The BBC’s Written Archive Center at Caversham, Berkshire, overflows with fascinating handwritten notes — from figures as diverse as Puccini and the Rolling Stones. One from the post-punk band Yeah Yeah Noh in 1986 begs “Uncle John” Peel to please wear their T-shirt on Top of the Pops; another by the producer Dale Griffin describes UB40’s 1982 session as great, despite “flatulence and pestilence” threatening to wreck the recording.
The BBC’s archive project — which aims to make the resource more accessible and easier to understand, by putting its contents online — has been paid little attention. And while most interest has, perhaps understandably, focused on the TV and radio archives at Windmill Road in Brentford, Greater London, which account for nearly 1 million hours of programming, there are 25 more archives dating back to 1922, when the British Broadcasting Company was first established. They include the world’s largest collection of sheet music, almost everything ever recorded on gramophone, a vast news archive, 10m stills and a written archive that extends 7.2km.
Since his appointment six months ago, the BBC’s controller of archive development, Tony Ageh, has been working with the archive director, Roly Keating, to put the corporation’s plans into practice. Their ambitious scheme represents the most powerful and culturally significant project ever attempted by the BBC, they believe.
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“It’s rather like building the pyramids, because the people who are starting this will never see it completed,” Ageh says. “What we have is an unprecedented record of the cultural, historical and social life of a nation and of large parts of the world for more than half a century.” The written archive has been fastidiously curated by Jacquie Kavanagh for nearly 35 years. An archive serves as “the corporate memory” of the organization, she explains — meaning that its bread and butter role is contractual history, and checking for legal or editorial precedent.
The written archives are comprehensive until the 1960s, when the phone replaced written notes for much program planning. Microfilm records were used until the 1990s, and now program details are logged digitally. The breadth and scale of the corporation mean these archives are packed with production notes, program correspondence and contracts relating to just about anyone who has worked for the BBC since 1922. If you can think of a name, it will probably be there.
There is a 1963 handwritten letter from Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to the music department, in which he applies for an audition, describing the band’s “authentic Chicago rhythm and blues music” inspired by Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.
Another file shows the influential BBC producer Leslie Perowne accepting Roy Plomley’s 1941 pitch for Desert Island Discs with glee, wondering why nobody had thought of “such an obvious and excellent idea” before.
The collection of more than 100,000 music manuscripts includes a copy of La Boheme signed by Giacomo Puccini for Percy Pitt, the first musical director of the BBC, in 1906. And there are the original scores for Ronnie Hazlehurst’s Two Ronnies theme, Dad’s Army and Porridge, alongside furiously reworked lyrics for Blackadder’s wry opening sequence.