A day at the archives… The National Archives at Kew (UK)

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

7 November 2017


Following Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel’s excellent blog on visiting the German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin, I thought that I would write about my personal experience of visiting the National Archives at Kew. As a PhD student and a film historian, I have visited a small number of UK-based archives beyond the National Archives to conduct my research, including the BBC Written Archives Centre, the British Film Institute, Film Finances, the Stanley Kubrick Archive (University of the Arts, London) and the Consumer Culture Collection held in Southampton Solent University’s Mountbatten Library. The National Archives is one of my favourites so far. As stated by Sue Harper in her blog entitled ‘The Boundaries of Genre: History, Impendence and Flow’: ‘I am one of those sad creatures whose happiest hours have been spent in the National Archives’.

I first encountered the National Archives in 2016, which I admit was something of a fortuitous accident on my part. As part of conducting research for my PhD, which focusses on the historic relationship between Hampton Court Palace (where I used to work as a State Apartment Warder) and the film and television industries, I intended to visit the British Film Institute based on London’s Southbank while my fiancé visited the National Archives. It turned out that the BFI was closed on that particular day, so I joined my fiancé for a date at the National Archives.

After having had a quick browse on the archive catalogue ‘Discovery’, which I feel is excellently designed and very accessible, I discovered that the National Archives holds documents on the filming and photography policy relating to Hampton Court Palace (for anyone who is interested, these files are part of the Office/Ministry of Works department), and so off I went in search of discovering papers that might assist in my PhD research. I did not leave disappointed – it is where I received my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment, and this is a feeling that I will never forget!

The National Archives (originally the Public Records Office, and if I’m honest, I lament the change of its name) is, as its website explains, ‘the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents’. It is based near Kew Retail Park, and is accessible either by train, bus or car. If you are arriving by train, from London you can either take the District tube line to Kew Gardens, or take a train to Kew Bridge from either London Waterloo or Woking via Hounslow and Staines. By bus, you can take the R68 from Hampton Court via Richmond which terminates just outside the archive itself. This is the route that I usually take, and I find that there something very satisfying about travelling on the entire route for £1.50 using an Oyster Card.

  

Views on the R68 bus route

Further details as to how to access the National Archives can be found here: [How to find us]. The National Archives is open between Tuesdays and Saturdays, and is open from 9 a.m. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it closes at 5 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays 7 p.m.

On arrival, don’t be deterred by the appearance of the building (which I have anecdotally heard described as looking like ‘a large municipal carpark’)! The building, in my view, may not be particularly pretty in terms of design; but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for me the beauty of the National Archives lies in the treasure offered within it, and not by the shell in which the documents are held.

You will need a reader’s ticket to view original documents within the National Archives reading rooms, and you can either register for this online within six weeks of your intended visit, or you can register for a reader’s ticket on the day of your visit. Further details can be found here: [reader’s ticket]. Personally, I recommend ordering your reader’s ticket online as you can order up to 12 documents in advance of your visit (provided you include your email address), and it saves time on entering the archive. When you arrive, whether you have ordered your reader’s ticket in advance or want to register on the day, you will be directed to the ‘reader registration area’, where staff will take a photograph of you for your reader’s ticket before issuing it to you. You will also need to place your belongings in a locker before entering the Document Reading Room, and the National Archives provides a handy list of what you are allowed to take in: [What can I take in to the reading rooms?]. Once you have swiped your reader’s card through the barrier to enter the Document Reading Room, then the fun can begin!

Unlike the fight for the elusive ‘locker key number one’ as reported by Tobias and Roel on visiting the Bundesarchiv, there is no such fight, as far as I am aware, for this at the National Archives. This may be because it is broken (at time of writing). I would suggest, however, that instead there is more a melée over the tables based in the Document Reading Rooms. This is combatted by the ability to pre-order documents and to be able to request seats at certain tables. You can pre-order documents and book which table you would like to sit at here: [advance order form]. I like to sit at table 44 or 46 in the ‘Quiet Zone’ as here you can get a lovely view from the window. As well as the ‘Quiet Zone’, there is also a ‘Main Zone’ and a ‘Group Zone’, which is useful for people working as part of a team on research projects so that they can discuss documents. If you don’t mind where you sit, then you can just turn up on the day and you will be automatically assigned a seat at random.

Study areas in the Document Reading Room: Green = Quiet Zone, Blue = Main Zone, Orange = Group Zone

Once the documents you have ordered arrive (this can take around 45 minutes if you order them on the day) they are placed in a cubby hole, which is numbered and lettered in relation to the seat you have been assigned.

