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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 August 2007, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Saving the sounds of history
Microphones

By Sean Street

From Vietnamese spoon music to the first ever recording of bird song, the BBC presides over an extensive sound archive. The fact it almost wound up on a scrap heap only to be saved by a "temp" is one of the great untold stories of broadcasting history - until now.

In 1936 Marie Slocombe was working as a summer relief secretary at the BBC.

One of her tasks was to sort out - and dispose of - a pile of dusty broadcast discs. She noticed that among them were recordings of GB Shaw, HG Wells, Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith and GK Chesterton. So she hesitated.

In that moment was the humble beginning of what became one of the most important collections of recordings in the world - the BBC Sound Archive.

Titanic survivors

Working with Lynton Fletcher, who was in charge of recorded programmes, Slocombe carried on collecting.

She worked in a climate of indifference, even opposition, by BBC management, which doubted the usefulness of recordings, and was troubled by the expense of keeping them.

But Slocombe persevered and by 1939 had 2,000 discs, including the voices of Hitler and Goebbels.

"History," she says in a recorded interview made shortly before her death in 1995, "was piling into the archives."

She recalls the Canadian war reporter Stanley Maxted coming in with the Battle of Arnhem recordings hidden under his great-coat.

Slang culture

Those who knew her recall with affection her Oxford-educated gentility - floral print dresses and cups and saucers rather than mugs. But she was liberal in her views and no snob.

Hitler in 1929
The archive includes a recording of Adolf Hitler
This was not, Slocombe insisted, an archive simply of the great and good. From early on she included the voices of ordinary people from far and wide.

After the war she made the archive active rather than merely a passive receptor. It was Slocombe who first co-operated with the Leeds University Dialect Survey, a highly significant oral atlas of British society.

And she sent out recordists to collect songs and interviews from more than 700 people across Britain, used in the series "As They Roved Out". The programme was key to the revival of interest in the traditional music of the country. She effectively created a cell at the heart of the BBC establishment devoted to vernacular culture.

The work in preserving folk music and dialect grew out of her involvement in the English folk song and dance society.

Slocombe's efforts in this area have become a cornerstone of the society's collection, and helped spark folk's renaissance, says its librarian Malcolm Taylor.

Soldiers return from Arnhem

"Had that not happened a lot of the folk revival could not have sustained itself. It would have had no touchstone. It's one thing looking at the dots on the paper and the words in text but the sound fleshed it all out."

Slocombe was an enabler and encourager of sound collectors; among others, she brought the famous German natural history recordist Ludwig Koch into the BBC - his collection included the earliest known recording of birdsong, dating from 1890.

Slocombe herself made remarkable field recordings of polyphonic singing in remote parts of Portugal. She gave tapes (and sometimes surreptitiously loaned recording equipment) to people going further afield.

As a result the BBC has a collection of Australian Aboriginal music, the sound of the kind of harp King David played, recorded in Ethiopia , and - something of which she was inordinately fond - some Vietnamese spoon music.

Spirit of Britain

Behind the apparently prim Miss Marple/Joan Hickson image, there was a maverick, mischievous side to Marie Slocombe. She kept what she called "a special cupboard" into which went recordings she deemed to be important, but which were often of a sensitive nature.

Marie Slocombe
Marie Slocombe saved recordings from the scrap heap
It is due to Slocombe's foresight - and the "S cupboard" as she coded it - that there exists one of the most famous sound recordings of the 20th Century. The BBC had been told not to record Edward VIII's abdication speech, but Slocombe couldn't resist.

It was held under lock and key in the cupboard until she eventually revealed it to a producer, who broadcast it in a feature. Slocombe waited for the storm... but it never came.

"It was her and a couple of people she worked with that really saw the value of retaining recordings for the future," says Simon Rooks, who as the current BBC archivist manages Slocombe's legacy.

