On Betty Balfour and the Star Attraction of Missing Cinema

Two weeks ago, news emerged that a lost British silent film, Love, Life and Laughter, had been found. A clip was played at the Orphan Film Symposium, and the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam is now in the process of restoring the film before exhibiting it.

When I found out about the rediscovery I was thrilled. I was aware of the film: it was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of missing titles. Moreover, I used it and another (still missing) film, Reveille, as the subject of an essay and poster presentation during my MA. Both of these films were directed by George Pearson, produced by his company Welsh-Pearson, and both starred Betty Balfour.

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My presentation and essay focused on the marketing and critical reception of the two films, with a focus on Betty’s star persona (see above). When a film is known to be missing, often it is the star that is the crux of the interest in finding that film. However, that star is not always an actor. Directors, producers, designers and cinematographers often have star personas that can be leveraged to generate interest in a missing title, which is why Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle probably wins the prize for the most-wanted missing film.

I re-read that essay I wrote three years ago, and I noticed that at the time I thought that the BFI’s plea for the significance of Love, Life and Laughter and Reveille  was not based on the star persona of Betty Balfour, but in the possibility that the films ‘may have marked [the director’s] creative zenith.’* When the rediscovery was announced, however, George Pearson’s name was rarely mentioned, whereas Betty came to the fore once more.

Even fewer George Pearson films survive than Balfour works, but he was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, called a genius and even credited by some with inventing the moving camera shot.

- Silent London

It is interesting to note the difference between marketing a missing film and celebrating a found one. Appeals for missing films are written by archivists and aimed at other archivists, collectors, historians and cinephiles who are more likely to be attuned to auteurism, more willing to go after the more obscure or cult films, and more likely to engage in the fetishisation of technologies and format. Articles about rediscoveries are written by journalists and pitched at prospective audiences, which include the more casual film fans who are more likely to be interested in Britain’s biggest silent film starlet, rather than a film director who happened to have a well-received sequence of films in the 1920s.

I had fully intended to condense that essay into a blog post for you guys, but I’ve since decided to sit on it in case I decide to publish it elsewhere. You’ll just to believe that I made many incisive and nuanced points about star theory, silent cinema and critical reception. Of course, if you do fancy academic work about Betty (or just want to see her in some other films) then the British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner.

* ‘BFI Most Wanted’, the British Film Institute, accessed 1 May 2011 (NB. the link is now dead: http://www.bfi.org.uk/nationalarchive/news/mostwanted/75-list.html)

Kine Weekly: a slew of rediscoveries from EYE, Welles memorabilia up for auction, more conferences announced, etc.

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So last Friday Pamela and I discussed our mutual love for British silent cinema starlet Betty Balfour (who has a starring role in this year’s British Silent Film Festival). I am overjoyed about the rediscovery of Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923) starring Our Betty, five minutes of which played at the Orphan Film Symposium on Wednesday.

I actually have a post about Betty coming up early next week. In the meantime, here’s a selection of other news from the world of moving image archiving:

LA Times > ‘A treasure trove of silent American movies found in Amsterdam’ > Well done to the EYE Filmmuseum and the National Film Preservation Foundation. Koko and Mickey and chickens – oh my!

Self-Styled Siren > ‘Good News for Silent Film Fans’ >> The Siren discusses the very early Mickey Rooney film Mickey’s Circus, one of the film rediscovered and announced this week (see above).

Moving Image Archive News > ‘A Secret Ceremony, Preserved on Film’ >> There are many reasons why certain events go unrecorded, or why those recordings are lost, or why they are put under embargo when they do survive. This piece explains how film archivists have to approach recordings of local customs with tact and compassion.

The Hollywood Reporter > ‘Orson Welles’ Camera, Scripts, ‘Citizen Kane’ Memorabilia Up for Auction’ >> ‘The legendary director’s youngest daughter […] says her dad would want them in the hands of film buffs.’ Surely he would want them in an archive…?

Open Culture > ‘The History of the Movie Camera in Four Minutes: From the Lumiere Brothers to Google Glass’ >> Lovely!

Archaeologies of Media and Film > ‘Call for Papers’ >> An upcoming conference that could be of interest to those working or researching in film history, heritage and archiving.

