Thursday 30 October 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of Being an Archive Telly Enthusiast

We were very frustrated. Very frustrated indeed. We wanted to learn about some of the shows we vaguely remembered from our childhood, but there was barely anything online apart from a few whispers and dodgy memories.

Surely we weren't the only people to have watched, enjoyed and remembered Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog and Fox Tales?! This really wasn't acceptable in an information rich age, so we decided to do something about it!

Diving into the Depths of British Telly

Driven by this frustration and our rampant, uncontrollable nostalgia we got off our backsides and started to explore that warm, fuzzy glow of vintage television. A landscape where our present troubles are forgotten and we can go back to make sense of our carefree early years.  

Thomas the Tank Engine and Postman Pat were a big deal to us back then, but absolutely everyone remembers them and they're incredibly easy to access. We wanted to go a little deeper and dust off those forgotten areas of our subconscious.

The first couple of months were a little frustrating. Shows such as Sebastian and Fox Tales seemed ridiculously out of reach. We considered breaking into the BBC Archives, but we're far too polite to batter a security guard round the head with a ratchet.

Instead, we put up some vague blogs which relied on fragmented memories from our youth.

To ensure the blog had some richer content we decided to expand a little further and investigate shows from outside our lifetime. Shows such as Johnny Jarvis and Prospects were available online, so things were a little easier.

Trying to Build up Unique Content

However, barely anyone was viewing the blog and how the hell did we promote it? Unique content would be a good start, so we decided we had to up our game and go the extra mile. The first hurdle to overcome was getting our hands on some rare telly.

This obstacle was soon overcome when we discovered the BFI Archive.

Tucked away down a quiet side street off Tottenham Court Road lies the Mecca of British archive television. For very reasonable rates you can view anything that's held in the archives by the major television channels.

It's an intriguing place that we can only compare to the Titanic. Upstairs are trendy offices packed full of film and television iconography, but downstairs in a series of Womble like burrows, are the dilapidated viewing rooms - here, though, is where the real party happens.

Amongst piles of film cans and a curious selection of Betamax, VHS and DVD players is where these unlocked memories are set free. As you load up the materials you realise what you're doing is a strange privilege.

For example, just how many people have viewed the Sebastian episode 'The Barking Cat' in the last decade or two? We don't have firm figures, but it must be little more than a handful. We're constantly tempted to stuff the discs into our bags, but we just can't. The viewing technician is far too nice to rip off.

Taking Our Research Even Further

Viewing rare material is usually coupled with a visit to the British Library to search through their huge archive of Radio Times issues. These are scoured thoroughly for features on certain shows and - until the recent emergence of Genome - to confirm transmission dates.

Slowly, we were beginning to put together a decent online resource for these niche shows. We were even lucky enough to be contacted by someone with an episode of Sebastian and we had our first unique feature - screenshots of Sebastian online.

To create even more vibrant content, and discover the stories behind the shows, we also set out to track down individuals involved with the shows.

The first person we got hold of was host and puppeteer of The Pig Attraction, Simon Buckley. He was an incredibly generous man and very complimentary about our questioning. We began to feel like some type of journalist and came very close to buying one of those comic book reporter hats. Instead we bought some scotch.

Finally, We Get an Audience!

However, we still struggled to pull in any significant traffic and our number of Twitter followers was puny - around 12 after a year and this 'exclusive' following contained an unhealthy amount of bots.

We soldiered on, though, as it kept us out of trouble and had developed into a little hobby where we could get a little creative.

In Autumn 2013 we put up a blog about the old Channel 4 computer games show Bits. After a prompting tweet from us, one of the Bits presenters, Aleks Krotoski, retweeted it early one Monday morning.

For about an hour our phone didn't stop vibrating with alerts that we'd been retweeted, favourited and followed. Our followers had shot up by about 100 come the end of the day and it finally felt like progress had been made. Perseverance had been the key coupled with a tweet from Aleks that we're eternally grateful for.

Shortly after this, we had another flurry of activity when TV writer Clayton Hickman started a Twitter debate about forgotten shows and gave us some nice props. Not only did we get a big boost to our viewing figures through this, we also discovered a huge lists of shows that people were hungry to revisit.

Since then we've managed to build a decent following. We've just had our 300th follower on Twitter and the blog receives over 4,000 views a month. It's small traffic compared to the rest of the internet, but it's slowly growing and that's the main thing.

Why We Love This Blogging Lark

One of our favourite aspects of the blog is the interviews that we carry out. It's amazing to hear from actors, directors, musicians etc as they all have unique stories to tell. The variety of viewpoints out there is quite amazing. Some have unfinished business with the TV industry and want one last crack of the whip while others are happy to just reminisce.

Characters such as Moschops theme tune composer, Daryl Runswick, can conjure up astonishingly detailed memories from just one day of recording nearly 30 years ago, so this always helps paint detailed pictures of these poorly remembered shows.

Our most detailed and revealing interviews are probably Bernard Ashley for our Running Scared article and Geoff Atkinson on Heil Honey I'm Home. Many interviews have fallen through which is a shame, but many of these individuals are still involved in TV and very busy, so we'll forgive them.

The feedback we receive from viewers is also thoroughly rewarding. We've received emails from people working on oil rigs in the Middle East congratulating us on helping them reconnect with shows from their youth and we've even had people asking us to help get TV projects off the ground. People take TV very seriously and nostalgia even more so, so it's great to engage with these passions.

The Future of British Telly's Past

Our main frustration with the whole affair is the difficulty in getting our hands on rare material. There's a network of bootleg DVDs of rare TV, but there's a limited amount and some people charge exorbitant amounts.

The BFI Archive is great, but it's not open at weekends, so our trips there are rare. Perhaps one day they'll start an online service which is logical in our digital age. The recent unveiling of the BBC Genome project has illustrated just how useful such services are.

For the time being we'll carry on searching and documenting those abandoned memories in the hope that we'll help people recapture their past and stop worrying about the future.

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