A Day With The BFI
The national film and videotape archive - by Mark Boulton
On Monday January 28 2002, I was fortunate enough to land myself an invitation to visit the National Film and Television Archive in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. Run by the British Film Institute, it was set up with financial help from one of the BFI's patrons, John Paul Getty Junior - from which the facility takes its name. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Steve Bryant, the BFI's Keeper of Television, and all the staff for being so accommodating and allowing me a fascinating glimpse into the quiet, yet immeasurably important work, that goes on in the leafy glades of the Home Counties.
Above: one of the buildings at the BFI site.
Set in a converted farm, occupying several original outhouses and two or three purpose built vault chambers, the BFI's work at the Archive is fascinating to anybody interested in the history of television.
You may have read, or heard about the amount of television's past that is no longer with us; the art of keeping television programmes on videotape (or film) for future generations to enjoy is not something that was always a priority. In fact, a consistent and concerted effort to keep as much as possible did not begin until as late as 1978 (despite what you may have believed that everything since the late 60s survives).
It may help to explain two reasons why programmes were very often not kept - cost, and space. The machinery required to record a television programme, and the tapes on which to record them, were not only comparatively expensive in their day, but the machines and tapes were huge, heavy objects, a spool of tape weighing some 7-8lbs on its own. Until around 1982, television programmes were recorded on a format of videotape known as "Quadruplex". The tape was 2" wide (over twice the width of videotape today, both in domestic and professional machines), and it ran at 15 inches per second, the same linear speed of professional analogue audio tape. It may help you to understand television companies' philosophies into videotape recording to think about your own videocassette collection at home. I'm sure you've had to make the decision on occasions to 'tape over' something you really wanted to keep, because something even slightly more interesting is to be transmitted. Or, you've had to move house and you didn't have space to keep the tapes. And anyway, you'd be sure that your copy wouldn't be the only copy in existence. So, away it goes. Videotape at TV stations in the 1960s and 70s was much the same. Storing every programme and keeping it, on videotape was not financially viable, and even if it was, there just was not the space to keep the huge number of the huge spools of tape. Don't forget also, that maintaining an archive complex large enough and air-conditioned appropriately is also a costly business, in terms of facilities management and also insurance.
Although most ITV companies (and indeed the BBC) did "junk" many videotapes during the 70s, one company that stands proud is Granada. They were perhaps the one exception where, despite not keeping EVERY programme on its original tape, they kept a goodly proportion of them, with even examples of regional magazines and continuity on videotape - a very rare phenomenon - not just for the 1960s - but even today.
Above: A shelf full of 2" Quad videotapes, awaiting transfer to modern DigiBeta tape for future repeats and sales. This set were mainly current affairs; the first spool is labelled 'Labour Party Conference' - the year is unclear. Perhaps the contents would be of slightly less interest to modern eyes than the one recently completed!
Did you know that "World Of Sport" - ITV's answer to the BBC's "Grandstand" - went largely un-recorded "as transmitted" - i.e. the links and events as edited. All that remains are the raw event tapes, so for instance a wrestling match that might have been edited down to 30 minutes for World Of Sport will exist as something like a 90 minute recording - being the only material on the spool.
Consequently, all the VTR machines at the World of Sport studio would be employed in playing out the portions of the events featured, and there would be none left to record the transmitted result. It would appear that LWT have some links recorded "as broadcast", but this is likely only to have happened on a piecemeal basis.
Similarly, Grandstand has consistently failed to have itself recorded, and it turns out that, even today, any archiving of the complete transmissions is still very piecemeal and only done properly if for a World Cup, Olympics or other special event. Obviously, such items as Football Focus and Sportsmen Profiles are kept in full, but very rarely with the programme wrapping.
Another area to suffer the fate of junking is regional news. It may surprise you to know that it is still not common policy to record regional news programmes, and only the tapes of the reports themselves are kept. The news reading, weather, etc. are not - well, not for keeps or on broadcast quality videotape. The practice is that programmes are recorded, on VHS tape, and kept for 30 days - then they wipe over each tape 30 days later. This is to cover legal requirements should anybody try to take any legal action over anything that was said in the programmes, not for preservation purposes. The only time regional news items are kept for keeps is when things go wrong; the infamous "Christmas Tapes" are compiled from extracts kept to one side where there is some comedy value; this is why programmes such as "Auntie's Bloomers" and "It'll Be Alright On The Night" are so common and easy to put together; the editing of these cockups was done at the time - i.e. there aren't in fact miles and miles of uneventful recording lying around that needs to be spooled through to get to the gems. These would have been thrown away, and still, for the large part, are.
So - onto what HAS been saved; the National Film and Television Archive have spent the past two years or so taking delivery of the Quad collections from the major ITV companies; most notably, Granada and Carlton. As stated above, Granada's track record at keeping videotapes is exemplary - Christmas repeat features on Channel 4 in the late 80s are testament to this - music shows, for instance, survive in a substantial number from even the early 60s - whilst at the archive I walked past shelf upon shelf of videotape cases rubber-stamped with a large red "405" - indicating a 405-line recording as opposed to the 625-line standard that BBC Two introduced in 1964, and which became standard for all channels in the UK in 1969.
