Tears and cheers in the archive: what it feels like to be working with old broadcast content

One of the oldest media forms referencing climate change: Grayson Perry pot, British Museum, Photo: Joe Smith

One of the oldest media forms referencing climate change: Grayson Perry pot, British Museum, Photo: Joe Smith

Thrill, privilege, anxiety, hilarity, distress. These are just some of the feelings generated by Earth in Vision – a project that has three of us poking around in the BBC’s attic looking at 50 years of the BBC’s environment and natural history outputs.

Thrill: I’m not sure that any other human being has seen some of this stuff since it was broadcast. Was that the first (very slow paced) reality show on Earth I just saw?

Privilege: Watching TV for a living obviously, though it must be said that its not clear to me precisely when that golden age of TV was as I patiently gaze at some very leggy scenes and plodding scripts. But I never lose a sense that we are very lucky to be working with an extraordinarily rich body of material in an entirely new way. That sense of privilege is maybe the reason why the more generic work on digital broadcast archive issues feels like it has moved from interesting footnote to equal partner with the environmental history and politics strand in terms of our research objectives.

Anxiety: about not being up to the scale of the task we’ve set ourselves, not least because the material is so rich and the time so constrained. Can we, for example, do justice to the complex job of connecting major academic and political debates on population or resources directly to broadcast archives (with help from the paper archives and interviews)? A tall order.

Amusement: did I just read a memo that signals the end of sherry on the BBC green room drinks tray in favour of a second bottle of gin? How did these people make any sense at all? And did you know that a fireman had to be present in the studio whenever guests indicted that they will be smoking before, during and after the broadcast panel discussion. And that stuff about Attenborough’s expenses around his nylon safari shirt…

Distress: Sure there is some good news as you compare present with past: film footage gives a tangible sense that air and water pollution has been massively reduced in the rich world. But with some of the bigger trends it does feel like it is a little while since the glass was half full.  I didn’t expect to need to switch on my ‘professional detachment shield’ as I approached material from the fifties, sixties and seventies. The sense of loss and of wasted opportunities can be unbearable. The people who have made this stuff must feel it all the more keenly.

But that strange energy that is held by these media artefacts, and the material we are gathering around them that explains how and why they were made, is precisely why we wanted to do this work, and why we think it will help us all care for the future. Time for a sherry…

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