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BBC Archive: Francis Bacon, Men, Women And Clothes

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Jim Sangster | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

It was an interview with Peter Cook in the late 1970s that first alerted the British public to the fact that the BBC archives do not contain every programme ever made by the corporation.

Viewers in the early '70s objected strongly to repeats of black and white shows when they were paying for a colour TV licence, but less than a decade later, the advent of the home video recorder led to a change of attitude: suddenly, those old monochrome programmes were of interest - and loads of them had now been wiped to make room for new programmes.

You can hear more about this from our archive expert, Adam Lee:

I mention this because, considering the archive policies of most British broadcasters at the time (yes, some ITV companies wiped programmes too), it's often amazing to discover which programmes were kept - and find programmes that few people even knew had ever existed.

what_we_wore.jpgRecently, the BBC Archive web team launched two collections of programmes via our web site. For What We Wore, we unearthed the BBC's first ever full colour TV series, made a decade before anyone else could even see colour TV.

As well as being a landmark production in TV terms, Men, Women And Clothes took a trip through time to explore the fashions of the previous two hundred years. And thanks to someone putting their address book to good use, the series boasts an impressive cast of stars of the day, including Dora Bryan, Ron Moody, Benny Hill and the Redgrave family, who act as models for the costumes.

francis_bacon.jpgWhile researching our other recent collection, Francis Bacon at the BBC, we found a pilot - a test programme made to show the TV commissioners what a full series might be like.

In this item, Francis Bacon talks in his inimitable way about the history of art and artists, and the interview concludes with both Francis and the interviewer, Julian Jebb, reaching for their cigarettes and lighting up. Why this edition was kept, yet others from the series that followed were junked, we might never know.

The Francis Bacon collection was an interesting test case in itself. It involved a lot of negotiation with the people at the Design & Artists Copyright Society (DACS) as well as with Tate Britain and the Francis Bacon Estate.

It also meant a lengthy selection process as we whittled down an initial wishlist of 30 or more programmes into a more manageable ten.

Due to various rights issues, some programmes fell by the wayside fairly quickly. We discovered that an edition of Arena from 1984 was actually a film made by an American company and bought in - the only bits the BBC owned were the opening title sequence and the end credits.

An earlier programme, Fragments Of A Portrait, contained a short clip from the Russian cinema classic Battleship Potemkin, which we were unable to clear the rights to show as part of the programme (a painful but necessary edit to the sequence allowed us to include the programme in this collection).

While many people, even within the BBC, assume that the BBC (and by extension the public) owns everything in its archives, it's often disappointing and frustrating to discover how rare that's actually the case.

We might own the physical tape, but the broadcast rights involve the writer, the performers, musicians, sporting bodies and other broadcasters. But every now and then, among the stuff we do own, we find such gems as Benny Hill, smirking away while sporting a variety of facial hair arrangements through the ages.


While there are plenty of opportunities to catch more familiar programmes like Doctor Who or Blackadder through DVDs or repeats on cable, it's forgotten gems like this that make the archive such a surprising place to explore.

Jim Sangster is an Assistant Content Producer, BBC Archive and is an author and broadcaster. His own appearances in the BBC archive include appearances on Pure 24, Call The Cops and as a question setter for a specialist subject round on Mastermind.



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