Launch of online oral history collection reveals untold story of the BBC

David Attenborough, Esther Rantzen and Harold Wilson are just some of the prominent figures who appear in over 600 hours of recorded interviews from across the BBC, as part of a new project led by academics at the University of Sussex.

The online catalogue, made available today, reveals a hidden history of the Corporation from its earliest years and has been unveiled as part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations. The unique new collection gives free public access to over 470 hours of audio and 159 hours of video interviews.

It features interviews with household names and figures from behind the scenes, including former Director-Generals, top broadcasters, vital technical, admin and support staff, and prominent figures from wider public life.

Professor Margaretta Jolly from the University of Sussex has led the project through its final stages. She said:

"The Connected Histories of the BBC enhances and embellishes our understanding and appreciation of the BBC. And the online catalogue we are launching today gives each of us easy access into a priceless and extraordinary collection of insights, memories and experiences.

"I’m especially proud of the work we did with members of the public, engaging with them at events hosted by our partners in London, Sussex and Bradford. This helped us build a bigger, more democratic history of the BBC through people’s own memories of TV and radio. Anyone can share a memory of their own on the 100 Voices website."

Professor David Hendy says: "The BBC’s oral history collection is an extraordinary, though underused, treasure trove, providing unique ringside accounts of the history of the BBC.

"Being able to see and hear these key figures in the BBC’s past tell their stories to us directly helps to bring the written history alive, but more importantly, reveals the ’hidden wiring’ of broadcasting - the way personal convictions, character, and emotions helped shaped this profoundly influential public institution".

Head of BBC History Robert Seatter said: "The BBC has a unique history and role in British culture. This great new project with the University of Sussex opens up our special archives for all to see and hear - it will be an insightful behind-the-scenes view into a hundred years of public service broadcasting."

The collection has been made available through the Connected Histories of the BBC , a major six-year collaboration between the University of Sussex and the BBC.

The project team, which included Professor Tim Hitchcock, Denice Penrose, Dr Ben Jackson, Mike Hammond and John Hughes, deployed expert research skills and sophisticated technologies to combine material from seven existing oral catalogues including five BBC collections and the British Entertainment History Project, which showcases the working lives of professionals in Britain’s film, theatre, television and radio industries.

The new catalogue offers an innovative player that lets users listen, watch, read along and make clips.

The collection has been curated and contextualised by academics from the University of Sussex, including Dr Alban Webb, Professor David Hendy and Professor Lucy Robinson, who have placed the insights into a wider context as " 100 Voices that Made the BBC

This curation highlights topics such as TV entertainment, World War Two, the Cold War, pioneering women, and multicultural and post-imperial Britain.

The final theme, Inventing the Future , celebrating the BBC’s technological innovation and relationship to social change is launched alongside the new online catalogue.

In addition, the project’s founding director, Professor David Hendy, has written a bestselling book, The BBC: A People’s History , interpreting this unique oral history archive. This traces the BBC from its maverick beginnings, through war, the creation of television, changing public tastes, austerity and massive cultural change.

Connected Histories of the BBC has also produced fourteen new in-depth audio-visual interviews to the collection. These include significant figures who have broadened and changed the BBC and who comment frankly on questions of equality, representation and diversity.

  • Joan Bakewell, who discusses what it was like working on the review programme Late Night Line-Up and other ground-breaking shows.
  • Lorna Clarke, BBC Controller of Pop Music, who ran the Electric Proms and speaks personally about how class and ethnicity can influence listening and viewing choices.
  • Esther Rantzen, who reflects on her extraordinary career, touches on safeguarding issues and encourages the BBC to have "the confidence of knowing that it’s loved".

Highlights include:

  • The first Director-General, Lord John Reith, interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1967.
  • Social documentary producer Olive Shapley, who helped bring to wider attention the devasting impacts of economic recession between the wars.
  • A key figure in the community programme unit, Tony Laryea, who amplified the voices of marginalised communities.
  • Prime Minister Harold Wilson and legendary film director John Schlesinger.

In one of the of the highlights includes the fascinating capture of a conversation with David Attenborough. In it he talks about the development of wildlife filming:

"I mean now, filming a wildebeest being hunted by lions is common but in Life on Earth that sequence was a revolutionary sequence."

Attenborough also reflects on the ethical issues that can arise from filming: "not many people are going to be concerned if you dig an earthworm up and you give it to a fish, even though it is a living creature...people would give a dead day old chick to an owl, for example - because that’s what they feed on...but what about mammals? A rat maybe, but a goat? It’s not easy. In fact, it’s very difficult."

In another, News Reporter Satish Jacob’s regaled an extraordinary account in 2018 of political turmoil in India, where he broke the story of the assassination of India prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Speaking to a doctor at the hospital in Delhi he asked: "Sir, I hope she’s okay." And he turned violently at me, he said, "What nonsense, what do you mean by okay? She has been riddled with bullets from top to bottom, and you’re saying okay?"

Another clip, captured recently in 2021, sees Esther Rantzen reflecting on a lifelong career with the BBC, concluding: "Well, I think if one’s talking about the history of the BBC, I think what the BBC needs is confidence. The BBC I joined had confidence... you know, whatever the new challenge is, or whatever politician is aiming at its head, I think it needs the confidence of knowing that it’s loved."