A right of access

On April 21, 2013, in Copyright, Film, Libraries, Television, Theatre, by Luke McKernan


Cherie Lunghi and Kenneth Cranham, in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1980), from http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com

This month the BFI Southbank has been running a season of Jacobean dramas on television. It’s another output of the Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television project, whose conference I wrote about last year. The project aims to document, revalue and champion the largely lost tradition of theatre plays being presented on TV.

The season has featured Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (Granada 1965), John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (BBC 1972), Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (BBC 1993) and – a little inaccurate in term of date because it is Elizabethan, but certainly right thematically – Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC 1964). As someone whose theatrical education came as much from the screen as from the stage, and as a great enthusiast for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the season has been huge treat for me. It has brought programmes out of the archives which were unlikely ever to have been taken off the shelves again by a scheduler or DVD producer, and shown that they have more than academic interest but that they belong in front of audience.

And then we had ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, an adaptation of John Ford’s 1630s play. Originally broadcast by the BBC on 7 May 1980, it had a mixed reception, largely due to its controversial incest theme, and was never broadcast again. It was never issued to the educational market, it was broadcast before copyright exception were introduced into UK law allowing educational institutions to record programmes, and it has not – so far as I am aware – featured in any retrospective either of plays on film or of the work of its once renowned director, Roland Joffé. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared after broadcast (a viewing copy is held by the BFI, so it has been available for any scholar keen to seek it out). I wasn’t able to watch it at the time (my parents, perhaps not unreasonably, though title and theme unsuitable for family viewing), so it was only after thirty-three years that I was able to catch up and see it.

It was more than worth the wait. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is an outstanding piece of work. I have seldom seen a more fully realised and effective coming together of theatre, film and television, and of a past age and ours. Hauntingly filmed on location in the Jacobean Chastleton House, but set in the Victorian era, the production simplified and clarified Ford’s feverish original play, modernising the language in places, losing peripheral characters and scenes, and emphasising the the ruthless triumph of the propertied class. The villainous Vasques (played with chilling relish by Tim Pigott-Smith) does not get his come-uppance as in the play, but instead gets away with two murders and a blinding.

The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Cherie Lunghi as Annabella, whose incestuous relationship with her brother Giovanni (played by Kenneth Cranham) is the play’s subject; Alison Fiske deeply poignant as the wretched Hippolyta; and Rodney Bewes as the simple-minded Bergetto, showing that it is perfectly possible to portray the Jacobean idea of a fool and yet get laughs from a present-day audience – a masterly demonstration of comic timing and use of language. But it is the technique that most distinguishes the production. Joffé interiorises the dramas by artful use of camera placements, frequently filming the face of the person being spoke to rather than the person speaking so that one feels the effect of the words all the more, indeed picking up on their double meaning – that for the speaker and that for the listener. He makes the building itself a character, avoiding all temptation to linger over its beauties for their own sake, but instead making its corners, corridors and secret places a logical expression of hidden conversations, overheard confidences and malevolent designs. I was reminded of The Draughtsman’s Contract use of a building for a similar period to frame the drama, but in that film the building’s formal elegance is highlighted, whereas here the building’s floorboards creaked, and there was less emphasis on line, more on uneven reality.

The 16mm photography (by Nat Crosby) was another special feature, and one where the production was probably better served on the big screen than in its original broadcast. There was a rawness to the photography that perfectly suited the passions – suppressed and otherwise – on display, while the tight framing of faces echoed the claustrophobic nature of the house. I didn’t feel that the Victorian setting was particularly convincing (or important), and possibly there was a slight loss of pacing in the final third, but such qualms are minor ones. This is an outstanding work of art, rescued from obscurity, and demanding to be seen again. So how is this to happen?

This is where the problem lies, because the chances of anyone other a few determined souls ever seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore are slim. This is not for a lack of options. As we’re all well aware, the means by which we can access films and TV programmes are huge and various. We have multiple TV channels; we have catch-up TV; we have YouTube; we have DVD and Blu-Ray, with an increasing number of obscure titles released produced cheaply for niche markets; we have Lovefilm, Netflix; if we’re in education we have access to off-air recordings delivered through local arrangements or the Bobnational shared service. We seem to have access to everything.

Yet hundreds of thousands if not millions of films and television programmes remain inaccessible. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is unlikely every to get a TV broadcast again, so a general audience won’t see it and an educational audience won’t be able to record it. A DVD release would be a tough proposition for an obscure play and for a TV production without a strong cult or critical reputation. Grand visions are aired from time to time of extensive access to TV archives through concepts such as the Digital Public Space, but these remains idealistic theories at present, constrained by rights issues, and of not much help to someone who would like to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore now, and not in some glorious future (who knows, maybe thirty-three years away). You can see it at the BFI, through their archive viewings service, if you pay, and one or two scholars probably will do so. For the rest, the film is out of sight, and so out of mind.

