British Film Institute National Archive in Berkhamsted
PUBLISHED: 11:30 14 October 2019
Credit: AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Photo
Spanning more than a century, the British Film Institute National Archive is the largest of its kind in the world. Richard Burton explores the collection and the work to preserve it in perpetuity at Berkhamsted
Camera flashes will light up the red carpet as the likes of Daniel Craig and Jamie Lee Curtis arrive this month for the annual British Film Institute London Film Festival. A highlight of the 63rd festival will be the premiere of Star Wars director Rian Johnson's eagerly-awaited whodunit, Knives Out, billed as an Agatha Christie-style mystery.
Little known to the average film fan however is that the real intrigue lies around 30 miles away from the glamour of the Southbank Centre, in an anonymous lane on the edge of Berkhamsted. Here, on a similarly anonymous 11-acre plot easily mistaken for the smallholding it once was, lies one of the most important archives of film and TV footage in existence; one that dates from the earliest days of film in the late 19th century up to the present day, and comprises nearly a million titles.
The mission of the British Film Institute National Archive has been since 1935 to preserve in its vaults all British and British-related films and TV programmes, including those shown in cinemas, short films and trailers. The collection also includes documentaries, newsreel, industrial, educational and scientific as well as political and campaigning films and amateur film capturing events and scenes of local and national importance.
The archive, split between sites in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire and Warwickshire, holds the original negatives of many British classics among more than 50,000 feature films and short fiction, over 20,000 silent movies, a huge archive of TV shows from the 1950s onwards, 120,000 factual programmes and an important collection of artists' moving image work.
Alongside these is a huge and world-class collection of fascinating artefacts relating to British film and TV including photographs, posters, costume and production designs and promotional material, as well as other unpublished items including scripts, hand-drawn storyboards, scribbled annotations and letters.
These are not just state-of-the-art storage rooms however, at Berkhamsted work is undertaken to ensure the historic footage lives on long after the celluloid has decomposed and recollections have faded. Footage shot in a variety of obsolete formats - fragile and protected for years in metal cans in cold, dry vaults - is expertly revived for the digital age. Restored film is made available online (the recent restoration of a 1903 film of Alice in Wonderland was watched more than a million times on the archive's YouTube channel), at film festivals, and by special request - much like a library.
As someone who remembers with nostalgia the first glimpse of the Daleks and coming home from school to watch Fred Dinenage, Bunty James and Jack Hargreaves reveal how to get ships into bottles or knock over a house brick by merely blowing on it in Southern TV's cult series, How, this is serious stuff.
Behind it all is a dedicated 80-strong team who work painstakingly to ensure that if I have grandchildren they won't think time is playing memory games when I mention my fond memories of childhood viewing.
Many of the team at the Berkhamsted site which opened in 1968 have dedicated their careers to the calling, regarding the work as far more than just a job. Some transferred from the BFI archive's first dedicated home in Aston Clinton in Bucks, a move facilitated by the construction of a dedicated conservation centre in 1987, named after its benefactor John Paul Getty Jr.
Head of conservation Charles Fairall has worked here for more than 30 years since leaving a TV engineering job at the BBC.
'People do tend to be dedicated to their work,' he says. 'Because it's actually very compelling to know you are helping to care for, grow and make available the greatest collection of its kind in the world and, in doing so, you're handling not only a major collection in terms of film and television history but also among the greatest and most precious historic examples of incredibly powerful cultural value.'
He adds that the restoration of film is a very specialised craft. 'Our specialists are often working right down at a frame-and-perforation level to inspect, repair, clean and compare fragile elements to make both traditional analogue and new digital copies for audiences and individuals to enjoy. It's very intensive work and, by nature, covers the whole spectrum of moving image technology, spanning more than 100 years.
'It's an exciting career for anyone with a fascination for not only film and television but also history and cultural heritage, so when people realise the extent of that opportunity, they do tend to stay long-term.'
So just how important is all this? 'Having a national collection dedicated to film and television is a benefit to everyone, from individuals at all stages of understanding and appreciation right through to the creative industries which not only draw inspiration from the wealth of collections we hold but also produce new works we wish to collect.'
Each format comes with its own challenges in terms of preservation, needs often dictated, not only by the material itself, but its condition when it arrives. Magnetic recordings, both video and audio, for example, present a particular challenge because the multiple recording format technologies are now obsolete.
Staff are encouraged to embrace both analogue and digital technologies, with many traditional craft skills such as photo-chemical film printing and processing and video tape engineering sitting alongside a raft of digital film scanning and video digitisation, a combination Charles describes as requiring 'tenacity and determination'.
I wondered whether people were aware of the archive's existence. After all, it's not exactly advertised. Some of that mystique may have lifted, as ahead of the London festival - at which some of the national archive's gems will be presented - the centre opened its doors for free public tours as part of the nationwide Heritage Open Days festival.
A further recent, and major, step in showcasing its work was the launch of its Britain on Film initiative in 2015. It has since amassed more than 70 million online video views - from 10,000 films spanning 120 years of British life on screen. They're all there via an interactive map on the BFI Player platform, just click on a location to reveal films shot in the area. Such was the interest, the organisation recently launched a crowdsourcing platform on the back of it - BFI Contribute - to capture the contributions of people looking to tell their stories and share local knowledge.
Colette McFadden, head of heritage programmes at BFI, explained: 'We had such an amazing response, we knew we had to find a meaningful way to harness all the wonderful stories and data being shared and enable people to tell us even more about the hidden histories and locations in our films.
'The platform empowers people to interact with their screen heritage, be expert witnesses to their own local history and share it with the rest of the nation.'
And it's easy to see why. A cursory glance through the footage brings up film gold, both professional and amateur.
Just take a look at the bouncy six-minute silent film sponsored by Stevenage Development Corporation in 1970 and shot at two frames per second from the passenger seat of a car in a bid to showcase how efficient the town's ring roads were.
Or BBC veteran Richard Baker's 13-minute documentary on Harpenden's National Children's Home in 1967. A click away is amateur filmmaker Patricia Markham's 17-minute Super 8 Peruchrome shots of Watford supporters celebrating their team's FA Cup final appearance in 1984.
Another enthusiast, a Mr P R Aves, a member of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, captured, on Super 8, scenes of everyday life in 1980 Chipperfield as mums wait at school gates with a cricket match in full swing on the common.
There's even a Foreign Office-funded 1960 film created to showcase the 'efficiency' of British society by showing mobile librarian Sally Jenkins on her fortnightly tour of villages such as Little Hormead, Buntingford and Furneaux Pelham.
And much earlier, in 1913, a grainy three minutes of silent footage shows a community, willow sticks in hand, carrying out the ancient tradition of 'beating the bounds' in a St Albans field.
You couldn't make it up. Or, at least, thanks to an extraordinary group of dedicated film enthusiast in an old farmyard, my grandchildren won't think I did.
If you have this issue hot off the press, then you still have time to attend the BFI National Archive Heritage Open Day tours on Sunday September 15 from 10.30-4pm. No booking required. For further details on the archival work of the BFI, including the J Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre, visit bfi.org.uk