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


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

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