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To Be Continued

Former BBC Monitoring Service employee’s journals found and adapted into a new web series.

“I don’t know what the future may bring, but I think there are fairly good prospects in the BBC. After two years there, I have a good chance of getting on the established staff and thus qualifying for a pension. So, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am in a good steady job at last.” Dick Perceval, 12th June 1950.

My name is Becky Edmunds and I am an artist filmmaker.

22 years ago, in Brighton, I found a box of journals in a pile of rubbish by the side of the road. Written by a man called Dick Perceval, they cover the 50 years from 1925 – 1975. They are an extraordinary record of the life of an ‘ordinary’ man.

From 1950 to 1964, Dick worked as a report writer for the BBC Monitoring Service. Previously, he had worked as a journalist, until the outbreak of World War Two interrupted his career. After volunteering to join the Royal Artillery as a Gunner and spending six months on anti-aircraft guns at Enfield Lock, Dick was suddenly summoned to the War Office to be interviewed for a job. He had no idea what the job was, or why they had chosen him, but as result of the interview he was recruited to work at Bletchley Park, as part of the team in Hut 3, where Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence.

On the conclusion of the war, Dick went to Hamburg, working in political intelligence as part of the Allied Control Commission, before returning to the UK to take up a job with the BBC Monitoring Service.

On the 12th June 1950, he writes,

“I handed in an application to the BBC in answer to an advertisement of theirs for “Report Writers” in their monitoring service at Caversham. Qualifications were a knowledge of foreign affairs and journalistic experience –  salary, rising by annual increments of £45, up to £995 a year.”

Dick spoke fluent German, having spent some of his childhood in Germany. In 1925, he attended the University of Berlin on a one year foundation course, and his connections to Germany were further solidified through his marriage to Sorina Erbes – a German woman, 23 years his senior, and a fabulously flamboyant character. More of her later…

Dick started at the Monitoring Service in the Russian section and not, as he expected, in the German section. His journal gives a sense of the working environment at Caversham.

“Individually, the other six people in my section are all nice, but there is a marked tendency on the part of everybody there to keep to himself and I rather miss the spirit of camaraderie that I experienced throughout the war, and also in the Hamburg intelligence office. I have not therefore found any close friends at Caversham and, indeed, during the nine months I have been there, I have only met one of the 300 odd people working there outside the office socially, and that was a young man whom I invited round for a drink during the five weeks that we lived in a flat near Caversham. My work is entirely writing, most of which I do alone in a typing cubicle, and that suits me quite well.”

Dick loved writing. As a young man he had dreams of being a great author. Or Prime Minister. He couldn’t quite decide which. He came from a very privileged background and as a young man believed himself to be a genius. He was also a Romanticist, and his attempts at writing novels, which he documents in his journals, resulted in love stories with tragic and melodramatic plot lines, based on the people he surrounded himself with. Which brings me back to Sorina.

Dick met Sorina in 1931, when he was 22 years old, and was captivated by her. She was 44, married with three sons aged 12, 16 and 19. Following her divorce, her remarriage and a second divorce, Dick and Sorina were married in 1936, when he was 26. It was the biggest mistake of his life. It was a desperately unhappy marriage, his family cut him out of any inheritance and he didn’t have any children – a fact that caused him great sadness later.

Sorina died in 1960, of a heart attack and in his arms. After a couple of journal entries in which he reflects movingly about her death and on their life together, Dick stops writing until 1964.

“It is with great hesitation that I start writing a journal again, after an interval of about three years, I believe. During that period, I have had little time, and less inclination, to do this, although much that is of great importance to me has happened during these three years.

On 5 September 1961, I married again. I married Sheila, whom I had known for some years previously at the BBC, where she also worked before our marriage. It has been a most happy marriage and a great blessing in my life.” July 25th 1964

With the support of Sheila, Dick took early retirement from the BBC in 1964. He goes on –

“My work at the BBC continued much as before, the last few years being spent in the Far Eastern section of the Monitoring Service, which I much preferred to the Russian and East European sections I had previously worked in, partly because my own past experience in the Far East made it much more interesting to me, and partly because the people I worked with were more congenial to me. It was more interesting, but still not very interesting. The truth is that my heart was never really in my work at the BBC, most unfortunately. Whether this was my fault or not it is difficult to know. Except for one, comparatively brief period there, when I worked in the East European section, I was reasonably happy or at least as much so as one can expect to be when one’s heart is not in one’s work. But this is the fate of the vast majority and I was one of them.”

