Transcribing national treasures


I have been transcribing interviews, focus groups and meetings for nearly thirteen years, although my background was originally in biology. They’re mostly for universities and mostly fascinating, but the Earth in Vision project is one of the most captivating that I’ve had the privilege to work on – and certainly the only time I’ve transcribed a national treasure (or two)!

Sir DAVID ATTENBOROUGHKim, the project manager, phoned me in great excitement one day to say could we transcribe an interview super-fast please, but we might rather enjoy it – it was Sir David Attenborough! We certainly did enjoy it – in fact fights would have broken out in the office if I hadn’t split it into three so that Taryn, Clare and I, here at Penguin Transcription, could all have a piece of Sir David! Of course his breadth of knowledge of wildlife and the BBC is enormous, but those dulcet tones were a pleasure to transcribe anyway!

In fact the lesser known names, all those wildlife cameramen and producers working behind the scenes to capture the enormous range of wild-life programmes broadcast over the years have been equally fascinating. It’s certainly opened our eyes to the huge possibilities, but also enormous complications and limitations, of launching the BBC environment and natural history broadcast archives to the public.

There are so many positives that could come out of this. From an educational perspective, the archives are full of film of animals that are now extinct or  nearly so – not only an eye-opener regarding the damage we, as a species, are doing to the ecosystem, but also a hugely valuable resource for studying behaviour of animals it is no longer possible to study in the wild. Then there’s the more direct environment angle: although a constant theme of these interviews is that commissioners shy away from overtly environment-related programmes because ‘people will just switch off’, if the archives were opened up and people allowed to use clips to make new films, much of the beautiful blue-chip footage could be used, by charities for example,  to make compelling environment-related programming.

So what are the limitations? Well, other than the fact that much of the early film footage isn’t archived, it was just thrown away or recorded over, the biggest seems to be rights issue. To put it simply, you can’t release film for anyone to mess around with as the BBC often only has the right to show it as is, and getting those rights changed could mean hunting down the tens or hundreds of people involved in each film and getting them to all agree! Then there’s the fact that much of the BBC archive is not digitised – it’s rolls of film that most people can’t work with.

But it took another national treasure (IMO anyway) to neatly sum up perhaps the biggest limitation: Desmond Morris. Another excited phone-call from Kim, another rush-job, and wow, what a fantastic interview!  DSCF2838Of course one of the joys of the transcription is that we get to hear the full thing, not the heavily edited version, but I have to say that so much of this interview was absolutely fascinating that I hope most of it makes the final cut! Anyway, his point was that if the ‘archive could be produced in such a way that it would be available, like going to a library and picking out an encyclopaedia and it would all be there’, indexed both under species and behaviour type, it would truly be an amazing resource – but at the moment there is nothing remotely resembling a unified data-base of all the material at this sort of level. It’s a big ask –but what a wonderful resource it would be, if those limitations could be overcome.

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