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TV at the BDC: Television Holdings at the Bill Douglas Centre

Phil Wickham

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As television scholars know it can be hard to access information on the medium – there's the BFI library and archives, the National Media museum, and, if you are lucky (and usually only if you are delving far back in time) the written records of the broadcasters. Beyond that pickings can be slim.


Here at the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture in Exeter however we have some holdings that might be of interest and offer a different angle onto TV study and research. I won't pretend that our TV collections are massively extensive and the focus on television is very much at an embryonic stage but I hope that we are at the beginning of something more significant here.

The Bill Douglas Centre, based at the University of Exeter, is named after the great Scottish filmmaker and based around his vast collection of over 50,000 objects accumulated with his friend Peter Jewell and is both a public museum and a research centre.

The collection has been augmented by many other donations and is used to enhance teaching on topics from cinema special effects to the cultures of Victorian Imperialism. The objects we hold range from cinema programmes, cigarette cards and postcards, posters and star branded everyday objects of a frequently bizarre nature to devices that predate cinema by decades or centuries. These range from Javanese shadow puppets to magic lantern slides to zoetropes and peep eggs – for more look at our online catalogue. What these diverse items share is an interest in the audience's experience of the moving image –how do these things make us look differently at the world? How do we respond to images? What relationships do we forge with what we see?

TV was not one of Bill and Peter's interests, as Peter often reminds me. However to exclude television from the story we are telling would be most remiss. It shares many similarities with cinema, but also the visual entertainments that precede, many of which were sited in the home with all that implies for how we engage with images. I have a TV background myself; formerly a TV curator at the BFI I have written extensively on the medium, including two recent tomes; Understanding Television Texts (BFI 2007) and The Likely Lads (BFI 2008). I am naturally keen to exploit the TV holdings we have and get them used more and also to ensure that we acquire more material to reflect the importance of the small screen in popular culture.

There are however some nuggets already there that CST readers should be aware of. First of all there are plenty of books. The Bill Douglas Centre has by far the largest library on the moving image in any British university, and second in the country behind only the BFI. We have a very decent collection of television titles (many donated by senior academics over the years). There are some interesting early technical titles (and I'm on a promise of more to come with a donor) and up to the early 90s we are strong in policy and theory. I am trying to tackle something of a hole thereafter with some new acquisitions from the recent CST canon so Nelson, McCabe and Akass and Wheatley are now all present and correct. More will be joining them.

One of our main donors is Roy Fowler, a former producer in Britain and the US, and much of the paper material he has donated has some TV connection. We also have the papers of some important filmmakers in the centre such as Don Boyd, Gavrik Losey and James Mackay, and these offer insights into the connections between film and TV, as in Britain one can never be divorced from the other. I hope that someday some TV talent's papers may join them.

Our museum is also full of other kinds of film artefacts –bits of memorabilia designed to keep the kids quiet, entertain your friends or perform some domestic function but with a star or character's face bizarrely attached to it (for instance our Marilyn Monroe soap dish or James Dean cushion). Here we could do with more TV and my eyes and ears are open for items you may wish to donate should you be passing Exeter. There is certainly scope for a whole load more material on The Simpsons and numerous British puppet characters to take their place alongside our immense Disney collection. There are a few treasures we have lately acquired however offering a novel way to look at TV. Material culture has been used to effect in film studies (we do it all the time with the collection and there has a lot more to be said through items like fan magazines, cigarette cards and dolls about the relationship between producer and consumer). We can do this with TV too – and not just through cultural studies but through television studies looking in depth at the history of the medium and its texts.

Let's take just one example – the Twin Peaks Murder Mystery Game. Lynch's triumphant and unsettling series is somehow translated to this distinctly odd product. For a start the cover of the box features a half-eaten doughnut – and said snack forms the game's currency, confusingly not cherry pie. Inside is a board where progress with the dice means you land on spaces with unexpected instructions like 'Audrey Horne gets into bed for Agent Cooper' and 'Albert Rosenfeld autopsies Laura's body'. Players can be sent to a dream-speaking sequence where they have to unravel the backwards sayings of the one-armed man while their rival counts to ten. What does this tell us? For one thing it illustrates the extent of the show's cult popularity over a short period in 1990-1. This complex, formally unstable and occasionally dark and perverse thriller, complete with Lynchian tics, was hit enough to produce this board game for the home market. The instructions contains long expositions on Twin Peaks the fictional place and its cast of characters, understanding that part of the pleasure in the show was its building of an alternate reality, slightly skewed, with a web of interconnected people and events.

I hope that TV resources and opportunities at The Bill Douglas Centre will grow and that TV scholars around the country will use them. In the west we have started a new network, Screen Studies South West, which brings those studying the moving image together with resources in the region to produce new research. Television is an important part of this project and we hope new research will come out of it.

In the meantime look at our online catalogue and try a few TV keywords. If you would like to donate anything contact p.j.wickham@exeter.ac.uk


Phil Wickham is curator of The Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter. Previously he was a TV curator at the BFI National Archive and is author of Understanding Television Texts and the BFI TV classic on The Likely Lads. He has contributed to other TV publications, websites and the latest issue of Critical Studies in Television.

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