 

Usefully, you can take out and replace files as and when you wish in case you want to review them later. The National Archives allows photography (without flash) in the reading rooms; you can either bring your own device (camera or mobile phone), and you can also choose to sit at a table specially designated for this purpose which include camera stands. Alternatively, you can use the ‘Self Service Copying’ space with cameras provided. You can either print copies of your documents out on the day (at a small charge), or alternatively email them to yourself, which is free of charge. The staff are brilliant – they have always been really helpful when I needed to ask them something, and most especially when I had to be locked in a special room to view sensitive papers held in a particular file (though that is a story for another time)!

One of my favourite files is WORK 19/1129: ‘Official attitude to photography and film crews within the Palace and grounds, 1919-1935’, which greatly assisted my PhD thesis in terms of understanding the historic policy in relation to allowing the production of film at Hampton Court Palace. In this file, there is some wonderful, and very humorous, correspondence between the Office of Works, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and London Film Productions in relation to The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) in response to a request from the production company to film parts of it around Hampton Court.

The gist of the correspondence is that Sir Henry David St Leger Brooke Selwyn Cunynghame (known as David), production manager for The Private Life of Henry VIII, wrote to the Office of Works in May 1933 to obtain their permission to film at Hampton Court.

The Office of Works allowed permission to London Film Productions on the provision that filming would be conducted before 9 a.m. so as not to disturb residents and visitors at the Palace. Cunynghame was disappointed by this response, and attempted in several ways to be allowed permission to film during the day at the site. These included getting his father, Sir Percy Cunynghame, to approach Samuel Hoare at the India Office. When this proved unsuccessful, Cunynghame then appealed through his mother’s friend, Bertha Dawkins, to Sir Clive Wigram, Private Secretary to the Sovereign. The Office of Works were not particularly impressed by Cunynghame’s approach regarding this matter, as can be understood from the correspondence between Wigram and Sir Patrick Duff, Permanent Secretary at the Office of Works in relation to this matter:

What Mr. Cunynghame wants… is permission to photograph all day at Hampton Court Palace so as to get through the work in the very shortest possible time. This would save his Company expense, and, as he very reasonably observes, the fewer the visits which the Company paid the less trouble they would give. This might be alright if Mr. Cunynghame were the only pebble on the beach: but the fact is that we have other applications from film companies, and if one company is allowed to work at Hampton Court at any hour of the day one would have to give the same concession to anyone else who asked for it. [i]

Duff also expressed his concern about the possible disturbance which might be caused to residents and visitors if filming were to be allowed during the day: ‘I know that if I were paying a visit to Hampton Court Palace and found the place full of film people rehearsing and “shots”, as they call it, being taken, I should feel that the dignity and beauty of the place was destroyed’. Wigram concurred, responding succinctly:

Thank you for your letter regarding Mr. Cunynghame. He is, as I was afraid, a tiresome fellow and I will answer him on the lines you suggest. [ii]

Due to the refusal from the Office of Works and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, The Private Life of Henry VIII was not filmed at the site except for the film’s opening shot of Hampton Court’s archway, and instead was filmed on location at Hatfield House and in studio at the British and Dominions Imperial Studios at Elstree. It was the discovery of this file which afforded me my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment!

Once I leave the National Archives at closing time, I like to pay a visit to the local establishment, The Tap on the Line, which is set on the platform of Kew Gardens Station:

This lovely pub is a great place to have a chat with colleagues about the research you’ve accomplished, or if you are a lone researcher, sit and unwind after a productive day trawling through documents. After reading this blog, if you happen to see me frequenting this pub after a spending time at the National Archives, do come over and say hello – mine’s a gin and tonic! Chin chin.


[i] TNA WORK 19/1129: Duff to Wigram, 14 June 1933.

[ii] TNA WORK 19/1129: Wigram to Duff, 15 June 1933.


Llewella Chapman is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research focuses on the use of film and television in the UK heritage industry with particular reference to the representation of Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace. She has published on fashion and lifestyle as promoted in the James Bond films, and is currently under contract with I. B. Tauris to write a monograph entitled Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007. Her research interests include British cinema and television history, fashion, costume and gender, and hanging around a variety of archives and nearby bars.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… The German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel

26 September 2017


Germans really believe that the early bird catches the worm. This, at least, is our impression. Having been to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive) on countless occasions, we’ve never managed to be there first, getting the prestigious locker key number one. And we’ve tried, believe us! Last June we met in Berlin Mitte for a quick coffee at 7:00 am and took the S-Bahn to Lichterfelde West on time for the opening of the archive … only to find out that many others were already waiting in front of the massive steel gates of the former garrison in which the Berlin branch of the national archive is located.

