A treasure trove of film from the BBC archives goes online

From early documentaries to comedy gold, the BBC’s vast archives are finally being made instantly accessible

I'm in the depths of the vast BBC archive, a collection of 12 million artefacts including 600,000 hours of television content and 350,000 hours of radio.

With its endless shelves of Beta tapes, VHS and DVDs and row upon row of canned film stored together like weights in a gymnasium, this former greetings card factory in an industrial estate near London's Heathrow Airport, is but one of 25 buildings across Britain that house this extraordinary resource. At Caversham in Berkshire there are more than six miles of BBC documents; the contracts, correspondence and expenses claims behind eight decades of broadcasting.

As licence-fee payers we have funded all this, and as modern media consumers we have come to expect access to it – on demand. In 2006, an age ago in modern media terms, Ashley Highfield, then head of technology at the BBC, told me we were fast approaching a world where the greatest film archive on the planet would be ours to play with, to mash up our own compilations of our favourite shows and presenters. So where is it?

Well, go to the BBC Archive site now and you'll find 34 themed collections available to browse. "Life Under Apartheid" is a portfolio of 22 programmes made between 1954 and 1996. It includes a remarkable episode of Panorama from 1964 showing a young Robin Day reporting from Nelson Mandela's trial in Pretoria, together with a typed letter from one of Day's cameramen on how he fought with Nationalist thugs who tried to stop him filming. Another collection, "Suffragettes", contains a 1958 radio interview with Winifred Mayo, who tells plummy interviewer Donald Milner just how much she enjoyed smashing the windows of the Guards Club in Pall Mall back in 1912, while a young Joan Bakewell can be seen chairing a BBC2 discussion on women's rights in 1968.

After three years of work, 50,000 hours of visual content have been digitised, but that's less than 10 per cent of the total and the great majority of what's been converted is not available for public view. It is Roly Keating's task to open up this archive, where the corridors are lined with pictures of the stars from the BBC's past, from Morecambe and Wise to the Paramount Astoria girls who took part in the first televised revue in 1933.

A former documentary-maker, Keating has become one of the corporation's most senior figures, a former controller of BBC Four and then BBC Two. He accepts that it is no longer good enough for broadcasting to hide away its treasures. "Audiences that have grown up with the internet – that means all of us now – have come to expect that they can, for a price, access almost everything from the past. The word 'archive' is not something you would acknowledge in film or music or literature. Casablanca is not an archive movie, Blonde on Blonde isn't an archive album, it's just music," he says. "We are trying to get the best of broadcasting on to that same footing so that it is immediately accessible to people."

Keating has big ambitions. He is about to release on to the BBC Archive site a collection of 15 pieces of video on Henry Moore, including the groundbreaking films made with the sculptor by the pioneering documentary-maker John Read. That will be followed by a collection on feminism, to accompany a major BBC television series on women. Doctor Who – which already has an online archive of its earliest programmes – will be the subject of a new retrospective looking at how the BBC has coped with the 10 variations in appearance of the Time Lord. Other upcoming collections will be themed on the Battle of Britain (to mark its 70th anniversary later this year) and on great examples of war reporting.

This is merely scratching the surface, but though we licence-fee payers have financed this creativity we should not have unlimited free access to it, Keating warns. "This is not about everything being made available for free," he says. "For generations we have got used to buying DVDs or VHS copies of the most popular programmes and long may that continue, that's a proper reward for the performers, writers and producers of those programmes."

This venture is partly about making money, for the creative community, the BBC's commercial arm and its partners. Those who want to seek out the niche content, the special-interest gems, may have to pay for a permanent download. "Our job is to work closely with the commercial market to make paid access ever easier for audiences," says Keating. "It's not our job to use the licence fee for all of this."

A parallel BBC project to digitally catalogue every single programme made by the BBC since its inception in 1922 will help us to know exactly what is in the archive and what is accessible for free or to purchase. This record, Keating says, will include programmes that no longer exist. A pilot exercise is being conducted for 1948, using digitised press listings to enrich descriptions of programmes. Keating himself added background to one 1948 poetry broadcast presented by Alex Comfort. "I put my hand up and said 'Is that the same Alex Comfort who wrote The Joy of Sex in 1973?' It's the same guy."

The broadcast content can be given context through publication of the programme's behind-the-scenes documentation. "The BBC has contracted or corresponded with almost every important figure of the 20th and 21st centuries," says Keating.

The biggest hurdle to releasing archived material is rights ownership. "The key fact is that the public own some but not all of the amazing programmes in this archive, in many, many cases those rights are shared, quite rightly with the authors, musicians and performers engaged in the original creation of those works."

Keating has watched with interest as Google has met with legal resistance from national governments and publishers over plans to scan and distribute millions of books online, including large numbers of "orphaned" works where the author is unknown.

The rights contracts for many items in the BBC archive are outdated. "Contracts may have been built for a 20th-century linear broadcasting age where in many cases nobody thought the programme would have an enormous afterlife or at best might get sold on VHS or DVD," he says. "Even in the last 10 years as we've been more sophisticated in the way we have worked with rights partners to frame these partnerships, it has been impossible to keep pace with the sheer rate of change that the internet has driven. We need agreements that work for this era."

But he is not frustrated that he cannot release all the material straightaway. "I often talk about this as a decades project to avoid any sense this should happen overnight – it shouldn't because we will make mistakes and spend money unwisely," he says. "If everything happened at once it would be hard to know where the real excitement and value was. The work of liberating sections of content should be a creative one."

Keating is especially excited about making available the "fantastic national resource" that is the archive in BBC journalism. He thinks there may be commercial opportunities for partners of the BBC to make available historic footage of British comedy and dance.

It's not a simple challenge. "Once we thought we understood scheduling and running channels," observes the archive head. "It's a whole new world this."

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam