Sound and vision blog

6 posts from June 2016

29 June 2016

Punk in '76: Camden Town and the making of More On

The British Library's free summer exhibition Punk 1976-78 features a number of fanzines from the era. Many of the creators of these fanzines subsequently developed careers in the arts or the media: Jon Savage (London's Outrage) became a writer; Shane MacGowan (Bondage) found fame with the Pogues; and Tony Moon, creator of Sideburns, with its famous graphic: 'This is a chord - this is another - this is a third ... now form a band', is now an academic at the University of Southampton.

Sarah Rapson, co-creator of More On fanzine, became an artist. She kindly shared with me her memories of those exciting times.

British Library: How old were you when you started the fanzine?

Sarah Rapson: I was 17 and still lived at home in North London. I was in the sixth form at Camden School for Girls. I hand-wrote the words and my school friend Rebecca Hale took most of the pictures, although I did take the picture of Viv Albertine in fishnets sitting on the bar at the Roxy Club (above), but probably with her camera. We developed the photos in a darkroom in Kentish Town that we accessed by signing up for the local council's photography evening classes. Rebecca called herself Crystal Clear and I gave myself various pen names, one of them being Vinyl Virgin. I think we did this so as not to be embarrassed or maybe so as not to get expelled from school. We printed the first issues on the school's copying machine.

BL: How many issues did you publish?

SR: I think there were four issues and they were all published 1976-77 - it seemed like a much longer time period! I think we made about 50 copies of the first one using the school machine and then we went to copy shops. Joe Strummer gave me £100 after he saw the first issue, so that we could make more and get them printed at a copy shop. I credit this act with sort of inspiring my whole life and he was I think a sort of angel. We sold them at the Roxy Club and the market down the World's End. Rough Trade also had them in their record store. 

BL: How did you come to meet Joe Strummer?

SR: The Clash frequented George's Cafe on Camden High Street, as we did. It was the first place past the bridge (opposite the bookstore and the place where they made the hippy sandals). George's Cafe was a real 'caff' and Camden High Street was working class but also had bohemian vibrations. In the 1960s my mother had taken me there to do the shopping because it had a fruit-and-veg market, a good butcher's, a really good Greek baker's, and also the Co-op department store where you got 'divi' coupons and bought your settee on HP. By 1976 it hadn't changed much at all and to see the Clash emerge in that environment made it a more personal situation for me.

I should also mention something about the Roundhouse. I'd gone there as a youngster too as there was this thing called 'implosion' run by hippies where they had children there too and it had delicious hippy food and a very strong smell of pot and swirling light shows, with music like Cream playing etc.  

There was always a bit of a rock'n'roll revolutionary vibe around that part of town. I know punk was seen as 'anti-hippy' but I remember hippy stuff as a kid being quite punk-like too: raw and mixed-in with life a bit.

We were already regulars at George's Cafe and we almost fainted when these very unusual charismatic boys walked in: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simenon. Soon after that we were at Knebworth to see the Rolling Stones - we both liked Keith Richards but it was really all very boring - and on the ground was a Melody Maker or a New Musical Express with a photo and blurb about this newly formed band, or maybe it was an ad for a concert, I don't really remember, but at once we recognized the picture as being the amazing boys from George's Cafe so we went to see them play. 


The Clash in their Camden Town rehearsal space. Photo copyright © Sheila Rock. Used with permission. Punk+ by Sheila Rock is published by First Third Books.

When we went to see the Clash play we talked to them and then immediately did this magazine. I think it was a way to express my love because I really did have a crush on Joe Strummer! I think what punk was against was the 'detached star' thing - I don't think it was against 'glamour' as there was something glamorous about it too.

We were invited to watch them rehearse and to take pictures and to interview them, and maybe this was to do with us seeing them in the cafe but they were also accessible. There was no sexism in the scenario, it was more about recognizing charisma and creativity. We were both schoolgirls but I recognize that we were artists, and I think about Patti Smith in all of this because she was an important discovery too. 

BL: What do you remember of the gigs of the period?

