Why I ...want to see films in Oxford University's Bodleian Library

May 30, 2003

I do a lot of research in the Bodleian Library. Whether it's an original manuscript by Congreve, an obscene 19th-century pamphlet or a more recent tome that can't easily be skimmed in Borders, Britain's three copyright deposit libraries provide an invaluable service, preserving and making available just about everything that's worth reading.

I have only two complaints. The first is that I've never found one of my own books in the catalogues. This is easily remedied, I can write better books. The second is more serious: you cannot view videos in the Bod.

This may sound like the special pleading of a terminal couch potato who can't be bothered to plough through Kingsley Amis' Old Devils and prefers instead to relax over Andrew Davies' hugely successful TV dramatisation, but my point is serious.

Recently I needed to view two films. Visconti's Ludwig contains, for my money, the definitive portrayal of Richard Wagner - as played by Trevor Howard - and I was writing about images of Wagner. Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock is also important, given what it did to redefine Australian cinema, another area I was writing about.

Neither film, however, is currently in the shops. Neither is to be found in any video library either. Or online. In fact, when I rang the British Film Institute I was told that both films were unavailable, the producers sitting on the negative deciding whether they were worth reissuing and redistributing (a process costing millions) or, alternatively, writing direct to DVD.

I don't blame the producers. Their job is to make money. If reissuing is too big a financial gamble, why should they simply to help my research? Reaching this impasse so frequently tempts me to state that something has to be done. We are deluded if we confuse film's ability to fix a performance in permanent form with the idea of film being permanent.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Even if negatives aren't lost ( The Magnificent Ambersons will never be restored to the version originally edited by Orson Welles), the majority remain locked away in vaults while, above ground, prints snap, shred and disappear under a welter of scratches. All too often, what we are left with as research tools are printed screenplays, a few stills and that most inaccurate of resources, the human memory.

Film is an important academic resource, and its relevance extends beyond the field of drama. Who would attempt to study Margaret Thatcher's Britain without watching Boys from the Blackstuff or Minder ? Who would consider Hitler without Triumph of the Will, Hearst without Citizen Kane, or attempt to understand the naivety of US foreign policy without viewing a large tranche of John Wayne movies?

And yet all too often we can't. My proposal is simple. Every video and DVD offered for sale in Britain should automatically be offered to our three copyright deposit libraries. They can afford the storage space now that everything is being issued on DVD. These libraries should then make viewing booths available. Somewhere below ground would be eminently suited to the louche quality of cinema, no need to partition Duke Humfrey's Library. If the booths had to be booked in advance, no more than three per library would be necessary. Sound would be provided on headphones and a charge would be levied.

I put this idea forward in all seriousness, but I am already on the defensive. My earnestness reflects the reactionary's assumption that film is trivial, the stuff of "media studies" not scholarship. It's worth remembering, however, that ten times as many people watched The Old Devils as bought the novel. Today, most people's view of that Booker prizewinning tome derives from the screen, not from the printed page. Not that Kingsley would approve.

Adrian Mourby
Author and occasional lecturer in creative writing, Cardiff University

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