Written by Films, Photography

BFI Archives Tour

BBC Tapes

Note: If any of the images are blurry click through to Flickr. There’s also a much bigger set of photos over there!

One of the benefits of being a member of the BFI is that occasionally they do things like have tours. I put my name in the hat for a tour of the BFI’s archive facility in Berkhamsted – a short train ride from Euston into Hertfordshire. Back in January, I got a ticket to visit.

About a mile out of town, up a hill, lies the J Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre. This is a modern set of buildings where films and tapes are stored, and technicians work on restoring films and television programmes for the nation.

BFI Archive

There’s a second facility in Warwickshire, but that’s largely a specialist warehouse. It’s the Berkhamsted facility that has more going on.

About twenty or so of us assembled in a conference room decorated with posters from Ealing Studios productions. On a table in front of us, were examples of different formats of tapes and drives that conservators have to deal with – from thick old video tape that was reused (and hence has led to lost episodes of series like Doctor Who and Dad’s Army), to modern tape drive formats.

Restoring Film

While the BFI spends a good deal of time restoring films in new high-definition scans, they’re also a massive repository – lending films to film clubs, and in particular being responsible for the archives of ITV and Channel 4 – the BBC holding much of its own archive independently.

Having been given some of the background of what they do, we were then broken into two groups and taken out to explore the site. First off for us was a cavernous warehouse filled with film reels from throughout British film history and beyond. Some of the cases looked battered and bruised, while others looked new. But the state of the case might not necessarily reflect the age of its contents.

Coded Reels

Interestingly, unlike book publishing, there’s no requirement that film distributors supply a copy of their works to the BFI. If you publish a book in the UK, you have to deposit copies of the title in each of six “deposit libraries” across the nation. So the BFI concentrates on British titles, and gently request copies of films from studios. If there’s BFI money involved, then this might become more of an obligation.

They hold thousands of reels. And we were only looking at one of their operational site. The Berkhamsted location houses both warehouses and facilities to restore and preserve film.

We got a close up view of how they restore films, using their own prints as well as those from other organisations around the world, to get the best overall picture and sound. Surprisingly even some relatively recent film stock can deteriorate quite quickly. We were shown a sequence from a 1980s film that had discoloured badly over the years.

At another part of the tour, we were taken into their small projection theatre where we saw a sequence of one of my favourite films, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. This 1961 film about a nuclear disaster was restored by the BFI and released on Blu-Ray a few years ago. Of course I own a copy! We were watching the very print that the BFI had restored for that release and it looked gorgeous.

Artwork for The Red Shoes
Artwork from The Red Shoes

The tour ended with some of the treasures from their library. As well as film and TV, they have extensive other materials that had been acquired or donated to them over the years. That included something that I can’t really publish any imagery from – the shooting script (from a continuity person) of Star Wars.

Overall, an absolutely terrific day out, and a lovely benefit of being a member of the BFI.

TV Reels
Hammer contracts for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s contracts for The Curse of Frankenstein
Pedal Cycle Safety
Pedal Cycle Safety is always important!
Off-Air Recordings - The Match - Arsenal v Man Utd
If this tape looks a bit like an early 90s VHS tape you may have recorded yourself, that’s because it is! The BFI used to make off-air recordings like this in the past. I definitely watched that game on ITV!
The James Whale Radio Show
I’m sure a few radio folk remember this…
Keith Chegwin
Not a clue!
Withdrawels List
Being withdrawn for a DVD release perhaps?
A famous little film
From the shooting script of a slightly famous film…

Note: If any of the images are blurry click through to Flickr. There’s also a much bigger set of photos over there!