He reflects on whether he achieved ‘success’. He says that he started with the BBC on £750 per year and this rose to over £2000 by the time he left, but the increase was due to automatic processes, rather than through promotion, so he considered that his career was neither success nor failure.

“Neither a failure nor a success, alas, just about sums up the whole of my career to date, in my opinion, and that is the cause of the disappointment in my life that I feel. The main cause – but if I feel disappointed, this does not mean that I feel embittered. Not at all. I have long asked myself what true success in life may be, and how it can be judged. It is a question that fascinates me. I realised long ago that success cannot be measured merely by what a man earns, nor necessarily by what rank, position or grade he may rise to.”

In 2018, I visited Caversham to look at Dick Perceval’s staff file, which had been kept in the archives. The first document in the file is from 1938, 10 years before he started working there. It is a letter to the editor of the BBC magazine The Listener, to enquire if there were vacancies. The final document is his leaving note. Under the title Assessment of Career (including efficiency, conduct and any special aptitudes), there is a note that reads,

“Mr Perceval opted for Voluntary Early Retirement after nearly 16 years of service as Report Writer, Monitoring Service. On many occasions he acted temporarily as Senior Report Writer.

His period of service shows he was always conscientious and hardworking.” It is not an effusive report!

I have been working with sound designer Scott Smith and performer Gerard Bell to adapt entries from Dick’s journals into a series of short films that are available, for free, as a web series called To Be Continued. Dick Perceval’s story is brought to life through the re-appropriation of archive footage. A cast of hundreds is drawn from old Hollywood films, public information broadcasts, cine club creations and home movies.

Dick Perceval’s journals are fascinating. He writes about the life events that we all experience –  falling in love, heartbreak, loss, disappointment, acceptance and of world events – war, elections, times of uncertainty, even a European Referendum. Dick’s journals shine a unique light onto the 20th century.

To catch up with the series so far (ideal for a lockdown) visit https://www.tobecontinued.online/series-episodes

Subscribe to the series for free to receive links to further episodes delivered to your email address, on the same date that Dick wrote the journal entry. The series, which began on January 1st will continue till December 31st 2020.

Becky Edmunds

April 2020

War from the inside: Oral histories from the BBC

What was it like to work for the BBC during the Second World War and did it play a special role in shaping the public’s experience of war? These are two of the issues addressed during our project’s third public event held on Saturday 19 October 2019 at The Keep in Brighton.

David Hendy introduces the Connected Histories project

David Hendy introduced the latest addition to our 100 Voices that Made the BBC website https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/100-voices/ww2 . David highlighted how the BBC’s oral history archives contain interviews with staff regarding their wartime experience. Among the recordings are Mary Lewis from the Duplicating Section who spoke of the “social revolution” that took place at the BBC, and Frank Gillard who was recruited as the War Correspondent.

I was particularly interested to hear about how large numbers of BBC staff were evacuated out of London during the war to Bristol, Bedford, Bangor, and Weston-Super-Mare. However, the BBC continued to operate from Broadcasting House and we learnt how the staff slept on the floor of the Concert Hall whilst facing the very real threat of being hit by German air bombers. Indeed, Broadcasting House was hit in October 1940 resulting in several deaths and many injuries.

Another extremely rich source of archival information was introduced by Fiona Courage, the curator of the Mass Observation Archive, which is held at The Keep. Among the 16 documents from the Mass Observation Archive available on the website are various responses from ordinary listeners to war news, A particularly striking one is the entry made in Adelaide Poole’s diary which noted that at times she could not bear to listen, wondering “what else the BBC will broadcast in order to give a thrill to those who sit at ease in far-off places?”

Fiona Courage talks about the Mass Observation Archive

In the afternoon we split into three groups for our Reminiscence session where the participants were invited to share their wartime memories or their experience of listening to the BBC in more recent conflicts. Among the contributions was John who was evacuated to Bournemouth during the war and remembers the radio as absolutely crucial to his family and to him as a child – especially the news at nine O’clock and Children’s Hour.

