, which was heavily marketed towards women in the mid-60s/70s in what would nowadays be considered rather sexist campaigns, more women took up the camera to film their environment. Nevertheless, female members were mostly playing the role of caterers, accountants or occasionally scriptwriters in film clubs.

Joining forces in amateur film clubs had the advantage of sharing equipment, advice and manpower. Most interviewees who share their memories with me admit that their main interest was the technical aspect of filmmaking and to proceed from the static image of photography to the moving image. Often, amateur film clubs were founded upon initiative of local photography and film equipment shops to enhance their turnover. Being one’s own film director and making a creative, while chronicling, contribution to society, seemed to be part of the democratisation process of the post-war years. Yet, though the mission statements of clubs and associations of the long 1960s cite a pursuit of artistic freedom and encouragement, in reality, their members limited their experimentations mostly to technical advance, such as building their own montage or lighting equipment, or customising professional equipment. Within the club environment, members also worked on extensive collaborative productions, making division of labour a necessity in the departments of camera, lighting, script or scenery.

Participation in local, national and international competitions, such as in UNICA, the world association of amateur film makers, is a factor that led to the members going to great lengths in their film productions. In the late 60s, a slight increase in critical or satiric films, among others political animations could be observed, which might have been encouraged by the increasingly liberal socio-political climate. Nevertheless, their authors frankly admit that they rather made the effort in order to succeed in the competition, than to make a political or artistic impact. Occasionally productions include elements of high culture, such as classical music or poetry, but feature almost exclusively the ‘mainstream’ of the high culture, with one interviewee joking that one year a national competition saw 30 films opening to the overture of Johann Strauß’ operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’.

Figure 4, courtesy of Family Archive Christiane Ensch, Luxembourg.

The amateurs were producing largely for the reception and recognition of their peers, but adopting well known codes of mass culture which also work for a general audience. This approach only seems to differ in large centres of cultural production such as New York City, where amateur film and artistic production as well as commercial film, had an impact on each other, considering the œuvre of the likes of Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas or Michelangelo Antonioni; these exceptions remain very rare on a global scale and are therefore even more remarkable in their few cases among most amateur film clubs.

In my current research, it appears that, while the amateur film club scene in France was very active, the North-Eastern department of Lorraine is to be a major exception: With a few striking exceptions, little production within a club context is recorded between 1960 and 1980. Consulting Roger Odin, whose contributions were pioneering in the studies of amateur film, about his opinion regarding Lorraine, he noted that this area had always been less active in competitions. Yet, bearing in mind the economic similarities between the fellow regions of the Greater Region, no convincing reason could yet be found for the striking difference between the amateur film landscapes of Lorraine and the other regions. Following Odin’s advice, I’d like to further explore whether Lorraine-based amateurs were preferring the family context to the club environment.

While the German Saarland was more active during the research period, most clubs have meanwhile ceased official activities. This is in stark contrast to Luxembourg and the Belgian Wallonia where an important number of the clubs that were active in the long 1960s still exists nowadays, in the latter under the predicate ‘royal’, signifying 50 years of club activity. Another interesting fact that I am trying to analyse is, that, despite language not being an barrier for their members, Luxembourgish clubs seem to not have had closer collaborations or exchange with clubs in France or Belgium, whilst in the case of the German Saarland, the Luxembourgish Amateur Film Federation had several close ties and was even instrumental in the establishment of the local association of clubs – a remarkable fact shortly after World War II.

In the future I hope to connect my findings with the results of fellow international researchers in order to establish a transnational overview of the creation of amateur film and clubs, hoping to assist UNICA and the European association for the conservation of amateur film, INEDITS, in their respective work.


[i] Compare for instance Ryan Shand, “Amateur Cinema: History, Theory, and Genre (1930-80)”, University of Glasgow, 2007; Melinda Stone and Dan Streible, ‘Small-Gauge and Amateur Film’, in Film History, 15:2 (2003), 123-125; Laurence Allard, ‘Espace public et sociabilité esthétique’, in Communications, 68 :1 (1999), 207-237


Julia Wack is a 3rd year PhD candidate at the University of Luxembourg’s Institute for History. Her research focuses on socio-cultural aspects of amateur film clubs in the long 1960s in the Greater Region (BE/LU/FR/DE). After studies of History, Art History, Archaeology and Cultural Management in Cologne (DE) and Maastricht (NL), Julia spent 15 years organising and contributing to large scale exhibition projects, publications, film series and festivals in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Switzerland, Romania, France and Luxembourg (selection: Projekt Migration (DE), 2003-2006; Manifesta 9 (BE/NL), 2012; Eppur si Muove (LU), 2015). Most recently Régisseur des Expositions at Mudam  and Communication Coordinator at CinEast Festival (both LU), her main research interests are Popular Culture, Performance, Film, Gender and Esthetics.


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

[print-me]

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.

 

  • Archives