Sound and vision blog

14 posts from February 2010

28 February 2010

Wendy Toye


Wendy Toye (left) teaching Anna Neagle to dance boogie woogie on the set of Piccadilly Incident (1946), from Personality - Meet Anna Neagle, available at

How sad to learn of the death of Wendy Toye. Most film histories don't mention her, but that's the usual fate of choreographers, not to mention women directors. Toye was both, and though she directed just a handful of films, there is one cast-iron classic among them, and as a choreographer she kept British films on their toes for a decade. She was also a dancer and a choreographer and director for the stage and a delightful person to know.

She started out as a dancer at a very young age. Born in 1917, she first appeared on stage before she was four, and she can be seen dancing in a 1927 cinemagazine item from the Eve's Film Review series, entitled 'Something New in Cabarets', dancing on board the R.M.S. Berengaria (the copy online at British Pathe unfortunately has the sequence missing, but the complete film is held by the BFI National Archive). By 1935 she was dancing in and then choreographing British films, working with Lilian Harvey (Invitation to the Waltz, 1935), Margaret Lockwood (I'll Be Your Sweetheart, 1945), and Anna Neagle (Piccadilly Incident, 1946). There is a delightful short film on the British Pathe site in which Toye teaches Neagle how to dance boogie woogie, followed by the classical versus modern dance sequence from what was the most popular British film of the year.

But for the film connosieur, it is Toye's work in the 1950s and 60s that merits her place in the history books. Firstly, she directed five feature films - The Teckman Mystery (1954), All for Mary (1955), Raising a Riot (1955), True as a Turtle (1956) and We Joined the Navy (1962) - and co-directed a sixth, Three Cases of Murder (1953). All are light, accomplished entertainments typical of their period, but what is most remarkable is that she was able to direct them at all. Toye was the only woman apart from Muriel Box to direct a British feature film throughout the 1950s and 60s, such was the chauvinism that existed throughout the film industry at that time.

It is the short films she directed that are exceptional. On the Twelfth Day... (1954) is a delighful exercise in artfully controlled chaos as the subjects of the song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' gradually fill up the screen. The King's Breakfast (1963) is a jaunty intepretation of the A.A. Milne poem, demonstrating an astute eye for movement that the choreographer can bring to film direction.


Alan Badel in The Stranger Left No Card, from

And then there is The Stranger Left No Card (1952). This bids fair to be regarded as one of the finest short films of all time. A curiously-garbed stranger, played by Alan Badel, visits a British town (Windsor) and beguiles the inhabitants (and us) until he reveals his plan for the perfect murder. It all takes place to the precise beat of a metronome and the hynoptic sound of Hugo Alfvén's Swedish Rhapsody, and is executed with such wit and panache. It won the prize for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival and continues to entrance audiences every time it is screened. There's a tribute to the film, with evocative frame grabs, on the Auteurs site, written by David Cairns.

Toye enjoyed an extensive career beyond film. She danced for Ninette de Valois with the Vic Wells Ballet and for the Anton Dolin Ballet. She choreographed shows, musicals, theatre, pantomime and revue. She co-devised and directed the 1972 Noël Coward revue Cowardy Custard at the Mermaid Theatre. She worked in television from the 1960s onwards (including remaking The Stranger Left no Card as Stranger in Town for the 'Tales of the Unexpected' series in 1981), and served as an advisor to the Arts Council. I was honoured to meet her when I organised a special evening devoted to her films at the National Film Theatre back in 1995. The show was a sell-out, and Wendy herself was as vivacious a 78-year-old as you are ever likely to see.

There is some material that relates to Wendy Toye here at the BL beyond the standard film reference sources. She is praised for her work as a stage director in interviews done for the Theatre Archive Project and there are interviews with her or that refer to her in our Sound Archive. But if you get any sort of a chance to see The Stranger Left No Card (it's not available on video but there's a copy at the BFI National Archive and it has been screened on television) then do. It's a wonderful work to have left to posterity.

26 February 2010

Recording of the Week: Ever heard a broad Norfolk accent?

Listen to this speaker from Mulbarton in Norfolk. You can also read via a link on the same web page a lingustic analysis of the lexis, phonology and grammar for this recording.

