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BBC North West gems revealed

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The North West Film Archive's holdings of BBC North West regional news and documentaries lay safely in the vaults for 20 years. Marion Hewitt, the Archive's Director, explains how an AHRC award has allowed for unprecedented access to the Archive.

31 years after its beginnings as a research project at Manchester Polytechnic in 1977, the North West Film Archive (NWFA) is now part of Manchester Metropolitan University Library's Special Collections, and one the UK's largest public regional moving image archives, holding over 33,000 items of film and video illustrating life in Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside.

Holdings include programmes made by the BBC for broadcast in the North West region, richly illustrating the interests and preoccupations of their intended local audiences. But much more than that they provide a window into a period of great interest to historians of society, culture and media. In co-operation with BBC Information & Archives, the Archive was seeking to make the richness of these regional holdings more easily accessible. The North West Film Archive had had this unique collection in its safe custodianship for over 20 years and the aim was to open up unprecedented access to the material through preservation, on-line catalogues and transfer of some 220 hours to digital videotape. A successful bid to the AHRC's Resource Enhancement scheme secured a grant of £210,636 for a three year project, and the work was successfully completed by the end of March 2008.

These films were made in Manchester, broadcast regionally between 1966 and 1986, and transferred permanently to the NWFA by the BBC when they moved to videotape formats. The Archive's ability to accept this volume of material in 1986 most certainly prevented its destruction. Its historical value as a unique window upon the NW is likely to grow since broadcasting companies often regarded such film as ephemeral, disposing of it after broadcast. The collection covers years of significant social, economic, political and cultural change which saw a considerable political shift in the national culture, from the radicalism of the 1960s to the cautious conservatism of the 1980s. These transitional decades were marked by economic restructuring, industrial militancy and Thatcherite ascendancy. Social and cultural attitudes were transformed. Gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexuality assumed different meanings; communities, and identities based on region and nation, were disrupted. This resource is consequently an invaluable opportunity to analyse how ways of presenting and representing such issues changed; how the cultural format within which the news was put over altered and was influenced by developing technologies.

This enhanced resource will appeal to researchers across several disciplines: social/economic/political history, cultural geography, cultural studies, the history of art/design/architecture, as well as film, television, communications and media studies. It will contribute to a wider visual history of the regions and provide an important regional alternative to broader narratives of British TV history.

From this collection totaling 12,620 cans of 16mm film and magnetic track (most of it camera original), 9,763 cans relate to the daily regional news magazine programme, containing the filmed stories inserted into live studio shows, but not the studio material which has, sadly, not survived. These date from August 1973 - May 1986, with complete runs for 1975 – 1984. They span 3,004 dates and include 15,373 separate news and feature stories covering everything from industrial action, economic development, health and welfare, policing and vandalism, to fads, fashions, tourism and inventions. The NWFA also has access to the daily Programme-as-Broadcast sheets, which detail the contents of each day's show – these form the basis of the catalogue records. The remaining 2,858 cans are examples of documentary series and one-off programmes, broadcast from 1966 to 1983, totaling 687 separate titles.

Whilst catalogue data on all the news stories was systematically entered into a database of over 3,000 records from the Programme-as-Broadcast sheets, the project could not stretch to transferring all of the news material holdings from film to tape, and a selection process was required to identify around 200 dates to transfer as examples. Academic colleagues from the Manchester Centre for Regional History – particularly Dr Heather Norris-Nicholson – collaborated in making sure that the selection was representative of the period, as well as covering a wide range of topics. This could only be tackled when the database was available so this work was prioritised for early completion. Dates selected covered issues relating to employment, housing, health, transport, regeneration and education as well as entertainment and sport – the gritty, the poignant and the quirky all feature.

Taken together, the databases of documentary programmes and news stories now greatly enhance the quantity of catalogued material which reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of the region – something which has long been recognised as a 'gap' in the collection overall. These documentaries and news stories reflect the history and values of regional programme-making, and the construction of regional identities – the cultural, social and historical study potential is vast.

Higher Education access to the collection
The benefits offered to the UK HE sector through this important collaboration with BBC Information & Archives are in the wealth of wide-ranging content which is now available for research teaching and learning across disciplines. Staff and students may easily identify material of interest through the online catalogues, and request viewing either through visiting the NWFA to view on the premises, or by requesting DVD loan copies (with tciv) for research off-site. Clips on the website may be streamed in classrooms and lecture theatres, and we hope that it will be possible to add more clips on request. DVD loan copies (with BBC digital on-screen graphic) can also be requested for screening in lectures, seminars, conferences etc, and for editing into academic projects and presentations. As much notice as possible of requirements is requested, especially if there is a deadline – eg a conference date in mind. All requests will be subject to assessment of the end use of the content, and the preservation needs of material - all material remains absolutely the copyright of the BBC.

This article will appear in Viewfinder issue 73 in December 2008 in a slightly different form.

North West Film Archive
BBC North West Regional News and Documentary Film 1966-1986: Preservation and Research Access

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