THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

30 posts categorized "BBC"

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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16 October 2017

Recording of the week: soul midwives

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

Friends, Vanessa and Felicity, talk about their work as soul midwives which involves working with people who are dying to ensure that their death is personal and dignified. They describe the different ways that people approach and experience death and how their work has changed the way that they view life and think about their own death. They discuss at length the mysteries that surround death, how other people react to what they do and the gift of insights that they feel are given to them by the people they work with. They also describe the experiences of death that made them want to do this job, they talk about how much they enjoy what they do and say that, contrary to what people might think, it actually involves a lot of joy and laughter.

The Listening Project_soul midwives (excerpt)

Vanessa and Felicity

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 Vanessa and Felicity can be found here.

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

24 July 2017

Recording of the week: ‘The BBC are coming on Friday, can we show them a prototype?’

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

To anyone who grew up in the 1980s the Acorn BBC Microcomputer was the computer they used at school, a machine that gave countless Britons their first experience of computing and sold over 1.5 million units. Yet this iconic piece of computer hardware came about almost accidentally. With the world on the verge of a computer revolution in the early 1980s, the BBC were desperately searching the British electronic industry for a computer to accompany a new educational television series about computing. To a small company in Cambridge called Acorn Computers, having the BBC adopt their new computer as the BBC Computer was a deal that could transform the company into a major player. However, as Acorn designer Steve Furber recalls, there was one problem: they didn't actually have a new computer yet, and they had just a week to develop one...

Designing the Acorn BBC Microcomputer (C1379/078)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

10 July 2017

Recording of the week: choosing dreadlocks

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

Mother and daughter, Jan and Ama, talk about why they both have dreadlocks. This is the first time they have told each other their reasons for choosing to wear their hair in this way and their motivations are quite different, though Jan’s hair definitely inspired Ama’s choice and they both really like the way that dreadlocks look and feel. They discuss how other people react to their hair and how this makes them feel as well as how their hair connects with their self-identity, their appearance and their blackness. Later in the conversation they talk about how fighting for racial and gender equality has evolved over time and is different for their respective generations, how their hair is part of being active in those fights and how choosing dreadlocks is a way of defining their own idea of beauty.

The Listening Project_Choosing dreadlocks

Jan and Ama

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 Jan and Ama can be found here.

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

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

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Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

Tippett_at_work

Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

2 Clare 23041987

Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

4 Amis 01071977

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Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

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31 December 2016

Recording of the week: the first New Year's Eve radio message

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This special New Year's Eve selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio.

On New Year’s Eve of 1922, just six weeks after the first official BBC radio broadcasts were aired, the first ever New Year’s message was transmitted, generating a mixture of awe and some wild speculation about what this new medium might mean for the future.

Leeds Mercury 1 Jan 1923

The Leeds Mercury, 1 January 1923

Whereas the Leeds Mercury was ‘bewildered’ at the thought that ‘hundreds’ of people might be listening, the Falkirk Herald predicted that by 1950 ‘men about town will be carrying a listening-in set in their waistcoat pocket’ and that ‘probably we shall be in touch with other worlds’.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln sixteen year old Alfred Taylor made a brief but more down-to-earth note of what he heard on 2ZY (the BBC's Manchester station) and 2LO (London) in his personal Wireless Log, along with the names of some neighbours who dropped by to ‘listen-in’ with him:

Alfred Taylor Radio Listening Log 1 Jan 1923

Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log entry for New Year's Eve, 1922

A decade later, producer Lance Sieveking was making a feature to mark the end of the BBC’s first decade but found there were virtually no surviving recordings with which to illustrate it. He therefore set about reconstructing some of the key radio moments of the 1920s by asking the original speakers to re-read from their original scripts. Today they give as accurate an impression of what the BBC sounded like in those first years as we will ever have.

This is one of them – a reconstruction of that first New Year’s Eve message broadcast from Marconi House on 31 December 1922. Now, as we move from a bewildering year into one which promises to be even stranger, the Reverend Fleming’s message seems as apt as ever: 

BBC First New Year's Eve Address 1922

Happy New Year from all of us here at the sound archive!