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35 posts categorized "BBC"

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

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IMG_0825Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

ROH-SOU-3-012 - Donald Southern - Midsummer Nights Dream - 555 folder - 29BThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

ROH-SOU-4-038 Roll 4  Strip 2  Frame 4Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

ROH-SOU-1-0207 Roll 2  Strip 6  Frame 1Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

 For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

10 September 2018

Recording of the week: 'English atheist'

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This week's selection comes from Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer.

Nearly twenty years ago, on the 4th of March 1999, an interviewer working for BBC Radio Thames Valley’s contribution to the enormous BBC Millennium Oral History Project – ‘The Century Speaks’ – visited a local school to interview an 11 year-old girl. She was one of the youngest interviewees among a UK ‘sample’ of over 5000. The opening question produced a response which clearly surprised the interviewer:

English atheist (C900/17576)

Interviewer: How would you describe your identity? By that I mean your national identity.

Interviewee: English. English atheist.

Interviewer: Ah. [...] You’ve said atheist very quickly; tell me about that.

Interviewee: Erm, I just like, I didn’t want to be any particular religion but I didn’t want like committing- commit myself into saying I didn’t believe there was anything there, so I decided to be an atheist.

Interviewer: So you…

Interviewee: Because being an atheist means you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there, but you don’t know what it is. And you don’t think it’s really God, but you don’t know.

Interviewer: Oh right, and do you, do you- what do your parents believe?

Interviewee: They’re the same, they’re atheists.

Interviewer: Do you think that you’re an atheist perhaps because they are?

Interviewee: Yeah, just been influenced by them, so...

Interviewer: Yes? Is that it, do you think?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: Are any of your brothers believers?

Interviewee: No. They’re all atheists like us.

Interviewer: And do you feel that being an atheist actually is a sort of definition – it really does define you as something; it’s like a religion of a sort?

Interviewee: Yeah. It’s like on its own.

Interviewer: Tell me a bit more about it, how it defines you, being an atheist.

Interviewee: It’s just like: you don’t need to commit yourself into anything; you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are. And then they don’t ask anymore. So that’s it really. [laughs] [C900/17576, 00:15-2:00]

The clip is engaging not just because the interviewee is charmingly open and positive. It is also because it seems to wake us up from a strange dream in which the only people who talk about atheism are rather senior, male intellectuals of one sort or another. Here, an eleven year-old girl speaks of a form of atheism that:

• is related to religion but not through opposition to it: “you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are”
• is chosen (“I decided to be an atheist”) but happily acknowledged as the outcome of context – her position in a family of atheists (“yeah, just been influenced by them”)
• is regarded as a substantial position (“its like on its own”) without being claimed as superior to any other
• involves a denial of the existence of ‘God’ (“you don’t think it’s really God”) without in any way placing limits on what existence itself might consist of (“you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there”)

PM recording of the week image The Century Speaks leaflet part cover

The British Library holds all of ‘The Century Speaks’ interviews in a collection called ‘Millennium Memory Bank’ [MMB]. I found the interview with this young “English atheist” as part of a project – a new collaboration with the major Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent – exploring the nature of religious ‘unbelief’ in MMB and other oral history collections at the British Library. What will I uncover next?

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

21 August 2018

The Bernstein Centenary

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Leonard_Bernstein_-_1950s
Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s  (Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this month.  During the second half of the twentieth century he was the one figure that brought classical music to the general public in a way never before attempted.  In the early 1950s he used the new medium of television to disseminate his passion for and knowledge of music to the widest possible audience.  Indeed, a whole generation of Americans grew up with a love and understanding of great music thanks to Bernstein.

Between 1954 and 1958 eight live broadcasts introduced by Alistair Cooke encompassed a broad range of music including classical, jazz, musical comedy and the art of conducting posing such questions as ‘What makes opera grand?’  The first programme on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is especially fascinating as Bernstein reveals the composer’s earlier ideas and sketches giving his own explanation for their deletion.  The opening page of the score is printed large on the studio floor with members of the orchestra standing on their appropriate staves.

However, it was Bernstein’s series of 53 televised Young People’s Concerts that opened up the wonders of music to a whole generation.  While the British Library has in the collections his later television appearances which were commercially produced (mainly by his record label at the time, Deutsche Grammophon), over previous years I have made an effort to obtain all of Bernstein’s early television material.

DVD box set
1DVD0010176 (BL Collections)

In 1959 the US State Department sponsored a tour of the New York Philharmonic which included 50 concerts in 17 countries.  Filmed records of the visits to Moscow, where Bernstein is seen with Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak, and Venice were available on DVD in Japan and can be seen at the British Library.  The tour ended on 10th October 1959 when Bernstein and his orchestra gave a concert at the Festival Hall in London, parts of which were recorded directly to tape from the live radio broadcast in excellent sound by a private individual, Dr. Schuler, whose son donated his collection to the British Library in 1999.  The Times review was headed ‘Like burnished copper – New York orchestra’s fine tone’ and referred to Bernstein as ‘that paragon of brilliance and versatility.’  Here is an excerpt from the Second Essay by Samuel Barber.

