by Nick Cooper © 1990-2008
Without a doubt, one of the greatest areas of concern to telefantasy fans is the current state of the BBC Archives. What is lacking, however, is concrete knowledge of the events and especially the attitudes within the BBC which led to the state of affairs we have now, with scores of episodes of Dr Who,, Out of the Unknown, Adam Adamant Lives! and Doomwatch (to name but a few) lost, perhaps forever. What follows is a verbatim reprint of an article which appeared in The Listener in August 1973, which - in part - fills in the gaps of those years when the junking process was in full swing. In particular, it displays well that peculiar brand of BBC arrogance towards its funders (that's us!) which still exists today. But first, set you brains in gear - it's two months since the end of The Time Monster, Moonbase 3 starts in two weeks, Galaxy Four still lies "safely" in the Archives, and a junior minister called Margaret Thatcher has just pinched your free daily half-pint of school milk....
NOTE: Monetary figures in square brackets are 2008 equivalent.
A prime target for quiet indignation over the years has been the BBC's Archive system, and criticism has been growing in recent months. The source of the trouble is a suspicion that the BBC throws away a great many good films and broadcasts which ought to be preserved. David Mercer, the playwright, has declared in a theatre magazine: "Out of the 13 plays I've done for BBC Television, only five survive, so there are eight plays which never can be repeated, because they've wiped the bloody tapes." Stuart Hall of Birmingham University suggests that radio and television have only lately become aware of "the rich social documentary material which they dispose of every day. It seems the merest good fortune that an occasional interview - like the one of the beatniks living rough on the coast - should have survived, for it was originally transmitted in a daily magazine programme which uses material like this in every single item it broadcasts." The most influential criticism, perhaps, comes from the National Film Archive, a division of the British Film Institute. The NFA archivists would like to store and preserve a great many BBC productions that they cannot get their hands on for reasons of cost. They complain that the BBC does not preserve enough material, and that what is kept is inaccessible to researchers and the general public.
The NFA archivists feel they have a better relationship with Independent Television. "From the IBA," I was told, "we get 30 to 40 per cent of what we ask for. But from the BBC we only get 2 per cent." There is, in fact, a quite different system operating. The Independent Broadcasting Authority gives the NFA £20,000 [£181,550] a year with which to buy IBA films. It used to be £10,000 [£90,775] a year, and a BBC executive has told me that "£10,000 for IBA material is about right. But for the BBC, with two networks and many more remarkable programmes, much more money would be needed." The BBC cannot, of course, hand over money to the NFA: "to give £10,000 out of licence-holders' money would be morally wrong."
The BBC is set up as a broadcasting organisation, not a library for sociologists. Thus BBC archives have to be working archives, with material kept for its value in programme terms. Nevertheless, the BBC does what it can to ensure that material of "national interest" is not lost to the nation: film of Churchill's funeral was instanced to me as evidently meriting preservation. The word "national" has quite different connotations from "social." Stuart Hall, commenting on The Long March of Everyman, has been calling for preservation of "interviews with mods and rockers, which provide the social historian with rich insights into attitudes and styles of the period." But, on the whole, the preservation of sound broadcasts is not such a contentious matter. The British Institute of Recorded Sound is permitted to record everything off air, free, with blanket union agreement: the BIRS can also purchase copies of BBC Archive material with no charge except the cost of the tape and the copying.
Could not the National Film Archive operate a similar system, recording television direct from the screen? This might become practicable if they could secure adequate equipment, and agreement with the unions. Paul Madden, the NFA Television Acquisitions Officer, talks of getting "a direct line to BBC transmitters." The BBC's own use of videotape adds another complication: Paul Madden fears that the BBC may "decide to wipe for the purely economic reason of re-using tape" and it is true that one of the advantages of videotape is that it can be wiped and used again. Madden says that though he can buy BBC films he can't buy BBC videotape. It's not true, though, that the BBC casually jettisons material worthy of preservation. Obviously, many producers are extremely keen to see their work preserved, and they have a considerable say in the matter. What the NFA would like to see at the BBC is a system as formal as their own committee structure: the NFA committees meet bi-monthly and make a selection of programmes which they would like to acquire - on historical, aesthetic and social grounds. It would, no doubt, be frivolous to re-name these categories Churchill, David Mercer and Beatniks.
It is a difficult task deciding what to preserve. What happens now is that the NFA assessors examine BBC material and award A and B grades. "Grade A" means that the Archive is recommended to purchase a film, and the BBC tells them how much it will cost. "Grade B" means that the Archive can have the film free when the BBC has done with it. Naturally the NFA would like to extend the "Grade A" category, if enough money was available. One of the BBC's duties is to a safeguard the licence-holder's money, and make sure it is used for broadcast purposes. Take David Mercer's plays. Can it be said that a complete history of Mercer is necessary for broadcasting purposes? If not, perhaps the plays may be required for "research" purposes. In this case, somebody else should pay: not the BBC.
Rather similar arguments are used in discussions of accessibility. If someone outside the BBC wanted to do a history of The Wednesday Play he might find it difficult. Access to the BBC Archives is available so long as the BBC gets its money back. A foreign broadcasting company negotiating the purchase of something like The Forsyte Saga would certainly get a free viewing, through Television Enterprises. There may be less enthusiasm for the researcher, who might be asked to pay £60 [£545] an hour for the use of the equipment - if a viewing-room happens to be available. There's a BBC view that "if we have a spare viewing-room ready for researchers, we are bad house-keepers." Economy is very important. I'm told that all the surveys indicate that the BBC utilisation of resources is superior to any other European broadcasting organisation in terms of cost-effectiveness.
The above article elicited a response, a week later, in letter form:
D.A.N.Jones's article "The BBC Archives" (Listener, 23 August) gives a rather incomplete picture of a complex matter. The policy of the BBC is to spend licence revenue on maintaining what is by now a very full and comprehensive collection of visual material, for its own requirements - either direct re-use in programmes or as a research source. Naturally, this collection includes material of "national" interest and covers sociologically significant topics besides Churchill's funeral and a selection of David Mercer's plays (incidentally, ten out of 14 have been retained, not five out of 13, as Mercer is quoted as claiming).
The National Film Archive could acquire as many BBC programmes as it wished, if it had the money to pay for them. However, to provide genuine access to the researcher, it would require further funds for viewing facilities and other essential supporting services, such as a comprehensive information retrieval system. If such a service is considered to be a national requirement, like its bibliographic equivalent the British Library, the necessary money must be provided, but not from the BBC's licence income.
In the meantime, the BBC is selecting and preserving a wide range of film and videotape representing all types of output, based on the judgment of its own subject specialists and its substantial experience in the long-term re-use of such material. It is also currently examining its policy to decide what changes are necessary to meet future developments.
BBC Film Librarian, Brentford
And they kept on wiping... On more general levels, has anything really changed, especially the BBC obsession with only relinquishing something in return for a cheque?
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