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BBC History Research Blog


  • Researching Jazz 625

    Dr Nicolas Pillai

    Research Consultant for Jazz 625: For One Night Only.

    A misty morning in 2014 found me at the gates of the BBC Written Archive at Caversham. This was to be the first of many visits over the next few years as I explored the archive’s holdings relating to jazz programming during the 1960s. In this blog post, I detail my journey through the archives, how that experience led me to interview BBC staff who worked on the programmes, how I commandeered a TV studio in my university to recreate a 1960s jazz show and – most unexpectedly this year – how I ended up working on BBC4’s revival of Jazz 625 (Friday 3 May, 9pm).

    Jazz 625 (1964-1966) was BBC2’s flagship music programme, making up part of its first week launch schedule. Its distinctive name alluded to the crisp 625-line UHF images rolled out on the second channel. Over the course of two years, 84 episodes were made, bringing together the best of overseas talent with an impressive roster of British musicians. Produced by Terry Henebery, who had worked on radio jazz programmes from Aeolian Hall during the 1950s, Jazz 625 became known for its serious yet dynamic presentation of the music, combining striking images with superb sound balance. It was followed by other, equally interesting…

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  • The Listener's Lost Literary History

    Michael J Abolafia

    Writer, editor & archivist

    The BBC Written Archives Centre, in the leafy suburb of Caversham, houses a long century’s worth of materials relating to the BBC’s endeavors in broadcasting, film, and print. Following a suggestion given to me by Professor Edward Mendelson, whose pioneering bibliographical and editorial work on W.H. Auden brought him to the Written Archives Centre in the 1970s, I spent two weeks during the summer of 2016 immersed in their collections.

    An exercise in listening: The Listener and the British Public

    One of the BBC’s enduring legacies was its fostering of the literary arts through the celebrated magazine, The Listener. This was continuously published from 1929 to 1991, then had a late, brief revival as an online publication in 2000 by Peter Fiddick, its last print editor. As a widely read periodical, The Listener exerted a profound influence on the British reading public during its heyday in the 1930s through the 1950s, shaping tastes and competing admirably with the New Statesman and the Spectator for the eyes of upwardly mobile Britons. As Professor Alexandra Lawrie of the University of Edinburgh writes, The Listener was “an informative, accessible and dynamic cultural magazine” and…

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  • The Road to Milk Wood

    Nerys Williams

    Associate Professor, University College Dublin, Ireland

    Dylan Thomas at the BBC, 1948

    Archives are seductive spaces to any researcher. They offer the possibility of a new scrap of knowledge, the challenge of deciphering marginalia, and in the case of some early BBC memos, an encounter with unvarnished opinion.

    Handling the Dylan Thomas Files in the BBC written archives at Caversham was a strangely emotive experience. I grew up near Laugharne, West Wales Thomas’s final residence and championed as one of the inspirations for his famous radio play Under Milk Wood (1954). I visited the BBC Written Archives hoping for production notes to Thomas’s broadcast feature on post-blitz Swansea, ‘Return Journey to Swansea’, produced by P.H. Burton and broadcast in 1947. When Thomas’s files arrived at my desk the first thing I noticed was the bald black uppercase on the front ‘DYLAN MARLAIS THOMAS- DECEASED’

    Broadcast Beginnings

    Thomas began his broadcasting career with a reading of ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ in 1938 on ‘The Modern…

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  • No Luggage, No Return

    Dr James Jordan

    University of Southampton

    The Written Archives at Caversham is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of the BBC, broadcasting and the twentieth century. The content and type of material is as varied as it is plentiful, with production folders and personnel files sitting alongside scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and special collections reflecting the work of important figures from the Corporation’s history. People such as Mary Adams, the BBC’s first woman television producer,whose papers include wonderfully evocative photographs from the pre-war days at Alexandra Palace, when her programming…

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  • All the World Over radio broadcast, Christmas 1932

    Steve Hocking

    BBC producer and academic

    File R19/2529/1, BBC Written Archives

    File R19/2529/1 in the BBC Written Archives is an unassuming battered blue notebook. Yet it contains one of the few remaining records of an extraordinary radio programme, the annotated script of ‘All the World Over’, broadcast on Christmas Day 1932. Although barely mentioned in histories of the BBC so breathtaking was its ambition that it was, for the Adelaide Chronicle at least, ‘one of the most…

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  • The Pioneering Women of the BBC Foreign Department

    Dr Kate Murphy

    Principal Lecturer, University of Bournemouth

    Recently, I have been trying to find out more about an extraordinary woman called Isa Benzie, who forged an illustrious career at the BBC in the male-dominated world of foreign affairs. Joining the BBC in December 1927 as a secretary in the Foreign Department, she then worked her way up to become Foreign Director in 1933, a position she held until she left the BBC in January 1938. Her ten years in the Foreign Department are not easy to pin down. The BBC’s Written Archives Centre (WAC) hold a handful of administrative files, but these give very little information about what Benzie actually…

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  • The Empire Scripts Back

    James Procter

    Professor of Literature, Newcastle University

    For the past ten years I’ve been researching the cultural history of West African and Caribbean radio writing at the BBC in order to try and better understand the critical mid-century decades of decolonization, shrinking British sovereignty and mass migration to the metropole.

    Between the 1930s and 1960s, the BBC commissioned radio scripts and broadcasts by around 300 African and Caribbean contributors, including an extraordinary series of then unknown authors: V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Una Marson, George Lamming, Louise Bennett, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola. Yet surprisingly,…

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  • Broadcasting to the Enemy: The BBC German Service during the Second World War

    Vike Plock

    Associate Professor, University of Exeter

    During the Second World War millions of people in Nazi Germany turned to the BBC’s German-language programmes for reliable information about everyday events. Here they could find out how many people had been killed in air raids. They could hear about the food that London restaurants offered on menus while they had only stale bread and Ersatz coffee to consume. They could listen to Thomas Mann pronouncing his views on the war over the ether from California. They could also be entertained by songs and features that ridiculed their Nazi leaders.

    The creation of the BBC German Service

    What began…

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  • Starting at School: Researching the 1952 BBC ‘School Television Experiment’

    John Wyver

    Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster

    Those of us privileged to undertake research at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre in Caversham regard its holdings with reverence. The repository of the organisation’s papers of all kinds since 1922, Caversham guards the details of innumerable interactions with the powerful, the talented and the outraged. Here too are countless legacies of the bureaucracy that kept the studios humming and the staff canteens stocked. Key to the delights of Caversham are the files that have to be newly checked for sensitive material before one is permitted access. Most often this means that the archivist and…

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