Television archives

It is said that, before very long, we will have access via the web to every recording of every song that anyone has committed to vinyl, shellac, tape or even cylinder, or which has begun life in digital form, and that also, it won’t be too long before the technology exists to allow us to carry this complete set of recordings round with us, probably on something the size of a piece of grit, or a grain of sand, or whatever (probably indeed the technology already exists, and it’s just a question of bringing the price down so every can go to fetch their customised version – mine will have opera on it, for instance).

At the same time, Google has a plan to digitise every book that has ever existed and to make it available on the web, which is one up on Project Gutenberg, which is itself a wonderful affair, and which has been going since the 1990s. Gutenberg aims to transcribe every out-of-copyright book, and make it available, free, to all (although you can support it financially, as you can Wikipedia). The speed of downloading its already transcribed files is astonishing – even five years ago, I was able to transcribe the whole of Jane Eyre on to my hard drive in about two seconds. (I was writing about the incidence of dreams in Victorian novels, and it didn’t half help to be able to download a squadron of the things, and then to use the search facility and the word ‘dream’ – it turned up several novels I might not have thought of reading at all.)

But there is one archive to which we don’t have access, and that is the television archive of – in this country, and I’m going for the largest one – the BBC. I say ‘we’. Obviously, BBC personnel have access to it. They can raid their store for clips at any time. But what we glimpse on the occasional foray into the vaults must be only a tiny fraction of what is available.

We don’t even access (as we do, with books, by looking at library catalogues) to what is actually held. The tragic (but understandable – nobody realises the significance of things until they are gone) wiping of many early television programmes, so the tape could be re-used, is known about, because of missing episodes of famous programmes like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s sketch shows Not Only But Also… But the extent of what’s missing is unknown to us. (Since the BBC has always been fabulously bureaucratic, what should be there must be known, so it must be possible to make some correlation.)

Partly, this is a marketing and copyright thing. But I always think they are missing a trick. I would like to see Pinter’s The Basement again, and I would also like to see (it might be an ITV production) Leonard Rossiter playing Davies in the TV version of The Caretaker again. The Basement exists. It was shown in a retrospective (and will pretty obviously be shown again soon) on BBC4 – but I forgot to record it. But why don’t I have access to it (and I am talking about ready money here, not a free DVD)?

Obviously, one could go mad, and I may already have done so, looking to repeat one’s life, by watching again what has long gone. I used to think that it would be fun to have a channel devoted to exactly what was on exactly fifty years ago, news, ads and all, and that would show us how history repeats itself (and how golden ages of television are not really so golden). I wonder if anyone is working on it. They should be.


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