Two of our contributors told us about the disappearance of tanks and Canadian soldiers from Brighton overnight and how the BBC later in the day brought news of the D-Day landing. The grandfather of one of our group presented the news and she retold how he explained to her that if he was reporting on controversial material an armed guard would stand next to him as he spoke into the microphone to make sure that he did not reveal anything sensitive – which he really resented. A discussion was held on the current BBC news output and whether viewers are “cosseted” from images of dead bodies and whether this poses a threat to the credibility of the BBC.

This discussion set the scene perfectly for the plenary session with our guest speaker Allan Little. Allan has been a BBC correspondent since 1985 and reported from Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. He gave a fascinating insight into the relative independence of BBC correspondents by giving details of his report on the bombing in 1991 of the Amiriyah air raid shelter where over three hundred people were sleeping. Despite facing criticism in Britain of the report being an instrument of propaganda, Allan stuck by his story as it was what he and Jeremy Bowen had witnessed. However, BBC Correspondents face criticism from all sides and Allan explained how during his time reporting on the breakup of Yugoslavia (1991 to 1995) he faced death threats for being perceived as a Western spy.

I found that the mixing of the memories of BBC staff and listeners created a powerful synthesis that highlighted the nuances of the history of the BBC. I very much look forward to the next event which will be held in 2020 on the topic of the Cold War.

John Hughes

Opening-up the oral history of the BBC during World War Two

© BBC

We’ve recently launched the sixth of our 100 Voices that Made the BBC websites, featuring some enticing highlights from the Corporation’s oral history archives. It’s all about The BBC and World War Two and it went live on 3 September 2019, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the announcement that Britain was at war with Hitler’s Germany.

It contains some pretty extraordinary recordings – and some pretty extraordinary written documents. There are sixteen separate web-pages, each one devoted to a theme. Open them up, and you’ll access 81 extracts from the BBC’s oral history recordings – giving accounts from 31 different individuals, 27 clips from the BBC’s programme archives, 21 key wartime documents from the BBC’s Written Archive Centre, and 16 documents from the Mass Observation Archive. The hope is that, collectively, they offer a kaleidoscopic series of snapshots of a large and complex broadcasting institution at work – not just the traditional view from the ‘mountaintop’.

Some of the stories the website tells – the announcement of war, or behind-the-scenes accounts of programmes like ITMA and Music While You Work and War Report – are broadly familiar. But these new accounts also throw up some unexpected details which have not previously made their way into the history books. There is for instance Alec Sutherland’s account of the ‘shadowing of Big Ben’. It involved producers on standby in the studios, ready to replace the live sound of Big Ben striking 9pm with a recording of its chimes if the Luftwaffe were flying over Westminster at the very moment it was due to be broadcast. Alec Sutherland – one of the stars of this collection: he was a producer in the BBC’s Recorded Programmes department and hitherto overlooked in published accounts – also recalls the mistakes that could be made when sending secret codes over the airwaves to the Resistance groups in occupied Europe. From Frank Gillard and Robin Duff and Malcolm Frost we hear of the rows with supposedly close Allies over the reporting of battles. From Elizabeth Barker, John Greene, Norman Collins, and Clare Lawson Dick, we get to witness some of the bizarre behaviour of broadcasting icons such as General de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and J.B. Priestley.

A sentry on duty in Broadcasting House during the time of the bomb at Broadcasting House, October 1940. © BBC

I think, too, that these oral history accounts shatter a few stubborn preconceptions about the BBC’s role in the Second World War. To give just one example: on VE Day, we might expect the BBC to wallow in a mood of celebration and patriotic fervour. But we’ve dug up the running-order for the day’s broadcasts, extracts from some of the programmes, diary entries from listeners, accounts of what was happening behind-the-scenes. What they reveal is a BBC reflecting a much more nuanced, and, if anything, rather sombre mood. We hear from broadcasters who are exhausted and unsure of what comes next, civilians who cannot forget the lives lost, the people of Germany as they wait to hear the terms of their surrender. The BBC reaches 1945 with its reputation – and its impact on the world – enlarged. But after nearly six years of working under siege, grappling with Government control and a propaganda role with which it was never entirely comfortable, the different accounts of 8 May 1945 show an organisation which was also rather battered and bewildered.

