The terra incognita of television archives

The terra incognita of television archives

Recently I sat in a viewing theatre with half a dozen other researchers and watched a truly remarkable 1965 television documentary called Walk Down Any Street. Directed for Associated-Rediffusion by Charlie Squires, the film is a clear-eyed and sympathetic verité portrait of a working-class family in Bermondsey. There are just four extended sequences – a funeral, a 21st birthday party, a hospital birth and a christening – and each is dispassionately observed at considerable length with minimal music that is not from the world of the film and with no voice-over after an opening introduction. I had never heard of the film before, I can find nothing about it online, and I don’t believe there is any critical writing about it in any book or article (I should be delighted to be disabused of this). The film is astonishing, both as film-making and as social history, but just as astonishing is its almost total obscurity. Welcome to the terra incognita of television archives.

Even – or perhaps especially – those who work in television archives would not claim that their job is glamorous or sexy. What attention their essential and invaluable labour attracts is invariably associated with the retrieval of a ‘lost’ episode of Doctor Who or, as happened in 2011, the discovery in the Library of Congress of a cache of British television plays that were missing, believed wiped. Dedicated historians like Dick Fiddy and organisations like Kaleidoscope do great work finding such treasures and securing column inches for them. This is important work.

At the same time we need to recognise, as I fear that we too rarely do, that there are thousands and thousands of ‘found’ programmes in the archives about which next-to-nothing is known. Simply because of a lack of time and resources, they are never viewed – and as a consequence they remain undocumented. This is television’s terra incognita, the shelves and shelves of films and tapes that at present are off any critical map.

Each and every one of those programmes about which we know (all-but) nothing is of interest, and each undoubtedly deserves to be seen and celebrated and discussed. Walk Down any Street is an example of a documentary that I find particularly compelling, and for which I would want to make an argument about its ‘quality’. But what seems urgent is not just a mapping to find the masterpieces.

There is no simple or standard way to address this issue. Even to achieve the density of knowledge that we have now about cinema history, the mappings will take decades, and will involve all sorts of explorers and expeditions. Academic researchers have their role in this, as of  course do the archivists and those who characterise themselves as fans. Access is a key issue, and as ever the BBC, BFI and others have initiatives to address this, although there are times when it feels as if those of us alive today may never see their conclusion.

There have been and there are, of course, many beacons beginning to light up some paths. Look, for example, at the new BBC Archive site dedicated to early programmes about archaeology. Until this came online, I believe I was one of just a handful of people who in the last three decades and more had watched The Grandeur that was Rome (1960). Now this series and other treasures are available for us all to encounter and to write about (as I intend to) – and this privilege (could we call it a right?) is on offer for free and (as far as we can expect) forever. This too is important work.

So above all we need to continue our explorations, and each viewing like the one for Walk Down any Street is a step along the way. That showing was part of the preparation for a BFI initiative in 2014-15 that will offer entry points into a central area of the television history of the 1950s and ’60s. Some of the terra then will no longer be quite so incognita, although there will without doubt be much left to explore.