Art: BBC to tape the people's 20th century

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The BBC has unveiled the first of its plans to mark the millennium. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, explains why its scope may give a voice to those who history has ignored.

The BBC is to produce the biggest oral history archive in the country by recording nearly 3,000 hours of people talking about their lives during the 20th century as part of its plans to mark the millennium.

Up to 500 hours of the archive will be broadcast on BBC local radio in 1999, while the rest will be made available to the Millennium Dome, the British Library, local libraries and touring exhibitions.

As well as the pounds 1m oral history, which will be broadcast in 2000, the corporation has commissioned a pounds 5m, 16-part history of Britain which will be written and presented by Simon Schama, professor of history at Columbia University in New York.

The oral history project will be compiled by the BBC's 38 local radio stations in England and the radio stations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The plan is to talk to young and old people about their lives at various times during the century. The interviews will be used to build up an archive of social history that can be accessed by CD-Rom and audio tape.

Michael Green, former controller of Radio 4, who is to direct the project, said: "The factor that makes this unique, apart from its sheer scale, is the way it will focus on social histories. It will not be about how Governments fell, but about the everyday lives of everyday people in every corner of the land."

Dr Simon Szreter, lecturer in social history at Cambridge University, said: "It's colossal. Oral history is important because it gives you access to areas of history that are neglected by formal documents. It gives insights on the history of the working class, the history of women, or children or the history of sexuality. This is undoubtedly a very good initiative."

For BBC television the millennium will be marked by a history of Britain sincethe Romans. It too will cover the history of how people lived. Professor Schama said: "It's time for the popular medium of our time - television - to reintroduce the astonishing history of Britain's past, big with glory and disaster, misery and splendour, to a new generation. It's time to rediscover the meaning of being British."