The history of the British moving image, as told in limited edition Royal Mail stamps

I’m at an odd stage of the thesis. The arguments are there and the chapters all exist*. I can state with certainty that I have made a contribution to the field of television history and the practice of archiving television documentation, but I can’t for the life of me state, concisely and authoritatively, what that contribution is. It’s a common issue with historical research: it’s hard to move away from analysing discrete documents that exist in their own specific context to articulating what those documents have to say about British moving image culture as a whole.


So, I’ve been doing what postgraduate students do so well: I put my chapters in a box and started reminding myself of the history of British moving image as it is generally understood – not through forgotten programmes, degrading formats, complicated production jargon and legislature, but through the shows that people remember, the personalities they recognise, and the images that are celebrated and commemorated.

L-R: 'British Discovery and Invention' stamp, 1967; 'Broadcasting Anniversaries' stamp, 1972.

L-R: ‘British Discovery and Invention’ stamp, 1967; ‘Broadcasting Anniversaries’ stamp, 1972.

Which is a really longwinded way of saying that I wasted a good couple of hours today seeing which parts of moving image history have been celebrated through that very British form of acknowledgement: the limited edition ‘special’ Royal Mail stamp. A few weeks ago Royal Mail launched an online repository of all its special stamps, dating back to the 1960s, and it makes for compelling browsing.

The very earliest stamp to celebrate the moving image, produced in the 1967, focuses on television as part of a series about British discovery and invention. Invention and innovation are common reasons to highlight moving image technologies, and in 1972 technology was highlighted again in a series commissioned to celebrate varied anniversaries of broadcasting, including Marconi’s experiments and 50 years of the BBC.

L-R: '50th Anniversary of Children's Television' stamp, 1996; '100 Years of Going to the Cinema' stamp, 1996.

L-R: ’50th Anniversary of Children’s Television’ stamp, 1996; ‘100 Years of Going to the Cinema’ stamp, 1996.

Anniversaries are the most obvious reason for issuing commemorative stamps. 1996 saw two different anniversaries: 50 years of children’s television, and 100 years of cinema going in Britiain. The former focused on well known programmes, such as Stingray, The Clangers, The Sooty Show – nearly all of which I’m sure were still in regular rotation in TV schedules well into the 1990s. The latter illustrated cinema culture, rather than films themselves, though the set included a picture of a Pathe newsreel which I like.

L-R: 'F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson' stamp, 2011; '50th Anniversary of Independent Television' stamp, 2005.

L-R: ‘F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson’ stamp, 2011; ’50th Anniversary of Independent Television’ stamp, 2005.

Stingray crops up a second time, in 2011, in a set titled ‘F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson’. However, it did not make it to the 50th Anniversary of ITV set, though ITC was represented by The Avengers. Perhaps the strangest stamp in that set is the one of Emmerdale – a long running and much-loved soap, to be sure, but Coronation Street would seem the more obvious choice (perhaps too obvious).

L-R: 'The Sky at Night' stamp, 2007; 'Doctor Who' stamp, 2013.

L-R: ‘The Sky at Night’ stamp, 2007; ‘Doctor Who’ stamp, 2013.

2005 notwithstanding, Royal Mail slightly favours BBC shows over commercial television, though really there have been so few stamps celebrating TV at all that it’s hard to make any kind of conclusion from that. In recent years only two seminal programmes have been given their own set of stamps – The Sky at Night in 2007 and Doctor Who in 2013.

'Great British Film' stamps, 2014.

‘Great British Film’ stamps, 2014.

In the 20th century, the moving image industries were much closer aligned with the General Post Office and telecommunications. The GPO had a film unit in the 1930s that produced a number of public information films, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the GPO’s films made it onto stamps, including the famous ‘Night Mail’ featuring WH Auden’s poem and the music of Benjamin Britten, as well as two of the GPO’s more avant garde animations, Len Lye’s ‘A Colour Box’ and Norman Maclaren’s ‘Love on the Wing’. The same set includes some better remembered features by celebrated British auteurs such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

'Posters for Carry On and Hammer Horror Films' stamps, 2008.

‘Posters for Carry On and Hammer Horror Films’ stamps, 2008.

Before last year’s set, very few films had been immortalised in stamp form. One exception is a 2008 stamp set: a peculiar mash-up celebrating Hammer Horror and Carry On! Otherwise, British cinema has not received much attention at all from Royal Mail, though perhaps this will change.

