BBC Archive #2

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Back in March Craig and I visited London to learn about the BBC Archives, today we started visiting the archive sites. We started in Perivale before moving down the road to Caversham.

Perivale was conspicuously a hive of activity with over 100 people working from the site, couriers taking away and returning tapes, crates of materials waiting to go off-site for digitization. Operators working down lists of clips requested for The News – yesterday the death of Bob Hoskins made it a busy day. In booths cine-film is being spooled onto large viewing decks. Quality control is checking for glitches on materials previously digitized. Downstairs the are silos of films in cans, tapes in boxes, LPs in sleaves and 1/4 tape coiled up, each silo held at a different precisely set temperature. A million photos sit in filing cabinets. Upstairs the music library is compiling scores for The Proms. It is a mind boggling operation.

In leafy Caversham the paper archives prove an altogether quieter affair. Here the comprehensive nature of BBC’s administration, founded on solid Civil Service principles, is manifest in four miles of shelving carrying cardboard boxes. Inside the boxes are financial records, legal records, records of production meetings, records of service, records of contracts, records of broadcast and more editions of the Radio Times than you can imagine.

Whilst the Perivale Archive was dazzling in its systems and gizmos and scale, Caversham was dull, soporific even. However, Perivale was dealing with finished product and although the glimpses of archive programs we saw over people’s shoulders were intriguing they weren’t gripping, in Caversham we were kindly allowed to open some files and here we found process and personalities and instantly engrossing narratives.

We could happily have camped out in Caversham. We could only skim through: Winston Churchill’s personal file; the documentation referring to the conception and commissioning of Dr. Who; the same for The Archers “we could make it for £50 per episode but £55 would be much better”; plans for coverage of the 1966 World Cup; plans for an Arena program on Malcolm McLaren; Enid Blyton’s personal file, Kenneth William’s file including his first letters asking for a job. It was utterly engrossing.

As yet there is little notion of what we may ‘do’ with the archive, but it was a great privilege to be shown around. It was also a strong reminder that the license fee pays for a lot more than what we see on the screen, hear on the radio or view on-line. There is an amazing amount going on behind the scenes.

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