Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Into the Archives

Yesterday I spent a few hours with one of my PhD supervisors in the Sir Michael Cobham library at Bournemouth University, rootling through the ITA/ITV archive. I've been through newspaper archives before, searching through microfiches as part of my research into Lindy Delapenha's time at Portsmouth Football Club. This however was a new experience for me, being deluged with files and folders, and a series of paper trails dating back some 60 years or so. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but, at the risk of confirming my status as a sports history geek, I found the whole thing rather exciting. 

Previously held by Ofcom, the archive is the most detailed record of ITV's - and, to a lesser extent, Channel 4's - history as you will find, The archive catalogue contains more than 21,000 entries, with each of these folders containing a myriad of documentation: meeting minutes, scribbled memos, letters, reports, viewing figures, internal correspondence and press clippings. About a third of the collection is kept on site, housed in grey stacks that, once upon a time, might have been opened by turning a giant wheel at the end of each row, but are now accessed through a magnetic fob and electronic keycode. 

The size of the archive is, if you'll excuse the lack of academic formality for a second, fucking massive - especially in the eyes of someone who has only just gone through the research yips. We chose just 15 of the most obviously relevant folders and barely scratched the surface in five hours of reading and discussion. Oddly, perhaps, this wasn't the most striking feature of the archive. That honour falls to the content itself, which was, ahem, variable in quality. At points I found myself reading between the lines of a behind-the-scenes power struggle, at others I was bogged down in the minutiae of management and bureaucracy. 

For the first fifteen minutes I read through an interminable exchange of letters from 1955, most of which were sent by Lord Aberdare of Duffryn, in which he and various other IMPORTANT people attempted to organise a meeting of the Sports Advisory Committee. Eventually they decided on dining at the Park Lane Hotel, although the top table were expected to foot the bill of a loss-leader event designed to curry favour with the assorted guests. Sadly no one had thought to include the set menu in the archives.

At best, though, the information in these folders was absolutely fascinating. Tedium was the exception rather than the rule. There were three areas in particular that stood out. First was the attempts by the ITA to formulate a policy around sports programming in the mid-1950s. Despite the efforts of Aberdare and co, the files include as many apologies for a lack of progress as they do ideas for moving things forward. Meetings were sporadic; a list of possible sports to cover and governing bodies to be approached was drafted. In much the same way as Bernard Sendall would characterise ITV's early sports programming, the whole discussion felt "sparse, random and sometimes amateurish".

The second thing that caught my eye was 'the wrestling', or, more specifically, the audience reaction to the coverage of British professional wrestling in the 1960s. Amidst the selection of wrestler profiles and contract negotiations were a wonderful selection of letters sent by viewers either aggrieved or outraged by the results and presentation of the wrestling. In these post-kayfabe days it's not uncommon to see marks angry at the bookings, but these letters were noticeable for their unknowing innocence as their Mary Whitehouse-style righteous indignation. One correspondent couldn't understand why matches were repeated over and over again. Another, quite wonderfully, wrote in to say that his daughter had turned on the television and accidentally caught a bout. The horror! The horror, I tells ya! Grapple fans, trust me when I say these letters deserve, and will receive, a post all of their own.

Lastly, and most importantly, was a file from the late 1960s discussing the future of ITV's Saturday afternoon sports magazine show World of Sport. The network had long struggled to match the resources and experience behind the BBC's sports coverage. In no small part this was because of the federal structure of ITV, in which each regional franchise would create or procure programming. Eventually ITV would form a centralised sports department but this did little to ameliorate the tensions between various companies, at least in the short term. This political struggle was played out through the plans for World of Sport. Should it be changed or scrapped altogether? Should ITV bother with live sport at all? In the end, of course, the programme would continue for another 20 years. But in that moment it was touch and go.

The archive experience was fascinating and a string of article ideas have come out of this first visit. Over the next few weeks I'd like to try and write:
  • Keeping it Kayfabe - audience reaction to ITV's wrestling coverage
  • The Politics of the 1954 TV Act
  • ITV's Programming and Accusations of Americanisation
  • Won't Someone Think of the Children? - 1950s TV Advertising 
  • Federalism vs Centralisation: The World of Sport Debate
Will I get all of these done by the end of January? Possibly, although I'm likely to lose the next fortnight to a festive, Bailey's induced, stupor. But it's not a bad plan. Happy Christmas one and all!