SR: We went out all the time, mainly to the Roxy Club in Covent Garden and we saw everyone there. I remember seeing the Sex Pistols at the Screen on the Green - that was pretty amazing. We were also friendly with the Slits.

BL: What did you do next?

SR: I went to Hornsey Art School, Rebecca went to Saint Martin's (which was the 'better' school) and then we lost touch. I went to New York and lived and worked there as an artist. About 15 years ago an artist friend in New York, who I maybe had told a bit of my life story to, asked me how I saw my own work in relation to punk and it was a revelation because I saw that actually that 'punk' aesthetic and attitude had always been there - but the thing is that the way it was described by the media and other commentators wasn't really how I'd seen it.

I returned to the UK in 2005 and now live in a house built the year John Keats was born. I mention Keats because I see it as all related: a couple of years before meeting the Clash I'd have said he was a big 'romantic' influence on me. I think my point is that punk was a romantic movement too.


If you enjoyed this blog post you may also enjoy Paul Davies's story of the Cardiff fanzine Oh Cardiff ... Up Yours!

24 June 2016

Fourth of July punk special


On 4 July 2016 it will be 40 years since influential New York punk band the Ramones played their first gig in Britain, just up the road from the British Library, at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm.

The photo above, taken by Ramones manager Danny Fields, shows lead singer Joey Ramone outside the venue.

The Roundhouse was built in 1847 by the London and North Western Railway as a turning yard for trains, although it didn't serve this purpose for long. For 90 years or so, from 1864, it was used by Gilbey's Gin as a warehouse. Then, from 1964, it became a performing arts centre, hosting new theatre work by Arnold Wesker, Peter Brook and the Living Theater, and concerts featuring underground rock bands, including, in 1968, the only UK performances by the Doors.

Which is where Danny Fields comes in....

In 1966, despite a less-than-wonderful relationship with lead singer Jim Morrison, Danny had been instrumental in the Doors' signing to Elektra Records. He went on to manage the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and - for a brief period - Lou Reed, and negotiated record deals for the MC5 and Nico, respectively.

Notice that all these artists figure among the select group that arguably paved the way for 70s punk music in some way. Certainly, at least, they were respected by the artists and followers of the new scene.

By 1976, finger on the pulse as ever, Danny was managing the premier US punk band, the Ramones.

There is a lot more to Danny's career in music than the few points listed above, so, if you can, why not come along to the British Library Punk 1976-78 event on 4 July and hear the man himself in conversation?

It's a rare opportunity and should be a great night. We will also be presenting a special preview screening of the brand new documentary film by Brendan Toller Danny Says

Photo of Joey Ramone © Danny Fields. My Ramones by Danny Fields is published by First Third Books.

17 June 2016

Galton and Simpson: earliest recordings of BAFTA Fellowship writers discovered

Tristan Brittain-Dissont writes:

As the newly appointed Archivist of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society, I recently decided to search for material relevant to ‘the Lad’ within the British Library’s Sound & Moving Image catalogue.

To my surprise, within just a few minutes I had made one of the most extraordinary discoveries in the history of radio comedy. Hidden in plain sight were details of numerous recordings of a BBC radio series from 1951 which historians have to date assumed to be lost – a show which would not only transform Hancock’s career, but also change the course of British comedy.

Happy-Go-Lucky (HGL) was a one-hour variety show broadcast on the Light Programme, commencing in August 1951. It was a vehicle for Derek Roy, a significant star of the time, but now largely forgotten. Conceived as a ‘light-hearted blend’ of comedy and music, it turned out to be a low-brow mess. By October, the writers had been fired; the producer had suffered a nervous

Derek Roy (courtesy of the Galton and Simpson Archive, by kind permission)
Derek Roy (1922-1981), star of Happy-Go-Lucky. Courtesy of the Galton and Simpson Archive

breakdown; and one of the regular sketches was so poor that the up-and-coming comic leading it was begging for his performances to be excised from broadcast. In desperation, the new producer – BBC legend Dennis Main Wilson – called a meeting of cast and crew. He turned to two young men, who were there only because they had recently started selling jokes to Roy for a few shillings a time. He asked them if they could write the last few shows of the series so it could limp to completion before Christmas; and they agreed.

Those two young men – who, at this stage, could in no way be considered scriptwriters – were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, not long out of a TB hospital where they had first met. In taking on HGL, they began one of the most significant comedy writing collaborations we have ever seen. And if this was not significant enough, consider the following. On November 11th 1951, as Galton and Simpson sat in the stalls watching their first scripts being rehearsed at the Paris Cinema, the young comic who was so unhappy with his role in the show walked past them. ‘Did you write that?’ he said. ‘Very funny.’ It was Tony Hancock. This was the first time the three men had met. Between them, they would go on to create arguably the greatest radio and television sitcom of all time - Hancock’s Half Hour - and a comic character - Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock – that has achieved immortality. 

Simpson, Hancock and Galton (Courtesy of the Galton and Simpson Archive)
Alan Simpson (left), Tony Hancock (centre) and Ray Galton in the 1950s.

For decades, every authority on Tony, Galton, Simpson and, indeed, British comedy has insisted that no recordings of HGL had survived. Only a small proportion of BBC radio's comedy output could be archived at that time, but it has now transpired that Derek Roy wisely had many recordings of his broadcasts made privately. Following Roy's death they were deposited with the British Library in the 1990s, their full significance not initially recognised.

How, therefore, to describe the feeling I had when I started scrolling through the details of these lost shows (and, a little later, listening to them)? I can only do this best, I feel by comparison. Imagine finding a copy of The Madhouse on Castle Street, a BBC teleplay featuring a then unknown Bob Dylan. Or Humourisk, the first Marx Brothers film. Or Pilgrim on the Hill, one of three early novels by Philip K. Dick. All are considered lost and constitute the earliest known works of the artists in question. Finding the HGL recordings means we can hear, for the first time in 65 years, the first ever work written by Galton and Simpson and broadcast on the national airwaves.

Script from the Galton and Simpson Archive used by kind permission
Original script for 'Current Affairs' sketch. Courtesy of the Galton and Simpson Archive

This sketch, called Current Affairs in the Galton and Simpson Archive, formed the opening monologue of the show broadcast on 6 September 1951:

Happy-Go-Lucky - 6 September 1951

Here is an excerpt from Galton and Simpson's American Crime sketch from the episode of the following week:

Happy-Go-Lucky - 13 September 1951 

The episode of 26 November 1951 featured the scriptwriting duo's sketch Captain Henry Morgan which ends in this extract with a self-deprecating G&S joke in response to some barbs about their youthful inexperience, the pair barely in their 20s at this time:

Happy-Go-Lucky - 26 November 1951

An equally extraordinary find was an excerpt from a BBC radio series called Variety Ahoy!, broadcast in early 1952, a few weeks after the demise of HGL. Roy was the guest star and in the course of a monologue called Naval Story he tells the 'Jane Russell pontoon' gag . Incredibly, this was the first joke that Galton and Simpson ever wrote and sold. It featured in a short handwritten sketch that they had submitted to the BBC in mid-1951 to tout for work. Roy was the only performer to take interest which led to them providing jokes for 5 shillings each for his HGL appearances:

Variety Ahoy! - 22 January 1952

Sadly, Roy’s understandable concern with preserving his own performances, and the prohibitive cost of recording complete shows on acetate disc (tape recording was just emerging as a domestic medium at this time), has come at a cost to comedy historians. Since he and Tony did not perform together in the show the recordings contain nothing of the Lad other than a few mentions in the closing credits. Any disappointment in this regard, however, must be outweighed by the sheer

Happy-Go-Lucky, BBC Light Programme, 6th September 1951
Derek Roy's recording of the first recorded work of Galton and Simpson

delight in finding recordings that played such an integral part in the history of post-war British comedy and popular culture. Reflecting upon this experience, I would strongly urge people to check those long-neglected boxes in their lofts, garages and basements. For although the Library continues to discover and rescue early radio recordings today, curators nevertheless believe that a portion of the UK´s radio history is probably being discarded each week by people who have inherited collections, are unaware of their importance and do not know what to do with them. I have only recently discovered the soundtracks of two lost episodes of the televised version of Hancock’s Half Hour in such a collection. I am convinced that still more will come to light if collection owners take the trouble to contact local or national archives, libraries or subject specialists such as me for advice.