A few weeks after the website was launched, we held a packed and lively public event at the Keep, here in Sussex: War from the Inside – Oral Histories from the BBC. It was a chance for me to talk publicly about the project and what we’ve found – something that forced me to stand back a little and ask myself what, if anything, the 81 interview extracts we had chosen added up to. Was there a connecting theme, something they had in common?

Listening to them again, I was struck by the sense that all those who worked for the BBC through the war – announcers like John Snagge, typists like Mary Lewis, correspondents like Godfrey Talbot, Monitors like Martin Esslin – believed they were doing ‘war work’ of genuine value. More than this, they were putting their lives at risk, their bodies on the line. This was a ‘total war’, in which the civilian population on the ‘Home Front’ faced black-outs, rationing, air-raid or fire-guard duties, and nightly bombing raids. This was the experience of the BBC’s employees, too. They had to get to and from work. They also, very often, had to leave home and be billeted many miles from their families for month son end. And, as many of our accounts in the oral history collection show, the Luftwaffe made the BBC a special target: its buildings and transmitters were bombed on several occasions, with loss of life and many injured. The minute-by-minute account we’ve been able to assemble for the first time of the two bombs which hit Broadcasting House – in October and December 1940 – bring this home with gut-wrenching effect, I think.

To work for the BBC during the war was to work in a permanent state of siege – to face genuine danger. In the sections of the website about ‘The BBC in the Blitz’ and ‘The Bombing of Broadcasting House’, and we get a vivid sense of the deeply-felt and complicated emotions this state of siege threw up: a sense of camaraderie which often cut across traditional hierarchies and gender lines; a feeling of belonging to one’s tribe – as Clare Lawson Dick so memorably described it in her account of sheltering every night along with hundreds of colleagues in the basement floors of Broadcasting House; a new desire for informality in working relations which would outlast the conflict.

So, yes, the oral history accounts of the Second World War help reinforce and embellish the BBC we know: an organisation which grew in reputation and size during the conflict, and which discovered a more popular touch. But I would argue they also reveal what we might call an epigenetic mutation in the BBC’s DNA. Between 1939 and 1945 it was an organisation which, in terms of its mood and its working practices and its ethos, had changed in subtle but profound – and irreversible – ways. This, I believe, is something we would not have got if we relied on the written archives alone.

David Hendy,

Principal Investigator,

Connected Histories of the BBC.

Project Management Systems: Our project Journey

One of my first tasks as project administrator was to identify a Project Management System for the Connected Histories team to use. As an information professional, with a background in libraries management, and a techie at heart, this is the sort of challenge I relish.

Over the years, I have selected and implemented a wide range of organisational tools for various projects, and I am very comfortable with new systems. I considered what we would want from a project management system for this particular project, and came up with a list of criteria against which to evaluate prospective tools:

  • Task Management facility which included subtasks, reminders, task delegation and notifications or reminders of deadlines
  • Communication features which allowed for face time, email, online chat
  • Secure document storage and management, which offered version control and document sharing for collaborative working.
  • Reporting tools such as graphs, Gantt charts and flexible reporting facilities, allowing for the monitoring of progress.
  • Budget management features
  • Project calendar and calendar sharing
  • CRM facilities (Customer Relationship management) for storing contact information of people connected with the project.
  • Accessibility – mobile apps; desktop app and online services

I investigated a range of different options before selecting Bitrix. There is both a free and paid version, and while it is not designed for research project administration, it is the one free tool that ticks all the boxes above. It has an impressive range of functions. It’s easy to create and assign tasks, adding deadlines and tags, documents and comments. It includes email accounts, if wanted, but works with existing email addresses. The system includes customer relationship management, budgeting tools, and a range of reports that are customizable, although this requires an understanding of database structures. There is a desktop app, allowing for live chat, and face-time calls.  Of all the tools I tried, this has the best functionality, although it is not as simple in appearance as others, contributing to its lack of success for this project.

Some of the data with which we are working in the project is confidential, and data security is paramount, particularly for the data received from the BBC. This had to be stored securely, and after a period of time, we were able to arrange a separate, secure server. This meant that there would always be elements of the project that would be housed separately, creating an additional level of complexity. 