We need to establish a principle of every film and every television programme being available. We have this for books, so it is perfectly possible to have it for other media. The question is defining what being available means. For books, we have a library network underpinned by the inter-library loan system. In principle, any book held in the UK is available to anyone in the UK. There are multiple copies of individual titles, and these are held in libraries. If you can’t find a copy in your local library, you can order it from another, and it will be delivered to you. Some books are rare and precious, and in those cases you need to visit specialist libraries rather than have the volume come to you, but these are mostly the concern of the specialist, and reprints are often available through the book publishing industry in any case. There is a highly active second-hand book trade online, with used copies of a title listed alongside the new on sites like Amazon. If you want to read something, generally you can, easily and cheaply so.

If you want to see something, things are arranged differently. There is no network of moving image collections in the same way that we have libraries, and no system of interlibrary loan for moving image content; there are far fewer film archives than libraries around, and most films and programmes are held in the archives of commercial entities, whose concern is to issue saleable product, not to offer a public service. We have television itself, but what it is able to show from its archives is relatively narrow, and strongly determined by audience figures (real or anticipated) and the drive always to broadcast what is new. Audience taste for obscurities from the archives is not high in any case (partly through that audience not knowing about such obscurities in the first place), and so we end up with the moving image culture that we have – and a masterpiece like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore remains on the shelves, effectively unseen.

What can we do? Many in my field of work have been worrying over this for years now, without coming up with credible solutions so far. I don’t have such a solution myself, but I do think we should start out with a few principles.

  • 1. There should be a right of access to any moving image artefact held in the UK, comparable in its effects to the inter-library loan system that exists for books.
  • 2. There should be a register of all moving image artefacts produced in, held and as far as possible viewable in the UK, making it a comprehensive record of what should be available to anyone in the UK under the right of access set out above.
  • 3. There should be a publicly-funded television channel, with online extension, dedicated to re-showing archive programmes, not for their nostalgia value but for their public and cultural value.
  • 4. Access to television programmes recorded off-air by educational institutions under copyright exception enshrined in the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act should be extended by widening the interpretation of what an educational institution is.
  • 5. Access to films and television programmes described on a comprehensive UK register should be extended through the public library sector, by delivering DVD-Rs or protected, time-limited online access to all moving image artefacts held digitally by a confederation of public and private sector institutions that collectively represent the national digital moving image collection.

Some of this is not so fanciful. A general register of UK film is listed as an aim of the British Film Institute in its recent Film Forever policy plan (an earlier initiative, the Search Your Film Archives database, sadly is suffering from neglect). On the television channel idea, the BBC Trust in February 2011 agreed a change to the service licence of BBC4 (along with Radios 3 and 4) to allow it in principle to become a long-term repository for archive TV, as opposed to the one-week-only access offered by iPlayer (the Trust’s report heading refers only to radio, but BBC Four is covered in the text itself). Third party rights still need to be cleared for such in perpetuity access (a major problem behind simply opening up the archives to one and all), but the principle has been established. Channel 4’s 4oD to a degree already operates as such an online channel, of course. The extension of what an educational institution is has been mooted in possible changes to UK copyright law that the government has said that it wishes to see, among a range of recommendations aimed at improving protected access to sound and moving images for study, though such changes are currently being hotly debated. And the last point is technically feasible, and a logical corollary to the second principle.

The most important principle is the first. There should be a right. What exactly it is a right to can only then be determined by a definitive record (principle 2), with modes of access then determined by principles 3-5. But it is establishing the right that will open up the rest. Immediate access to all film and television on your TV set, PC or tablet isn’t going to happen, and it isn’t reasonable that it should happen, anymore than you can expect to find every book every printed in your local library. For some things you have to work a little harder, and travel a little further. But you will be travelling with purpose.

Meanwhile, the moving image access we enjoy is determined predominantly by modes of entertainment, and that has diminished its public value and constrained its reasonable access. Which is a pity, to say the least.