Detroit Free Press >  ‘5 questions with filmmaker and archivist Rick Prelinger’ >> Prelinger explains his fascination with Detroit and the archival film he’s uncovered about the city.

Trevor Owens > ‘Digital Preservation’s Place in the Future of the Digital Humanities’ >>’In short, I think there is a critical need for a dialog and conversation between work in the digital humanities and work building the collections of sources they are going to draw from.’

Warwick Film and Television Studies > ‘The Projection Project’ >> Exciting fully-funded PhD project available for a student interested in the representation of the projectionist in film.

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting > ‘PBCore is Back in Action’ >> Further development of the US Public Broadcasting Metadata Dictionary.

BFI > ‘Film education strategy’ >> The BFI announces a new policy document, based in part on the responses of film educators.

The most recent More Podcast, Less Process podcast discusses the challenge of archiving video:

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/142336731" params="color=ff5500" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

And lastly, as I wrap up another chapter draft of my PhD thesis, I think I deserve a pat on the back, courtesy of British Pathe:

‘Puttin’ on the Glitz’ at the British Library

I asked my friend, the silent film blogger, editor and noted frock fan Pamela – to accompany me to the event Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fasion & Film in the Jazz Age at the British Library in St Pancras on Friday. I could pretend that this was a research trip, but really it was simply a cheap ticket (£5 for students!) to indulge my two favourite hobbies – watching old films and ogling pretty things.

That said, we (me) here at Kine Artefacts take an all-encompassing approach to moving image history, heritage and preservation. Therefore, we (I) declare that fashion and design – and its relation to the moving images that show it off – is a perfectly cromulent topic for scholarly consideration.

This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.

This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.

Evidently, so too does the British Library. I found out about the event through the Library’s ‘Inspired by…’ blog. Sceptics could see events like these as a cynical way to cash in on the current love of vintage style, but I also think that such events do at least show that there is a breadth in the collections of the British Library, and that its remit covers a lot of material and formats other than published books and the Magna Carta. The event also coincided with the announcement of the new News and Media Room in the St Pancras site (after the closure of the historic Colindale facility), and given that at least one of the talks was based partly on analysis of 1930s film journals and magazines, it was a neat way for the library to demonstrate that it could be of use to film and fashion students looking for newspapers, magazines or journals from the period.

The event cannily presented both historical and critical methodologies for looking at fashion and film, in a way that was informative without being dry. Amber Jane Butchart began with a demonstration of the influence of Hollywood on British fashion through an analysis of reception and marketing materials in magazines and journals. Butchart touched upon the complexity of this relationship, describing how the judicious use of high fashion in Hollywood cinema, and its presentation in supplementary ephemera, worked together to promote that iconic Jazz Age look without diminishing the glamour and extravagance of the clothes on screen.

Butchart looked a sequence from the 1935 film Roberta as a case study. The film culminates in a fashion parade narrated by Fred Astaire, in which starlets such as the very young Lucille Ball model some of RKO designer Barnard Newman’s most ostentatious designs. Butchart then discussed the increasing importance of fashion in films, citing Adrian’s famous Letty Lynton dress, which spawned thousands of replicas for all the ‘little Joan Crawfords’ across the world, as a prime example. The dress is perhaps now better remembered than the film itself, which is mired in legal issues and thus very difficult to get hold of (though it does, thankfully, survive).

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The second talk, from Chris Laverty, took a different tack in that it assessed the costume design of a contemporary TV show set in the Jazz Age: Boardwalk Empire. Laverty analysed the costumes of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Chalky White (Michael K Williams) in order, and made use of stills and John Dunn’s original costume designs (complete with fabric swatches!) to demonstrate just how true the costumes are to both the characters and the context of the show.

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Generally speaking, the gangsters of the period are popularly thought of as wearing shiny, monochrome, pinstriped suits and white carnations, when in reality the heavy woollen fabrics and decorative flourishes where far more varied in colour, texture and fit. Everything from the fabrics, the patterns to the accessories serve to give context to these characters. Laverty likened Darmody’s wardrobe to that of a modern-day gangster, who goes from sportswear to bling depending on status. All the gangsters, though Chalky White in particular, embody the persona of the ‘dandy gangster’, wearing outlandish outfits as a way to establish power and prestige. I’ve never actually watched the show other than the pilot episode (for PhDs are long and time is short), but I know of Michael K Williams from The Wire,  and I would suspect that Williams’ star persona had as much an influence on his costuming in Boardwalk Empire as Joan Crawford had on Adrian’s dress.