Apropos location, the place of the national archives alone breathes history. Whereas some archives were purpose-built to accommodate the various materials, the national archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde [link] seem rather provisionally located at a military garrison that could well be regarded a monument about 20th century German history. Built from 1873 to 1878 for Prussian cadets next to a newly designed bourgeois neighbourhood for officers and their families, the barracks were later used by the Leibstandarte-SS “Adolf Hitler”, the German dictator’s personal bodyguards during the Third Reich. During the “Night of the Long Knives”, several murders were committed within the military compound to eliminate SA men.

After the war, the barracks were then used by American troops who renamed the place as Andrews Barracks [link]. Throughout the entire complex, this problematic heritage could well be seen, including the exercise yard, SS-Statues that were concealed by concrete but are still at the entrance gate, and what looks suspiciously like Übermensch-statues at the gates to an enormous swimming pool one passes on the way from the main gate to the reading room of the archive. The people who decided to turn this old garrison – which was built to wage war – into an archive ought to be complimented for this decision. Right where some atrocities of the 20th century were planned, people are now able to study even the dark moments of German and European history. The site of the archive thereby also represents a modern-day democratic Germany.

It is somewhat odd to be reminded of what has happened at exactly this location through the years under Nazi rule after walking down from S-Bahn station Lichterfelde through the leafy and peaceful neighbourhood with its many stunning villas, parks and children’s playgrounds. The area does not really feel like being somewhere in the German capital but rather like staying at a small affluent town.

During busy days at the archive – looking through the maximum allowance of 50 files a day – it’s good to go for a walk. There’s plenty to see for film historians nearby, including the grave of German film star Renate Müller, who fell out of grace with the Nazis and was under constant surveillance by the Gestapo prior to her sudden death in 1937 (the circumstances of which are still unknown), or the former houses of the Jewish-German television entertainer Hans Rosenthal, the actor Götz George (son of Heinrich George) or the industrialist Werner von Siemens.

But coming back to the archives, such institutions are of course somewhat linked to national character traits. We have visited many other invaluable archives for media historians, including the lovely BBC written archives centre in Caversham, Berkshire (if you haven’t been there before: GO!), the National Archives at Kew and others. Yet no other place is quite like the Bundesarchiv. It is very German – in a good and a bad way. The online database and tool for ordering documents INVENIO is bureaucratic and not really self-explanatory [link]. Some members of staff may seem distant, but they are very helpful. Never try to enter the reading room with your coat on or bringing a backpack (which is generally true for all libraries in Germany and Austria). Some people have tried and what followed wasn’t really something you folks want to try! And always remember: don’t take pictures at a desk without the corresponding sign – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in fact doing at the archive. There are no exceptions.

Yet, there is something we love about the archive, something the archive shares with Berlin: its makeshift atmosphere. You can bring your own mobile phones or tablets to take pictures, the mundane locker room looks like a forlorn train station somewhere in the remote parts of the USSR during the Cold War. Even the prices of the instant coffee machine seem to be from 1989. Yet you find the most interesting people there, going for a walk outside or a coffee. Scholars of audio-visual media and history, holocaust survivors researching their family history, pensioners trying to find information about their former companies or family homes, etc. Everyone seems to have the same shining eyes, being fascinated by piecing together information from original archival documents to make sense of their history(ies). Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during their adventures, they are beguiled by what they have found or – like academic gold diggers to use another image – by what they might find soon. They all feel the excitement when they open up hitherto closed files or personal records, helping them to understand what has happened. The Bundesarchiv really is a treasure trove for researchers – one of the archives where academics and the general public can get access to documents almost without restrictions. Everyone who has ever received documents in which some government officials or lawyers redacted lengthy passages, will be happy to see that this is generally not the case at the German national archives.