The Library´s Save Our Sounds project intends to make this process easier by establishing a network of ten regional archival hubs around the UK, each equipped and staffed to make many of these assessment, acquisition and preservation decisions locally. This will also reduce the need to transport fragile media, such as ‘acetate’ discs, over long distances. Whilst Hancock, Galton and Simpson´s work had nationwide impact and therefore rightly belongs within the collections of the national library, much regionally or locally produced content may be better understood, interpreted and contextualised within regional archives, at least until such times as its copyright status permits it to be made more widely accessible online.

News and further reading:

BBC News: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to get Bafta Fellowship

British Library's Sound and Moving Image catalogue

Tony Hancock Appreciation Society

British Library on Twitter @soundarchive and @BLSoundHeritage

Tony Hancock Archive on Twitter: @HancockArchive

09 June 2016

Recording the past, representing the present: Indians of the Colombian Vaupés

 In January 2016 The British Library supported anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Brian Moser to take back digital copies of his Tukano recordings - British Library collection C207 Brian Moser & Donald Tayler Colombia collection which were made on an initial recording trip in the 1960's supported by the British Institute of Recorded Sound - to the Tukano peoples in the Pirá-Paraná region of the Amazon. 

Brian was accompanied on the trip by his son, Titus Moser, and  anthropologists Professor Stephen and Dr Christine Hugh-Jones. With both Stephen and Christine being fluent in Tukano and most of the sub-group dialects, the team hoped to observe the impact of returning these recordings. In this guest blog from the team they discuss their findings in the context of wider representation of Amazonian Indian culture and  the indigenous perspective.


 Indians at Piedra Ñi look at a projection of “War of the Gods” inside the maloca. 2016

2016 is a year to reflect on the culture and history of Northwest Amazonian Indians in the face of so-called "civilization". There are two reasons why we have a unique opportunity to question how we relate to Amazonian Indian culture through our all-pervasive media of photography and sound recording.

The first is the UK release (10th June) of The Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra's Oscar-nominated film about the history of Vaupés Indians. This feature-film, shot by a Colombian director in the Colombian tropical forest, complements several documentaries made by foreigners over the past six decades, the whole providing both a rich compendium of documented, interpreted and imagined historical events and a social history of film-making about Indian subjects. 

The second reason is that indigenous peoples now have access to these media themselves.


Stephen, Titus and Oliverio pull the boat over the Thunder rapids on the Komenyá River, Pirá-Paraná 2016    

In January this year, with British Library support, Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones accompanied 81 year-old documentary film-maker Brian Moser and his son Titus on a trip to return Brian's recorded material to the communities living along the Pirá-Paraná river and to make new sound recordings. Over ten days, we visited three different communities and, in each, people gathered in their traditional longhouse to watch Brian’s films starring famous shamans and chanters, no longer alive, and themselves as children. Each community was given a book of photos, a hard drive and an iPad with copies of Brian’s audiovisual records of their culture and, eventually, will have the film Titus made of our trip and their reactions.


Ignacio, a now retired but still revered shaman and headman, looks at “Piraparaná”. 2016

Besides this, two Pirá-Paraná communities have recently acquired Internet posts. These are intended to facilitate day-to-day-communications about travel, health, education and air freight but, inevitably, this is a journey of no return into our global village with all its powerful, exciting potential and terrifying negative consequences.

Traditionally, the multi-lingual network of Vaupés Indian peoples lived in communal longhouses, cultivated manioc, and had a particularly rich intellectual heritage of extensive mythologies, ritual exchanges and male initiation with sacred flutes. They were already suffering the traumatic onslaughts of rubber gatherers and missionaries when the German explorer Theodore Koch-Grünberg visited them in 1903-5 and made his extraordinary collection of artefacts, early photographs and pioneering wax-cylinder recordings. 