The Norfolk jacket, via the FIDM Museum blog.

The Norfolk jacket, via the FIDM Museum blog.

Butchart and Laverty both made impassioned pleas to bring back certain trends from the Jazz Age: flouted, ruched, puffed and generally awesome shoulders; and the Norfolk thick wool sporting jacket (respectively). I discussed these fashions with my own dandy fella, and we agreed that these would both be trends that we would welcome.

The talks were followed by a cocktail party, which was a bit less Jazz Age-specific and catered to a more general vintage-themed crowd. I drank a serviceable French 75 and an almost Mary Pickford cocktail that was tastier due to the omission of grenadine (on the theme of starlet-named cocktails, I prefer the Ginger Rogers). There was a vintage band, vintage hairstyling and hopefully-not-vintage pork pies on offer (?!). The atrium of the British Library, with its white, curved stairways and mezzanines, looked rather like an Art Deco dancehall and decidedly unlike a library.

Kine Weekly: archiving information, film exhibition past and present, thoughts on theory etc.

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Time > ‘Meet the Geniuses on a Quixotic Quest to Archive the Entire Internet’ >> My interest in the archiving of information technology stems from moving image archiving, considering that many of our moving images are produced, formatted, distributed, exhibited and stored on a computer.

Silent London > ‘Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2014: reporting back’ >> Looks like fun!

Open Culture > ‘Architects Dress as Famous New York City Buildings in Vintage 1931 Photo’ >> From a 1931 ball for the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. Includes a link to a tiny snippet of newsreel footage of the event (sadly not open access).

Flicker Alley > ‘Glass Slides from Early Chaplin Movies’ >> Gorgeous, full-colour digitised lantern slides promoting vintage Charlie.

Fredrik on Film > ‘Theory readings – An introduction’ >> ‘When theoretical texts are discussed or criticised it is usually through the use of another theory, on whether it contradicts or agrees with some other text. But that is not really critical thinking, that is compare and contrast. For me it is when a text is criticised on its own terms, from within, that it becomes interesting and meaningful’ <- My feelings exactly.

Cinema Fanatic > ‘Female Filmmaker Friday: Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966 (dir. Věra Chytilová)’ >> Appropriate write-up of Chytilová’s seminal film given the filmmaker’s death last week.

MUBI > ‘Movie Poster of the Week: “Sunshine of Paradise Alley”’ >> Adrian Curry’s poster column is a well-known weekly joy, but this poster I found to be particularly unusual and arresting.

 Observations on film art > ‘Dispatch from another 35mm outpost. With cats.’ >> Residents of Rochester, NY are spoiled for film on film. I braved a cat allergy to visit The Cinema for a few double-bills in 2012 and did not regret it.

National Archives > ‘The information management academy awards’ >> A neat riff on the Oscars.

British Library > ‘The Newsroom’ >> While the British Lbrary’s Newspaper Archive in Colindale was/is an important archival heritage site that will never be replaced, the new Newsroom facility does look pretty spiffy, and it’s nice that so much of the microfilm will be open-access.

Kine Weekly: Alaskan records, access and exhibition of archival film and television, silent cinema selfies, etc.

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This was supposed to go out on Friday, but I was having tech issues. Apologies.

MoveOn Petitions > ‘Keep Alaska’s Records in Alaska’ >> Alaskans/Americans interested in disputing the NARA’s decision should sign this.

Hippodrome Festival Of Silent Cinema’s Photos > ‘Oscars Schmoscars, HippFest can do a selfie too’ >> Bo’ness is obviously where to cool kids hang out.

Zotero > ‘Online Access to Audio-Visual Content’ >> The EUscreenXL project has created a library of readings on the topic of access to moving images. I believe members can supplement this bibliography by adding their own citations.

Dr Film > ‘The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome’ >> ‘The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.’

Scope > Issue 26 >> The University of Nottingham’s own open-access peer-reviewed journal of Film and Television Studies boasts a particularly interesting article by Max Sexton on the use of 16mm film in the television industry (PDF).