 Barber Second Essay 10101959 extract

Bernstein and the New Yorkers returned to London in February 1963 and Dr Schuler recorded the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Dvorak and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture, an extract of which can be heard below.

Elgar Cockaigne 13021963 extract

A selection of Bernstein video materials at the British Library

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts 1DVD0005845

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts Volume 2 1DVD0010018

The Unanswered Question - Six talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein 1DVD0009993

Archive of American Television presents Leonard Bernstein Omnibus 1DVD0009994

The Love of Three Orchestras 1DVD0010180

Historic Television Specials Moscow; Venice; Berlin; The Creative Performer; Rhythm 1DVD0010176

The Joy of Sharing - The last date in Sapporo 1990 1DVD0010178

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

30 July 2018

Recording of the week: painting people blue in Hull

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This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Husband and wife, Kārlis and Shirley, talk about the magical experience of being part of photographer Spencer Tunick's 'Sea of Hull' installation in which 3,200 people volunteered to take off their clothes, paint themselves blue and stand in front of Tunick’s camera in Hull city centre in the early hours of the morning one day in 2016. In this extract they describe how being part of this collaborative artwork changed the way that people interacted with each other in public space, how they dealt with the cold, the amazing sight of 3,000 neat little piles of clothes and the difficulty of showering off the blue paint in the changing rooms of Hull ice rink. Later in the conversation they discuss how Hull was the place where Kārlis first arrived in the UK as a child refugee from Latvia and that this made their ‘Sea of Hull’ experience particularly poignant.

The Listening Project_painting people blue in Hull (excerpt)

 

Karlis and Shirley

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Kārlis and Shirley can be found here.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

22 June 2018

Tracking down Tamás

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Tamas Vasary 1Tamás Vásáry at the Hotel Gellert restaurant (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Save our Sounds is the British Library’s programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, many collections will be digitised and made available to the public online through the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

One such is the collection of Hungarian pianist Tamás Vásáry who donated his tape archive of private and broadcast recordings to the British Library Sound Archive in 1994.  Internationally renowned as an interpreter of Chopin and Liszt, at that time he lived in London, so when the project needed to clear rights for his donation I wrote to him at the London address I had on file.  Having received no reply and it being twenty-four years since the donation, I checked the internet for an agent or contact details.  Nothing was to be found, so I asked an elderly Hungarian friend if she knew him as she was a contemporary in Budapest (she being born in 1928, he in 1933).  She did not, but thought she may have a friend who did.  The friend did not either, but reported that Vásáry had moved back to Budapest many years ago.

What to do next?  I asked pianist Leslie Howard if he knew Vásáry from the time he was living in London.  No, but he thought pianist Murray McLaclan knew him.  I emailed Mr McLaclan who did not, but he thought that pianist Peter Frankl definitely knew him.  Mr Frankl responded in the affirmative and, because I had not realised that Mr Frankl was living in London, I asked if I could interview him on his long career for the British Library.  Mr Frankl has known Mr Vásáry for more than 50 years and it was at my interview with him that he offered to talk to Mr Vásáry, because he is not on email and still tours a great deal as a conductor.  Mr Frankl visited Budapest in April and met with Mr Vásáry who kindly gave his permission and signed the relevant forms.

Mr Frankl gave me Mr Vásáry’s mobile phone number and I called to ask if I could interview him for the British Library.  He happily accepted and I went to Budapest a few weeks ago and met him.  

JS CorinthiaJonathan Summers in Budapest

As a child my local record shop stocked the best classical records including many on the Deutsche Grammophon label so I grew up listening to most of Chopin’s works played by Mr Vásáry.

DG LP-page-001editVásáry at the height of his career in 1965 (1LP0175910 BL collections)

Jamie Owen, Intellectual Property Rights Co-ordinator writes:

We are very excited indeed to have made contact with Tamás Vásáry. The collection that Mr Vásáry donated to the British Library in 1994 represents the first, under the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to have  been both digitally preserved and to have agreements in place for a number of his recordings to be made publicly accessible once the project's website goes live next spring.

The British Library, in conjunction with ten partner organisations across the UK is aiming, through the Heritage Lottery funded  ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to digitally preserve over half a million of the UK’s most important and at-risk audio recordings. We are hoping to make 100,000 of these recordings available through a website hosted by the British Library. More information on the project can be found here.

Here is an extract from Vásáry’s collection.  It is of his debut at the Proms on 25th July 1961 when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Pritchard.  The fourth movement is one of the shortest in the entire piano concerto repertoire at only four minutes.  The London audience was impressed and the applause continued for more than two minutes.

Vasary Liszt Concerto extract (C615/6)

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

06 June 2018

Make yourself at home! The BBC in a multi-cultural world

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David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex writes about an upcoming event at the British Library, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC.

The clue is in the name. The British Broadcasting Corporation. It’s a national broadcaster. When its motto proclaims that “Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation”, it doesn’t just mean different nations speaking to each other. It also means the nation – Britain - speaking to itself.