By 1960, when Brian and Donald Tayler first visited, Pirá-Paraná society was a still traditional refuge area compared with the mission-dominated Indian villages beyond. In spite of modern equipment and outboard motors, the expedition ethos had not changed so very much from Koch-Grünberg’s day (see Moser and Tayler's travel book The Cocaine Eaters. London: Longmans 1965). They made a collection of artefacts for the British Museum, photographs, sound recordings (now in the British Library) and a film of Makuna Indian culture.

Tukano Pira_0467

Indian dancers perform the maraca dance to celebrate the manioc harvest festival. 1970   

Eight years later, we started anthropological fieldwork in isolated Pirá-Paraná longhouses. The first missionaries had just settled - Colombian Catholic Xaverians in the centre of the main river and various North American couples from Wycliffe Bible Translators on tributaries - all busy employing Indians to clear the short jungle air strips which would accelerate change in unforeseen ways. In 1970, we arranged for Brian to come back to make a film in Granada Television’s groundbreaking Disappearing World Series

In traditional "natural-history" documentaries, exotic indigenous customs would be explained by a scantily informed visitor from the western world, with every discordant sign of the White Man carefully edited out. By 1970, the anthropological methods of fieldwork and participant-observation contributed to the climate-change in which filmmakers reflected on cultural imperialism and the nature of documentary film. Brian’s 1970 War of the Gods was a very different beast to his 1960 effort. Close-up photography and subtitled speech in Indian languages drew viewers closer to Indians. Cuts between the Catholic Eucharist, Protestant hymn singing and indigenous ceremonies where hallucinogenic yagé (ayahuasca) transports Indian chanters into the mythical world of ancestors, show the tension between the equivalence of the rituals and the inequality of the brute socio-economic power and "civilizing" ideology of the two Christian missions.

Tukano Pira_0480

Cristo, an expert chanter-dancer and Bosco, a renowned shaman, chanting origin journey of their ancestors through the night under the influence of yajé (ayahuasca). 1970

Later, we returned to the Pirá-Paraná to find Indian communities trading traditional coca crops to isolated cocaine labs. The nearest lab had usurped the Catholic mission airstrip! To our amazement, in a basic jungle encampment with ill-assorted vessels, sacks of chemicals and drums of aeroplane fuel, the grown son of a Colombian fortune-seeker we had known from the past was minding the project for his father. The father’s CV included policeman, rubber gatherer and jaguar hunter but now he was a cocaine-producer with an obsession about chemical purity. Brian’s documentary instincts brought him back and, against all the odds, in 1980 he managed to shoot a remarkable and risky film of the backwoods cocaine trade called A Small Family Business.

Now, 35 years on, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent seeks to turn the tables on box-office hits like Boorman's Emerald Forest, Herzog's Fitzcarraldo or Joffe's The Mission. Instead of indigenous Amazonians appearing through the distorting lens of Western cultural assumptions, the fatal impact of colonial forces is seen through the indigenous eyes of Karamakate, the shaman, played first as a young man by Nilbio Torres, a Cubeo Indian from the Vaupés, and then, as an old man, by Antonio Bolívar from further south. A hotchpotch of loosely historical themes twist through this beautifully shot, black and white film: the sympathetic characters of real-life explorers - Koch-Grünberg and Harvard ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes - contrast with the excessive brutality of missionaries and rubber traders and are woven into a story of jungle hardships, tragic cultural loss, and the cultural gap between Indians and White men. Resolution of a sort comes through hallucinogenic experience - the only sequence in colour. Meanwhile, we learn that Karamakate is the last survivor of his people who has forgotten his own culture - he stands for the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, what Jordan Hoffman in his 17 Feb. 2016 Guardian review calls the"unstoppable current of history".

