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Sussex academics to explore past lives of the BBC in major five-year project

BBC TV colour tests. © BBC 1965

A major new project that will tell the story of the BBC directly through the voices of the people who worked there has been announced today.

BBC Connected Histories is a dynamic and ground-breaking collaboration between the BBC and the University of Sussex, creating a new digital catalogue of hundreds of rarely seen audio and video interviews with former BBC staff – from those in the corridors of power to those at the broadcasting coal face.

Notable interviewees recorded over the years include Sir David Attenborough, the drama director Sydney Newman (creator of Doctor Who) and the pioneer of political programming Grace Wyndham Goldie. Also featured are BBC Directors-General and Chairmen, politicians involved in the nation’s broadcasting policy including Harold Wilson and Tony Benn, as well as less establishment figures, such as telephonists who worked at the BBC's Savoy Hill headquarters in the 1920s.

This unique archive will be enriched by expert curation from Professor David Hendy and colleagues from the Sussex Humanities Lab at the University of Sussex, framing the archive in a wider societal context. They will also create thematic online collections on key subjects such as War, Entertainment, and Britishness, building on earlier successful pilot collections on Elections and Early Television.

More widely, the team of researchers will transform the archive search options through innovative data tagging and data-mining tools. The resulting digital catalogue will allow historians, scholars and the general public - with their own memories of the BBC - to search for the first time ever this archive for a myriad of links between people, places and events, spanning decades of broadcast history.

The BBC Connected Histories project will run for nearly five years in the lead-up to the Corporation’s centenary in 2022, and is being funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) totalling nearly £790,000, a record sum for the Sussex Humanities Lab since its programme of research began in 2015. 

The project is also supported by key partners in the field: the BBC itself, the Science Museum Group (which includes the National Media Museum in Bradford), the Mass Observation Archive based in Brighton, and the British Entertainment History Project. All will be providing vital access to additional archive materials and resources, as well as collaborating on technological design and helping to develop the potential for further research activities.

BBC Connected Histories will be adding to the catalogue of BBC interviews, too.

“We will be creating a completely new set of oral history interviews, with 25 leading broadcasters speaking frankly and in depth about their life and work for the BBC,” explains Professor Hendy.

“And we’ll also be asking the public to add to the archive, engaging with them at events hosted by our partners in London, Sussex, Bradford and Salford, and allowing them to build a bigger, more democratic history of the BBC through offering their own memories of a lifetime of watching TV and listening to the radio.”

BBC Director-General Tony Hall commented: “The BBC has a unique history and role in British culture. This great new project with the University of Sussex opens up our special archives for all to see and hear – it will be an insightful behind-the-scenes view into nearly a hundred years of public service broadcasting."

Professor Hendy added: “The BBC’s oral history collection is an extraordinary, though underused, treasure trove, providing unique ringside accounts of the history of the BBC. Being able to see and hear these key figures in the BBC’s past tell their stories to us directly helps to bring the written history alive, but more importantly reveals  the ‘hidden wiring’ of broadcasting – the way personal convictions, character, and emotions helped shaped this profoundly influential public institution.”

Professor Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History and Co-Director of Sussex Humanities Lab, underlined other aspects of the collaboration: “The Sussex Humanities Lab is excited to be contributing to this project; and we believe it represents a unique opportunity to harness the new tools of big data and digital analysis, to the study of an internationally important archive of twentieth century lives.”

Professor Hendy has written extensively on broadcasting history and culture in the past and Professor Hitchcock has previously worked on major projects including the Old Bailey Online.

Joining them on the Connected Histories project are Dr Margaretta Jolly, the current Director of the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research at Sussex, and Dr Alban Webb, a Lecturer in Digital Humanities and leading historian of the BBC World Service. 

By: Tom Furnival-Adams
Last updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2017

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