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Hidden archive gems, and how to forge new ones

A scene from South Downs at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The recent news that Radio 4 is releasing the archive of Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America series, which ran from 1946 to 2004, is of course very exciting. As companion pieces to US and world events, they often provide a fascinating personal view of moments in history.

The release of Cooke’s monologues follows the publication of as many archive episodes as possible of Desert Island Discs, the classic interview-and-music series originally devised by Roy Plomley and currently presented by Kirsty Young. Currently over 1800 of the 2913 episodes in the show’s 70-year history are available to listen and download, over 650 of which are in the ‘Stage, Screen and Radio’ category.

All of this is part of Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams’s stated mission to make the Radio 4 website a combination of support for its current programmes and an archive of historical elements.

But isn’t it a shame that, despite being possibly the principal commissioner of broadcast comedy and drama in the country, Radio 4’s archive of scripted performance isn’t quite as accessible?

There are valid reasons for this, of course. Not least of these is the sheer expense of sorting out the contractual arrangements. While clearing Letter From America for archive release would basically involve dealing just with Alistair Cooke’s estate, for an archive drama, say, there are contractual wrangles to be sorted out with the writer, all the actors, the director, composer (and performers) of any music used, and so on… For all but the most recent productions, contracts would have been drawn up under the assumption that programmes went out once, with maybe possible options for occasional repeats. The notion that the BBC may have a platform on which they could conceivably host old programmes for public access for posterity called ‘the internet’ could not have been envisaged until recently.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the BBC sorting out such arrangements for many programmes. Whether through sales of audiobooks or broadcast on the digital channel Radio 4 Extra, the BBC is getting better at exploiting – for want of a better word – the cream of its back catalogue.

That’s “cream” in the commercially appealing sense, of course. As anybody who’s exposed to the full breadth of performing arts will recognise, there’s not an exact match between “popular enough to put on sale” and “culturally important”. The archives team at the BBC has shown that they recognise that, as the collections on the BBC Archive website show, which have often included great performances from productions which are otherwise not available.

But even with the Archive site’s sterling work, isn’t it agonising to think that there may be gems in the BBC archive – the writing or performing debuts of some now-famous names, perhaps, to name just one factor – that are yet to be rediscovered?

Archiving the new

One of the pleasures of recent BBC radio listening has been both Radio 3 and Radio 4’s commitment to faithfully adapt significant West End productions. Two recent cases in point are The Old Vic’s production of Rattigan’s Cause Celebre and David Hare’s South Downs (a companion piece to Rattigan’s The Browning Version), which played at the Harold Pinter after transferring from Chichester Festival Theatre.

[pullquote]However successive casts and productions decide to play the story, we have a record of how the original cast interacted with each other[/pullquote]

Both radio productions were able to use the full theatre cast in their productions, which makes them not only a record of the piece, but their interpretation by the actors who won plaudits on stage. They’re not identical to their onstage equivalents, of course – there are no sets or lighting changes, and the actors only have to project as far as the microphone in front of them rather than to the back of the gods. If anything, that can bring out nuance in performance which can risk being lost in a larger space. In the lead role in South Downs, for example, Alex Lawther’s superb performance is even more affecting on radio.

A third, if slightly older, example is the BBC’s adaptation of The History Boys by Alan Bennett. I wasn’t lucky enough to see the original cast of this superb production – and with names amongst the schoolboys such as James Corden, Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper, Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett, each of which have gone on to bigger things, it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them all on stage at one time in the future. But the BBC adaptation ensures that, however successive casts and productions decide to play the story, we have a record of how the original cast interacted with each other to produce a wonderful piece of theatre. It’s also far more faithful than the film adaptation – you can listen along to the radio play with a copy of Bennett’s script in hand, and notice only a few discrepancies (mainly addressing some characters by name as the enter a scene in ways that would be redundant when you watch the play on stage).

For those who crave a record of visuals as well as wordplay, radio doesn’t cut it, of course. Ventures such as Digital Theatre are fulfilling a clear need here: producing recordings of an increasing range of theatrical productions, with the casts and sets that paying audiences see in person. And shows streamed via NT Live will surely also be recorded for posterity, providing a valuable archive resource for the future.

As with the BBC’s archive, though, such projects will potentially only skim the surface of the UK performing arts, whether it’s due to being a commercial concern in Digital Theatre’s case, or being specific to one, albeit very important, venue in the National’s. There are promising signs, though, particularly with Digital Theatre’s partnership with the Routledge Performance Archive, that the technologies being used for the more audience-friendly commercial projects can extend to digitising and making available a wider variety of archive material. Looking wider afield, of course the demand for archive content is not just limited to the audio-visual – as I was preparing this column, the Association of Performing Arts Collections relaunched its website (and gave itself a new name, having formerly been the Theatre Information Group) to help promote archive collections around the UK.

But as the performing arts extends into new media, it’s worth practitioners bearing in mind how technology can help preserve 21st century productions, especially those which use new media as part of their essence. Venues and theatre companies are already experimenting with ways in recording, live streaming or producing other digital forms of theatre – from Stratford East’s plans to stream rehearsals, to the RSC’s attempt to have Romeo & Juliet playing out on Twitter, and all the various productions currently hosted on the Arts Council/BBC project, The Space.

As technologies become more pervasive and hardware ever cheaper, smaller companies will also be able to produce high quality digital theatre. The key will be to keep an eye on how their work can be archived for future generations to learn from, just as much as we can learn from productions from our past.

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