Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research


Sussex academic curates new archive revealing unique BBC insider stories of the Cold War years

Dr Alban Webb

An academic from the School of Media, Film and Music has curated a new archive collection published today, on the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall collapse, which contains unique video and audio footage of first-hand accounts of the Cold War geopolitical struggle.

Dr Alban Webb has curated the archive which shows the BBC reporting these historic events for audiences around the world, as well as often finding itself on the frontline of this shifting conflict.

One of the key Cold War issues was access to what was really happening behind the Iron Curtain. An interview with former BBC Polish Section deputy head, Eugeniusz Smolar reveals for the first time how in the aftermath of Martial Law in Poland, the BBC discovered a forgotten telephone line at the Polish Academy of Science, which gave them unique and regular access to news from this otherwise closed country.

Another opportunity to get news out of Poland, despite the best efforts of the Polish censor, is also detailed by Smolar. He describes how he learned of an alternative international telephone cable connection to Warsaw, via Istanbul. “So I called the telephone box and I started to get information directly out of Poland … I shared it with the Foreign Office. I shared it with, of course, the BBC. And they were happy because that was something from the horse’s mouth”. Such accidents of fortune were frequently the reality of Cold War newsgathering.

The collection also contains recently recorded interviews with ex-Moscow Correspondent Bridget Kendall and Head of the Russian Service Elisabeth Robson-Elliot, who offers  first-hand accounts of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attempted Soviet coup in August 1991. Kendall also describes graphically the reality of newsgathering in pre-internet age Soviet Union, via ‘a telex machine half the size of a piano’ and ‘one direct dial phone – white plastic’, and how in the mid-1980s she persuaded her London BBC bosses that ‘the big story is internal… it was all about the dismantling of communist power that was now beginning to happen’. Likewise Robson-Elliot describes ‘a feeling of exhilaration that the media was becoming more recognisable as respectable voices of the country’.

David Hendy, Lead Curator of the 100 Voices that Made the BBC and Professor of Media and Cultural History in the School of Media, Film and Music, said: “This new archive release for the BBC's oral history collection is a really important piece of social history, giving us intriguing and - until now - entirely unheard ‘inside’ accounts of the BBC’s Cold War role. It also reveals the real difficulty of accessing information from behind the Iron Curtain, and how key was the BBC’s role in communicating and helping the world understand what was happening in this highly complex and shifting geopolitical arena.”

Other highlights released today include:

  • Head of the Hungarian service, Ferenc Rentoul, gives his first-hand account of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and how important his service was in interpreting and at times influencing the course of events on the ground.
  • The Suez Crisis, newly released recordings from the BBC Oral History Collection (Harman Grisewood, Chief Assistant to the DG; Oliver Whitley, Assistant Head of the Overseas Service), reveal the inside story of the defining stand-off between the BBC and the British government, as British servicemen embarked on military operations on the Suez Canal, Prime Minister Anthony Eden unsuccessfully attempted to take control of the BBC under the auspices of a hastily drafted legal instrument.
  • The War Game (1965), ringside views on the banning of BBC’s own film about the potential effects of a nuclear attack on Britain.  For the first time, we hear all the voices involved in this complex decision-making process, from the BBC’s Director-General Hugh Carleton-Greene (“It was so shocking that old people living alone.. might be so upset by it that they could get out of their flat and throw themselves under a bus”)
  • The Cold War theme of nuclear annihilation is also brought vividly and dramatically to life via unique access to the campaigning voices that surfaced from the 60s onwards. Youth voices are platformed in the BBC’s Let Me Speak programme, addressing venerable broadcaster Malcolm Mugeridge: “We’re tired of seeing the disarmament talks get virtually nowhere at all while more and more nations plan to get nuclear weapons.” Plus Greenham Common campaigning voices are evoked via archive clips and documentary coverage.                                                   
  • The role of BBC Monitoring in revealing vital news flashes from foreign news sources – in particular the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – is unpacked here, as is the Stasi attempts to access listener correspondence destined for the popular programme, Letters without Signatures, where East Germans wrote to the BBC detailing the reality of life the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History, stated: “These are invaluable, first hand views of our BBC history, that reveal the - often frustrating - reality of covering the Cold War from a broadcaster's perspective. Their deft curation by the University of Sussex places them in their all-important historical context, and gives us a real understanding of their wider significance.”

The BBC archive project ‘100 Voices that made the BBC’ is collaboration between the BBC and the University of Sussex, is part of Connected Histories of the BBC, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  This collection is curated by Dr Alban Webb from the University of Sussex, with additional contributions from Professor Margaretta Jolly, University of Sussex,and Dr Will Studdert, visiting scholar at Humboldt University of Berlin.

This is the sixth 100 Voices that Made the BBC website. Previous editions cover Elections, The Birth of TV and Radio Reinvented, People, Nation, Empire and Pioneering Women. Three more will be created between now and 2021.

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By: Ian Tout
Last updated: Friday, 8 November 2019