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Winston Churchill’s funeral in HD on BBC Parliament

James Rowland

Senior Media Manager, BBC Archives

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Filming the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill for the BBC

On Friday 30 January 2015, 50 years to the day, BBC Parliament will re-broadcast the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, a national event which saw hundreds of thousands of mourners come together in London and many millions more watch the BBC’s live coverage on television.   

Specialists from BBC Archive and BBC Studios and Post Production have worked together to produce an HD remastering of the Former Prime Minister’s state funeral in full. Here James Rowland explains the genesis of the re-mastering project and how through the process some footage that could have been lost has been secured and preserved for the future.

BBC Archives were first approached in June 2014 with a request from BBC Parliament asking the Archive to consider making an HD re-mastering of The State Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill from the original black and white film recordings to be re-broadcast as part of nation-wide events marking the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death on the 30 January 2015.  

While planning the project the BBC Archives team discovered that a section from the funeral footage, reportedly featuring two buglers inside St Paul’s Cathedral playing The Last Post followed by Reveille, was missing from a transfer that had been made from the print of the original film many years ago. When the team checked the original film they found, to their relief, the missing section of approximately 3 minutes and 35 seconds was safely preserved on the original film. Up until the Eighties it was relatively common, although not permitted, for users of the Archive to physically cut sections out of the film to use in their programmes with urgent deadlines such as current affairs and we think that’s what may have occurred with the print of the funeral which was later transferred to tape and added to the archive holdings.

We wanted to re-master the archive footage and make the complete recoding of this historic event accessible and available. So work began to bring a third partner on-board to undertake the transfer and restoration of the film. Having already completed the restoration of the Coronation film footage for the Golden Jubilee of 2012, BBC Studios and Post Production with their specific experience and technical expertise were an obvious choice to join the team.

Richard Dimbleby presents coverage of Winston Churchill's state funeral for the BBC

In total, 14 reels of black and white 35mm film negatives with mag tracks were retrieved from specialist film vaults at the BBC Archive Centre in west London where they are stored at 5°C and 30% humidity and then delivered to BBC Studios and Post Production for work to begin.

The film negatives themselves were in fairly good condition, but inevitably there was a certain amount of dirt and scratches. The sound was also of relatively decent quality, however due to the nature of how it was recorded there was a high-pitched whistle through much of the material.  

The film was cleaned and then transferred to HDCAM SR tapes using Spirit telecines. Due to the recording being split over 14 reels (over 4 hours in duration) and the difficult nature of the content, ‘joining’ the film invisibly to give a seamless result was challenging for the transfer team. Also the individual sound and picture reels did not match or ‘sync up’ and therefore required ‘re-syncing’ on every reel changeover.

BBC Studios and Post production carried out the noise reduction and graded the pictures during the transfer process. They then tweaked the picture shape which was achieved by warping and stretching the image in order to match the different film reels. After that, the footage was then taken into the ‘dustbuster’ stage for frame by frame blemish removal and to remove monitor twitches. Finally, a quality assessment was carried out by BBC Studios and Post Production before playout to a modern HD tape format that was then supplied to BBC Archives as the completed transfer. 

Back at the BBC Archive Centre, the team were obviously keen to see the finished results, including the footage of the missing buglers. The buglers were there, however the team didn’t recognise the first piece of music as being The Last Post which it was reportedly meant to be (it sounded similar but not the same). It was vital that the detail around this missing section of footage was accurate so the Archive’s Music Library Team, who manage the BBC’s collection of sheet music, were consulted and after listening to the piece, identified it as Watch Setting (2nd Post) and not The Last Post.

Watching the rest of the recording, impeccably narrated by Richard Dimbleby, made for compelling viewing. BBC Studios and Post Production had done a good job of reducing ‘hiss’ from the audio and the results with cleaning-up debris and damage from the picture without losing the authenticity of the original recording was also impressive.

In addition to the historic footage of the funeral procession and service inside St Paul’s Cathedral, the film captures a fascinating sense of 1965 London, which viewers will find equally interesting when it’s re-broadcast by BBC Parliament on the 30 January 2015, 50 years after the event. After leaving St Paul’s the procession travels by car to Tower Pier and then along the River Thames by barge with the famous footage of the dockers who lowered their crane jibs in a salute. Following this the procession resumes by car at Festival Pier where it travels past a building works on the Southbank and Richard Dimbleby comments on the ‘new’ Festival Halls that are under construction before the procession continues to Waterloo Station and on by train.  

The completion of this exciting piece of work has been a result of a great collaboration between BBC Archives, BBC Parliament and BBC Studios and Post Production who have all liaised and worked closely together throughout the process to deliver a complete version of this historic footage. We hope it will help the nation mark the anniversary of Churchill’s death.  

The State Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill will be on BBC Parliament on Friday 30 January from 9.15am

James Rowland is Senior Media Manager for BBC Archives


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