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From Attenborough to Hancock: The project preserving entertainment history for posterity

Founded to record the memories of disappearing generations of stage and screen stars, the British Entertainment History Project has created an unrivalled resource of interviews, as project member Lynsey Ford explains


Just over three decades ago, delegates at the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians expressed concern that their colleagues’ experience, memories and insight was disappearing as they retired. As a result, they decided to form a history project to ensure those voices would continue to speak for generations to come.

The British Entertainment History Project – originally known as the ACTT History Project – was created as a result, spearheaded by producer-director Roy Fowler. It continues today and is now the largest oral history collection dedicated to the preservation of interviews with professionals in the film, theatre, television and radio industries in the UK.

The aim for Fowler and members of the ACTT, now part of media and entertainment trade union BECTU [1], was to ensure that the memories and contributions of all the different roles in the broadcast and entertainment industries would be remembered. They began the intricate process of recording and archiving material for future posterity.

Project founder Roy Fowler (left) and current chair Mike Dick. Photo: British Entertainment History Project
Project founder Roy Fowler (left) and current chair Mike Dick. Photo: British Entertainment History Project

Now in its fourth decade, the project has conducted 750 interviews, including technicians, designers, actors, playwrights and directors in the theatre industry. The project has collected more than 5,000 hours of archive material, with interviews varying in length from 30 minutes to 21 hours.

Contributors to the History Project include performers Virginia McKenna, Barry Cryer and Sheila Hancock [2], who became the first female artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Tour, and the first woman to direct in the Olivier, with Sheridan’s The Critic.

There is an interview with actor and director Richard Attenborough [3], the former president of RADA [4], in which he talks of his theatrical training and career from 1941, and performing at the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green, north London, where he was spotted for the Noel Coward film In Which We Serve.

The project recognises the work of campaigners, including those close to home such as former head of union BECTU Gerry Morrissey, who began representing theatre workers from West End and repertory theatres in 1988. A union member since the age of 17, Morrissey challenged the Old Vic [5]’s use of unpaid theatre interns, and led the first national theatre strike over poor pay conditions in regional theatres – the first of its kind in 90 years.

Mike Dick, chair of the project, says: “The interviews tell us about the challenges workers had to overcome, the skills they employed and the enduring human relationships they forged as Britain developed into one of the world’s major centres of the entertainment industries.”

Project contributor Barry Cryer. Photo: Douglas McPherson

He continues: “Our interviews highlight the valuable contribution the men and women of the British entertainment industry have made to the cultural and social enrichment of countless millions of people in this country and all over the world during the past 100 years.”

The interviews offer a primary source of reference for researchers and students, publishers, authors, historians, obituary writers, journalists and the general public. The British Film Institute is the official custodian of the archive collection, keeping master tapes in its National Film and Television Archive for permanent preservation. A significant number of the interviews is part of BFI [6] Screen Online, which makes them easily accessible.

Archivists Sue Malden and Martin Sheffield manage the history project’s website, supported by a team of volunteers who help to record, transcribe and digitise interviews from industry figures. Malden says: “Our database collection is developing steadily, looking at the intake of new interviews, the details of physical holdings, digital copies, storage location, existence of transcripts, uploads to the website, and restriction details.”

In 2017, the history project provided assistance to Pavement Pounders [7], a community heritage organisation based in Kent that wanted to create its own oral history project, looking at the forgotten role of British scenic artists.

Director David Lay worked as a scenic artist at the National Theatre [8] during the 1970s, when the Old Vic annexe space was converted into the National Theatre Studio. Despite scenic art dating back hundreds of years, little has been recorded historically. But Pavement Pounders was inspired by the history project, and plans to record the stories of scenic artists from the National Theatre and Elms Painters Studio.

“Members of the British Entertainment History Project were very encouraging and helpful.” says Maryanne Traylan, co-director of Pavement Pounders. Lay was invited to talk about the project to the committee at BECTU headquarters and, as a result, the committee wrote a letter of support to the Heritage Lottery Fund. This year, it is searching for retired scenic artists, particularly members of the West End scenic artists’ branch of the long-defunct National Association of Theatrical Television and Kine Employees, to tell their stories.

Project contributor Richard Attenborough. Photo: Granada

Fowler is delighted that the British Entertainment History Project he founded continues to flourish into the 21st century. “I never thought that it would still be going so strongly more than 30 years later,” he says. “I’m astonished by what has developed from my simple concept. The principal aim for these valuable and fascinating interviews is for the collection to become more widely available and for this to happen, the team of volunteers needs greater financial support.”

The project, which was funded by BECTU, has rarely sought direct financial assistance. It runs on a limited budget backed up by an enormous amount of hard work and goodwill from its volunteers.

Until now, it had no separate legal status from the union, but has simply operated as an informal voluntary initiative under the auspices of the union. It has now established itself as an independent, not-for-profit company and continues to search for stories of working in the theatre industry and keep those voices speaking across the generations for years to come.

Details: historyproject.org.uk [9]