However, it was the human factor that I did not consider sufficiently, particularly the varying levels of engagement with the digital world and technology within the team. While I loved Bitrix, the team found that having to learn a new system was cumbersome, and complicated. There is a tension in academic circles between the way administrators work, and the way academics work, and sometimes what works for an administrator is not suitable for an academic. Ultimately we decided to stop using Bitrix.

Through a process of trial and error, looking at what everyone was using, and the programmes they found accessible and easy to use, we have settled on a ‘system’ that works for us, using a variety of programmes, rather than a single umbrella tool:

  • Data storage for working documentation is on the University’s Box system, and although we regularly discuss where in particular things should be stored, it allows everyone access to all of the documentation.
  • We have a secure server for the BBC data
  • We use email, (mainly Outlook, provided by the University) and I tend to attach documents, or include links to the document in Box.
  • I send out a weekly roundup of Project information (our Friday Update) and this is extremely effective.
  • In the update, I include a list of outstanding actions. I keep these listed in my Outlook tasks so I can monitor what needs to be done.
  • I manage the budget in spreadsheets, and all of the reports from the Finance System come as spreadsheets.
  • We have a separate project email account that includes a project calendar, which is shared with the team.
  • Reporting systems are not ideal, but reports can be collated if necessary

On reflection, for similar projects in the future I would:

  • Take more time to see what is currently being used by team members, and whether it is suitable. People can be reluctant to embrace yet more systems, and sometimes the best answer is to work with something that integrates with what they are already using. 
  • Keep my own system for managing the project, probably spreadsheets, but distil these into a more engaging format for the team.

Ultimately, I think there is a gap in the market for a project management tool which is free, and suitable for research projects – providing the level of complexity needed for the administrators, and an engaging, easy to use front end for academics. Are there any developers out there who would like to collaborate on developing one?

Denice Penrose, August 2019

The BBC oral history collection as sound and data.

Most historians work in text – we imagine ourselves surrounded by books and filing cabinets full of archival scribblings.  But increasingly, we also work with other kinds of data.  For myself, the BBC Connected Histories project has challenged me to think differently about how I do research and what kinds of sources I use. In part this is because the project focuses on an ‘oral history’ collection – the BBC’s own oral history. But much more importantly, by obliging me to think about ‘sound’, it has also obliged me to think about space and place; video and image in new ways.

As information of all kinds has been transferred into a digital format something odd has happened.  What were once discreet forms of ‘data’ – an audio recording, a description on the page, an architect’s drawing; have all been turned to forms of a digital signal – allowing us to weigh a .dat against a .doc, against a .jpg, .wav or .kml.  These are all individual file types, but all made from the same binary code.

This, in turn, has challenged the project to think harder about how we work with the over 600 oral history interviews in the archive.  Each interview is represented in a variety of forms.  They exist as original tape recordings, and as human generated transcripts in hard copy.  In turn, we have versions of them as PDFs of the hard copy transcripts; and as OCRd text derived from those transcripts, and as digital copies of the audio and video recordings of the interviews, and finally as digital texts created via a speech to text engine created from the recordings.  The Connected Histories of the BBC project is working directly with four different representations of a single event – an oral history interview: an image (.pdf), an OCR’d text (.txt), a digital recording (.wav), and a speech to text version (.txt).

In the first instance, we are building the Connected Histories archive around these four data types in the expectation that comparing them will help both expose the limitations of each; and illuminate the ideological selection that these different forms imply.  The archive will be built to allow these four representations to exist in parallel – linked for search and analysis. This approach will allow us to ask what was left out of the human transcripts?  Do they hide the Umms and Ahhs of normal speech, or have errors of fact been silently corrected, or indeed libels excised? And it will allow us to interrogate the background sounds accidentally recorded in the interviews; and measure the cadence and volume of speech. Were these interviews quiet conversations, or emotionally charged encounters? And can we associate particular segments of ‘text’ with heightened tension evidenced from the recordings?  And can we measure the distance between the two.  Can we measure contempt or admiration in the tone and volume marked in audio – and can that in turn allow us to understand the textual representation differently?

This project self-consciously plays in the vast gulf between sound and text; but it also challenges historians to think harder about how information is recorded; and how our own practise of analysis and representation are effected by moving beyond text.

Tim Hitchcock

Professor of Digital History

Professor Tim Hitchcock