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Pioneers of the BBC Sound Archive

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Simon Rooks | 13:00 UK time, Friday, 2 October 2009

They recorded for Posterity: that means us!

The recent collection from the BBC Archive team, marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of WWII, has made me reflect on the pioneers of the Sound Archive, men and women whose vision meant we have such remarkable recordings to share, together with images and documents seventy years on.

The BBC Archives are regularly subject to sometimes forensic scrutiny about what the Archive doesn't have from the past, and quite right too - Sarah Hayes wrote a blog post about this very issue - but today I'm unashamedly indulging in what we have got, and our debt to the men and women of the Recorded Programmes Department of the 30s and 40s.

blattnerphone_1931.jpgRecording is something we take for granted now, but in the BBC of the 1930s it was by no means a given. Our first recording machine, a Blattnerphone (pictured left), was not installed until 1930, eight years after the BBC started broadcasting.

Consequently, there were no archives to illustrate the BBC's 10th anniversary and the move to Broadcasting House from Savoy Hill in 1932. The solution was to ask a number of contributors to re-read parts of their broadcasts. Happily, we still have the recordings as used in The End of Savoy Hill programme.

Even with the technology available, there was a suspicion and sometimes prejudice about using recording in broadcasting. Some took a dim view of pre-recording music as they considered re-takes and editing did not result in a genuine performance. When recordings were used for scheduling reasons or to broadcast to another time zone, the Radio Times always noted the fact. At the end of the programme, the announcer would state "you have been listening to a recording" to ensure that the listener was not deceived.

lynton_fletcher_1941.jpgNevertheless, Sound Archive pioneers such as Lynton Fletcher (pictured) had already been experimenting with using recordings for new programmes in Pieces of Tape (1932). The 'tape' by the way was actually thin steel, edited using wire-cutters and the ends welded together.

By 1939, things had moved on. As well as the steel-tape method, disc recording was widely used and the BBC had 18 recording machines including six mobile units in trucks and cars. Happily for us, Fletcher was rather good at archiving himself and we have a number of recordings of him and his staff talking about the Recorded Programmes Department of which he was Director.

Here, he explains the three reasons why the BBC made recordings.

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The acetate discs made had a relatively short playing life but were suitable to immediate broadcasting needs. Any selected for the Permanent Library (not yet known as the Sound Archive) had to be sent to a record company to be processed into more durable discs. This cost a few pounds per disc, so each selection had to be justified and it was all rather tentative. Typically, a recording of a notable person might not be selected because they were already represented in the Library: the content or the figure would have to be quite something to warrant a second example. Perhaps four or five four-minute recordings or shorter extracts a week were selected.

marking_up_selections_1941.jpgIn 1939, some 200 recordings a week were being made, but once war had begun, this increased enormously: 7,000 by June 1944. Marie Slocombe, Recorded Programmes Librarian from 1937 to 1972, another great pioneer of the Archive, recalled that 'history was piling in' leading to 'hopeless arrears'. Marie's work was celebrated in an Radio 4 Archive Hour in 2007 and covered online.

What does come across very strongly is the very real awareness both Slocombe and Fletcher had of the significance of their work for future generations: they were determined to preserve some representation of the life and times they were living through. This determination was of course intensified in wartime. A 1942 series about the work of the Recorded Programmes Department reveals the clear sense of purpose and appreciation of the significance of their work for future generations. Fletcher envisages the serious student of history or just the curious being able to 'recreate for themselves...the scenes and events that we're living through now'.

Listen to more of Fletcher here:

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In that clip Fletcher talks about listening to those from 'all walks of life': both he and Slocombe ensured that not only the 'Great and Good' were preserved for posterity. As Slocombe put it in a 1972 interview 'we believe, that ordinary people who have stories to tell and experiences to relate, are part of the history of our time and which are worth preserving, in sound.'

You can hear Slocombe herself here:

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We'll be hearing many more recordings from the war as more collections are released and in appreciating the often perilous work of celebrated War Correspondents and their lesser known, but just as courageous recording engineers, let's spare a thought for the pioneers of the Sound Archive whose efforts and vision ensured we have so much to share with you today.

Simon Rooks is a Multi-Media Archivist, BBC Information & Archives.


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  • 1. At 05:27am on 03 Oct 2009, kimmurphy22 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 2. At 12:05pm on 05 Oct 2009, lifeasdaddy wrote:

    Thanks for this very informative blog post about the radio archives. I'll come back and read it again and follow the links when I have more time.

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  • 3. At 12:32pm on 05 Oct 2009, heymanda wrote:

    It's so interesting to hear how all of this started out. We live in such a visual culture these days, Fletcher et al really helped to make the past so much more accessible for everyone today.

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  • 4. At 1:07pm on 12 Oct 2009, seanstreet wrote:

    Fascinating stuff Simon. And great to have Marie Slocombe justly celebrated! Another key figure, working outside the BBC in the commercial sector, initially as a band leader, was Cecil Watts, who developed the acetate disc as a recording device during the 1930s and supplied both the BBC and commercial companies. His company, The Marguerite Sound Studios (MSS) was I think in charing Cross Road, and subsequently moved to Ealing if I recall correctly.

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