But who exactly gets to speak? When the BBC began in the 1920s, it all seemed straightforward – at least to that great Founding Father, John Reith. Christian, high-minded, infused with Victorian spirit of paternalism, Reith was adamant: only “the best” in thought or culture should be broadcast, “only those with a claim to be heard above their fellows” should talk at the microphone, only those with an “educated” southern English accent could be announcers, only programmes of devout Christianity could be aired on a Sunday.

Even at the time, this took little enough account of the richness of regional or working-class life. But after the Second World War - when Britain became home to thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean or Eastern Europe, and later from Kenya, Uganda, India and Pakistan – a dramatic change in attitude was surely inevitable. Like most who arrived at Tilbury on the Empire Windrush in 1948, many of the new immigrants were already British subjects: this was their Motherland. And there’d been a rich Black and immigrant presence here for centuries. Even so, for the BBC a new balancing act was required. Differences had to be acknowledged, yet new settlers needed to be integrated. Which was more important?

Una%20Marson%20in%201941%20hi000374838Una Marson during a BBC broadcast to the West Indies, 1941. Copyright: BBC.

The story of how the BBC navigated these tricky waters can be traced in vivid technicolour through the BBC’s own immensely rich archives, more and more of which are being opened-up to public view for the first time. They offer a lively gallery of programmes and pioneering individuals. Una Marson, pictured above, was born in Jamaica and joined the BBC’s staff during the Second World War. She was the first black producer on its payroll – and a pioneer in cultural programmes transmitted to the Caribbean.

Una Marson interviewing Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, 1940. Copyright: BBC.

That fragile recording of Marson interviewing the jazz band-leader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson in 1940, only a matter of months before he was killed in the London Blitz, is just one among many we’re making available online through a new project based at the University of Sussex, working in collaboration with the BBC.

At our workshop on 10 July, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC we’ll be listening to, watching - and talking about – Una Marson, the programmes she made, and her dramatic departure from the BBC in 1946. Through newly-released oral history recordings and programmes not seen since their first broadcast, we’ll also be encountering many other fascinating individuals who helped – and in some cases hindered – the BBC’s slow embrace of a multi-cultural world: the people behind the first TV programmes for British Asians in the 1960s, Make Yourself at Home; the creators of Open Door, a bold 1970s experiment in ‘access TV’; the broadcasters who first brought Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to the microphone.

The story these records tell isn’t straightforward: the BBC was brave in some areas, cautious in others. Nor is the story always reliable. There are gaps in the archive – including the testimonies of listeners and viewers themselves - and questions to be answered about who gets to tell the BBC’s own history now.

MikePH2Mike Phillips, former broadcaster, 2018. Copyright: Connected Histories of the BBC.

So, we’ll also be joined live on 10 July by a special guest – and a brand-new contributor to our ‘unofficial’ oral history of the BBC: the former journalist and crime-writer Mike Phillips, pictured above, who in 1998 wrote the ground-breaking book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. We hope you can join us.

12 February 2018

Recording of the Week: The Listening Project Symphony

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Paul Wilson, Curator Radio Broadcast writes:

This week’s selection celebrates World Radio Day 2018 (13th February) and is an example of the art of radio at its best: blending creativity with actuality to illuminate aspects of our life and times and, in this instance, one of the moral dilemmas of our day. It's an excerpt from the Listening Project Symphony, a beautiful composition by Gary Carpenter for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, first broadcast live from Manchester in December 2012. The piece incorporates extracts from some of the intimate and often surprising conversations which have emerged from The Listening Project, a collaboration between the BBC and the British Library in which family members or friends are invited to share their stories, private thoughts and feelings with an unseen radio audience.  

BBC Philharmonic at Salford Quays  2012
The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at Salford Quays, 2012. Photo courtesy of the BBC

In this extract we briefly hear voices from three separate conversations, each poignant or moving in its own way even in this edited form. The third - part of a conversation between a young British Muslim woman of Indian/Pakistani descent and her India-born mother - will hold a particular resonance for some. The daughter begins by gauging her mother's response to a hypothetical question about marriage: how would you feel if I were to marry a man of a different religion? She then takes the hypothetical situation a step further - how would you feel if my partner were another woman?

The Listening Project Symphony (excerpt) 

The complete Listening Project Symphony can be heard on the BBC iPlayer here and the Listening Project’s BBC homepage is here. The complete collection of unedited Listening Project conversations can be explored at the British Library’s Sounds website.

18 December 2017

Recording of the week: the Curlew's lament

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This week's selection comes from Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision.

Around this time of year as winter takes it hold, and into spring that follows, a daytime walk around one of Britain’s more remote coastal estuaries and mudflats, or over inland moorlands and heathlands will likely bring about an encounter with a Curlew, the largest of all waders. Its soulful voice carries far across flat and rolling landscapes, adding a magical and haunting feel to wild places. And in early English folklore, it was a harbinger of death, or for the poet WB Yeats, it spoke of a love lost:

"O Curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind"

  Curlews lament

This particular Curlew recording was made in southern England as long ago as 1937 by the pioneer bird sound recordist, Ludwig Koch (1881-1974). It comprises several takes that illustrate the bird’s varied notes. The recording was used for many years to introduce The Naturalist radio programme, broadcast by the BBC Home Service.

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