"And she really was the one that set about organising them - archives are no good unless you can find them again. It's no good if you just shove them on a shelf. In the mid-40s onwards she was driving what was being collected and laying the foundations of what we have today."

The self-appointed mission of her and her colleagues was to capture the life of the nation, for future recordings and for history, he says.

Winston Churchill
Political heavyweights also feature
The BBC's Sound Archives are, and not before time, becoming more accessible to the public. There are 20,000 people involved in a trial which could lead to parts of the archive becoming available for download. Until then, access is restricted to visiting the British Library and listening on site.

It's an ambition Slocombe would have approved of. She possessed great foresight in thinking how future generations would value the recordings and better understand history, says Rooks.

"Where she was a real pioneer was in saying that these sound recordings are historical documents and just as important as a book and as valuable. She was thinking 'what will people think in 100 years? Will people remember who Hitler was?'"

Sean Street, professor of radio at Bournemouth University, presents Saving the Sounds of History on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 1 September at 2000 BST.


Below is a selection of your comments:

As a student of sound production techniques in Yorkshire, I believe this to be a great plus for the people working at all levels of this field. Not only are the archives invaluable as access to historic people and events, but we can look upon the techniques used to capture the recordings and track their development through history to the present day. Honours to Marie Slocombe!
Ben Charleswirth, Doncaster, England

Thanks to the forward vision and determination of Marie Slocombe and a few others like her we have a unique and immeasurably valuable source of history available to us. These archives should be made accessible to all and for free - after all the public paid for the original materials (licence fees). Perhaps the project should be named 'The Slocombe Archives' in her honour?
David Peden, Birmingham

Wonderful lady and wonderful work. As a child I heard on a BBC programme the sound of the trumpet from Tutankamen's tomb. Never forgotten experience.
Rose Umelo, Ibadan, Nigeria

It's the history of our past that sustains us today. Let's always remember and retain our history so we can continue to learn and grow as individuals and as different cultures. I'm interested in knowing if it's possible for me to access the archives discussed in this article. Thank you.
Tom Pickering, Mt Vernon, Iowa, USA

It's a great pity that Ms Slocombe's attitude hasn't prevailed. Over the years, the BBC have thrown out so many of their own masterpieces, especially the comedy. They then have to beg, or borrow them back to broadcast again - crazy!
Mike, Epsom, UK

I'd love to hear GK Chesterton, probably the greatest writer of the 20th century.
Mark Neill, Poole

If Ms Slocombe started at the BBC in 1937 how did she manage to record the King's abdication speech in 1936?
Iain Clark, London

How wonderful!
MJR, Toronto, Canada

Thank goodness someone realised the value of those recordings. I adore the BBC archive trial that's running, enjoy the old recordings the net is so good for, and salute Marie for her foresight
Leslie Schramm, Stewarton/ Ayrshire Scotland

Could we get a daily excerpt from Ms. Slocombe's archive? The recording from the battle of Arnhem fascinated me, as I'm sure it did many others.
Curt Carpenter, Dallas, Texas

And seventy years on Archives are still the Cinderella of broadcasting. For nearly 20 years I worked in broadcast archives first at the BBC and later in a regional film & TV archive. In all that time we still found ourselves having to work "in the margins" and make do and mend... because even now that the value of the material has been understood there still isn't a proper funding package in place to preserve everything that merits retention. The BBC is better placed than many but sadly a lot of noteworthy programmes have been made by small regional or independent production companies and these gems are all too often allowed to rot away because no one has worked out how to pay for them to be properly preserved.
Jenny Day, Saltash Cornwall UK

God bless her for being a strong independent and intelligent woman. I'm hoping my daughter will grow up to be of the same type. As a sound designer/audio engineer with a strong sense of history, these recordings are of great interest and priceless. I would love to be able to browse through them. So BBC, get on with the beta testing so you can share this great resource with the world. I'm eagerly waiting.
Matt Thrasher, Lynbrook




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