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.

Saturday 18 October 2014

BBC Genome - Radio Times Archive

Wednesday 15th October 2014 finally saw the launch of the much anticipated BBC Genome project which has seen 4,469 issues of the Radio Times being digitised and the listings uploaded for any Tom, Dick or Harry to view. Yes, that's nearly 4,500 issues or a staggering 4.5 million programmes stretching from 1923 up to 2009 - from this point onwards listings were plucked from iPlayer listings.

Users are able to search this vast archive by date, programme or even specific Radio Times issue. This has led to the public flocking to the website - which is still in Beta - to reminisce about what was transmitted on the day they were born, how the listings described historic events e.g. the first Doctor Who episode and just how much the lineups have changed over the years (apart from Bruce Forsyth who has constantly haunted Saturday evenings).

The first mention of the Genome project came back in August 2010 when Helen Papadopoulos announced the intention to create a "comprehensive record of the BBC's broadcast history all the way back to 1923. Originally due to be completed by August 2011, the project proved trickier than expected due to anomalies such as different BBC regions showing different programmes and even whole listings going missing. However, by the end of 2012 digitisation was complete and the next stage of the project focussed on designing an interface to help users navigate through this vast archive.

The project first went live in July 2013, but this was for the eyes of BBC staff only. Just over a year later and BBC Genome is finally available for everyone. Plenty of work, however, is still required. Hilary Bishop and Jake Berger - both part of the project - have warned that data still isn't 100% due to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) errors which have resulted in misread data and, consequentially, many listing errors have been produced. Much like a Wikipedia article, though, the public will be able to come together like a community and help amend errors with an 'edit' button.

It's a little irritating that the project has gone live with these OCR errors, but with a project of this scale it's not surprising there would be teething problems with the content. Hopefully the BBC and the general public will help rectify these listing errors over the next year. One thing that puzzles us, though, is the BBC's reluctance to advise how much the project cost. We have absolutely no idea what the figures are, but can't imagine it was very cheap - the BBC have merely commented "any decisions were made with value for money for audiences at its core".

Mind you, who the hell are we to complain? Curious British Telly is thrilled by the prospect of Genome due to the opportunities it opens for our blog. Given that our perogative is seeking out information about obscure, forgotten shows, Genome is an absolute goldmine. Up until now we've had to seek out physical copies of the Radio Times which hasn't proved easy or cheap.

A good example is Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog; prior to our blog there were barely any mentions of it online, least of all an episode guide. Determined to create an online resource about the show we had to find the relevant Radio Times to piece together its history. Sure, we could buy up expensive back issues on Ebay, but we'd have had no money for food come the end of the month. The only other option was to trek down to London to scour the archives of the British Library. Certainly a cheaper option, but frustrating when you find there are gaps in their collection!

Genome solves issues like that for us and we can now browse through the listings to our hearts content from the comfort of our house. Not only that, we've always found back issues of the Radio Times an ideal place to discover mysterious shows tucked away in the schedules for us to investigate further. Frankly, we can't wait to start fishing through this immense, digital archive and bring even more detailed research to our blog.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Summer on the Estate

Genre: Documentary
Channel: Channel 4
Transmission: 09/06/1991 - 14/07/1991

Shelter is one of those essential physiological needs that human's strive for to make life worth living. A roof over your head can bring much comfort, but certain socioeconomic factors mean that the quality of this roof isn't always equal. Local authorities are expected to provide housing for older and vulnerable people, but budgets for this are tight and this can lead to housing estates, and the residents' lives, falling into disrepair. The stark, unflinching and disturbing ramifications of this spiralling negligence have never been better explored than in Summer on the Estate.

Summer on the Estate examines the lives of the disaffected residents of the New Kingshold estate in Hackney, East London throughout the Summer of 1990. New Kingshold is a grey, menacing estate comprised of high rise flats, maisonettes and cramped bungalows all built with unhealthy amounts of asbestos. As cockroaches scuttle down the dilapidated walls, the Poll Tax begins to hit the estate hard and residents feel isolated and forgotten by Hackney Council.

Joe Fay heads up the Tenants Association and is distraught at the living conditions the estate has to endure. He is hellbent on getting Hackney Council to knock down the estate and rehouse the residents, but his pleas are falling upon deaf ears. The frustration and anger is clearly rising in Joe, but this is beginning to take a toll on his health. After a confrontational meeting about the use of the Tenants Association hall, he suffers a heart attack outside.

John, ex-member of the Foreign Legion, is the self-appointed 'housing officer in charge of squatting' who has taken up the righteous cause of liberating boarded up flats for people struggling to afford proper housing. We also follow the ongoing tribulations of recently homeless, beaten husband Ian Whippey and his mate Tom who's prone to drinking too much and talking with his fists.

Summer on the Estate was produced by LWT for Channel 4 and the 6x 30 minute episodes aired over the Summer of 1991. The show was a critical success and the Royal Television Society awarded it the title of Best Regional Documentary. Michael Brennan – director of photography – had further success winning a BAFTA for Best Newcomer. A 90 minute compilation of the show is currently up on YouTube. A follow up documentary aired in 1995 and tied up all the loose ends.

If you think that Eastenders is a grim account of life in the East End, then think again – Summer on the Estate is a truly horrendous watch which encapsulates all the social nightmares you can think of. Substance abuse, mental health, isolation and death are all paraded before our very eyes.

Joe is a man fighting, rightly, for what the residents deserve, but Hackney Council, bound by red tape and budgets, seem content with delaying any decisions. The results of this indifference are most grimly demonstrated by the maggots rampaging through the flat of a dead pensioner. Worse yet, a fraction of this same pensioner’s rotting skull is later found fused to the mattress he passed away on.

The stigma, in 1990, of being an abused husband is apparent in the story of Ian. Determined not to resort to violence, he could easily be portrayed as a weak man. However, he has a keen philosophy that vengeance is not the answer. A philosophy that he’s desperate to impart to his stepson, Ricky. Ian has been dealt a severely bad hand in life and his problems are compounded by the news that he may have unwittingly exposed himself to asbestos.

The 1995 follow up documentary finally sees Hackney Council taking action and demolishing the two imposing tower blocks. Joe, now living in Blackpool, travels down to watch his dream finally be realised. By this time Ian has moved away from New Kingshold, but still feels suffocated and trapped by Hackney. Unfortunately, we don’t see what happened to John, but suspect he’s either in prison or moving around the country trying to help the less fortunate.

Summer on the Estate is a gripping watch as what we’re watching amounts to social abuse by Hackney Council. Lives are brushed under the carpet and the estate treated as little more than an afterthought. Many of the lives blighted by this lack of care are probably long since dead. Lives which lived and fought through the war found their days ending in abject poverty and squalor. The East End has, since, experienced rapid gentrification, but this amounts to little more than cleaning the area up and forcing out the poor. All we could come away from this program with was a feeling that life will never be fair.