Blog Posts

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

What’s in an (oral history) archive?

Anna-Maria Sichani

When I initially started working for ‘Connected Histories of the BBC’ as a PostDoc Research Fellow, almost a year ago, I naively felt rather confident about my knowledge of what an archive might contain. I have previously worked with various mainly textual-based archives for my PhD research, as well as for different Digital Humanities (DH) projects I was involved with in recent years. I am familiar with the “allure of the archives” but also with the undocumented, scattered, unexpected assets, the often chaotic structure of files, folders and boxes. I am aware of – and by now, trained-in – how to treat and respect the original archival order, how to cite and use archival assets as a way to understand and narrate (often hidden) histories about the past.

But there is more that should interest us in an archive than archival assets. The historicity of the archival assets, linked to their very materiality, the historicity of the archival procedures, the documentation standards, the various archival catalogues produced throughout the years, the material aids and technologies, from paper clips to pencil marks and from handwritten paper catalogues to Excel spreadsheets; all of them are traces and agents of distinct moments in the history of the archive itself and, of course, they are of value themselves. One can experience all of these different archival qualities in the BBC Oral History Collection, and much more.

The BBC’s Oral History Archive was originally created in the early 1970s, when Frank Gillard started recording audio interviews with key ex-BBC people to mark the 50th anniversary of the BBC in 1972. This was done under the Reminiscences of the BBC banner – presumably an internal name given to distinguish it from BBC programmes. The project and the interviews continued throughout the years. From the beginning though, the BBC Oral History collection contained much more than oral history recordings, in audio and, subsequently, in film: correspondence with interviewees, production material such as transcription notes, question-sheets, consent forms, and so on.

Frank Gillard, 1945 © BBC

In addition, the Collection has never been preserved or documented as a unified archive. Audio and audiovisual files have been preserved and documented at the BBC Written Archive Centre at Perivale and written assets (including correspondence, legacy transcripts and production material) have been stored and documented at the BBC Written Archives Centre. In the Written Archives there have been several distinct collections containing material from (or related to) the Oral History of the BBC. To complicate things further, there is also the ‘North Collection’, which includes interviews with BBC staff who worked over many years in the Corporation’s ‘North Region’ based in Manchester, and which used to operate as an independent collection.

Various cataloguing standards have been applied to all these assets through the years, resulting in a variety of filenames, multiple catalogues and audits of various formats. Moreover, different levels and qualities of archival information have been used to describe these assets and their relationships within those catalogues, and, alongside the recent digitisation of the material, they are posing additional challenges in terms of data provenance and accuracy. All these preservation and documentation attempts, alongside their subjects, have their own historical right and value: they also form ‘the archive’.

Working with the BBC Oral History Archive encompasses dealing with its historical legacy in every aspect. While we are trying, through this project, for the first time to bring together a scattered multimedia archive, we are also striving to make sense of various archival assets and their layered documentation. As a result, I now have a more comprehensive understanding of what an (oral history) archive might contain in terms of content but also in terms of its different materialities of archiving and documentation.

This has influenced my work on data modelling: for the digital archive we want to create for the BBC Oral History collection, I am assessing all the archival assets alongside all their information layers in order to develop a robust, clear and flexible data model, and an information architecture that will make this archive accessible in all its complexity and glory. In future posts, I will be able to share with you more technical aspects of the work we‘ll be doing. But for now…wish us luck and stay tuned!

Anna-Maria Sichani

May 2019

Anna-Maria Sichani

Project Update

We’re entering a particularly busy time in the life of the Connected Histories of the BBC project. This month’s blog focusses on some of our upcoming events.

The BBC Studio in Delhi © BBC

Digital User Group Meeting

The Digital User Group (DUG) consists of experts in digital archiving, and meets regularly to provide support and assistance for the project. The DUG will be meeting in March and will be looking at the proposed data models, tagging and data structures for the database we are developing in order to make the BBC Oral History Archive more easily available to the public.

Project Advisory Board

The Project Advisory Board (PAB) consists of academics, project partners and industry experts. The PAB meets annually to review the progress of the project, and to provide advice where needed. The PAB will be meeting at the University of Sussex in July.

New Interviews

We’re delighted that Elisabeth Robson Elliot, the former head of the BBC’s Russian Service, has agreed to be interviewed for the project. We plan to use excerpts for the next version of the 100 Voices websites, which will focus on War. Bridget Kendall, the former Diplomatic correspondent of the BBC, and now the first female head of Peterhouse, has also agreed to be interviewed for the project. We’re excited to hear what they can tell us about their experiences working for the BBC. We have identified three other individuals who we are approaching to be interviewed this year. Previous interviewees have included Lorna Clarke; Tony Blackburn; Johnny Beerling; Annie Nightingale; Mike Phillips; Satish Jacob and Mark Tully.