L-R, T-B: 'Millenium Series: The Entertainers' Tale' stamp, 1999; 'British Film Year' stamp, 1985; 'Great Britons' stamp, 2013; 'Remarkable Lives' stamp, 2014.

L-R, T-B: ‘Millenium Series: The Entertainers’ Tale’ stamp, 1999; ‘British Film Year’ stamp, 1985; ‘Great Britons’ stamp, 2013; ‘Remarkable Lives’ stamp, 2014.

Programmes and inventions are all routinely featured in stamps, but the most common theme of special stamps is the generic ‘Great Briton’ stamp set, which comes around every few years featuring headshots of random personalities, celebrities and otherwise notable figures from British history. Charlie Chaplin and Vivien Leigh have featured in at least two such sets apiece. Hitchcock, Peter Sellars, Richard Dimbleby, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness and Roy Plomley have also been singled out for a stamp at one point or another.

So what conclusions can I draw from my rigorous browsing? Well, I was not surprised to find that the Royal Mail looks to individual moments, people and images, as single moments and ideas are all that can be communicated in a single stamp. However, I was surprised at how piecemeal the stamps are – I assumed I could trace the collective memory of British moving image through stamps, but special stamps are so few and far between that the selection of what goes on a stamp seems somewhat arbitrary. Yet there is always a rationale – an anniversary or some other point of significance that prompts even the most strange special stamp. However, that rationale isn’t always to do with lofty ideals of cultural or educational value: after all, the Royal Mail has celebrated cult film and television just as readily as serious drama or documentary. And Britons really like puppets.

*sort of

Watch This: ‘Digitising the BBC archive’

Watch This

‘Watch This’ is an occasional column showcasing clips and shorts accessible online, featuring both digitised archival moving images and movies that touch on issues to do with film archiving, history and heritage.

*Contains flashing images!*

A few years ago, I went on a guided tour of the good ship Perivale (i.e. the BBC Archive Centre) as part of my archive training and enjoyed it immensely. I even got to hear playback of a wax cylinder! Here’s a neat wee video that explains the basic workflow of digitising tens of thousands of D-3 tapes from the 1990s, including quality control and storage on LTO. I’m no preservationist (much as I’d like to be) and I’m certainly not a digitisation or data expert, so I appreciate the effort to communicate the complex issues and processes involved. Plus you get some nice shots of rolling stacks and BBC Television Centre – sigh.

Flippin’ heck, Tucker!

Kine Weekly: continuity of film and digital, Nolan and 70mm, TV shows of the midcentury etc.


I’ve let this column mothball for a bit, because I’ve been using Pinboard as well as social media to share links. However, I’ve found that setting aside the time to compile a regular links column prompts me to actually read and absorb the things that I share online. So, I’ve decided to start it up again.

So, here we go, here’s a big ol’ bumper list of things I’ve been reading related to moving image history, heritage and archiving.

Bay Area Coalition (BAVC) > ‘BAVC Releases Version 0.5 Of QCTools‘ >> FAO. archivists working with born-digital or digitised video.

Flavorwire > ‘”The Simpsons,” “The Wire,” and Why You Should Care About Cropped TV Shows‘ >> The tendency to stretch or crop a moving image is an obnoxious habit or current distributors and exhibitors.

AMIA Education Committee > ‘Welcome to the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) Education Committee‘ >> A new resource for students and trainee moving image archivists.

Silent London > ‘Cocktails and canapés with the stars of the silent screen‘ >> One of my supervisors, Nathalie Morris, has managed to fuse the two passions in her life – film history and cocktails – because she’s cool like that.

British Library Sound and Vision Blog > ‘Listening to the radio‘ >> Really hoping to make The Dark Tower next month.

Transdiffusion > ‘Schedules‘ >> I’ve been enjoying Transdiffusion’s ‘Tonight’s TV…’ column, which details and comments on old TV listings. For example: ‘Tonight’s Southern TV… in 1968’.

Transdiffusion > ‘Pride of a Peacock’ >> More midcentury TV goodness, happy birthday once again to BBC 2!

NPR Monkey See > ‘Gilligan’s Island At 50: A Goofy Show From A Time Of TV Innocence’ >> Happy birthday to Gilligan’s Island, a show I really ought to watch.

cinema scope > ‘Quest for Happiness: A Conversation with Peter von Bagh’ >> I was sad to hear of the death of Peter von Bagh, not long after I returned from Il Cinema Ritrovato, the festival of rediscovered and restored cinema that von Bagh was Artistic Director of.