Given the wealth of information, the Bundesarchiv’s pilot project to take pictures of documents with your own devices is ever more welcome. In the past, users had to order photocopies of documents which arrived a few weeks later by post. Although the cost was – compared to other national archives – quite reasonable, extensive research could still amount to considerable sums of money. Certainly an investment into one’s future – but nevertheless not easy for all. This was a problem especially to those who could not rely on the generous support of research institutions or other sources of funding, including many early-career researchers and pensioners. Under the regulations of the current pilot project, costs can be kept at a minimum. There are, however, restrictions on documents related to individuals: those documents can be photocopied, but not photographed. The logic escapes us. There must be something odd about German privacy/data legislation.

If you plan a trip to the Bundesarchiv, order all documents at least a day before. The use is free of charge and you may bring a pencil, a laptop or mobile electronic devices. The holdings are massive, including, for media scholars, the surviving documents of Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda, of Ufa and the other German film companies from the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era or the German Democratic Republic’s DEFA. The archive is open from 8 to 7 during regular workdays, except for Friday, when it closes at 4. It is closed on Sundays and national holidays. Nota bene: if you are interested in the Bundesarchiv’s holding of films and publications about films, you should go the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, which will move to Lichterfelde eventually, but is currently still in the centre of Berlin, at Fehrbellinerplatz. In comparison to the Bundesarchiv in Lichterfelde, the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv is much more formal. Part of the building at Fehrbelliner Platz is inhabited by a branch of the Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) that regulates telecommunications as well as electricity, gas, post and railway markets in Germany. Because of security concerns, access is very restrictive and you are only allowed into the building by appointment. Perhaps this will change when all Berlin branches of the archives will be moved to Lichterfelde. Let’s hope so.

Please send us a message and a photograph if you are ever able to beat the Germans in getting locker key number one for a day at the archive!


Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel are both members of the IAMHIST council. They are working on various themes relating to Third Reich cinema for some time. While they usually collaborate through skype and other means of online communication, they welcome the opportunity to meet face-to-face when going to archives. Tobias is professor for audiovisual media at the University of Applied Sciences Kiel and the University of Flensburg. Roel is professor of film & TV studies at the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels and the University of Leuven, Belgium.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

‘I am sick of films’ – James Mason on the British Film Industry of the 1940s

Adrian Garvey, Queen Mary University of London

25 August 2017


Focussing on the 1930s to 1950s, my PhD examined the career of the actor James Mason as he achieved stardom in Britain, and then made a difficult transition to Hollywood. My primary aim was to explore the inter-relationship between performance, stardom and national identity, in what I believe to be a diverse and under-examined career. As with any star, part of this also involved considering the performance of the off-screen or ‘real’ James Mason during this time.

Although in later years he acquired more of the aura of a benign elder statesman, Mason had an enduring off-screen reputation as a ‘difficult’ actor – with one profile in the 1950s describing him as ‘the rudest man in Hollywood.’ This was probably most evident when, during the height of his stardom in Britain, he seemed intent on sabotaging his career. After eight years of limited success as a leading man he had become enormously successful as the eponymous Marquis of Rohan in the 1943 Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey. Further successes, in Fanny by Gaslight (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945) and, especially, The Seventh Veil (1945), quickly consolidated his status and created a distinct and unusual persona for a major star, that of a saturnine, charismatic, brute – while studio era male stars sometimes played anti-heroes, very few consistently played villains.

James Mason in The Man in Grey (1943)

A parallel off-screen image emerged during this time which established the actor himself as a truculent and opinionated figure. Unusual at a time when publicity material tended to stress a star’s dedication, modesty, and gratitude to the industry and their fans, this was at least in keeping with his on-screen persona. By contrast, a contemporary such as John Mills would have struggled with such an intransigent image. Mason was also an unusually prolific author of articles in this period, and used them to freely express his views about his career, and also about the British film industry and its perceived shortcomings. These pieces were not confined to fan magazines, and, with such titles as ‘I Hate Producers’ and ‘Why I am Going to America’ were far more opinionated and polemical than the standard, often ghosted, promotional material expected from film stars. Along with the drawings he frequently produced to illustrate these pieces, they can be read as a counter-narrative to the often negative accounts of Mason which began to appear in the fan, trade and lay press.