But Vaupés history has not turned out like Guerra’s vision. There are some 30,000 Indians living in different states of integration into pan-Colombian culture. In War of the Gods, we see the very same Indian shaman singing hymns in shirt and trousers and then chanting about the ancestral anaconda-canoe, high on yagé in paint and feather ornaments. This shaman stands for a more realistic and nuanced fate than Karamakate’s: one in which people integrate the new in ways we may find difficult to understand. 


 Young panpipe players making music in the evening on the upper Pirá-Paraná. 1960

In 2010 UNESCO added the Traditional Shamanic Knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yurupari, the cultural heritage of the Bará, Barasana, Tatuyo, Taiwano and Makuna peoples of the Pirá-Paraná river to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a tribute to the intellectual power and persistence of traditional Vaupés culture. One certainty is that today’s Pirá-Paraná Indians are eager and grateful for past recordings of their culture. Having seen this so clearly in January, we shall do what we can to save our own sound recordings for the future by adding them to the British Library collection.

Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones

The recordings made during the 2016 trip will be added soon to the original collection  -  C207 Brian Moser and Donald Tayler Colombia collection which can be browsed online. 


Embrace of the Serpent  opens in cinemas on June 10th 2016

A copy of the Disappearing World film - War of the Gods can be viewed on-site at the British Library 


Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.



03 June 2016

Peter Kennedy Archive

As part of an AHRC Cultural Engagement project grant awarded to City University and partially funded by the National Folk Music Fund, ethnomusicologist Andrew Pace, has engaged in a project to catalogue thousands of paper and photographic files from Peter Kennedy’s collection of British and Irish folk music held at the British Library.

This month we have launched a unique website - - in which listeners can retrace the chronology and geographical routes of Kennedy's extensive field recording activity. In the text below, Andrew describes the project and walks us through the website's main features.

Peter Kennedy interviewing Edgar Button. Thebburton, Suffolk, 1956 [PR0925]

Peter Kennedy was one of the most prolific collectors of British and Irish folk music and customs from the 1950s up until his death in 2006. Working closely with other collectors of his generation, such as Alan Lomax, Sean O’Boyle and Hamish Henderson, he recorded hundreds of traditional performers ‘in the field’, including Margaret Barry, Fred Jordan, Paddy Tunney, Harry Cox, Frank and Francis McPeake and Jack Armstrong. In 2008 his collection came under the care of the World and Traditional Music section of the British Library.

I’ve been working on Peter’s sizeable collection periodically since 2010, cataloguing thousands of audio tapes and photographs of traditional performers and uploading some of this material to Sounds. In fact, just this month an additional 500 photographs and 70 audio recordings from Peter’s collection have been added to the existing collection available online. 

Bob Copper, John Copper, Ron Copper and Jim Cooper photographed by Peter Kennedy in Rottingdean, Sussex, 1950s [025I-MSMUS1771X1X-0201A0]

However, Peter’s paper files, comprising song texts, scores, contracts, draft manuscripts and a large amount of correspondence between himself and performers, collectors, institutions and enquirers, hadn’t been catalogued. This is the task that I’ve been undertaking since January. All of these papers will be uploaded to the Library’s catalogue in due course.

Amongst these papers I discovered 31 reports written by Peter for the BBC’s ‘Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme’, a project on which he was working during the 1950s. Across 180 typewritten pages, Peter describes his daily itinerary recording traditional performers around the UK and Ireland between 1952 and 1962. Full of anecdotes and insightful information about the musicians he recorded - including confirmation of when and where he recorded them - these documents reveal a great deal about Peter’s fieldwork during this period.

I decided to use these reports as the basis for a new website which brings these narratives together with all of the audio recordings and photographs from Peter’s collection that have been digitised so far:

These reports feature ‘hotspots’ placed over the names of the more than 650 musicians that Peter recorded during these trips. Clicking on the name of a performer reveals any sound recordings or photographs taken of them by Peter on that particular day that are available to view and listen to on Sounds. Additionally, links to entries in the British Library’s catalogue are provided for any related material that hasn’t yet been digitised, such as Peter’s tapes or BBC transcription discs.