Kickstarter > ‘LONDON SYMPHONY‘ >> Just two weeks left and nearly £3000 to go, so please spare what you can to get this new City Symphony for London in production.

Observations on film art > ‘An auteur, three archives, and the archivist as auteur‘ >> David Bordwell recommends some books; 75000 Films is now on my bedstand.

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more) > ‘How Buster Keaton Filmed The General’ >> A fun resource for all the historical location scouts out there.

George Eastman House > ‘George Eastman House receives digital laboratory from Eastman Kodak Company’ >> Good news as Eastman House expands its digital preservation capability, also meaning that its training of future film archivists will also expand and diversify.

Hollywood Reporter > ‘How Christopher Nolan’s Crusade to Save Film Is Working’ >> Sadly I think that the BFI IMAX in London will soon be no longer equipped to show its old proprietary 70mm format, so we Brits may be forced to see Interstellar in some other format.

Yahoo! Movies > ‘What’s Behind the Struggle to Save Film Stock?’ >> More on the auteurs who support celluloid.

Hollywood Theatre > ’The Hollywood Theatre is Going 70mm!’ >> Lovely.

Kickstarter > ‘100 More Years of Analog Film by FILM Ferrania’ >> If you like reversal film, and use it in your still photography or small gauge filmmaking, then you may want to consider donating to this kickstarter.

Extension 765 > ‘Raiders’ >> Fascinating experiment that takes away the sound and colour of the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark to enable analysis of its ‘staging’.

The National Archives > ‘Building the future and preserving the past’ >> Linked because I think ‘continuity’ is an important part of archival access technologies and preservation practices that has yet to be fully unpacked.

American Archive of Public Broadcasting > ‘Opening Data Is Not Like Opening a Door’ >> Another perspective on the tricky task of wrangling archival records and metadata with a view to access.

The Onion > ‘Community Loses Interest 3 Days After Rallying To Save Local Theater’ >> Made me giggle.

The Guardian > ‘End of an era as BBC hands over Television Centre to developers’ >> Prompting the saddest photo ever, taken by Elliot Felton for The Evening Standard.

The Guardian > ‘”Holy grail” of Sherlock Holmes films discovered at Cinémathèque Française’ >> Ending on a high note with a lovely find.


Scalarama and the Dearth of Repertory Cinema

So I blinked and missed most of September. The acceleration of time alarms me (because I have a PhD to finish), but it also saddens me because I miss so many wonderful things happening on my doorstep. Things like the Scalarama month of cult cinema screenings.

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

Scalarama is a UK-wide event, though it has a few hubs in the usual places: London, Bristol, Manchester and – well, what d’ya know? – Nottingham! In collaboration with Cinema Diabolique, a community cinema collective who specialise in cult, Scalarama has had no fewer than 35 events in Notts. Some of Scalarama’s ‘core programme’ has been screened in the Broadway Cinema, but most events have been in the small community cinema space Screen 22.

(There are some events left thus coming weekend, click here for a pdf of the complete nationwide programme.)

Now, truth be told, Cinema Diabolique’s preference for ‘cinema’s varied and fascinating wasteland’ of B-movies and the like isn’t really my bag. I enjoy that kind of thing when I see it, but only see it from time to time and that suits me just fine. Equally, I am ambivalent about the current trend for ‘immersive’ cinema events such as the kind that Scalarama and others promote – for me, the film is always The Thing, but I must admit I do enjoy theatrics and gimmicks (and I have managed my fair share of film events), so I will happily singalong and sniff-along as suits the screening. Moreover, I am very supportive of the efforts of indie community cinema groups keeping the spirit of repertory cinema alive.


It is increasingly rare to find a cinema in the UK with a truly repertory programme, like that of the old Scala in Kings Cross that inspired Scalarama (the venue survives but the cinema does not). In fact, the programming of cinema nowadays, including art house and independent cinemas, is usually done by one a handful of centralised companies operating under contract. The Broadway is one of the few art house cinemas left with its own team of in-house programmers. The realities of cinema economics also means that even if a cinema is fully in charge of its own programme, it can’t afford too many repertory screenings. One-off or limited screenings of older or more obscure films usually entail more expenditure (screening rights, overheads) and less revenue (ticket sales, merchandise). So now the job of publicly screening films curated from the wealth of cinema history has been left to the devotees and cinephiles who run community screenings. These groups are assisted by organisations like Cinema For All, but really they need audiences to thrive.