CST Online > ‘In Memory of Studio Drama: Curating and Presenting the BFI Southbank “Dramatic Spaces” Season’ >> A fascinating piece by Leah Panos, reflecting on her experience co-curating a season of studio-based television plays for the BFI. I was lucky enough to catch one of those screenings when I was last in London.

Moving Image Archive News > ‘The Guilty Pleasure of Wallowing in Quasi-Archives Constructed in Thoroughly Disapproved Ways’ >> Fun blogpost about the subversive delights of accessing archival footage through online ‘anti-archives’ such as Youtube.

Observations on film art > ‘You can go home again, and maybe find an old movie’ >> David Bordwell considers his home town of Penn Yan, NY and presents a history of film exhibition there.

Newcastle University > ‘A History of Women in British Film and Television’ >> A new project drawing on the oral histories collected by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU).

ATV Today > ‘Bangor “Local TV Station” Dropped >> My research into regional independent television has led me to a greater understanding of how commercial interests and broadcasting infrastructes have influenced exactly which ‘regions’ had a chance to be represented on television. This is a case in point.

BBC News > ‘Five lesser-spotted things Tony Benn gave the UK’ >> As Postmaster-General, Benn has a place in broadcasting and communications history. He was enthused about new technologies, and revelled in the opening of the Post Office Tower in 1966.

Kine Weekly: leading ladies of all kinds, film fashion, the problem with clouds, etc.

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It’s almost Oscar time! I will be watching with glasses of Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers. Here are some links to keep you occupied in the meantime.

Moving Image Archive News > ‘China Girls, Leading Ladies, Actual Women’ >> An in-depth article detailing the history and meta-history of the ‘China Girls/ colour bar “timing control strips”’ that were part of the head leader of film reels and ‘provided certified, dependable guiders for the technicians as they printed film.’ The article covers the technical function of the frames as well as the problematic pictures of women that featured on them.

Northwest Chicago Film Society > ‘China Girls / Leader Ladies’ >> More info about the China Girls, including lots of examples and a handy diagram.

The Guardian Fashion Blog > ‘Funny Face: a film in love with fashion’ >> I love it when resident old film nut Pam does the fashion blog at the Guardian, for it is indeed ‘like taking a trip through fashion history’.

Cosmopolitan > ‘Every Best Actress Oscars dress since 1929’ >> This infographic has been doing the rounds in the run up to the Oscars this weekend. Ginger Rogers always gets my vote.

British Libray Inspired by… blog > ‘Fashion & Film – Sequins, lamé and plunging necklines in American Hustle’ >> What it says on the tin.

Wiped News > ‘Kaleidoscope uncovers lost BBC drama in RNLI vault’ >> After digging through its collection of film cans, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution found that they had a complete recording of the 1959 docudrama Medico that featured one of their lifeboats. The drama in question was believed to have never been recorded in the first place. You can see it at the Kaleidoscope event ‘Missing Believed Wiped in the Midlands’ on 5 April.

Cloud of Data > ‘Can the cloud do “in perpetuity”?’ >> Paul Miller is part of the team that has been contracted by the National Archives to answer this very question.

The National Archives > ‘Cloud storage and archives: a match made in heaven?’ >> More info about the NA’s new project team investigating whether cloud storage can ever be a reliable storage option for archives.

GSA > ‘Artists and Archive: Artist Moving Image at the BBC’ >> Six artists will be making new moving image artworks inspired by the BBC archives.

The British Pathe Archive Blog > ‘British Pathé presents: WW1 – The Definitive Collection’ >>  This being the centenary year of World War One, expect many more links of this nature.

The BBC’s iPlayer currently features The Magic Box, the 1951 film about William Friese-Greene starring Robert Donat, and Of Time And the City, Terence Davies’s documentary of Liverpool made entirely of archival film extracts.

Lastly, watch this short documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by The Vinyl Factory.

Kine Weekly: RIP Stuart Hall and Shirley Temple, and everything is better as a silent movie…

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Because nothing says ‘I love you’ like a bunch of links to do with the history, heritage and preservation of moving images.

Monkey See > ‘The Beatles, As America First Loved Them’ >> It’s been 50 years since The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. This gives me a neat excuse to link to my favourite ever story from This American Life.