What makes this website unique is the way it contextualises recordings and photographs of performers with Peter’s own notes about them. Whilst the British Library’s catalogue is useful as a search tool, it doesn’t reveal how a collection was formed and developed – and it doesn’t tell us very much about who created it. This new website gives us a better idea of what’s in this collection by refocusing attention on Peter as a recordist and reconstituting his material into a form that better resembles how he created it.

I hope will prove useful to researchers and musicians alike and encourage more people to explore Peter’s collection at the British Library. As more of his field recordings are digitised and attached to the site, it should become an increasingly valuable resource

- Andrew Pace

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.


02 June 2016

Archival Ingredients: cooking up a documentary for Radio 4's The Food Programme

You might think that being involved in the making of Radio 4’s The Food Programme is a glamorous gig… and it certainly felt that way! After months of enthusing about the British Library’s oral history archives, contributing clips to episodes of The Food Programme and searching ever deeper into the food archives, we had so much material that we began to craft a full episode dedicated to food in the archives. Our programme came together under the knowledgeable direction of producer Clare Salisbury. As the broadcast date approached we whizzed around with Clare and her microphone visiting butchers, chefs, restauranteurs and food-entrepreneurs playing them extracts that we’d uncovered in the British Library’s sound archive and hearing their stories in return. 

In particular we were focusing on an archive that is rich in intimate, biographical stories and provides a unique way of recording the rapid changes in food consumption and production within living memory. Housed at the British Library, Food: From Source to Salespoint is a collection within National Life Stories which holds nearly 300 life story interviews with individuals involved in the food industry. The interviewees worked in sectors as diverse as animal slaughter, national food-retail and restaurants. 

Blog picture

Image: Interviewing Paul Langley in the chiller. Cramer’s butchers shop on York Way, London. Photo: Barley Blyton

The seed for this programme was realising that the archives had made us acutely aware of changes in our own city (London), and had brought these dramatic shifts to life. For instance, surfacing from the tube at Kings Cross we now imagined the traffic replaced with cattle being driven up the same roads to market. Shopping in Brixton would conjure the accounts of butcher Ron Stedman describing the high street, as he recounts popping out for a ‘six-penny-worth of broken eggs’ in the 1930s. Food: From Source to Salespoint has interviews with food producers around the UK: from the North of Scotland to the South coast.

The broadcast of this programme coincides with 120 of these food industry interviews being made available online - that's nearly 1000 hours of stories - and for the first time they are accessible to listen to from anywhere! Just follow this link:

We wanted to know how those working in the food industry today felt about some of these changes and also to introduce them to this unique record of the food industry being preserved at the British Library.

In just one week we chewed the fat with Ashley Palmer Watts, head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, discussed food and philosophies of happiness with one of the world’s most influential restauranteurs Alan Yau OBE, (renowned for ventures such as Wagamama, Hakasan and Park Chinois) and enjoyed tea and serenity with Sally Clarke at her Notting Hill restaurant where she has been for over 30 years. We also returned to Cramer’s butchers shop on York Way in North London whose doors have been open for 100 years. Both Phillip Cramer and his butcher’s boy Paul Langley who now owns Cramer’s were recorded for the archive more than fifteen years ago:

To give you a ‘taster’ of what we played from the archives, this is a clip from Micheline starred chef Shaun Hill, talking about the early 1970s when he worked at a restaurant called The Gay Hussar in Soho:

Shaun Hill talks about working at The Gay Hussar in the 1970s

Shaun’s interview is a brilliant example of how these life stories can capture a changing industry, but also the changing attitudes of a population within the span of a single career. I wonder what today’s clientele of the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny (where Shaun still cooks) would make of carp with a pike’s head?

There are now 120 recordings now available on British Library Sounds. For more clips just click here: in on June 5th at 12.32 to hear more of ‘An Archive for Food’ on BBC Radio 4. 

Barley Blyton and Polly Russell 
Barley and Polly held the inaugural National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship in 2015 for their project Food Matters