Therefore, I apologise for not taking advantage of the Scalarama/Cinema Diabolique month of film screenings in Nottingham. As recompense, I have now booked two tickets to see The Visitor tomorrow. I’m told that I am in for a treat.

Why I’ll Miss ‘Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide’

Recently, the longstanding film critic Leonard Maltin announced that this year’s edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide will be the last. Maltin himself is not retiring from film guidance and criticism altogether; he’s very much an active and valued historian and critic. The startlingly similar compendium, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, will still be available for the film guide faithful.


I will miss Maltin’s coffee table filmopaedia – though I, personally, have never bought it. I have never purchased Halliwell’s Film Guide, either, or subscribed to the Sight & Sound archive (though, as luck would have it, I am in receipt of a physical collection of old editions of the Monthly Film Bulletin). Like most modern cinephiles, when looking for production credits, technical specifications or other filmographic information, I refer to the IMDb. If I want to know the critical consensus of a particular film, I refer to online aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. I fully acknowledge my hypocriticticism.

However, there are several reasons to mourn the passing of yet another printed filmographic resource. I say mourn because the loss of Maltin’s guide is one in a sequence of losses. For example, last year Sight & Sound announced that it would no longer be committing itself to publishing the full credits for every film on release in Britain, a task it had inherited when it merged with the Monthly Film Bulletin in the early 1990s, because in the age of IMDb, recording filmographic information isn’t really a viable use of resources.

There have been a lot of changes in film criticism in the past ten to fifteen years. New media has usurped print and broadcast media as the go-to place to read or hear film reviews. Blogs, podcasts, vlogcasts and aggregators have diversified the field of criticism, which used to be the province of professional staff critics working for newspapers, journals, television and radio. Even the few staff critics who remain now use the internet to stay relevant: Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review is more often consumed as a podcast than as a radio broadcast;  Roger Ebert’s online presence keeps him posthumously relevant;  even Leonard Maltin himself has achieved cult status through the ‘Leonard Maltin Game’, created by critic Doug Benson for his Doug Loves Movies podcast. There is also now a new generation of critics, who have built on their indie blogs or youtube channels and their direct rapport with their audience, and are often funded through subscriptions, donations, sponsorship and advertising revenue, rather than contracted.

I don’t intend to suggest a hierarchy by pointing out the two spheres of criticism, suffice to say that Leonard Maltin and his contemporaries performed a service that the newer online-born resources don’t. They produced historical records of moving images, entrenched in print, preserved in their own socio-cultural historical contexts.

Like the newspapers of record, film journals and guides that list comprehensive information and opinions about many films function as references for film scholars, journalists and fans. Such publications are accurate, authoritative and reliable. When something is incorrect, an amendment can be published in the next edition. If an opinion is revised, you can cross reference the revised edition with the original and gain an insight into the shifting values of film appreciation.

Of course, online resources are authoritative too, in their own way. Crowdsourcing or mining large repositories of information (or ‘interoperable metadata’) are both methods to quickly populate a film resource with useful info. That information can be browsed and searched quickly, in contrast to the slow process of sifting through indexes to multi-volumed publications. Moreover, that information has the capacity to grow and change at a rate faster than can be achieved by small, discrete numbers of individuals.

However, these resources are not permanent and are thus less reliable. They are also only retroactively verified and thus less accurate. For all the thousands of cinephiles volunteering information, there are often startling gaps in knowledge, particularly when it comes to foreign language, independent and older/forgotten/lost moving images. Also, when these resources are revised or amended, it can be hard to access earlier editions. If you can get to an earlier version of a record or a review it is often stripped of its original formatting and/or utterly incomprehensible – I mean, have you tried reading the ‘revision history’ tab on a Wikipedia entry?

Maltin’s guide was originally intended for local television viewers as a guide to the films on their TVs. Over time it became more than that: it became one critic’s curated canon of cinema. And I don’t mean ‘curated’ in the received, online-jargon, urban dictionary sense of the word; I mean that Leonard Maltin has spent his adult life exhaustively watching, researching and evaluating cinema. Thanks to his Guide, that work has been preserved – a testament to his life’s occupation.


