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BFI’s mission to widen access to TV archives

Lisa Kerrigan writes about the British Film Institute’s efforts to showcase under-seen gems from its national archive.

Jason Okundaye highlights the difficulties in researching Black British history and particularly archive television material in our supposed “age of digital plenty” (My hunt for a missing TV episode – and what it shows about being Black in Britain, 13 May). He kindly mentions the BFI’s Black Britain on Film collection, which is available online. This collection shows a small selection from the BFI National Archive and UK partner archives related to 20th-century Black British history, and there is much more to discover offline.

The programme discussed in the article, Blackout, is available to view for free in the BFI Southbank Mediatheque in London, along with other editions from the series The Black Bag (1991). These were recorded from original Channel 4 broadcasts and are preserved in the BFI National Archive. Work is ongoing to digitise these historical videotape collections.

Regrettably, these programmes are currently only available to see in person in our Mediatheque, but our archive platform, BFI Replay, is available in hundreds of UK public libraries, and, in terms of under-seen Black British history, it features several editions of the LWT series Skin (1980). Beyond this, information on many titles can be found in our online database and appointments can be made to view many of these through our research viewing service. BFI archivists, librarians and curators can also provide guidance on researching our collections.

Archives face obstacles in making collections more accessible, and copyright is a key consideration as to whether something can be made available online or within a research space. Nonetheless, it is our goal to make the BFI National Archive the most open screen archive in the world. As we work towards this, we recognise the challenges of researching Black British history and we welcome any researchers who wish to navigate our collections and explore the rich histories they offer.


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