The Special Collections of the BFI National Archive

By Morris, Nathalie | Journal of Film Preservation, October 2014 | Go to article overview

The Special Collections of the BFI National Archive


Morris, Nathalie, Journal of Film Preservation


The Special Collections are the jewel in the crown of the holdings of the BFI National Archive. Stretching back to the earliest days of the moving image and coming right up to the present, they span the history of film and television in a primarily British, but also international, context. From production designs to props lists to press campaign books, the objects in the collections cover all aspects of the making and marketing of films and can help put the finished product - the film or television programme itself - into context.

An overview such as this can only provide a flavour of the collections and is not an exhaustive account. Many important personalities and films represented within the collections have been omitted for reasons of space, and no attempt has been made to list all the many types of artefact held. Additionally, new materials are being acquired and catalogued all the time. These can expand and develop the collection in various ways, for example, providing a diverse range of talents and voices, ensuring that contemporary filmmaking is comprehensively represented, and filling important historical gaps. This article is only a snapshot of the collections and some of the ways in which they are accessed, interpreted, and used by specialist academics and researchers, and by the general public, as well as through BFI projects and initiatives in which Special Collections play, or have played, a central role.

OVERVIEW OF THE COLLECTIONS

The Special Collections department comprises three separate but closely linked subdepartments: Scripts, Documents & Ephemera, Posters & Designs, and Stills.

SCRIPTS, DOCUMENTS AND EPHEMERA

Scripts, Documents and Ephemera (SDE) holds the personal and working papers of individuals and organisations involved in the film and television industries. In accordance with the BFI's overall archival collecting policy, these generally have a strong British connection, covering the industries in the UK and the work of British filmmakers and programme-makers overseas. Represented by significant collections of material are people such as David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Richard Lester, Joseph Losey, Michael Balcon, Derek Jarman, Muriel and Sidney Box, Betty Box, Irene Shubik, Karel Reisz, Jack Clayton, and John Schlesinger. Acquisitions cover the whole range of activities involved in film production, distribution, and exhibition, and thus can include names which may be less immediately well-known. Individuals' archives can vary in size and scope, from a couple of boxes of shooting scripts to extensive archives covering a whole career and the minutiae of the filmmaking process. Large amounts of paper documentation are still coming in, though the issue of digital files, such as emails, is increasingly important with regard to contemporary filmmakers like Ken Loach.

Individual archives frequently include a range of scripts, from treatments and early drafts to shooting and post-production scripts. There is also a separate collection of unpublished scripts including plain (and sometimes photocopied) reference scripts as well as many more precious and unique volumes. For example, Dirk Bogarde's working scripts are full of the actor's notes and doodles (Fig.1).

SDE also preserves items such as tickets, autographs and promotional material, from popup paper teapots (for the 1923 American film Tea with a Kick) to around 30,000 press campaign books from the 1910s to the present day. Produced to help distributors and exhibitors promote their films, press campaign books are fascinating documents of film history, to say nothing of design and social history. They frequently include synopses and photos, and, from the 1920s onwards, behind-the-scenes gossip, suggestions for tie-ups, including fashion tips, puzzles and competitions, and details of other promotional material available, such as posters, ad blocks, stills, and lobby cards.

A press campaign book is sometimes the only detailed reference to a film that itself no longer exists and is therefore a valuable historical record. …

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