Northwest Chicago Film Society > ‘Beacons of Cinema: In Defense of Trailers‘ >> ‘Civilian audiences complain of endless trailers at the movie theater; film collectors always want more. They spend hours splicing together reels and reels of the stuff, hoping to impress audiences with the perfect trailer compilation.’

The National Archives > ‘A-Z of Information Management’ >> ‘Y is for… Yoda. Mix Star Wars and information management and what do you get?’ – simply brilliant.

The Telegraph > ‘Margot Fonteyn lost kiss scene rediscovered’ >> Rediscovered footage from a 1959 BBC broadcast of the ballet Sleeping Beauty has been found and will be screened in March.

Self-Styled Siren > ‘In Memoriam: Shirley Temple, 1928-2014’ >> More obits I liked here and here. I will be breaking out the grenadine and ginger ale.

Silent London > ‘Silent comedy on TV – Inside No 9: A Quiet Night In, and more’ >> I can’t wait to catch-up with this modern day silent comedy.

Of course, everything is better as a silent movie. To prove it, I offer these 3 examples pulled from my Facebook feed in recent days:

Exhibit A. The Onion discusses the original RoboCop

Exhibit B. What if Star Trek was a silent movie?

Exhibit C. An unofficial video for The Divine Comedy’s ‘Napoleon Complex’, compiled from clips of Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

And lastly, like every researcher studying any facet of British media and culture, I owe a debt of gratitude to Stuart Hall, the seminal cultural theorist who sadly died this week. I like this obituary, and I also like this interview he gave to the Guardian a couple of years ago. There is also The Stuart Hall Project, the documentary about his life and work that is now available on DVD.

Plays for Yesterday: Miss Julie (1965) and Let’s Murder Vivaldi (1968)

As part of the Spaces of Television project, earlier this week the BFI screened two 1960s BBC television plays, both directed by Alan Bridges: a 1965 production of Miss Julie, produced for BBC 2’s Theatre 625 series, and Let’s Murder Vivaldi, a 1968 play written by David Mercer and created for The Wednesday Play.

The screening was introduced by Professor Stephen Lacey, who reminded the audience that Bridges, a Palme-d’Or winning director who enjoyed a long and successful career deserving of more attention than he typically receives, had sadly passed away late last year. Just as Bridges has been overlooked by the British film and TV cannon, so too have television plays fallen out of favour, so it felt appropriate to honour Bridges by looking at some of his early directorial work for the BBC that is not often seen these days.

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I’d never seen Miss Julie before, on stage or otherwise, and seeing it for the first time as a television production, it is difficult to imagine Strindberg had not prophetically intended it for television in the first place. The single-act play lends itself very well to the constraints of the 70 minute, black-and-white, 4:3, taped-as-live, multi-cam studio set up: it requires a cast of three, all the dialogue occurs in the same room, and the props (such as the Count’s boots and the bird) provide clear semiotic punctuation to the drama that can be communicated easily through television. While there were filmed inserts depicting the party (a fab montage which adds dynamism and flair), for the most part Miss Julie (Gunnel Lindbloom) and Jean (Ian Hendry) spit their loaded, caustic words at each other from across the oak table in the parlour. It is not entirely successful, however, despite the serendipitous structure of the source material. Perhaps the translation had something to do with it, but Hendry and Lindbloom seemed to be acting in separate interpretations of the play, which is unfortunate given that the drama hinges on their charisma.

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While Miss Julie lacked some crucial chemistry between the key performers, Let’s Murder Vivaldi is full of compelling performances that heighten each other and the play as a whole. David Mercer cannily structured the plot as a sequence of arch, coded confrontations between two couples: the young and violently wilful lovers, Julie (Glenda Jackson) and Ben (David Sumner), and an older, bitterer married pair, Gerald (Denholm Elliott) and Monica (Gwen Watford). After establishing that both of these couples are on the brink of splitting up, the play switches to a hotel suite where Julie and Gerald meet for a dirty weekend – and in this scene, right in the middle of the play, Mercer brilliantly and audaciously allows nothing to happen. The tryst between the married man and his fierce young subordinate is a red herring: the real drama happens after their unsuccessful date when they return to their respective partners. The screening notes included George Melly’s review from the time, which neatly expresses Mercer’s bleak morality that was apparently a recurring feature of his work:

It is David Mercer’s strength as a writer that, while obsessed with a handful of demons […] he has the gift of inventing fables in which these obsessions appear perfectly at home

- George Melly, The Observer, 14 April 1968

Despite a well-structured premise and snappy dialogue delivered with aplomb, there are still moments of staginess that jarred for me – particularly the shocking, shark-jumping denouement of Gerald’s story, which I won’t spoil here because I think you can watch it yourself in the Mediatheque or via the BFI screenonline. That said, the pair of plays were certainly complimentary in both theme and style, and they were great choices for the BFI’s Dramatic Spaces: The Imaginative World of the Television Studio strand, which carries on into next week with some thrilling Play for Todays. I highly recommend any and all of the screenings.

This season revisits that exciting 20 year period by showcasing a selection of productions – some unseen for nearly 50 years – that highlight the breadth of vision in the use of studio space and the creation of a new form unique to TV drama. […] This season demonstrates how the television studio was a site of intense dramatic performance, expressive mise-en-scène and extraordinary imagined worlds.

- bfi.org.uk

Thanks to my mum for joining me at the screening (the tragedy of being a youngish researcher of old film and telly is that I’m often stuck for willing companions for my screening trips). Mum was still a child when these plays were first screened, but she remembered enough to tell me that Theatre 625 was named after the new 625-line format that BBC 2 was enabled for (I’d not put two and two together, though it seems obvious to me now).  She also gamely allowed me to condescendingly explain the as-live process of television production to her (‘and that’s why 60s telly has some fluffed lines, ma!’). In return, she bought me dinner and offered a few biographical details about the production staff including Cedric Messina and Kenith Trodd, so a successful, informative evening was had by all.

You can read more reviews of this screening here and here, as well as organiser Leah Panos’s illuminating write-up at the Space of Television blog.

Kine Weekly: Europeana and moving images forgotten and remembered…

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British Library Sound and Vision Blog > ‘Building a jukebox for Europe’ >> The British Library presents their new project, Europeana Sounds, that will ‘double the number of sound tracks that can be discovered through Europeana, improve descriptions for two million sounds, music scores and associated items to make them easier to find, and well create new thematic e-channels on Europeana that bring related objects together in a coordinated way.’

Moving Image Archive News > ‘The Great War in Film and Cultural Memory’ >> More Europeana! MIAN reports on the wealth of moving image material from archives across the European Film Gateway, that have been made accessible through Europeana to mark the centenary of WWI.

Film History in the Making > ‘Petition Filmoteca de Navarra’ >> Please sign this petition in support of the Filmoteca de Nevarra in Pamplona. In these times of austerity, it is crucial that archives do not shut down completely.

MACE > ‘Dr Emma Jay Presents MACE with Archive Service Accreditation Certificate’ >> Congratulations to the Media Archive for Central England, who are the only film archive to be awarded this honour by the National Archives. MACE also hit 2000 Twitter followers this week, so double congrats.

The Kaleidoscope Archive > ’50 Years Ago: How much old television is forgotten?’ >> Billy Smart wonders what the criteria is for calling a television programme truly ‘forgotten’.

Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative > ‘Visualizing Southern Television’ >> Not Southern Television the defunct ITV franchise, but television from the southern US states. David Bennet has created a map to show just how much television from the region is represented in the archives – though not necessarily available via digital copy.

CST Online > ‘Eastenders: The Triangles of Albert Square’ >> Jonathan Bignell analyses the compositions in the very first episode of Eastenders, and particularly the ‘pattern of using frontal, often triangular arrangements of characters in a static shot’.

Fast Co Labs > ‘How Digital History Lessons Can “Disrupt” The Way We Think About Time’ >> Chris Wild, AKA the Retronaut, discusses the viral potential of historical images.

MUBI Notebook > ‘The Forgotten: Demi-Monde’ >> David Cairns sells me on  Parisian Love with the words ‘Clara Bow’ and ‘french maid’, as well as the discussion of the film’s subtext.

And lastly, also via David Cairns, here’s Richard Lester’s 1968 advert for Braniff International: ‘There’s no waiting in this supersonic age, and very little walking.’