Accents-and-dialects 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, selected by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected by Jonnie Robinson, a specialist in sociolinguistics & education at the British Library. The recording was made for the BBC in 1998 for the Millennium Memory Bank, one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe, that along with recordings from the Survey of English Dialects collection includes many other recordings of Norfolk speakers from Norfolk.

22 February 2010

Home movie treasures


Frame still from the home movies of the Willson family of Handsworth, Birmingham, c.1945, held by the Media Archive for Central England

There's an article by Richard Morrison in The Times entitled 'Home Movies can be Historical Treasures'. It's a fine piece which nevertheless has a note of qualification in that title, for personal reasons, as Morrison describes:

As a boy, my heart always sank in the first week of September. Of course, the new school year loomed like a dismal black cloud. But that was also the week when my uncle — the proud, indeed boastful, owner of a priceless luxury item known as a “cine-camera” — would put on a film show, for which he would command the attendance of the entire Morrison clan plus any neighbours not quick-witted enough to have a prior engagement. Unfortunately, his films were invariably interminable, fuzzily focused chronicles of his annual holiday in Torquay. (Actually I do him a disservice. Sometimes he went to Paignton.) They seemed entirely unedited. Every seagull in Devon had its moment in the frame. Ever since then I have shuddered involuntarily at the very words “home movies”.

We've probably all had similar such experiences - shots following slow-moving ships til they sail out of sight, cameras panning up and down tall historic buildings - but in every frame there is nevertheless something uniquely precious, something missing entirely from the professional film. It is not just in the subject - which is ourselves - but in who holds the camera - which is again us. It is because home movies and personal films document the individual point of view that they are so precious and so worthy of archiving. Morrison says that they preserve a "unique record of changing social trends over the past century". Indeed they do, but they also document the personal; film not as entertainment or lesson, but as self-portrait.

The cue for Morrison's piece is the news that the Lottery Fund has awarded a £440,000 grant to the Media Archive for Central England (MACE) for a project entitled Full Circle, which will seek out home movies depicting Midlands life, preserve them, and bring them back to people for study and community use - full circle indeed.

MACE is based at the University of Leicester and is one of a network of public sector moving image archives in the UK, all of which are engaged in preserving home movies alongside the professional film and television productions one would expect to find in moving image archives. There are the four national film archives of the UK (the BFI National Archive, the Imperial War Museum, the Scottish Screen Archive and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales), and eight English regional archives, of which MACE is one. The others are the East Anglian Film Archive, Screen Archive South East, the North West Film Archive, the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, the Northern Region Film and Television Archive, and the South West Film and Television Archive. There's also London's Screen Archives, an emerging network of moving image collections across London.

All of these archives are prepresented by the Film Archive Forum, and on its site you can find contact details, guides to online databases, a map of the archives, and general information on their work (though some of the links need updating). All of them provide expertise on and access to films of their region, though researchers should always contact them in advance with requests rather than just drop in.

Wedding at Belmont Free church (1931), from London's Screen Archives (film originally from Sutton Archives)

A growing amount of home movie footage (and other kinds of film) held in these archives is available to view online. Moving History is a sampler site with 100 or so clips from each of the Film Archive Forum archives, designed to demonstrate the value of such material for use in higher education. Other sites well worth visiting includes Yorkshire Film Archive Online, Scottish Screen Archive, London's Screen Archives' YouTube channel, and Screen Archive South East's Screen Search. MACE itself has 1,600 clips online from its 35,000 catalogued records.

The literature on home movies is slender, but growing. The leader in the field has been Patricia Zimmerman, who writes mostly on the American amateur film. Her books are the agenda-setting Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (1995) and Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (2008, co-edited with Karen L. Ishizuka). We also have Alan Kattelle, Home Movies, A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 (2000), James M. Moran, There's No Place Like Home Video (2002) and Ian Craven, Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema (2009).

To find out more about home movies, visit the Home Movie Day site, an international initiative that promotes the home movie and its archival care.

But, as Morrison importantly notes, we are moving into a new era of home movie filmmaking, away from the 9.5mm and Super8 films of the past, to digital video.

But we also need to cherish the digital films being made by ordinary people today as lovingly as previous generations cherished their flickering movies. It’s a strange paradox that the oldest moving-picture medium — film reels — should be the best preserved, while videos stored on computers are often erased or lost when people upgrade their software or buy a new PC.

