In 2012, the British Film Institute (BFI) instigated a project to digitise film from the regional and national film archives in order to preserve the material for future generations. Following on from this and with a similar strategy, a further project aims to digitise material from many legacy video-tape formats held across the country.
In some ways, this is more urgent and problematic than the case for film, in that video-tape is not an optical medium and relies on, sometimes old and unreliable, machines working sufficiently well to show and copy the material from. Hence, time is not on the side of being able to keep these machines in working order indefinitely.
Although the ultimate aim is to copy the material to digital files, the BFI first provided funding to audit the material across the regional and national film archives, including Wessex Film and Sound Archive (WFSA). The audit took place between September 2018 and the beginning of January this year. It has enabled us to gain a deeper level of granularity about our collections, and the resulting information will not only support the BFI’s plans for Heritage 2022, but also inform our own future plans.
An earlier phase of the audit of tapes in the WFSA collections, completed in January 2018 with volunteer support including from David Lee, showed that there are 10,082 tapes across a variety of formats. To demonstrate the significance of tape formats in relation to other formats in the collections, this number compares with 12,629 items of cinefilm and 15,936 sound items. The tapes therefore represent almost half of the moving image items in the archive’s collections.
4,506 of the tapes, so just less than 50% of them, are digibetas. The VHS and 1” formats are also strongly represented, with 1,994 and 1,815 such items respectively. There is a substantial amount of betacam tapes (779), with strong showings of umatic and mini-dv formats. There are smaller numbers of other formats, from Sony video 8 to Betamax!
Many of our collections are single tapes, as they are the only footage we have received from a particular source or provenance. This is a feature of a regional film archive which receives content from local amateurs or their families. Only a few or a single tape may have been produced or have survived from a filmmaker’s output. We have a small number of larger collections (containing a few hundred tapes), and our biggest collection is the TVS/STV collection. It comprises 4,870 tapes, mainly digibetas.
To undertake the audit, the BFI provided a huge, complex spreadsheet for us to complete, along with guidelines about how collections should be represented. BFI asked that the smaller collections be aggregated to form larger collections , and the large TVS/STV collection be disaggregated into smaller sections. To complete the details on the spreadsheet meant viewing most of the tapes, and checking the rights details on file for the collections.
The ITV Meridian Collection of Regional Programmes of Southern Television and TVS
David King recalls, “although I had already been a volunteer for WFSA, the audit allowed me to spend more time analysing what material existed in the ITV Meridian collection from the regional archives of Southern Television and TVS. Having worked for all of these companies in the past, I already had a good knowledge of the regional programmes which were held in the collection but they had never really been audited since their arrival at WFSA in 2005.
It was decided to concentrate on programmes that had already been transferred to the Digital Betacam format as this is where the bulk of completed programmes was considered to lie. There are around 4500 such tapes and it was necessary to check various aspect of the programmes on them such as whether the programmes are complete, if there are duplicate copies or if they are spread across more than one tape. Some programmes did indeed have a master and protection copy readily identifiable whilst for other duplicates, the real master and copy had to be determined.
Thankfully, I already had a good database of my own which gave me a good starting point and the whole exercise took about twenty days spread across three months at the end of 2018. I had to call up many tapes to check from the strong room and eventually, I had a good idea of what material was held. The final exercise was to fill in my part of the spreadsheet that the BFI had provided.
The collection is rather dear to my heart as I had worked, in one way or another, on many of the programmes. Of particular interest are the regional documentaries of Southern Television in the Southern Report strand. Talking Bikes provided information and features for the motor-cycle community and Theatre in Camera is a short series of theatrical productions presented for television. For TVS, the nature and local people of Country Ways stand out, together with personalities appearing on the lunchtime show Coast to Coast People. Also, regional debate in Questions and the teenage drama Radio are worthy of mention.
Having these programmes digitised should make them more accessible to the public, many of whom may remember watching them originally. Also, researchers, programme makers and educational institutions may find them of interest when comparing modern life with the past, as in many ways they are unique, since we don’t necessarily get programmes of their kind today.”
I would like to thank David and colleagues here who worked so hard on the audit to get it completed to meet the BFI’s deadline.
We have recently prioritised film preservation at WFSA, rather than tapes, but this opportunity to look in detail at our tape collection has given us food for thought on that topic. The ubiquity of video kit has meant more ordinary lives have been captured, unlike cinefilm, which tended to be the preserve of upper middle class and above families. The tape collection is very varied, encompassing everything from interviewees with former Basque child refugees from the Spanish Civil War to footage inside drainage tunnels; if anyone ever wants shots of a fatburg, we can help!
Heather Needham, archivist, and David King, WFSA volunteer