‘Mare Nostrum’ at the Cinema Museum, 3 September 2014

Last week, I dug out all of £3 to see some rediscovered and restored silent cinema. I had been to several screenings at the Cinema Museum before – the museum is a perennial source of filmic delights – but this was my first time at a Kennington Bioscope event. The auditorium was impressively full and not just the usual retired crowd that populate these screenings – I spied entire families, film historians and archivists, and more than one fellow PhD student. The audience for silent film screenings (and film projection in general) is ageing, but I am optimistic that there will always be enough new viewers to sustain it as a niche interest at least.


The evening was led by Kevin Brownlow, who introduced Rex Ingram’s lesser seen feature Mare Nostrum (1926), screened in beautiful 35mm, wholly restored after it was rediscovered in 1990s save for one elusive sequence which is still missing. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, and stars Antonio Moreno as Ulysses Ferragut, a Spanish sailor who is drawn into the war and away from his family by a seductive Austrian spy, Freya Talberg (Alice Terry). Apparently the missing scene depicts the lovers in a aquarium, watching some sort of symbolic fight between two octopuses. As Brownlow pointed out, the missing sequence sounds not unlike the similarly symbolic scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (as an aside: the gorgeous restoration of The Lady… is on general release now, go go go!). I will admit that any time the drama lulled I wondered where the ‘octopus love scene’ would have been. Because, I mean, octopus love scene.

Image via

Image via

For what it’s worth, I was not entirely sold on the plot. Moreno’s hero is so weak willed and Terry’s femme fatale so duplicitous that I could not bring myself to care about the fate of their love (maybe the octopuses would have changed my mind). This is a shame, because the setup of the drama is immediately enthralling… Ulysses’s father tells him the tale of Amphitrite, the Greek goddess who takes care of fallen sailors. When the fully grown Ulysses meets Freya, who looks the spit of a painting he has of the goddess, he is drawn back to the seafaring world that he promised his wife he had left behind.

The Mediterranean is the other character in the film, and is altogether more captivating than either of the two protagonists. The film is a mix of lavish outdoor shots of Barcelona, Pompeii and Naples, and closeted studio sets representing the vessels at sea. Add beautiful tinting and some trick shots and you have a film that is as visually beguiling as any of the period. Ingram produced a staggering amount of footage on the shoot, and it is worth seeking the film out just to see the extravagance and majesty; the chase in the streets of Marseilles is worth the price of entry alone. Ingram is considered to be an early auteur – as a contemporary of Erich von Stroheim and an inspiration to Michael Powell (who worked as a grip on Mare Nostrum), he was certainly forceful and influential.


Brownlow chose two shorts to accompany the main feature: a 16mm copy of American pacificist propaganda film Civilisation (Thomas Ince, 1916) and an unrestored extract from Behind the Door (also Thomas Ince, produced in 1919 but not released until 1925) screened from a DVD. When Civilisation was released to in Britain it was renamed Civilisation: What Every Briton is Fighting For, because pacifism was not exactly a selling point in countries fighting in WWI. The film was another Alice Terry vehicle, from before her marriage to Ingram, and boasts some really lovely tints (I particularly liked the pale pistachio colour, I might paint my bathroom something similar) and one of the first instances of illustrated intertitles. The extract of Behind the Door was in far worse knick, though even the standard definition DVD bore the promise of fantastic action sequences, and I was glad to hear that the whole film has now been found.

Archive Montage in ‘From Scotland with Love’, 28 September 2014

Last week, we went to see From Scotland with Love, followed by a Q&A with director Virginia Heath and musician King Creosote (i.e. Kenny Anderson) at the Broadway in Nottingham.


The film was commissioned by Creative Scotland and the BBC as part of the celebrations surrounding the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and was also televised in June. Apart from the live Q&A (which always adds value to a repertory screening), we had several reasons for making time to see it:

  • I love archive film, he loves music; our interests happen to intersect at archival montages set to fey indie folk soundtracks. To be honest, we had intended to see Stuart Murdoch’s Belle & Sebastian inspired musical, but it’s not on in Nottingham.
  • I grew up in Edinburgh. I don’t claim to be Scottish (we moved to London when I was ten), but given the looming independence vote I approached this film with an appropriate mix of curiosity and nostalgia.
  • Well, my PhD touches on issues to do with moving image representations of regions…

The film is one of a swathe of publicly funded archive montage films that have been released in recent years, celebrating regional and/or national cultures in tandem with major cultural celebrations. Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, released in 2008 to coincide with Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, is one of the more prominent examples, though Heath cited Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond as an inspiration. Woolcock also collaborated with an indie music outfit – British Sea Power – when making her ode to the British coast, and the soundtracks lend both it and From Scotland with Love a meditative, melodic quality as well as coherency across the diverse range of images.