100 Voices That Made the BBC websites

Alban Webb and David Hendy are reading through transcripts of the BBC oral history collection in preparation for the next ‘100 Voices’ website. Due for launch in September,  the new website will focus on what the BBC’s archives can tell us about its role in the Second World War, and the Cold War. The website will feature exclusive extracts from the BBC Oral History Archives, and give an insight into war reporting. We will also include footage from the new interviews we will be filming in the coming months.

Public Event

An important part of the project is collecting memories from members of the public. In the summer, we are planning another public event, which will showcase the new website, and offer an opportunity for the team to collect memories. Please sign up to our mailing list to receive updates, and copies of our news releases. We are also on Twitter: @ConnHistofBBC

Denice Penrose,
Project Administrator

Why oral history? The BBC and the challenge of memory

Introspective, sometimes confessional, the 650+ filmed interviews with former staff in an ongoing oral history of the BBC contrast dramatically with the broadcaster’s lustrous front face. But for anyone wanting to understand the policies, people, direction and self-image of a broadcaster so uniquely powerful and respected, they are a treasure trove.

Frank Gillard in Germany, May 1945 © BBC

Former war correspondent, later BBC executive Frank Gillard’s inspired decision in 1971 to interview retiring staff anticipated the rise of ‘corporate oral history’. Today, recordings of the memories – and voices – of employees at all levels are recognised as valuable additions to the business archive, enhancing our understanding of a company’s development and culture.

Oral history has often been seen as appropriate for community or family projects. and has distinguished itself as a method of choice for socialists, feminists, and working class historians, giving ‘history back to the people in their own words’, as Paul Thompson put it in The Voice of the Past. Rob Perks, the British Library’s oral history curator, considers that oral history’s radical origins have tended to make it ‘ideologically averse’ to business history. Yet the growth of corporate oral histories has extended the method’s boundaries, both in the business world and in big public enterprises such as the BBC. It’s obvious that businesses and big bureaucracies have their own stories to tell – from founder-entrepreneurs making good, to the politics of growth, acquisitions and mergers, to struggles for survival in a world of constant change, from internet shopping to austerity and globalisation. Yet when a business or enterprise hits its centenary, as the BBC will do in 2022, oral history can reveal the secrets of endurance, or help turn heritage into brand.

Mark Tully & Satish Jacob 2018 © Connected Histories of the BBC

The BBC is of course an extraordinary corporation, with a compelling history. Advantaged through subsidy by licence, it has always needed to balance competing demands as entertainer, educator, journalist and civil servant. Oral history can convey what it has felt like to live with these exceptional responsibilities, taking us into the world of digitisation and the transformation of public expectations and demands. The pride, pleasure, anxiety and frustration of doing all of this and more, are audible in many recordings. Listening for these, particularly where they reflect organisational dissension and change – such as Director General John Birt’s internal market reforms – helps us negotiate the risks of ‘vanity’ history when institutions interview their great and good. The Connected Histories of the BBC [CH-BBC] project is frankly exploring internal differences and minority voices, and the social contexts in which the corporation lives. This includes new oral histories, independent of the BBC’s existing collection. An interview with Mark Tully, former Bureau Chief in Delhi, for example, who resigned in protest at Birt’s changes, offers the perspective of a once powerful BBC insider.

Mike Phillips, spotted for Open Door in the 1970s as a commentator on Caribbean affairs, offers another angle, reflecting on the BBC’s struggle to adjust itself to multicultural Britishness. Phillips supports the case that there were BBC people who pushed for greater equality in content, but also testifies to the deeply personal struggles this could entail. At times, BBC programmes on national identity were far more open and progressive than the conservative, inward-looking oral history interviews with top management.

Oral history’s unreliability as retrospection drawn out through the biases of particular interviewers is of course a long-standing complaint made by traditional, document-based historians. Certainly, the CH-BBC draws on the rich store of letters, programme materials and related archival items to test and triangulate what is remembered and recounted. But oral history has an advantage as a medium of sound and feeling over the written record. Further, the mythologizing elements of memory – for example, the BBC World Service as a friendly Tower of Babel – can be pressed for analysis. At its peak, the World Service broadcast in 45 languages including a Welsh service transmitting to Patagonia, and Portuguese for Jersey, targeting the ex-patriate staff working in the island’s hotels. Yet as this incredible service has been forced to retrench, in the context of the arguably greater babble of the internet, the meaning behind the fall of the Tower of Babel takes on more significance.

