How to Enliven History With Film and Sound

There is much to be discovered from huge collections of easily accessible moving images and sound recordings.

One of the great challenges of telling modern history is that the nature of sources has changed. Whereas it once all depended on medieval rolls, Quarter Session records and the like, there is now so much more.  If you want to tell the full story of the last century you must use film and sound.  And for the present century it will be digital.

For those wedded to a conventional format of text and photographs this raises a raft of questions. Where can film and sound be found? How can it be accessed? How can it best be fed into research? What end products are possible that incorporate such records?  And what are the copyright limits?

All these questions have been addressed in, Film and Sound: A Users’ Guide, posted on this website . It was written by David Lee, who set up the Wessex Film and Sound Archive at the HRO, and ran it for more than 20 years until 2014. It aims to help local historians and others make use of collections of moving images, oral history and other sound recordings held in local and national archives. 

Based on material in the HRO, it includes fascinating content on a vast range of people, places and subjects. And it also covers other collections that can easily be accessed on the net.

In a recent Zoom presentation to the Community Archive Forum a joint venture of HAT and the Hampshire Field Club now available on YouTube , David told participants how material can be found, where it is held and how it can be accessed. The online catalogue of HRO, for example, includes thousands of film and sound productions with the potential to inform and enliven local history. 

Even relatively small places such as the village of Swanmore, near Bishops Waltham, may have large amounts of material. The HRO catalogue includes 11films from there and 40 sound recordings. These include interviews with Commander Richard Phillimore made in the 1990s and a range of oral history recordings made in the village, especially by Swanmore College, with published transcripts (Crawford Wright, ed., Swanmore College: Oral History Project, 1961-2018, Swanmore Society, 2018). A home movie made by the Green family of Swanmore is also posted on the British Film Institute Player.

Entries for many film and sound items in the HRO catalogue provide much more than the recording or video itself, which in normal times can be accessed in purpose-built facilities. There are often lengthy descriptions of content written by archivists and transcripts of recordings that give a wealth of detail not captured in any other way. 

“Oral history interviews contain not just details about an event, a place or a way of life, but have the added bonus of hearing a way of speaking, including accents and dialect, and may be challenged by the interviewer during the interview, unlike diaries, letters and official reports,” explained David.

During the Zoom presentation he played a recording made in 1958 of a shepherd from Hatherden, on the outskirts of Andover, which is now part of the British Library’s Survey of English Dialects. It captures a way of speech no longer heard in the county.
Many local films have been posted on YouTube. The new guide give links to these and other key sites that hold Hampshire material. They include the British Film Institute ‘Britain on Film’, Films from the Home Front, and the British Universities Film and Video Council. Of particular interest is the New Forest Gateway site, run by naturalist Dr Manuel Hinge, which has a rich collection of film taken over the years by the BBC, ITV, British Pathé and others.

Huge amounts of news footage can now be accessed on several dedicated sites, including British Pathé, British Movietone News and ITN Source.

Even footage from static cameras can be very revealing, like one of 1902, taken by Hampshire pioneer filmmaker Alfred West. It shows Freemasons in their regalia in a procession in Southsea. Local people in their Sunday best are on their way to lay the foundation stone of an extension to St Matthew’s church, a mission church of 1889. David commented: “Just by looking at the people as they pass you get a good idea of their behaviour and dress at the time.”

Other major sources of film and sound include the British Library Sound Archive – which is huge – the Imperial War Museum and the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, all of which contain much material to enliven local history. 

A recent project that relied heavily on film is ‘From Making to Moving’, the story of the site in Swaythling which between 1965 and 2013 was the home of the Ford Transit plant.  Now cut off from Eastleigh airfield by the M27, the site was formerly occupied by the Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft company, which made the Supermarine Seafire.  David commented: “Experience with this project showed that film and sound can really bring to life what some might regard as a specialist and somewhat dull subject!” 

Covering the complex subject of copyright, he explained that life had been made easier for local historians by recent changes in the law. These “allow limited use of copyright works without the permission of the copyright owner for research, criticism and review”. In this respect, film and sound are like printed works.

Users must exercise ‘fair dealing’, which means that the author of the work must be acknowledged and the moral rights of an author, performer and film director (including their heirs) be respected.  Such actions as derogatory treatment and false attribution are not permitted. 

‘Performers’ include interviewees and anyone who, for private and domestic purposes, commissions a film or sound recording has the right not to have copies issued or shown to the public, as in a broadcast. Data protection may also be an issue in items of oral history. 
Full details are given in Film and Sound: A Users’ Guide which can be downloaded from  this website  see  .