Heath used footage from amateur, commercial, public information and even fiction films – from archives and private collections – to create her documentary. She admitted that her preference was for film of all types and gauges, eschewing video and digital video formats. Restricting herself to film allowed Heath to focus on images primarily from the early and mid twentieth century, covering the march of modernity, the growth of consumer culture and tourism, industry, manufacturing and trade unionism, education and entertainment. Unlike Terence Davies, Heath’s curatorial hand is subtle, spotlighting the footage and King Creosote’s soundtrack rather than her own directorial authorship. Heath herself grew up in the Scottish diaspora in New Zealand, so maybe that is why her film has the aura of respect, delicacy and deference of a loving outsider. Or maybe I’m simply projecting my own outside, not-really-Scottish-at-all-anymore experience.

I find that with all of these archival montages, there is a tension between the specificity of life in a certain place and time and the universality of those experiences. Nearly all of these films cover similar material: the ‘old days’ of industry and local pastimes contrasted with the expansion of consumer goods and holidays. The more time I spend in regional archives, the more I come to realise that every seaside town had beauty contests in the Summer – even in the chilly towns of Scotland. I don’t deny the power of memory or the resonance of those images for the people from those places; as a person who lived a decade in Scotland’s capital, I can attest that London was an alien planet when I first arrived, so I think there is definitely something about a person’s immediate locality that shapes them and their perspective. However, everyone is shaped in a similar way – the scenery is different but the experience is the same. Like all pieces of Scottish patriotism (not least the Commonwealth Games themselves), From Scotland with Love has been received as inherently propagandist – a boon for the Yes campaign – but I’m not so sure; I think the film portrays a shared past that is not necessarily unique to the nation it emerged from.

Which brings me to the second tension that I find in these montage films – that between retrospection and introspection. The audience of From Scotland with Love are not all Scottish, and those who are certainly did not live through all the events that have been filmed for posterity. But From Scotland with Love does not comment on or explain these images of the past for the benefit of the uninitiated – they have been quite radically de-contextualised, muted, re-edited, served up with a fresh soundtrack that is – for all its folk inspirations and references – brand new. It is its own thing for the audience to experience and identify with anew. I sometimes wish that cultural institutions were brave enough to exhibit their archives on big screens to international audiences exactly as they are, rather than forever repackaging pretty fragments. The film looks back on the past but invites the audience to look forward.

In pointing out those tensions, however, I do not intend to criticise the finished feature, which is mesmerising and moving. The moments of Scottish specificity that punctuate the film are particularly arresting: the Irn Bru glowing in the saturated hues of reversal film, the children singing ‘Bluebells, Cockleshells’, the newly poignant images from the Glasgow School of Art. Even though none of the footage comes from the 1990s Scotland that I lived in, I could still identify with that place and see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

(The soundtrack is marvellous, by the way.)

Southern Television Project Updates

Click on the image to view the poster.

Click on the image to view the poster.

Earlier this summer, I presented a poster at an event heralding the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, which is funding and supporting PhD students in all fields of the Arts and Humanities in six universities across Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham. The initiative was keen to have perspectives from students who work with industry partners, so I chose to design my poster around the methodological implications of archiving and researching at the same time. It’s also a neat visual illustration of the Southern Television collection itself, and the work I do in my PhD.

I also recently contributed a blog to the Industrial Approaches to Media (IAM) training initiative website. This initiative is led by my peers in the  Culture, Film and Media department of the University of Nottingham, and I am impressed with the learning resource they’ve created, and I am so happy I could contribute in some small way.

IAM offers perspectives from academics and media professionals to help guide students and researchers wanting to engage with the media industries. It covers best practice for interviewing media professionals,  arguments for more historical research, and opinions about the benefits of industry research.

I (naturally) take a historical approach and blog about archiving the media industries. Because the Southern Television collection is a broad set of internal company documents, it took me some time to figure out how to best approach it as an archive of industry or business, rather than a disparate set of documents relating to a bunch of television programmes.