  • John Wyver writes in detail about ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and its production history on the Screen Plays blog
  • The BFI’s Film Forever plan, covering the period 2012-2017, includes the recommendation for a general register (p. 29)
  • The UK government’s response to recent consultations on copyright exceptions and clarifying copyright law, following the Hargreaves Review of intellectual property, entitled Modernising Copyright, was issued at the end of 2012

I remember # 1

On April 17, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

1. I remember thinking there was nothing more beautiful than fog on a football field.

2. I remember cuckoo spit.

3. I remember being frightened of Wass Water in the Lake District because the water was so dark and deep.

4. I remember wearing garters to hold up my socks.

5. I remember Nina Baden Semper.

6. I remember skimming stones.

7. I remember ‘Jesamine’ by The Casuals.

8. I remember the first book I ever read to myself, a book of mountaineers. I liked the story of Edmund Whymper and the Matterhorn especially.

9. I remember my first French lessons and wondering if all those in France thought in English but had to translate everything into this other language.

10. I remember Pussy Cat Willum.

11. I remember steam trains.

12. I remember Jamboree bags.

13. I remember the Galloping Gourmet.

14. I remember nearly drowning after diving under the cover of a swimming pool.

15. I remember the Common Market.

16. I remember reading Coral Island, and years later Lord of the Flies, which inverts the whole premise of  R.M. Ballantyne’s novel of another age.

17. I remember the children’s singalongs at Saturday morning cinema.

18. I remember Sunday School.

19. I remember being held up to listen to the ticking of a watch.

20. I remember the Beatles breaking up.

21. I remember my grandmother, but only just the one time, meeting her in the street in Tunbridge Wells when quite young. Five years’ acquaintance, and only the one memory.

22. I remember the deep shock the first time I was stung by a bee.

23. I remember Jack Frost on the windows.

24. I remember the Love Bug.

25. I remember reading a football magazine profile of Jimmy Greaves  which said he played for Chelsea and Spurs and wondering which he would choose to play for whenever the two sides might meet.

26. I remember a family holiday in Spain and being told that a famous and quite mad artist (Dali) lived near by and being both puzzled and impressed by this.

27. I remember Clodagh Rogers.

28. I remember putting a penny in the slot of a machine in a seaside arcade to see a bear drinking from a glass of beer.

29. I remember I’m a mole, I’m a mole, and I live in a hole.

30. I remember bob-a-job.



Here comes not quite everything

On April 7, 2013, in Collections, Web, Work, by Luke McKernan

“Ten years ago, there was a very real danger of a black hole opening up and swallowing our digital heritage, with millions of web pages, e-publications and other non-print items falling through the cracks of a system that was devised primarily to capture ink and paper.

The regulations now coming into force make digital legal deposit a reality, and ensure that the Legal Deposit Libraries themselves are able to evolve — collecting, preserving and providing long-term access to the profusion of cultural and intellectual content appearing online or in other digital formats.”

Roly Keating, British Library CEO

On April 6th the regulations were finally put in place to give the six UK legal deposit libraries the right to receive a copy of every UK electronic publication, on the same basis as they receive print publications. Knowledge and cultural output do not exist exclusively on paper but on a multiplicity of forms, and at last it has been recognised that those six libraries – the British Library, the national libraries of Scotland and Wales, the Bodleian Libraries, Cambridge University Library and Trinity College Library Dublin – should be able to collect blogs, e-books, e-journals and websites.

The advantage of digital files is that they can be shared, and rather than each of the six libraries each going out and archiving the UK web domain on its own is that the collecting can be centralised and then made available at each of the institutions. It won’t be a case of the archived websites being available on the Web. Instead the regulations stipulate that access can only be provided onsite at one or other of those institutions, and if one person is viewing any electronic file archived under the legislation then no one else can do so until that person has finished viewing it. So the electronic archived outputs are being treated pretty much as though they were physical objects.

Nor is it a case that if you turn up at one of the libraries next week that all of the UK’s web past will be there at your fingertips. They haven’t started collecting it en masse as yet, though there is a small selective archive, the UK Web Archive, which has been operating for some years now after obtaining permissions for the owners of selected sites (a laborious process, as may be imagined). They will need to start crawling the UK web domain, targeting an initial 4.8 million websites, with the first results to be available by the end of this year. The UK web domain is expected to be harvested once or twice a year (ie. virtual ‘crawlers’ are sent out to gather in data from sites, focussing on .uk addresses), with more frequent crawling for some specialist areas. Likewise by the end of the year there will be tens of thousands of e-journal articles, e-books and so forth, collected from publishers.

So it is going to take a time to grow, and some elements are going to drop through the net (the average life span of a website is 75 days), but the implications are huge, not least for what we perceive the role of our national libraries to be. There are many who treasure the notion of the British Library and its ilk as temples to the book, where scholars gathered in hushed surroundings, leafing carefully through finely-bound manuscripts, protected from the rude instrusion of the outside world and its electronica. No more! A library is a means of gathering and making available knowledge, a centre for trusted intelligence. It must be shaped not by any one medium but by the forms in which documented knowledge takes. This is what is now happening.


