• Opening up the box

    British television drama is having a renaissance, according to many, with Line of Duty, Broadchurch and Wolf Hall often cited as evidence. This is in fact contestable (a generation ago or so ago, for example, ITV alone could boast of having made Robin of Sherwood, Lost Empires, The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and several series of Inspector Morse, Poirot and Sherlock Holmes adaptations) but even as a debate it disguises a much more serious issue. Whilst the majority of such series are widely available on a variety of home media platforms and indeed still being broadcast, dozens and dozens of similar productions from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s linger in temperature-controlled vaults, having never been seen since their first (and in many cases only) transmission. For the creative talent that produced them and the public that, either directly or indirectly, paid for them, what can be done to increase access?

    Last week, a conference co-hosted by Royal Holloway University of London, Learning on Screen and the BFI examined the progress, problems and prognosis in this area. With experts in cataloguing, understanding, conserving and disseminating such material attending, as well as those simply interested in uncovering the best of British TV drama, it was a chance for all involved to share stories that were sometimes surprising, sometimes shocking but always of interest.

    The basics are pretty sobering. The archives of ITV, held in Leeds, contain over a million items and include over a quarter of a million hours of television. Of that, about 36,000 hours are drama programmes. The BBC’s equivalent, managed by the BFI, includes 600,000 individual video recordings, of which about a sixth are due to be preserved over the next five years. Just knowing what is out there is harder than you think. Both organisations maintain detailed databases, but there are gaps. Transmission dates shift or are cancelled, episodes or entire series are – infamously – physically absent in some cases and local variations in programming (which, then as now, were not confined to news and weather) aren’t always captured.

    Quite a lot of material is being made available, through a wide range of outlets. The BBC Genome provides historical schedule listings for the Corporation’s own programmes as published in the Radio Times, thanks to mass digitisation; linked to from this are about 35,000 radio and television programmes, permanently online via the BBC’s main website and another 5,000 are currently accessible for a fee from the BBC Store. Almost any item that survives can be made available for private viewing at the BFI. As a commercial concern, ITV seeks to maximise the ‘secondary exploitation value’ of its assets. Both have found considerable success partnering with the likes of Network Distributing, the British DVD producer whose growing catalogue of cult, much-loved and populist titles attests to the level of demand.

    The principal barriers are legal and practical. Anyone involved in making a television programme, whether actor, cameraman or director, will have been paid a fee, but that fee would – depending on the era – not necessarily have allowed for repeats, release for home viewing, and so on. In addition, there are rights within rights – clips of music or films or other productions used as part of a work have to be separately licensed, and can attract additional, extremely high costs out of all proportion to their length. The BFI has a special agreement with the main British unions (the Performance Alliance Licence) permitting a specific number of screenings at its London and regional venues each year, but this is not ideal. Even when all of these points are successfully addressed, softer aspects emerge, since what was once deemed acceptable to commit to film or videotape may now engage matters of taste, decency, ‘safeguarding’ or simply changing cultural taboos and attitudes.

    Prevention of the degradation of the items involved is the more pressing issue, and has been ignored by the media even as the parallel effort to save cinema features shot on decaying nitrate and other stocks has been widely publicised. Many of the programmes are held on video cassette formats that are now obsolete and whose playback equipment is itself scarce or even finite; one contributor noted that direct negotiation with a manufacturer had been needed to obtain parts. That migration (copying material to a newer format) is not only necessary once but may in fact be an unending prospect far into the future is at least now recognised, but even this is not a guarantee of life beyond initial broadcast. The BBC’s own experience with the D-3 video cassette, thought at the time to be the best option but which was subsequently found to be susceptible to degradation, has generated its own fallout.

    The benefits of all this effort were though eloquently explained. A BBC manager wanted “other people to do the curation”, whilst another speaker observed that watching TV is the least useful thing you can do with it, both making the point that it is the researchers, writers, academics and historians bringing their own viewpoints to the material that makes it come alive. Susceptible to analysis from an almost infinite number of angles, such as the cameras used to make it, the clothes worn by those in it or the words spoken around it, it is the job of everyone – including the odd informed-viewer-turned-author running his own website – to shed light on that all-important context for today’s audiences.

    The passion involved across the industries represented – broadcasting, retail, academia – was clear, but it was clear, too, that for the various initiatives covered over the course of the day to fully succeed and ultimately be part of a synergistic whole it is necessary for someone in sufficient authority at the BBC and ITV to care enough to make things happen. Until then, it’s for anyone with any interest in what led to today’s TV drama landscape to dig around, watch, buy and talk about what they love to keep those memories alive.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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