While the third year of PhD research has proven challenging and tough, I have been enjoying these moments when I’ve been able to step back and consider my role as an archivist and as a researcher.

Kine Weekly: Il Cinema Ritrovato and more rare and restored film news


I’m off to Bologna to attend the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. I’ll probably produce some sort of write-up when I return, in the meantime you can keep up with my adventures on Twitter, Tumblr and on Letterboxd.

In the meantime, here are just a few links from the world of moving image history, heritage and archiving.

Silent-ology > ‘Silent-ology Interviews Susan Buhrman About New “The General” Finds’ >> Interview with the president of the International Buster Keaton Society about the newly found archive of materials related to The General.

National Archives Media Matters > ‘Film Preservation 101: This 80 Year Old Film Printer Still Contributes to Preservation’ >> Happy 80th to the US National Archives. ‘Believe it or not, we not only still have that printer, we occasionally use it!’

The Atlantic > ‘The Forgotten Stars of Silent Film’ >> Next month the Library of Congress will host film historians, fans and informed individuals to view films and fragments from a bunch of archives and contribute any knowledge they have about them

Reap Mediazine > ‘Is Film Really Dead?An Interview With Steve Cossman’ >> I met Tara (the interviewer) a couple of years ago at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, and I’m happy to read about the fascinating MONO NO AWARE group.

MOI Digital > A new online resource to do with the early years of the Ministry of Information, including material related to its Film Unit.

Library of Congress > ‘Recommended Format Specifications from the Library of Congress: An Interview with Ted Westervelt” >> For all the format fans out there!

Lastly, here’s AMIA Film Advocacy Task Force’s first in a series of upcoming video interviews -‘Five Minutes with Leonard Maltin’ – in which  the legendary film critic and historian shares his thoughts.

Of Ethics and Monsters: The Power and Resonance of Historical Footage

Beware: spoilers for Godzilla (2014) and Godjira (1954) lie within.

Earlier this month, I went to see Godzilla at my local IMAX screen (or lie-max, if you prefer). To be honest, I was not a fan, but I did enjoy elements of the film, not least the opening title sequence.

In it, the cast and crew credits mimic the text from classified documents (with parts being blacked/whited out), and are superimposed on pretend ‘historical’ stills and images, featuring Godzilla – or evidence of a large lizard, at least. It is a neat visual rhetorical trick that is often used in movies where fictional events are given resonance by a fictional history that pulls on recognisable signs of actual history. As the 20th Century saw the growth in recorded history, through the development of photography, film, recorded sound and radio and television broadcasting, those technologies are often used as visual cues to show how the fictional world in question fits into the timeframe of the real world.

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery,

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery.

The sequence ends with a mushroom cloud – apparently from the Castle Bravo bomb. It later becomes apparent that in the world of the film, the 1954 bomb was not detonated to test the nuclear weapon, but to get rid of a monster. Later, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) explains to Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that Godzilla is a creature who feeds off radiation, and therefore the development of nuclear weapons  in the 20th Century had woken the ancient lizard. Ford is shown more ‘archival’ footage of more mushroom clouds (I don’t know if the movie uses actual recordings or not).

Now, it is not surprising that in this film Godzilla is related to the development of nuclear weapons. The original Godzilla, famously, functioned as a way of talking about the effects and resonance of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.

I don’t have an opinion about whether the use of imagery of mushrooms clouds is appropriate or not. I don’t think its insignificant that Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is a Hollywood funded-and-produced reboot, and therefore the film does not have anywhere near the resonance of the original. On the whole, using nonfiction recordings (or allusions to nonfictional events) in fictional worlds is OK. In fact, the atomic bombings of World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and everything in between have given rise to some of the most powerful speculative, science-fiction and alternate history narratives. However, when fiction engages with these signs of historical events, they are engaging with real trauma, captured in the moment it happened.

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

In many ways film and audio recordings have made it easier for us to engage with the past. Yet, I think the fact that these are recordings – facsimiles of what happened – can serve to make them seem mere illustrations of the past. The images and sounds become distanced from their contexts, and their power diminishes. That is why many archivists are keen to preserve not just historical footage, but the context of that footage. There is a fine line between fiction that explores real events using factual recordings, and fiction that is appropriating the past and using it to up the dramatic (or even comedic) stakes, and context and intent are key to deciding if and when that line has been crossed.