Sound and vision blog

6 posts from November 2012

28 November 2012

there's summat about nowt as gets us goat (and that rhymes by the way)

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed last night's episode of Last Tango in Halifax, which received deservedly positive reviews after its first showing last week. This BBC romantic comedy stars Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as Alan and Celia, recently widowed but presented with an unexpected opportunity to rekindle a relationship thwarted sixty years previously when teenage classmates in Halifax.

The first two episodes both ended with sufficiently convincing cliff-hangers for me to want to follow Alan and Celia's journey to its conclusion, but unfortunately I've had to wince professionally on more than one occasion about the disappointing pronunciation of those northern dialect icons, owt [= 'anything'] and nowt [= 'nothing']. There's a cleverly scripted and edited moment in the first episode (approx. 2 mins. 50 secs.) where Celia is talking to her daughter about making contact with an old school friend on the internet, while Alan is having the same conversation with his daughter. As respective daughters look at their mother/father quizzically first Celia, then Alan, insists "it's all nowt". Later on in the same episode (approx. 11 mins. 55 secs.) Gillian, Alan's daughter, shouts exasperatedly at Robbie, her brother-in-law, "you're lucky I let you have owt to do with him".

Perfectly legitimate examples, you might think, of some authentic northern flavour. Yes, but rather frustratingly all three speakers pronounce owt and nowt to rhyme with 'out' so we're in the 'wrong' north, I'm afraid. There are parts of the north of England - East Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, pockets of Lancashire - where owt and nowt rhyme with 'out'. I also sense - probably due to the widespread appeal of a recent advertising slogan (the bread with nowt taken out) - that speakers in many parts of the UK (and, sadly, middle-class northerners) have 're-adopted' the terms almost always with a pronunciation that rhymes with 'out'. In the old West Riding, however, (and in much of the East Midlands) the pronunciation is traditionally one that rhymes with 'oat'.

So how might actors (none of the three quoted above are locals) or dialect coaches know? Well, the British Library has a wonderful collection of materials that document our regional speech in minute detail. Researchers at the University of Leeds conducted the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s using a questionnaire of over 1300 items, one of which was the local word for 'nothing'. A quick glance at the published SED Basic Materials (Vol 1, Part 3, VII.8.14) shows responses from survey sites dotted around Halifax - Cawood, Golcar, Holmbridge and Skelmanthorpe - were consistently nowt and universally rhymed with 'oat'. Sound recordings from the same survey include spontaneous examples of owt and/or nowt in Cawood, Golcar and Skelmanthorpe and modern recordings capture examples in Osset and extending over the border into Lancashire in nearby places like Burnley and Colne. All of them rhyme with 'oat'.

Thankfully Robbie saves the day by using the 'right' pronunciation (approx. 43 mins. 38 secs.) when he says to Raff, Gillian's son, "this is about Gillian not wanting you to have owt to do wi me". Crucially perhaps, Robbie is played by the brilliant Dean Andrews who, as a Rotherham (i.e. West Riding) lad, wouldn't need to ask. I just wish he'd telt the others!


20 November 2012

eh, those lovable Geordies!

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

Sit-coms are wonderful vehicles for celebrating regional speech. Gavin and Stacey, for instance, is a brilliantly affectionate deconstruction of stereotypical - but nonetheless recognisable - cultural and linguistic differences between Barry and Billericay. The new BBC series, Hebburn, follows in the same tradition by lovingly capturing one of our most distinctive British dialects, Geordie, albeit with principal cast members drawn from across the North East of England from Darlington to South Shields. The highlight of every episode for me is counting the number of times female characters use that iconic Geordie exclamation - 'eh!' - each example surpassing the previous in terms of length and bewilderingly high pitch.

An entry in The New Geordie Dictionary (Graham 1979) describes 'ee' as 'an expression of delight', but makes no reference to the fact it is, I would suggest, considerably more common in female speech. I associate it with female speakers across the whole of the North East and sense it's used to convey an even greater range of emotions - from disappointment, despair and dismay to surprise, amusement or excitement. I also think its geographical boundary once extended much further south as I can definitely remember my grandmother (b. 1907 in Altoft, West Yorkshire) using it, particularly when prefacing a comment about her own or someone else's perceived 'daft' behaviour. This recording of a young female speaker from Hartlepool captures an authentic example in the phrase "I thought, 'eh God!'" at 0 mins. 44 secs.

