Flickering Images?

By Catterall, Peter; Morris, Kate | History Today, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Flickering Images?


Catterall, Peter, Morris, Kate, History Today


When the historians of the late twentieth century come to write their versions of events they may discover that one major source will be found wanting: television. Like film before it in the 1930s, television is of fundamental importance as an instrument of record, has provided a `window on the world, for post-war generations and is a central part of the lives of the majority of Britons. Historians, however, are confronted with a number of problems when seeking to incorporate the television record into their work. These can be reduced to three main categories; lack of preservation, lack of information and lack of accessibility. As Paul Thompson complained in Oral History in 1971.

It is a strange and disturbing fact that, while virtually every page of the first mass media, the newspapers of the years before 1914, has been preserved in the national collection at Colindale, scarcely any early recordings of broadcasts exist, and even now, when a far larger audience hear radio and television than have ever read the Daily Mirror or the Daily Express, we are only preserving a mere fraction of this material in a private [i.e. the BBC's] archive.

Yet the history of the late twentieth century cannot be written without access to the valuable records that television provides. Television programmes are not only the major suppliers of entertainment and the main sources of news. They provide an invaluable record of political. social and cultural events and change ill modern Britain. Since the 1950s television has established itself as the dominant medium, with almost universal access and influence. Moreover, unlike the growth of the press in the nineteenth century, the impact of television on the British population is arguably greater because it demands no literacy or education on the part of its audience.

Because of its central importance in British life over the last forty years, it is the duty of the historian to ensure that its record is preserved and available for future generations. Historians already have access to the BBC's Written Archives Centre at Caversham Park, Reading. But these written records alone are not enough@ as the Advisory committee on BBC archives chaired by Lord Briggs, the official historian of the BBC, recognised in their recommendations as long ago as 1979:

Even more important ... both as the raw material of future programmes and for the light they throw upon the political, cultural and social history of the past half century are the visual and oral materials which the BBC has in its charge.

So what are the problems confronting the historian who wishes to utilise the television record? Like the BBC, most ITV companies have holdings of programmes covering the period of their franchises. For the companies who lost their franchise in 1991, their archives have either been sold on or have remained with the companies who won the new franchises. Central did talk about setting up a Centre for Television History at Oxford, but nothing seems to have come of this.

However, in the first place, not all televisual material has been preserved. A lot of material has always been routinely junked, although the Briggs Committee felt that apart from some regrettable cases, little of value had been lost. It would be useful, however, to know what has and has not been preserved. It is important to be clear that this is a matter not just of programmes as broadcast. The historian (or political scientist) would also be interested in the hours of off-cuts in order to view whole interviews, rather than snippets. and to assess the production choices made by the programme makers. Off-cuts, however, are even more likely to have been destroyed, and the growth of an often cash-strapped independent producer-sector in recent years has only increased this probability.

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