How true, how true. Somehow we associate film with archives, but videotape or hard drives lack the necessary romance to make us think that the best home for such material long term should be in an archive. Of course, time has to pass before we often see the value in such records, but we are so cavalier with the films we make of ourselves today, because they are so easy and cheap to produce, that we forget how precious and how ephemeral they are. One push of a button in error and the memories are gone. Moreover, there is a belief that DVD is somehow an imperishable medium, when in fact DVD, videotape and the other video carriers of today have a very uncertain longevity - far more uncertain than cinefilm, which has its problems but has nevertheless hung on as a medium for decades.

Academic studies are just beginning to appear which examine the modern 'home movie'. David Buckingham and Rebekah Willett's Video Cultures: Media Technology and Everyday Creativity (2009) provides a valuable collection of essays on the motives and outputs of the camcorder generation, looking at the impact on society of video equipment, mobile video and YouTube.

Here at the British Library we don't have any home movies, but we're very interested in their potential for the study of sociology and modern history. We held a seminar recently, for sociologists and archivists, on what we're calling 'the personal and everyday film', looking to establish links between the home movies of yesteryear and our digital lives today. Digital Lives is the title of a BL project which has been looking at the forms in which we record our lives today and determining policies for the acquisition, care and access to such records in the future.

Our digital lives aren't just held on video of course - they are documented in emails, Word documents, PDFs, digital photos, Tweets, blogs, AudioBoos, texts and the rest. In caring for the personal film of the future, it has to be bound up with all the other means by which we record our own lives. But we need to care for it now, not ten or twenty years away. By then too much may have been lost.

18 February 2010

Recommended reading no. 1 - Picture Palace


I'm going to establish some occasional series here on the Moving Image blog, and will start with a series that reviews books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). The emphasis is going to be on unfamiliar or neglected titles. No one researching film needs to be told of the value of, say, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film or Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler, but there are plenty of titles that ought to be taken off the shelves a little more often than tends to be the case.

We'll kick off with Audrey Field, Picture Palace: A Social History of the Cinema (London: Gentry Books, 1974)

Apart from biographies, there wasn't a huge number of British film history books published before the great growth of scholarly interest in British cinema from the 1980s onwards. So it is curious that this elegant, observant and very readable social history of cinema in Britain from the earliest years to the 1940s should turn up in so few bibliographies or reading lists. Audrey Field worked at the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification) from 1948, rising to become Examiner of Films, and retiring in 1973. Her book looks at the habit of cinema-going, and in that alone it was unusual for its time. Scholarly interest in the 1970s was very much focused upon the screen, and it is only recently that academia has woken up to the realisation that film is as much a social phenomenon as an artistic one.

Field therefore looks not at the films, but at the audience, at the cinemas they visited, the people who ran the cinemas, and the critics and self-appointed guardians of those audiences (the BBFC among them). It is a book filled with good common-sense and a warm sympathy for the audiences who found in the cinema such a marvellous (and cheap) means to escape drudgery and to discover emotion, glamour and fantasy. She pokes gentle fun at the assorted anxious commentators and legislators who felt it incumbent upon them to control this medium that had to be wrong if was so popular among the undiscriminating masses, and her book is particular strong for the early years of British cinema. She cites a great many original documents (regrettably there are no notes and the bibliography is thin) which are a discovery in themselves and an encouragement to pursue the subject further.

Field gives particular attention to children - not for any sentimental reason, but simply because they formed such a large proportion of cinema audiences from the start, and because they are too often written out of cinema histories. She also looks at those who worked in the cinemas - projectionists, usherettes, managers - using her own interview material. She of course gives particular attention to the role of the BBFC (an industry body, not a state one), whose uneasy role she explains with an understanding of how such body must necessarily be a social barometer.

Throughout her focus is on those audiences who were simply out for a good time. As she observes:

"at the heart of all the tumult and heart-searching, were the patrons, the rank and file of the nation who, for once, having paid the piper, were calling the tune. Spellbound, fidgeting, lusting, loving, frozen with pleasurable fright, weeping a little, eating and laughing immoderately, the secret people, secure in the friendly dark, eluded the prying gaze of the sociologists to remain an enigma still".

So she writes well too, and this is a book well worth seeking out, not for its apparent nostalgia but for its intelligence and clarity. It reminds us what cinema is about, and warns us that the study of films is empty without consideration of how and by whom they are seen.

