Christine Whittaker

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
17 Aug 2009
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs

Interview notes

People you have worked with:

eg Ludo, Dorly Minich (bfi people late for her funeral), Queenie, Mrs English  at IWM, Eddie M, Peter Pag, Will Wyatt, Adam Curtis, Steve Sampson, Alan Lygo.

·        Conditions of employment

Eg maternity leave

·        Role of Film researcher

No such job, no role spec

·        The technology

Nitrate (fireman), use of colour v B&W, decline in Film productions, 1” and 2”

·        Places you have worked

Lime Grove etc, LWT

·        Archives you visited

UK and abroad

·        Early career and intro to film research

Bush House, Scharnhorst

·        Productions

Bird’s Eye View, All Our Working Lives, Now the World is Over, Out of the Dolls House, Real Lives, Oceans Apart, Nippon

·        Work with IAMHIST


Christine Whittaker

History Project 1

As a rare insight into the wonderfully diverse career Christine Whittaker carved out for herself in the world of archive – and beyond – we re-visit an interview she gave to the History Project eight years ago in Puglia, Italy. Her ‘inquisitors’ were Sue Malden and Jerry Kuehl, the cameraman was Graham Whittaker and the lengthy transcription is courtesy of Sandra D. Ward.

Christine began by re-capping how her life in archive began:

“Around 1966, I joined the BBC quite by chance because I did languages at University and I wanted to be an interpreter. I couldn’t get a job, no-one did straight out of university. So I did a bilingual secretarial course for six months and then it was a toss-up between the BBC and the Foreign Office and my shorthand and typing weren’t good enough for the Foreign Office, so I went to the BBC to work in Bush House, which was World Service etc. and amongst other programmes, I worked on programmes to French Canada. So, I used my French a bit. I had a brilliant time at Bush House. It was the most interesting place that you could imagine in those days. After a year I moved to television as a trainee PA, which was all very exciting.

I started off on 24 Hours which was great fun. I met all sorts of interesting people, obviously a different programme every night. My guests that I had to meet at reception in Lime Grove included Charles Aznavour - very thrilling - Richard Burton. The culture was very different during those days because the hospitality cabinet used to come out at about seven o’clock. I remember one time, during the seaman’s strike, unfortunately the seamen went into the hospitality room before the programme went out! It wasn’t a very good interview but anyway, we had a lot of fun!. After about six months I moved on to a department called “General  Features”….

I went to work eventually with Eddy Mirzoeff, who, you know, was a really distinguished documentary maker. I worked for him as a PA for about a year then I was very lucky and I became a researcher. And I worked on a series called Birds Eye View with him which was a wonderful series, all shot from a helicopter.

SUE MALDEN: What did the research work entail?

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: In Birds Eye View it was ideas, it was locations. I was lucky enough to work with John Betjeman, suggesting poems that he might include which was quite funny because, you know, obviously my choice was a little banal compared to his knowledge but I had a terrific time and went all over the place on Birds Eye View. It took about three years to make and we worked with some very interesting people.

I worked on various things with Eddy and eventually, in the early ‘70s we started to work on history programmes. I think at that time it was obviously known that Thames Television was making World at War and we knew it was going to be a fantastic series.... I am not a historian, as I said, I was a linguist, but I was working on these history programmes, finding people. I worked on the Scharnhorst one.  At that time I was finding people, going to see people, in Germany and in Britain, finding participants and I also started to do the film research and I remember my first visit to the Imperial War Museum and being absolutely fascinated by this film that was running … I hadn’t a clue how to load a machine. I

It was my first sight of a Steenbeck and I was taught by the people at the War Museum and elsewhere, how to load the film - 35mm ‘sep mag’ - onto the Steinbeck and I was absolutely fas-cinated by the material.

