Out of the archives

Christine Whittaker, via http://www.focalint.org

It’s sad to be noting the death of Christine Whittaker, who for many was the leading film researcher from the great age of film research. If you saw anything of history-based television programmes in the UK from the 1970s to the end of the 90s, then you will have seen her work. She is particularly known for having worked on two landmark BBC series which set a standard for how archive film could be used to support, shape and illuminate an argument: All Our Working Lives (1984) and Out of the Doll’s House (1988), on British industrial history and women’s history respectively. She also worked as an archive producer on the series that in a way marked the end of a golden age of archive-based television, People’s Century (1995-1997).

More than having helped establish the fundamental tole of the footage researcher and then exemplified its art, Christine bridged the gap between programme makers, archivists and historians, speaking with a wise authority to each, culminating in her time as president of Iamhist, the International Association for Media and History. Like others in the same profession, she gained an extraordinary insight into the signification of the archive film, both its literal meaning and the meanings it gained through re-use.

I first met her in the late 1980s, when she was in her pomp and I was a humble assistant cataloguer at the National Film Archive and rather intimated by her. How wrong I was to be so. We got on so well in time, had long discussions, shared in projects, and in particular were involved in Iamhist events and meetings. It was at one of those, maybe four years ago, that I last saw her, turning frail with the onset of Parkinson’s. And I feel such sadness.

Out of the Doll’s House, via http://www.angelaholdsworth.com

Such a career means that you leave a large body of work behind which is nevertheless frustratingly out of sight for the majority. Try finding anything of All Our Working Lives or Out of the Doll’s House nowadays. Major works of historical explanation, they lie in one or two archives, destined never to be rebroadcast because technically they will probably show their age. You can find the books that supported those series readily enough, but not the programmes. Such is the wrong-headed world of archives and libraries that we have, of which I have complained before now.

Interview with Christine Whittaker in 2009, from https://historyproject.org.uk – the video cannot be embedded but can be seen at https://historyproject.org.uk/content/0592

Enough of the complaints – let’s look at what can be seen by anyone. A 2009 video interview with Christine, for instance. It can be found at site of the the British Entertainment History Project (formerly the BECTU History Project), a long-running and extensive oral history project documenting the British entertainment industries. Run for the past thirty years by a dedicated band of volunteers, it comprises some 700 interviews with film, television and theatre professionals, mostly audio only but some video interviews too, some of which can be accessed online. The technical quality varies – the interview with Christine comes to us warts and all (false starts, changes of tape etc) – but the warmth and enthusiasm shine through in every case.

The interview covers her career from the 1960s to the 1990s (it stops abruptly before we get to People’s Century or anything after that). It’s a treasure trove for anyone who knows the names of that period, or who is fascinated by the technical paraphernalia of an age when programme-making was on film and archives existed without catalogues. Pioneers such as Christine had to create their profession virtually from scratch. And anyone fixated on the minor follies of the BFI in times past will have a field day…

What the interview doesn’t tell you is what it all meant. Yes it was all great fun, but what was it that they were uncovering? How did they turn the base metal of archive into broadcast gold? How did they resolve the difference between what film existed and the story they needed to tell? What sort of history were they making? Why was such work so compelling, and why did it change?

She does answer that last question in part, by saying that in those days everyone was interested in the material, now all anyone is interested in is the sales. Well, the money has always mattered, but it does seem in the 70s and 80s there was more time to wonder at what could be found, certainly the thrill of recovering so much that no one had seen since it was first made. It was delight in finding you could replay the past, and so conquer time.

I wrote a while ago about the art of the footage researcher (“the footage researcher’s role in life lies somewhere between a poet and a drudge”). It’s a profession I have admired all my working life, and working with its practitioners – Christine in particular – has been one of my great pleasures, not least because each one of them thought deeply about their work and loved to discuss its mysteries. I just wish there had been something of that in Christine’s History Project interview, because it is in those questions that we uncover the mystery, and the poetry – and the best arguments for demanding that the programmes are made available again.

Anyway, thank you Christine, for the programmes, and the shared wisdom.



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