UTV archive: an important historical record of Northern Ireland

For the curator of any collection, deciding what to leave out can be harder than deciding what to put in. But for the historian or archivist, the importance of preserving primary source material is paramount. If you care about the history of television, you should care about the remarkable work of Dr Ken Griffin.

Ken has recently been arguing for the preservation of UTV’s former Havelock House building, which faces the threat of demolition. I take no special view on the building itself one way or the other – there are valid arguments on all sides. My concern for television history is more about television itself. And this is where Ken’s work has been so important.

As most people with any interest in television are all too aware, much television from before the 1970s – including important plays, dramas and events – is lost forever. Even more so-called “everyday” television has been lost.

Even into the 70s and 80s, much of this has gone. For instance the BBC has few complete news bulletins or full editions of everyday programmes like Pebble Mill at One or Nationwide.

From the point of view of a pres fan, this is the reason snippets of presentation from the days before home recording was commonplace are so valuable. But, back to Ken’s work.

Some regional TV archives can be notoriously piecemeal. Some archives were lost or displaced as franchises changed. Some material was destroyed. Relatively little regional output from the early days survives.

This is why gems like the opening of Anglia and Tyne Tees are treasures. It’s also why recordings made by the likes of Bob Monkhouse (who had an early video recorder) are so important.

However a relatively high proportion of UTV’s output was preserved and Ken has meticulously gone through this.

Now, at this point you might be thinking: what’s the point of all this? You might get the reason for keeping news film, programmes of importance or material of obvious commercial value but wonder why there was any reason to get excited about Teatime with Tommy or The Romper Room.

Apart from, perhaps, a little one-off nostalgia, who would want to see any of this again?

Well, for a social historian the importance of these everyday things cannot be overestimated. They are part of the story of the lives of many in Northern Ireland. The story may be in the little things they reveal: tastes, social attitudes or aspects of everyday life. There can be an interest, a value or even a beauty in things which at the time may have been considered trivial or ephemeral.

If you follow the BBC Archive feed, you will know how much social history was unintentionally chronicled by Blue Peter. A recording of almost every edition from the mid-60s on survives, thanks to what can be seen now as the remarkable foresight of editor Biddy Baxter who made sure a copy was kept.

Whatever you think of UTV’s entertainment value, the potential value of its archive material to the historian (regardless of whether they have an interest in TV itself) is immeasurable.

It should also be remembered that UTV played a role no other ITV station ever had to play – preserving some degree of normality through The Troubles. If you believe television or popular culture can build bridges or bring people together, there can be no better example than the role of the Kelly show – a hugely popular chat show which brought major celebs to Belfast. (Mocking the small studio or regional production values misses the point.)

Historians should be grateful for Ken’s work.

And whether or not Havelock House is demolished, the role its staff have played in shaping and reflecting Northern Ireland over 60 years will hopefully not be forgotten in decades to come because of him.

EXTERNAL LINK: the old UTV building Havelock House is one of NI’s cultural landmarks, yet it is to be flattened.

EXTERNAL LINK: Northern Ireland Screen – Digital Film Archive – UTV.




Posted by Andrew Nairn

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