Mason was consistently forthright in his criticism of the domestic industry and his admiration of Hollywood, and became increasingly outspoken and intemperate during the decade. In ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?,’ a 1944 article for Picturegoer magazine, he defended those who had relocated to America, arguing that ‘most of the British actors in Hollywood had very little encouragement here.’ Comparing the two industries, he says ‘I have always had such immense admiration for American-made films and in the not so distant past found very few British which aroused a like enthusiasm.’[i]

Reviewing his career for Picture Post in 1947, he described the recent Odd Man Out as ‘the one completely satisfactory film of all the thirty I have been in.’ Among numerous criticisms of others, he finds that They Were Sisters ‘got progressively worse in the course of its making,’ says of Fanny by Gaslight that ‘I can’t say that I liked the finished product very much,’ and calls The Wicked Lady ‘an excellent story which contrived to appear extremely vulgar on the screen.’[ii]

Though more oblique in its message than such articles, Mason’s 1945 piece ‘Glamour’, for the miscellany magazine Summer Pie, proved the most controversial. Ostensibly, the piece is about how theatre and film have lost their magical aura as they have become more familiar to him. Saying that he finds ‘precious little glamour in British pictures,’ he pointedly envisions a ramshackle production in which the director is sacked and his ‘abysmally ignorant’ replacement has to film an actor from the waist up because he has broken his leg in a drunken fall. The piece ends on a rhapsodic mock-credo:

Tell me, if you please, that Hollywood is slipping, that it has made no outstanding films for the past four years, that Denham’s portentous product will presently wipe the floor…  I have faith. I have faith in the sacred permanence of an institution which fills my eyes … with such delight and my mind with the glorious company of Carmen Miranda, Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Gabin.[iii]

James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, p. 83

Mason’s expansive paean to Hollywood was not widely commented on, but his belittling of British film-making practices brought a flood of condemnation from the industry and was widely reported and debated in the trade press. The actor was reprimanded by his former director Anthony Asquith, then head of the Association of Cinema Technicians, and the union itself threatened him with exclusion from the studios. He retaliated by offering to cancel his film contracts and withdraw from the industry. The issue resurfaced in the mainstream press the following year after an Express article ‘I am sick of films says James Mason,’ in which he claimed to be turning down Hollywood offers but unwilling to work in Britain. ‘When I see a film of my own on the screen, he was reported as saying, ‘I am pleased when I see myself but bored with the rest of it.’[iv]

Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3

The actor’s departure for America was now almost inevitable. By the time he left in 1947, the British film industry’s sense of anger and betrayal was especially acute because of the economic problems it faced in the post-war climate. J. Arthur Rank’s ambitions to challenge Hollywood had succeeded in an unprecedented US distribution deal for British films with the major studios and, after the great American success of The Seventh Veil, Mason’s name was a prominent part of the Rank portfolio being touted there. The plan collapsed within months, after the British government’s unexpected imposition of a 75% Import Duty on foreign films soured relations between the two industries and the studio refocused attention on domestic production.

Certain themes emerge from Mason’s sustained polemical attacks, most notably about the poverty of creative talent and ambition within an industry which he regarded as parochial and insular. However, some elements of humour and provocation, as well as strategic self-publicity, are also undoubtedly involved. While Mason’s articles and comments represent an unaligned, individualist stance, the critique of the national industry does echo some of the views of the ‘quality’ film critics of the time – who, for example, also found the Gainsborough films absurd – but his evident regard for Hollywood, for genre cinema, and for popular culture in general, also suggests a more nuanced position which was uncommon at the time.

Mason eventually found Hollywood to be an even more frustrating working environment than Britain. A protracted lawsuit with an agent meant that he was unable to work for any studio for the first eighteen months after his arrival in America; by the time that he could, he found that he had already become a less attractive proposition for the industry. His American career, which he later deemed a failure, but which included such films as The Reckless Moment, A Star is Born, Bigger Than Life and North by Northwest, would show him attempting to renegotiate his image as a transnational star.


[i] James Mason, ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?’, Picturegoer, June 10, 1944, p. 11.

[ii] ‘James Mason Talks About His Films’, Picture Post, 1 February 1947, pp. 14-17.

[iii] James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, pp. 83-86.

[iv] ‘“I am sick of films” says James Mason’, Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3.


Dr Adrian Garvey is a Teaching Assistant at Queen Mary University of London, where he completed his PhD, Performance and Stardom in the Transatlantic Career of James Mason, in 2016. Recent publications include ‘Steely Velvet: The Voice of James Mason’, in the Journal of British Cinema and Television (January, 2015), ‘Ageing Masculinity in the Films of James Mason’, in Lucy Bolton and Julie Lobalzo Wright (eds.), Lasting Screen Stars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and ‘Stardom in Silent British Cinema’, in Ian Q. Hunter, Laraine Porter and Justin Smith (eds.), The Routledge History of British Cinema, Routledge, 2016).

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