Thus the oral history of the BBC joins the emerging critical corporate history archive which includes Tesco, Barings, the National Trust and the British Book Trade. Common themes touch on personal careers as part of a collective development and culture, and illuminating too the larger context of ‘long economic downturn’ and financialisation, the speeding pace of production and audit trails. Yet the BBC’s willingness to open up and work with historians and curators to share these voices is itself the best signal that this is a history of the future as much as the past. Here, through opening and connecting the archive, corporate memory will meet community memory, inviting us all to share our own stories of a business which remains a way of life as well as a cherished national institution.

Margaretta Jolly

CI to the project

Margaretta Jolly. Image Credit © Tom Reeves

100 Voices that Made the BBC: Pioneering Women

Lorna Clarke Speaks with David Hendy –
© Connected Histories of the BBC

As part of the AHRC-Connected Histories of the BBC, Saturday1st December 2018 saw the launch of the fifth in the series of BBC websites, 100 Voices that Made the BBC.

Pioneering Women is published to coincide with the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, and explores the contribution that women have made to shaping close to 100 years of British broadcasting.

The website includes a large number of clips from programmes which have not been seen or heard since they were first broadcast several decades ago. There are also numerous extracts from interviews, as well as photographs and written documents that are being made publicly available for the very first time.

Highlights include: 

  • BBC journalist Martha Kearney (presenter of Today on BBC 4) reflects on the inspiring career of the BBC’s first female war correspondent Audrey Russell.
  • The surprising story that in its earliest decades, the BBC was at the forefront of employers who promoted equal opportunities and equal pay for women. Documents reveal the determination of the first Director-General John Reith that women and men “should rank on the same footing” and should be equally eligible for promotion. 
  • Documents revealing that the BBC was one of the first organisations to introduce maternity leave – this was in 1929, and it was in order to retain the services of the Mary Somerville, who headed the School Broadcasting department.
  • In the year that has seen the appearance of the first female Doctor, the website celebrates the pioneering composer Delia Derbyshire of the Radiophonic Workshop, who was responsible for the extraordinary arrangement of Doctor Who’s theme tune.
  • Photographs, footage and interviews with other women of the Radiophonic Workshop including Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini, and Elizabeth Parker, the sound designer for cult TV series Blake’s 7.
  • A specially recorded interview with the first female DJ on Radio 1, and the first female presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test, Annie Nightingale, who talks about facing sexist attitudes in broadcasting, and how moving from journalism to radio allowed her to concentrate on what really mattered – the music.
  • A specially recorded interview with Lorna Clarke, Head of Production for Radio 2 and 6 Music, who discusses the equal pay dispute.
  • A unique BBC love story between the BBC’s first telephonist Olive May and engineer Cecil Bottle, which provoked John Reith to reprimand the head of engineering for letting it happen!
  • The story of Muriel Howlett, an Australian who was working as a typist in the BBC newsroom when John Reith asked her to report from on board the first flying-boat service from England to Australia in 1938.
  • A specially recorded interview with Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, giving her personal response to the archive material being released on this website. Dame Jenni reflects on the pioneering BBC women who inspire her, including Audrey Russell, Mary Somerville and Hilda Matheson; and talks about her experiences of sexism in the1970s; and being a “member of the #metoo brigade”.
  • Interviews with women who became broadcasting engineers during the Second World War, and excelled in roles previously only occupied by men.
    Recorded interviews with important presenters and producers including Olive Shapley, Gillian Hush, Monica Sims, Yvonne Littlewood, Zena Skinner, Margaret Dale, and Susan Belbin.
  • A television interview from a 1954 edition of Mainly for Women, with the Indian politician and diplomat, Lakshmi Pandit.
  • There is also a section called ‘Share Your Memories’ where you can upload your own thoughts and recollections as a viewer and listener to these BBC programmes.- 

The text has been written by Dr Kate Murphy (Bournemouth)and Dr Jeannine Baker (Macquarie University, Australia), with guest contributions from other academics, including Professor Lucy Robinson (Sussex),Dr Sejal Sutaria (Grinnell College, Iowa), Dr David Butler (Manchester), Dr Emma Sandon (Birkbeck), Kate Terkanian (Bournemouth), Professor Helen Wood(Leicester), as well as Martha Kearney (BBC). 

Previous websites in the 100 Voices that Made the BBC series can be found at:

They include websites about the race and identity, the history of elections broadcasting, the birth of television, and the reinvention of radio in the 1960s. These websites also include a large number of programme clips, interviews, photographs, documents, and transcripts for download.

The 100 Voices that Made the BBC series is part of the AHRC-funded Connected Histories of the BBC project based at the University of Sussex and running from 2017 to 2021. 

Jeannine Baker

December 2018