Television History: Reconstruction as Research Method

Methodologically, I fancy myself a historian (actually, I fancy myself an archivist in extended training, but that’s by the by). By aligning myself with history, and particularly archival history, I suggest that I look at evidence contemporary to the topic at hand in order to learn more about that topic. Of course, like most doctoral candidates, I employ a compound methodology as befits the questions I’m asking. But still, when explaining to people what I do with my time, the answer is ‘considering television artefacts’. If I wanted to incorporate my professional archivist training, I might also add ‘considering how to organise these television artefacts so that others can consider them, too.’

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The artefacts I’m looking at are mostly in the form of documents. It is a recurring gripe of mine that, even among historians, any artefact that isn’t a television programme is seen as secondary evidence. As most moving image historians know, for varying reasons historical moving images are often lost, destroyed, decayed or – in the case of early broadcasting – never recorded in the first place. So, a historian, upon finding that the television programme they want to study is not available, might either turn to other sources (such as documentation) or give up. The television programme is the gold-standard artefact of television history. Without it, they can use other resources, but the resultant research might be seen as supplementary or secondary – i.e. less good.

Recently, though, I have noticed a seemingly more radical approach to television history, one that recalls episodes of 999 rather than any Media Studies lecture I’ve ever attended. More and more researchers are seeking to reconstruct aspects of television history, as best they can, using the most appropriate tools at their disposal.

For instance, one of the highlights of last year’s Spaces of Television conference was a presentation by Dr Andrew Ireland about the experiment at the heart of his PhD thesis. In this experiment, Ireland used the script from Tooth and Claw, a 2006 story of Doctor Who. He then found actors who resembled David Tennant and Billie Piper and a crew at his university, and set about re-enacting the episode. However, instead of remaking it shot for shot, he instead kitted out a television studio so that it mimicked the constraints of shooting Doctor Who in the 1960s. He then proceeded to re-enact the beginning ofTooth and Claw as a 20 minute instalment of an as-live, multi-camera studio drama. From Ireland’s perspective, the aim was not to reconstruct an old studio drama (he doesn’t use the word ‘reconstruct’ precisely because he has created a new thing), but to reconstruct the process of making one.

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Another example: in my ‘Kine Weekly’ blog a couple of weeks back, I linked to a tweet by Dave Jeffrey. He has evidently been making a 3d computer model of the old Westward Television studio building. By his own admission, it seems that this was merely a handy vessel for him to practice using Blender – an open-source computer graphics software doodah. These visualisations are obviously only digital facsimiles of the original layout of the building, but they also have the potential to be extremely helpful to anyone wanting to gain a greater understanding of how Westward was physically laid out.

Speaking of studios, there is also the Facebook group Pebble Mill, that crowdsources the history of the Pebble Mill Studios by inviting interactions from those who used to work there. The project has been running for a while now, overseen by Vanessa Jackson. Now, interviews are a known source of historical evidence, but I think this is different. Rather than creating oral histories, Vanessa posts pictures and other artefacts she finds from the studio, and asks for help contextualising the artefacts. Responders will comment, confirming who that person is or what that machine was for. They will often – unprompted, yet certainly welcome – offer their reminiscences and anecdotes from their time at Pebble Mill. It is not a reconstruction, strictly speaking, but it certainly goes some way toward reconstructing the everyday life and operations of Pebble Mill, in a manner that is organic and true to the nature of working life, where no one person knows everything.

I’m glad to have come across such a wide range of innovative historical research methods that use archival evidence as I try to unpick exactly how to describe my own. Despite the fact that the methodology is a tiny proportion of my PhD thesis, it is probably the part I have redrafted the most. I am certainly inspired to be bolder in my presentation of documents as a source of primary research, and I have already skewed my topic toward mapping out the policies, infrastructures and operations that underpinned Southern Television – i.e. things that can be in some way reconstructed from documentation – more than their programmes. My methodology is far from unique, too, and it is nowhere near as inventive as the examples listed here. Nevertheless, I think researchers are still too willing to give up on certain areas of television history, because the programmes haven’t survived or the creatives involved are not available. So much of television has been created through systems, processes, structures and infrastructures that evolved over time. Reconstructing these peculiar contexts and visualising them are just as important as watching the programmes.

Lastly, I should say that my ponderings on this matter were inspired by a little exchange I had with my dad on Twitter.

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