19 November 2012

A.R. Gregory Kenyan bird recordings

Cheryl Tipp, Natural Sounds Curator, writes:

The A.R. Gregory collection represents one man’s passion for recording the songs and calls of Kenya’s avifauna. For more than 30 years, Roy Gregory amassed over 4000 field recordings of the country’s diverse birdlife, from Emerald Spotted Wood Doves and Crowned Hornbills to Joyful Greenbuls and Beautiful Sunbirds. More recordings from the A.R. Gregory collection will be added over the coming months, but for now almost 500 recordings from the late 1960s to 1974 have been digitised, edited, catalogued and made available. These represent the earliest recordings made by Gregory and cover well known locations such as Lake Naivasha, Shimba Hills National Reserve and Mount Elgon National Park. In addition to these birding hotspots, Gregory also recorded the songs and calls of birds found in and around his hometown of Nairobi.


Black-headed Oriole, Oriolus larvatus:

Some recordings are tinged with poignancy, for many of Gregory’s favourite birding areas in highland Kenya have since been destroyed through slash and burn agricultural techniques. The birds that once frequented these locations have long since vanished, leaving gaps in the sonic tapestry of the landscape that can be filled, to some degree, by field recordings but never truly replaced.

Splendid Glossy Starling, Lamprotornis splendidus:

Roy Gregory’s deep rooted love for ornithology and sound recording are clearly evident when browsing his collection. He continued recording the birds he loved until a couple of years before his death in 1995. His archive is extensive, both in breadth and depth, and represents almost 50% of Kenya’s total birdlife. Now, for the first time, these recordings reach beyond the walls of the British Library and are available to anybody who would like to listen.

(Image: Mount Elgon by Kristina Just)

15 November 2012

Tuning in on the first days of broadcasting

Yesterday, 14th November 2012, was the 90th anniversary of the BBC and the beginning of what was to become 'public service broadcasting' in the UK. It began with a 6 pm news bulletin read by Arthur Burrows and has continued daily, if not continuously, since that time, interrupted only by the occasional power cut.

It’s hard to imagine today what a groundbreaking moment it was, changing forever the way people acquired knowledge and information, the way their tastes and interests developed and in the way they experienced entertainment of all kinds. 


Alfred Taylor, 1922. Photo courtesy of Ann Gelly
Alfred Taylor in 1922, the year he began writing his Wireless Log and Minutes Book


On the BBC’s Radio Reunited programme celebrating the moment, Damon Albarn put two of the most commonly asked questions to staff of the Science Museum where part of the original 2LO transmitter is now on display. His first was “Who was listening?", to which he was correctly told that they were “amateur radio enthusiasts”.

But I suspect that what Albarn really wanted to know was – What kind of people were listening in the first days of broadcasting? Were they largely hobbyists, scientists and wealthy people? Or did ordinary workers, the retired and young people – the people who make up the bulk of today’s audiences – also get a chance to witness these historic events unfolding? We know there were listeners in London and the South East – but what about the small villages and towns of the north? What would they have heard, if anything, during those first days of transmission? And how easy was it to set up the equipment and tune in?  

A unique manuscript recently donated to the British Library by sisters Annie Bright and Susan Briars gives a fascinating first-hand insight into these and other questions – a ‘Wireless Log’ kept by their 16 year old uncle Alfred Taylor (1906-1985) over the 12 months from October 1922 (three weeks prior to the first BBC broadcast) through to 1923.

Taylor, the son of a Newark jeweller by this time resident in Lincoln, had recently won £200, then an enormous sum, in a competition in the short-lived newspaper Boy’s Pictorial (sic) – more than enough to cover the cost of the equipment, aerial installation and the regular ‘radio suppers’ he was to host for interested friends and neighbours over the following year.

The more powerful multi-valve sets of the kind Alfred bought then cost about £5 – equivalent to more than £200 today. One valuable aspect of his log is the detailed record he made of his equipment, including indoor and outdoor aerials, and how it was set up. He also noted the problems he experienced and the measures he took to resolve them.  


Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log detailing his equipment, where he acquired it and how he set up the outdoor aerial in 1922.
The Wireless Log, page 2 [click on image to view full size]


There was no mechanism for measuring audiences at the time. However the Postmaster-General had issued nearly 36,000 licences for BBC-approved wireless sets by the end of 1922 and thousands more had already built their own sets from widely available components in preceding years, suggesting that over 50,000 set owners were probably attempting to tune-into the first BBC broadcasts. But Taylor’s log shows that for every one of these set-owning “enthusiasts” a great many more people, owning neither licences nor equipment, made up the bulk of the first radio audiences.

They were the friends, family and neighbours who dropped in to share the revelatory experience of listening for a few minutes here and there, whenever they were allowed.