The hushed surroundings of the British Library

However, it’s not quite a perfect world. The legislation on which all this is based is the 2003 Legal Deposit Act (so it has taken ten years to get the regulations in place which determine how what was legislated for in 2003 can work in practice). That was in turn based on the findings of the Working Party on Legal Deposit, headed by Sir Anthony Kenny, back in 1997. His committee set out

to advise on how an effective national archive of non-print material might be achieved, taking into account the need to minimise the burden on publishers, the need to safeguard deposited material from unauthorised use, the archival value of the material, and the scope for making deposited material available among legal deposit libraries through secure IT networks.

Now non-print material includes moving images, and sound. The Kenny committee looked into the matter of incorporating audio-visual media into future legal deposit legislation. For film and moving images generally it said:

It is of fundamental importance that a legal deposit scheme for audio-visual materials recognises their innate physical characteristics and vulnerability and the need to acquire them in new condition. This is to ensure that they are preserved at minimum cost to the taxpayer, and can be studied and enjoyed in the future in the pristine form their creators intended.

Its recommendations were as follows:

4. The aim of a fully effective legal deposit scheme for audio-visual materials should be to protect an original master version of the film or video for permanent preservation and to hold a premiere-version reference copy for study and screening.
5. In the case of films shown or published in the UK, it is proposed that the following materials be deposited:
a) British films (however defined): (i) A mint print of the authorised premiere version, to be delivered to the repository within 30 days of the first showing. (ii) After three years (or other agreed period), the original negatives or acceptable alternative pre-print materials.
b) Other films shown or distributed in the UK: A best copy of the film in the form first shown in the UK.
6. In the case of videos, the deposit materials should consist of a mint-condition duplicate original and new reference copy (if British); a new-condition reference copy (if imported).

In practice this did not happen, and audio-visual media of themselves were not included in the Legal Deposit 2003 Act, which specifically excludes the obligation to deposit sound recordings or film (“A work consisting solely or predominantly of film or recorded sound (or both), where other forms of content are purely incidental”). The reasons for this were as much practical as anything, with the emphasis having been put on physical items and the need to preserve the best possible film elements. Which is costly, and comes with all manner of operational challenges.

While that probably made sense back in 1997, how utterly short-sighted it looks now. Digital video has totally revolutionised our ideas of what a moving image object is, how it it produced, by whom it is produced, what is cultural value is, how it is consumed or shared, and how it fits in with the rest of the digital world. So it is that while we can now start to take in the whole of the UK web domain, that doesn’t mean the moving image and sound parts of it. We can’t capture under legal deposit a video that documents something vital – say a piece of citizen journalism with unique footage of a news event – because of worries from sixteen years ago about caring for 35mm feature films. Audiovisual means knowledge too – so why have we left it out?

Well, we haven’t entirely left it out. The legislation does allow for a degree of leeway, and the 2013 regulations stipulate that it will be OK to include the audiovisual elements of websites where they are incidental to its knowledge value. As the British Library’s guide puts it:

Removing the audio-visual elements from a work that consists solely or predominantly of recorded film or sound (or both) would leave little or no intelligible content. Thus, for example, the 2013 Regulations do not apply to a cinema film DVD, a music CD, broadcast or streamed TV and radio programmes, or UK-published content in online sites such as LoveFilm, YouTube or Spotify.

However the 2013 Regulations do apply to a work that includes audio-visual material as a feature within the main body of work rather than as its main purpose. Removing the audio-visual elements from such a work might well diminish the work’s content or the user’s experience of it, but would not eliminate all of its value. Thus, for example, the Regulations do apply to most websites containing sound or video clips (such as the BBC’s website) because they also include text- or image-based content; the Regulations would also apply to any e-book, e-journal or e-magazine containing embedded sound or moving image files to the extent that the embedded files are published under the control of the publisher.

So if it wouldn’t affect the website too greatly if you took away the audiovisual, it’s OK to harvest them. It’s a bit of a lame argument, but it does mean that they will avoid the absurdity of either leaving out such media or avoiding any websites which has moving image or sound elements.

How far such collecting of the audiovisual by incidental means will extend I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows as yet. But it’s an apology for true legal deposit for moving image and sound, and it’s hard not to think of the decision as having had its roots in cultural hierarchy, by which books comes first, other printed media second, and somewhere down at the bottom when it comes to value to the nation’s well-being and store of knowledge, lies the audiovisual. It’s just light entertainment, isn’t it?

