What do the following programmes have in common?
The Antiques Roadshow from Peterborough (BBC1); The First Eden, David Attenborough presents a history of the Mediterranean (BBC2); Hill Street Blues (C4); French and Saunders (BBC2); The Heart of the Matter Presented by Helena Kennedy, discussing homosexuality and Aids (BBC1); Bergerac (BBC1);The World of UB40 First of a series of programmes on unemployment (BBC1); Ask Dr Ruth the agony aunt takes phone calls and answers intimate questions on drugs and sex (C4); The 11th Hour: Films by Margaret Tait (C4); Cagney and Lacey; Saturday Live with Ben Elton: on Aids ‘why pretend we all have so much sex anyway?’
Answer No 1: they were all transmitted in the week beginning Sunday 8 March 1987.
Answer No 2: I had noted them down in a neat little 4 ½ by 7 ½ inch hardback notebook. I recently unearthed three of these, listing programmes -presumably ones I’d watched- every day from July 1986 to April 1990.
I’ve called this blog ‘the serendipitous archive’ because, as the past recedes, questions of what we remember and how we remember become more urgent. That concern with Aids in a single week in 1986, and the different ways in which it was addressed -from disrespectful comedy to informed debate- together with its interaction with Bergerac, French and Saunders and the rest record something particular about the late 1980s which historians may struggle to capture.
Of course, this is what archives are for -and now, 30 years later there are numerous ways of exploring past programmes. So, to check out my little notebook, I called up the BBC’s impressive Genome website -which lists all programmes which appeared in the Radio Times between 1923 and 2009. There I discovered that in March 1987 a local farmer had brought along to The Antiques Roadshow a Japanese bronze tiger which she had bought for two score of eggs. That had escaped my memory!
Then there’s the Bfiplayer, and there’s Learning on Screen (the organisation which used to be known as the BUFVC, the British Universities Film and Video Council) which hosts an array of databases and resources. Its Box of Broadcasts (BOB) facility is able to call up numerous programmes from the 1990s onwards.
All this is invaluable, but it was in the 1980s, well before any of these facilities were available, that I began to record programmes off air. At that point the available technology for home recording was the newly developed VHS (Video Home System) video cassette tape. I bought a VHS recorder and began with enthusiasm. I vividly remember my first recording: Torvil and Dean at the 1984 Olympics.
Other recordings capture the mood of the early 1980s: the jerky attempts at early computer animation of Max Headroom : The Black and White Media Show on racism in factual programmes: Eastenders: ads for the sale of shares when British Gas was privatised in 1986.
And I kept it up. First I had a shelf of tapes -each one with four hours of programming. It grew to three, then four shelves. I began to record long play -so that each tape contained eight hours instead of four. By the time DVD recording came along and pushed VHS out of the way I had, and still have, six shelves of VHS recordings, two deep. I dread to calculate how many hours of television programming that represents.
I had begun to catalogue and number them -and got as far as Tape 339. This includes a 2 hour presentation by Noam Chomsky (C4 12 May 1993); a World in Action about Dan Eldon, a war photographer killed in Somalia (ITV 2 August 1993) and a programme in the series Plain Tales from Northern Ireland.
But Tape 339 was not the end. I still have a shelf of uncatalogued tapes. Who knows what gems they contain! However, if I’m looking for material on, for example Northern Ireland, war reporting or the NHS, instead of searching online, or visiting an archive I search my catalogue of 339 tapes, and very often come up with a range of relevant material, including stuff which is quirky or marginal and unlikely to come first on the search engines. In addition I have examples of other programmes which may not be directly relevant, but which tell us something about the context of the time.
Not surprisingly, my recordings are of terrible quality! There’s a tower block just across the road from where I live and its casts its shadow down the right-hand side of many of my favourite programmes. I’d prefer it not to be there -but I ask myself whether it matters. What matters is that in my serendipitous archive I can call up 20 odd years of programming -much of which would be obscure and forgotten.
Of course, this is what archives are for, and the importance of the BBC’s archive and the National Film and Television Archive is incalculable. (And it’s deeply to be regretted that cuts to the BFI have meant that many of the long serving and knowledgeable archive staff have not been replaced after taking voluntary redundancy. Currently only one person is in change of television material). But the raw material lodged in the archives needs to be interpreted and put into context. It is necessary make sense of the complex of trivia, public issues and personal experiences which characterise a time; and to explore the ways in which media -especially television- fit in to our everyday lives. (I tried to convey something if this interplay of multiple awareness when I wrote about broadcasting and the NHS in the 1980s, which I researched largely from my own serendipitous archive).
Questions of changing technologies and the variety of formats on which original material is produced, is, of course, a huge problem for the formal archives, and, my personal archive also depends on available technology. I must continue to have a VHS player, even though they are no longer manufactured- and I need to be able to transfer VHS to DVD, a facility which is also disappearing.
So is this just a question of personal nostalgia….I think not. At a recent meeting of FIAT/IFTA (International Federation of Television Archives) discussing memorialising the events of 1968, the conversation tended to be about the content of the material that is available. Perhaps this was inevitable, considering that this was a meeting of archivists. However, I would argue for the importance of recalling the complexities and the lived experience of that particular moment in the past.
Of course my serendipitous archive does not go back that far (I was there as a filmmaker not as a historian) but I argue that for me, at least, it gives access to a broad awareness of the context of the period it covers. Despite the technical problems, I’m keeping my six shelves of tapes!
Pat Holland is the author (with Sheryl Wilson and Hugh Chignell) of Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s -the challenge to public service Palgrave Macmillan 2013
Her most recent publication is
The New Television Handbook Fifth edition Routledge 2017