The Log also provides a more detailed answer to Albarn’s second question: "How far away was the furthest listener?” This depended on your equipment and on atmospheric conditions but the BBC’s 1,500 watt 2LO transmitter at Marconi House, London could certainly be picked up in Lincoln (East Midlands) with a three-valve receiver and outdoor aerial of the kind Alfred had. Sets with up to seven valves could have received the station considerably further afield, one 2LO listener even being reported in the Shetland Islands. Taylor’s records also show that it was possible to receive Marconi’s still operating experimental station at Writtle (21st Nov), the 4,000 watt station on the Eiffel Tower in Paris (call sign FL – 20th Nov etc), aircraft navigation signals from the Croydon aerodrome and, apparently most clearly of all – the 8,000 watt long-wave commercial radio station P.C.G.G. transmitting from The Hague in Holland. The latter’s clear reception, despite its distance, was due to its much greater power and uninterrupted view across the North Sea to the UK’s eastern seaboard.

We can also see how the quality of the teenager’s reception fluctuated owing to the vagaries of the weather and atmospheric conditions, and the limits of the accumulators (rechargeable batteries) powering the valves. At this time such equipment could not simply be plugged into the mains supply of a house because supply frequencies had yet to be standardized. So in these early months Taylor would probably have had to take the discharged accumulators to his local cycle repair or hardware shop for re-charging – a considerable inconvenience to regular valve set listeners. People using the cheaper and much weaker crystal sets, which used no power, would not have had this problem but had to content themselves with the much more limited reception range and low volume headphone output.

The first page of the log shows that although he was hearing sponsored concerts before the BBC’s first (official) programme went out on the 14th November, the historic date itself passed without comment by Alfred, perhaps because atmospheric conditions were poor, because he listened only “occasionally” or because he’d been unable to recharge the exhausted accumulators.


'Wireless Day By Day' column for 13th May 1922 - six months prior to the first BBC radio broadcast. An effective indoor aerial required the listener to construct a wooden frame several feet across.
Wireless Day By Day - The Daily Mail, 13th May 1922


He also kept a scrapbook into which he pasted a regular Daily Mail column for wireless enthusiasts titled Wireless Day By Day. Along with the daily reports and schedules published in newspapers such as The Times, this allows a useful comparison with Taylor’s ‘listening-in’ log and shows that while much excitement surrounded the entertainment possibilities of the new medium it was already also being put to many other uses – time signals being regularly transmitted as a means of synchronizing clocks and watches over a wide area and weather forecasts being aired soon after their issue by the met office – a great advantage to mariners who’d hitherto had to rely on newspaper information up to a day old.



Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log page 6 detailing his record of 'listening-in' during December 1922 and January 1923.
The Wireless Log page 6: 28th Dec 1922 to 17th Jan 1923


On the 28th December 1922 Alfred notes that his reception of 2ZY (BBC Manchester) and 2LO (BBC London) during his radio supper was “very much interfered with” – possibly due to atmospheric conditions but more likely down to the many amateur radio hams, transmitting as well as receiving, who were already starting to crowd the airwaves despite warnings from the Postmaster-General that they should first listen in to their chosen wavelength to ensure that they would not be interfering with other stations.

On the 17th Jan (1923) he also notes the live relay of La bohème from Covent Garden featuring Dame Nellie Melba, already famous for her experimental Chelmsford broadcast of June 1920, but seems more struck by the sound of the concert audience coming directly into the family’s Lincoln home.


Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log page 8, detailing his listening from 11th to 14th of February 1923, by which time several new BBC stations had come onstream. At this time it was not practical to network the stations by relaying from London to the rest, so each station transmitted its own regional service.
The Wireless Log page 8: 11th-14th February 1923


By February, Taylor was picking up several new BBC stations which had by then launched, including 5WA (Cardiff), 5NO (Newcastle) and 5IT (Birmingham). On the 14th he “Took a phone lead upstairs to mother” – presumably because she was confined to bed – and on the following day experimented with a technique for group listening to a “very loud” recital by the Wireless Orchestra: “Laid one pair phones on table & sat round & listened in – Good”

Although only a handful of radio recordings survive from the 1920s and listening logs of this kind – commencing before the first official day of transmission – must have been rare, many people presumably made single or occasional notes in their diaries concerning the new medium and what they heard. The radio curator would be interested to hear from anyone who has unpublished written records of radio listening in the 1920s and any interesting examples which come to light will be reproduced in a future update to this blog.

N.B. Please do not post any unique materials without first contacting us for advice. Email the radio curator at or write to: Paul Wilson, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. 