Arguably there is a degree of legal deposit for UK television, because the 1990 Broadcasting Act legislated for a national television archive which would record a proportion of national television output, funded by the broadcasters (the national television archive is administered by the British Film Institute). Nor has the absence of legal deposit legislation meant that our film and sound archives are empty. Thanks to donations and voluntary deposit arrangements a substantial part of the UK’s film and sound output has been archived. The British Library’s National Sound Archive takes in around 50% of all UK published audio output through voluntary arrangements with the music publishing industry, for example.

But it’s not enough to rely on goodwill, no matter how good that will may be. We are losing thousands upon thousands of moving image records because the systems do not exist to care for them all, and because our thinking in this area has been too much focussed on the frankly minor field of feature film production.

It is quietly recognised that the absence of audio and video from the 2003 Act is regrettable, and will need to be addressed eventually. Legislation will come around eventually which incorporates all media. But legal deposit acts don’t turn up every year, and who can say how long it will be until we can properly include audiovisual media in the nation’s memory – and what will have been lost while we have to wait.



Searching the BFI

On April 2, 2013, in Databases, Film, Resources, Television, Web, by Luke McKernan



The British Film Institute has issued a new version of its database, which is a huge improvement on what has been available online before now. The new service, BFI Collections Search, for the first time combines its bibliographic, filmographic and technical databases, something the BFI has been trying to engineer for years (decades even). This means you can find out which of the 800,000 films and TV programmes on its database it actually holds, a feature not previously available to users outside its library and can find bibliographic references, again for the first time outside its library.

Add this to the subject searching which it introduced a year or so back, and it has become an immensely powerful and useful resource, particularly valuable for searching silent films on account of the large number of shotlists for early films created by its Archive in years past, and the extensive references to film trade journals, especially The Bioscope. Each record, in general, provides title, year of release, production company, credits, cast, synopsis (not all films will have one, please note), subject terms, references, and technical information where copies are held, with most names, companies and articles hyperlinked.

Tha main link takes you to the introduction. For searching, go to the Search link (http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/search/simple). Search options are Simple, Advanced and (excitingly) Expert, which allows you to build up complex search enquiries using multiple fields e.g. to and from dates so you can search for date ranges. It has some oddities, so person searching is only available on the Advanced Search option (enter surname first) [Correction: You can search by name using Simple Search, but enter surname first]. Records come with a cine camera logo if they have a film, and the camera crossed through if they don’t (though I’ve noticed some instances where they say they don’t have a film, but I know that they do, so treat the information with caution). It always has been a database made up of primary sources (films they hold) and secondary sources (films they just have references to), and it has long been frustrating for researchers trying to tell one from the other. Now you can search using the Advanced option to see what specific materials they hold under each title, and where a viewing copy is available. The amount of technical information supplied is remarkable – by using the Advanced Search option you can, for instance, finding out how many 70mm films they hold (224) or all the film elements they hold for A Matter of Life and Death (45 master and 5 access copies on 35mm).

It helps a lot to know what you can expect to find, and as a service it’s aimed at the specialist. Those with a general interest in film wanting a short synopsis and nice pictures will be better served by the BFI’s general information search options, which is available from its front page or via http://search.bfi.org.uk. Those who may hanker for the old BFI database (without the technical information or article references) can still find it at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo.

Collection Search also provides access to the BFI’s huge book catalogue, serials catalogue, listing of articles, press cuttings list (names and subjects only, not the cuttings themselves, stills (images not online), posters and scripts. In each instance, the Advanced Search option is the best to use, particularly if you want to do name searching. All the physical library objects are held in its library on London’s South Bank, while the films – where a viewing copy exists – can be booked for viewing on site via the options given here.

A final feature that is really welcome is a search history option, so you can look back on all that you have searched on during one session, and follow the links back to the results.

You can only appreciate what Collections Search offers if you know the struggles that the BFI have had to bring together their different databases, with the filmographic and technical databases having been built long ago on different and stubbornly incompatible systems. Having the article references is also terrific to see. For years they were hidden from all users except those who visited the BFI’s library. Now there are not only the citations, but in some cases descriptions of the article’s contents. It’s wonderful to have so much rich and useful information all together in one place, and available worldwide. For someone who spent quite a few years of his working life adding information to this database (check out my epic shotlists for XIVth Olympiad – The Glory of Sport or The Open Road) there’s also a small element of nostalgic pride.

Go explore.