In addition, many spools of ATV and Central material, delivered from Carlton, is awaiting transfer. It is the material of easiest sales potential which the BFI have started transferring first - Coronation Street and Crossroads. In fact, upon entering the videotape transfer area, an episode of Coronation Street from 23/10/70 was being laced up on the Quad VT machine. Interestingly, this episode was in black-and-white - whereas the episodes from November 1969 to that point had been in colour. This was obviously evidence of the fabled "colour strike" of 1970/71 which led to technicians switching off the colour circuit whilst disputes over pay for recording television in colour were going on. Many prestige shows, such as "Upstairs Downstairs" suffered the same fate, with the colour signal literally being filtered off at recording stage - not just "faded out" at transmission stage, as used to be believed. In fact, the VT machine would flash a text message "No burst" on its internal display monitor, showing that the signal was in black-and-white "format" - the colour burst being a short segment of colour information which would normally be recorded before the black-and-white part of the picture (the luminance) gets written to the tape.
I had just missed the transfer of episode 3,354 of "Crossroads", which was the last to be recorded on 2" - from then on it was recorded on 1" tape.
The mechanism of the Quadruplex machines is amazingly simple, albeit on a large scale. Whereas modern-day video recorders, from VHS right through to DigiBeta, contain a bewildering mass of rollers, guides and motors to coax the tape around the necessary maze of heads, a Quad machine has a very simple tape path - two rollers - one underneath each spool, and a completely linear path across the video head drum (mounted perpendicular to the tape surface, not a helical slant like modern day head drums) and the linear control and audio/sync track heads.
Above: an example of the industry standard video tape recorder as used by the television industry all the way from 1958 to c.1982 - the 'Quadruplex'. Using 2" tape travelling at 15in/sec, using a transverse scan four-head assembly.
Despite what you may have read about air compressors and their role in keeping tape-to-head contact by way of a vacuum, don't think that this means the tape/head contact point is closed off in a sealed unit - it certainly isn't, and the machine will play quite happily with the covers off so that you can see the heads spinning around and the tape passing over them. A curved metal block presses the tape into an arc so that the head drum follows the tape's surface all the way along. Given the size of the machines, they were found to be amazingly quiet - a modern day photocopier makes 4 times more noise. In fact, they're also quicker to respond than modern-day machines - you try stopping a VHS tape and going into fast wind in half-a-second!
I found out that a second audio track, known as the 'Sync' track, was used to record timecode for editing purposes - but the timecode was only a digital signal (as used now) in the latter days of Quadruplex use - i.e. the late-70s and early-80s. Before this, the Speaking Clock was recorded on the cue track for use as the general time reference!
When TV-am started in 1983, despite the fact that every other TV company had moved away from Quad to 1" videotape, TV-am started with Quad and used it for almost all of the 80s, still using the Speaking Clock for timecode, and, most interestingly, had specially converted their machines to record at half-speed (a professional version of 'Long Play'!) so that a single day's broadcast - 3 hours, could be fit on a single, usually 90 minute spool - at half speed getting 180 minutes on a spool, whilst still retaining a reasonable degree of quality. It was perhaps this special conversion exercise which retained the format in use at TV-am for so long, as it undoubtedly gave better results than VHS or even standard Betacam, the latter of which would also have required a change of tape.
Above: on the left here, another Quad; right - this view of one of the BFI's two archive hangars illustrates the immense height of the storage facilities, in which just a small number of the backlog of spools sits in a protective atmosphere to guard against decay. Forklift trucks are a necessity to get anything from these shelves!
Two large hangars house racks of shelves, many of which are only accessible from specially designed forklifts; in addition to the open storage space, the early type of film, made from a nitrate subtrate which is extremely flammable, is kept in special air-tight 'kilns' built into the walls of the vaults. It is very difficult to work out exactly what material is held in these areas, as the work of cataloguing such material has proved a task beyond the powers of most people who have worked in the business, and indeed many of the materials are not in a fit state to be put straight through projection or telecine/VT equipment - old films and videotape have to go through a rigorous, but careful, cleaning and re-inforcing processes, and treated with kid gloves at all times.
It is no wonder then, that so much old television is considered 'lost'. However, it is with great hope and anticipation that I expect the coming years to finally bring old memories off these hallowed shelves, and back onto our TV screens. In fact, this November at the BFI's annual 'Missing, Believed Wiped' presentation, a showing of two, original episodes of 'At Last the 1948 Show' are due to be screened, unseen since 1967. I myself will be looking forward to seeing those, and any other gems that have been unearthed.
It was a magical day and an experience I would readily repeat. The facility do not, as a rule, arrange visits by members of the public, as the building is not built to cater for regular visitors. So I would like to thank Steve Bryant and his tireless team of technicians and engineers once again for a fascinating glimpse into the unsung work of the television restorer; keep up the good work, guys.