16 February 2010

Our moving image plans


The British Library

I’ve already described the British Library’s moving image collection, and I’ll be coming back to particular aspects of the collection in future posts.

But what about our plans for the future?

The collection that we do have is relatively small (if you can call 40,000 titles small) and is very focussed on sound. It makes sense as part of the British Library Sound Archive, which is what it is, but it stands up a little less when viewed as what users of national library need to complement their research across a range of academic disciplines. The BL is keen to give the moving image a higher presence, for the simple reason that we see the future of research (and our business is research) as being ‘media agnostic’; that is, the researchers of the future won’t necessarily care whether something is a book, manuscript, a sound recording or a video – many are just going to want to have the necessary information in one place, in digital form, and easy to use. There must still be cinephiles, bibliophiles and those who cherish a medium for its own sake, but in the digital soup that we are all building it is the subject that is paramount.

Moving images are important for the BL's users, as our Content Strategy identified in 2007. But how are we going to acquire them? The traditional route of establishing a film archive, with all of its accoutrements and issues, isn’t a sensible option. There are many film archives out there already (the UK has around 380 film collections of one sort or another) and we don’t need to add to their number - we would rather work with them. Our intention is to work towards optimum moving image access for our users, underpinned by a core BL capability but working with collections elsewhere, to be integrated with the other kinds of resources that the BL holds.

Our plan has three main elements to it. Element one is to develop the delivery of moving images across particular subject areas. Already, thanks to the work of the Sound Archive, we are strong in areas such as popular music, drama, and oral history. We want to develop such specialisms further, to benefit researchers where we know there is particular need.

Element two is to develop a general moving image service and capability in line with other services that BL offers for texts, still images, maps, etc. By general I mean a service that can offer something for researchers across for many subject areas. To do so we will be establishing a digital video management system (or Video Server, as it’s being called). This will host some of our existing moving image collection, but its main business will be to record television news programmes. This will fulfil a real research need, and with the exciting possibility of integrating such a service with our newspaper holdings in some way.

We will be recording news programmes (television and radio) off-air, using a system called Box of Broadcasts which has been developed by Cambridge Imaging Systems. The intention is to concentrate on 24-hour news channels available through Freeview and Freesat, content which is generally not available anywhere else to researchers post-transmission. The system is being built now, and will be ready to start recording in April. However, it won’t become a public service until late next year at the earliest, not least because we want to have some time to build up a body of content. However, there will be some public tests of the service along the way. Access will be onsite only – we are able to record programmes to deliver access to them at our St Pancras site, but for copyright reasons not on the Web.


There's a lot of video out there, or so it seems

Element three is longer-term, and involves working with other institutions collectively to deliver extensive access to moving image content. You may feel that in an iPlayer and YouTube world that we are awash with video content already, but in truth only a tiny amount is really available for research. Much needs to be done before we are in a position where it is as easy for a researcher to gain access to a film or video recording at any time as it is a book or journal article. We have statutory deposit for the printed word in this country, and that means that – in principle – every book printed in this country now and in the past is available. You may have to go through some hoops to get hold of some titles, but the principle remains.

Moving images are specifically excluded from UK statutory deposit legislation, as are sound recordings. It says a lot about how moving images are viewed in our culture that this is so. There is a form of legal deposit for television, because under the Communications Act the British Film Institute records selected British television programmes from the terrestrial commercial television channels (the BBC archives its own output), but in general there is no guarantee that a film, video or programme that you would like to see for study purposes will be available to you, because no one is able, legally or technically, to keep it all.

But there is much that we can do to improve the situation, by having the major institutions work together. You may have read of the British Library and the BBC signing a memorandum of understanding at the end of 2009. A lot can come out of the signing of such agreements to co-operate.

Here’s a vision of how things could work in the future. You, the researcher, are interested in Hamlet. You want to read the play. You want to look up the critical literature. You would like to listen to interviews undertaken with actors who have taken on the role. You would like to see images of set designs or costumes. You would like to see films based on the play. You would like all of this to appear through one search facility and the results to be delivered to you on one screen. Some of the content would come from the British Library. Some of it would come from other places, identified as belonging to them, but available in this same digital place. You might then want it all on the Web or your mobile as well, and that will be harder to achieve – but on site, we could do it.

