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.’
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.
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.