14 November 2012

Documenting music in Nepal

Seto Machindranath festival, Nepal 1955-56

At the British Library we have been digitising some of our film and video collection. It’s a collection that has been built up not with an overall moving image resource in mind, but rather as a reflection of the interest of particular curators. So the collection does not cover all subjects, instead specialising in certain areas, often relating to sound because the videos were traditionally collected by the Library’s sound archive. So it is that highlights of the collection include experimental theatre recordings, oral history intervies, a large number of pop videos, and ethnomusicological recordings collected by our World and Traditional Music section.

Films from the latter are among the first batch of films that we have digitised, and four extracts have just gone up on YouTube, on a new British Library playlist, Sound and moving image collections. They are films taken by the celebrated Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963). Bake documented music and dance in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily in audio format (reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders and Tefiphone recordings on 35mm film) but occasionally on 16mm film as well. He served as Lecturer in Indian Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and wrote widely on Indian music. His advocates and acolytes are scattered across the globe; likewise his sound and film collections. At the BL we have many sound recordings he made on field trips in 1925-1928, 1931-1934, and 1939-1941, and the greater part of his film legacy, with 16mm material from the 1930s and 1950s.

Indra Jaatra Festival Kathmandu, 1931

It has to be said that Bake was probably happier with an audio recorder than with a camera. The films are erratically shot and sometimes clumsily composed, with many of the flaws in production and technique associated with the amateur. The footage is unedited, and little information survives on what was shot, when, and where. Consequently the identification and coherent presentation of the films has been quite an undertaking. We’re still working on the collection, but we have released four preview edited extracts that bring together Bake’s films (which were shot silent) with some of his sound recordings (which were made around the same time but not intended as synchronous accompaniments to the films).

We’re not interested in such films as art (though it’s always welcome when one encounters a little artistry) – we’re interested in the content, in what the film documents, and in this case its mean for a particular community. Each video is accompanied by this important message on the respect due to works that document traditional practices:

The British Library has made these recordings available purely for the purposes of non-commercial research, study and private enjoyment. These recordings should not be altered or used in ways that might be derogatory to the indigenous and local communities who are traditional custodians of the traditional music, lyrics, knowledge, stories, performances and other creative materials embodied in the recordings.

An important aspect of the preservation and digitisation of the films has been a repatriation project with the Music Museum of Nepal (half of the films were shot in that country). We sent the digitised films to the museum, they supplied us with detailed documentation, which we have incorporated in our catalogue records and which helped inform the further preservation work and production of edited extracts (more of which will follow in due course).

Matayaa festival, 1955-56

I know nothing of the music of Nepal, and I’m very much aware that what I see in the films is purely surface, while for others they are rich in meaning and significance. It’s a marvellous experience to sit with those who do have that knowledge and to learn from them what what can be seen (and heard) by those who have the eyes (and ears) to see (and hear). We hope that in publishing these short extracts that we will attract those with expert knowledge to help us document the films that much more accurately. We will be publishing further extracts, as well as other examples from our collections, on the YouTube playlist, ahead of making greater amount of archive film and video available in our reading rooms in 2013.

Even if I don;t know much about the music of Nepal, I think the films have an unpretentious beauty about them. I am enthralled by the shot of vertiginous crowds attending the Indra Jaatra festival in Kathmandu in 1931, intrigued by the chariot that needs to be taller than the buildings around it so as not to displease the God in the colour film of the Seto Machindranath festival, and it is such a delight to see the young boy so earnestly playing his drum along with the Newar musicians in 1955-56. As even these short extracts make clear, Bake had a most sympathetic eye.

Matayaa festival, Nepal 1955-56


06 November 2012

Blowin' in the Wind

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Natural Sounds, writes:

Wind can adopt a number of different sonic guises depending on what it interacts with. Take, for instance, this recording of wind blowing along a typical residential street in North London:

Here the wind manifests itself as an undulating whistling as it is forced through gaps in a letterbox. The sound changes when we step outside the confines of our homes as other influences begin to take over. This recording of wind blowing through yacht rigging still has that whistling quality, yet metallic elements are introduced to the sound picture as the fluttering rigging strikes the masts:

The relationship between wind and foliage is perhaps a neverending discovery of acoustic creations. The type of leaf, the season and the kind of tree / bush all work together to create a sound unique to that place and time.


This recording showcases the sound of a strong wind gusting through trees on the Isle of Wight:

A softer atmosphere is created in this next recording, where the wind whips through dried grass and reeds on a Scottish marshland:

More examples of wind recordings can be found in our Weather collection. This selection showcases over 100 field recordings that feature different kinds of weather, from rain and snow to wind and thunderstorms, and together highlight the British Library's growing collection of environmental sounds.

(Image: Martin Smith)