This isn’t about making research easy (good research won’t ever be easy). It’s about changing the nature of research, and about encouraging new discovery. If you find the video or the sound recording alongside the text, that leads to new forms of discovery, new conclusions, new research outputs. It’s a goal worth working towards.

15 February 2010

Recording of the Week: Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds

Gerry Anderson discusses in 1984 the making of the ‘Supermarionation’ TV puppet series 'Thunderbirds' and answers questions from the audience. First screened in 1965, the show has remained popular to this day, being celebrated most recently with a 'Thunderbirds Night' on BBC 4 TV in 2008.

ICA-talks 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Institute of Contemporary Arts talks collection by Stephen Cleary, Curator of Drama & Literature recordings at the British Library Sound Archive. The ICA talks collection has 1,000 hours of recordings of events held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in the Mall, London, recorded over the period 1981-1994.

11 February 2010

Curiouser and curiouser


On Wednesday 24 February the British Library is hosting Curiouser and curiouser: The genius of Alice In Wonderland, an event celebrating celebrating Alice in words, conversation, film and more. The Library is the home of the first written version of Alice in Wonderland, hand penned and illustrated by Lewis Carroll in 1864, but this year also sees the latest screen interpretation of Carroll's tale, directed for Disney by Tim Burton.

There will be readings from Alice by film cast members Christopher Lee, Matt Lucas and Michael Sheen; an appreciation of the Alice tales by writer Will Self; discussion with producer Richard Zanuck and co-producer Joe Roth of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and a screening of the earliest film version of the work from 1903, directed by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth and recently restored by the BFI. It will be shown with a live piano accompaniment.

The event is hosted by Mark Salisbury, who has chronicled the life and films of Tim Burton extensively. He is the editor of the definitive Tim Burton interview book Burton on Burton and the author of the visual companions for Burton's Alice in Wonderland and other films.

Prior to the event there will be a chance to visit a new display of ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ together with related highlights from The British Library collection, as well as unique original costume designs for the new Tim Burton film by two-time Academy Award winning designer Colleen Atwood. This will be open on the night until 18.00 and during all standard Library opening hours.

View the extraordinary trailer for the Tim Burton film here:

10 February 2010

Knowing and protecting


The Image Permanence Institute is a world-renowned centre for the investigation of sustainable practices for the preservation of images and cultural property. It's based at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and it list its areas of expertise as being

  • the nature of photographic images and other forms of print media, information and technical support for the archival and photographic conservation profession
  • sustainable practices in environmental management and preservation
  • the stability of imaging and information media and digital print preservation
  • development of ISO Standards for imaging media and preservation

All of which serves as preamble to the news that the IPI has produced a handsome new poster, entitled Knowing and Protecting Motion Picture Film, which illustrates the history of motion picture materials. Measuring 47"x35", the poster is described thus:

Using microscopy-imaging techniques, this poster features the striking characteristics of twelve distinct film materials from the silent era to present day. It features a time-line of motion-picture technology, a wide variety of motion picture film processes, tips for material identification, and basic knowledge on film formats and soundtracks. Also included is practical advice for film examination, a glossary of technical terms, and critical information needed for long-term preservation. Most notably, this poster is seen as an educational tool for understanding and ultimately preserving motion picture film materials.

More details are available from the IPI, but while we're on the subject of handsome posters ideal for the walls of any right-thinking moving image archivist or scholar, this is an opportunity to tell you about the BKSTS series of posters. The British Kinematograph Sound & Television Society is a professional body which runs training courses, lectures, workshops and such like, plus the journals Image Technology (online) and Cinema Technology. For many in the industry, however, it is probably best known for its superb series of wallcharts on motion picture formats, of which these are the titles:

  • Digital Intermediate
  • High Definition Systems
  • Film Gauges and Soundtracks
  • Widescreen and 3D Film Formats
  • Motion Picture Colour Processes
  • Special Venues and Theme Parks
  • Television Aspect Ratios
  • Current Film Formats
  • Video Recording Techniques
  • SFX Wallchart 2 (Animation & Computer Imaging)
  • SFX Wallchart 3 (Physical Effects)
  • Film Handling for Projectionists

Here's the Colour Processes chart to give you an idea of what's on offer:


What more would be needed to impress your friends and establish your moving image credentials that to have such a poster on the wall? They also happen to be immensely useful. More details from the BKSTS website.