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The George Orwell collection

Wednesday 17 June 2009, 19:17

Steve Darling Steve Darling Producer on the BBC Archive

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Editor's note: The pace is really picking up over at BBC Archives. Since I asked Steve Darling to write this post about the George Orwell collection, two further collections have been published: Princess Elizabeth: the making of a Queen and Arena: Miller meets Mandela.

The BBC archive collection "George Orwell at the BBC" is a series of documents, memos and letters which chronicle not only the two years that Orwell or Eric Arthur Blair - his real name - spent as a talks producer for the BBC's Indian Service, but also sets the scene for the writing of his last and perhaps most famous novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' which he wrote on the Hebridean island of Jura.

My colleague James Codd at the BBC's Written Archives informs me that the 19 documents we actually chose to feature represent around 8% of the material in Orwell's staff file and Orwell's contributor file combined - that is a rather staggering 250 documents or so.

In addition, there also exist at the Written Archives, programme files, which contain scripts and materials related to programmes that Orwell worked on. And to further frustrate the tireless archive researcher, yet more correspondence from Orwell would exist in the files of those other programme makers with whom he would have had contact in his capacity as a BBC producer.

All of this begs the question as to what out of this vast array of material you actually choose to create a compelling collection of archive documents and why you can't just release the lot? The vast bulk of them simply wouldn't be that interesting - imagine trawling through two years worth of someone's inbox! So we try and choose no more than 25 items around which we can create a strong editorial theme.

The documents that really leap out at you are those which give you something of a direct line to the man himself, like the comments on his Annual Staff Report which describe him as someone who in a former age would have, "been either canonised - or burnt at the stake!" or the remarks made by the Controller of the Overseas Services which wonder if he shouldn't be taken off the airwaves altogether due the "basic unsuitability" of his broadcasting voice.

What also works is when you get a series of letters each replying to the other, such as those between Orwell and BBC producer Rayner Heppenstall where Orwell is trying to convince his friend to come and visit him on Jura, whilst at the same time painting an inadvertently austere picture of the island life - Orwell cheerily mentions the fact that you have to walk five miles at the end of the journey in order to reach him, and when you get there the only thing you've got to look forward to is oatcakes and porridge! No wonder Heppenstall didn't make it.

It will be interesting to learn, as the Archive site grows, how compelling our users find collections of documents like his. Or do they come to the site primarily for TV and radio? Here, though, we have no record of Orwell actually speaking, so only the written records allow us to reach down through the years to staff member 9889 in the Talks department.

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