There was not really the role of a film researcher, so I took the film research as seriously as I took the people. It wasn’t a minor thing for me to go and find film. I was looking for exciting material all the time. I absolutely loved it. I was fascinated by it and I was also lucky enough to go to Germany to look at the Bundesarchiv.

 I don’t know if you know the story of the Scharnhorst? It was called “The Life and Death of the Scharnhorst. And one of the things that happened was... I can’t even remember the year but the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau did a dash down the Channel to escape. From Brest, I think it was. They dashed down the English Channel and they managed to escape and so the Channel Dash of the Scharnhorst was one of the big things to look for and I remember being in the Bundesarchiv in Ehrenbreitstein [Erin?] Reichstein and I think that the guy that was helping me, advising me and getting the film out said, “I think we have got the rushes here”.

He actually found the rushes of the German coverage of the Channel  Dash. Well, if that had happened now, obviously you would order the whole thing, but because I was so scared of spending the BBC’s money, I selected sections. Because, of course, in those days, everything was on film and you had to order dupe negs and prints and it was all pretty expensive stuff. So you papered up the film as you went. You know, you put a bit of paper at the shot at the beginning and a bit of paper at the end or a piece of string. I think it was a piece of thread, it was, in Germany. So you definitely have to choose your sections. You had to have initiative. You couldn’t just order VHS’s because there weren’t VHS’s of anything…..

You did the detective work and you were relying very much on the help and skill of the librarians that you were with and you would have a very good relationship. You know, and you’d be talking to them about the material. It wasn’t catalogued at all, the German material. Not then. I mean.  There were a few files but nothing was shot listed. So, you know, you might find something that said, you know, Sharnhorst or whatever, but there was no shot list as such.  And  the same, actually, in the Imperial War Museum. You just went through files.

…..people had done film research before because, of course, there had been The Great War series and they travelled all over the place looking at material. So, it was just that, there wasn’t a job as a film researcher as we know it now. I mean, it was researcher. So, the researcher did the film and the people. And, the kind of working out the technology of the film and how things were shot listed or if they were shot listed. Well, this didn’t apply at all. And, of course, as we know now, shot lists list kind of what you see on the screen and the kind of shots and who’s in the picture. There was nothing like that at all so you had to actually get to recognise, you know, who Goering is or Doenitz Durnst and I just did.

What was actually very interesting, when we were doing the filming for the Scharnhorst programme, Ludovic Kennedy was the presenter and interviewer and when we were doing the filming in Hamburg, one of the people we filmed was the Captain of the Scharnhorst. And Ludovic Kennedy’s father was killed, on a ship called the Rawalpindii , which was one of the first ships to go down in the Second World War. And it was sunk by the Scharnhorst.  And this wonderful (Captain Topp, Kar Topp Captain Kurt-Caesar Hoffman – to be checked), who was Captain of the ship, the Scharnhorst, who was a wonderful man, highly respected, really came and apologised to Ludo.

 It was so moving and Ludo did not blame him obviously at all. It was a very interesting programme to work on. And that was the first of several several  (lose one of the several) programmes I made and worked on with Eddy Mertzov Mirzoeff about the Second World War. So, I suppose I became a bit of a kind of an obsessive. I mean, I am an obsessive person and you have to be obsessive to be a successful film researcher or any researcher because, I would never settle for “No”. I would always be looking, looking, looking for the better material. But as I say, it was a bit daunting to know that you were responsible for the money. So, if it was on film - which it always was - the material would go to the labs and you would have to pay per foot.

Christine also had to learn about rights and the differing attitudes of licence managers in the different archives .  In particular she ran across a real ‘stickler’ at the National Film Archives in London called Dawley  Dorly Minnick……

She’d been there a long time. And, I think that she was Hungarian or Austrian. I can’t remember where she was from originally, but she was very terrifying when you first met her. And she was very, very stern and I remember being terrified because she said to me, “Single perf or double perf for your film?” I said “Sorry?” - I should have said that most of the film that I was looking at was 35mm. We were working on 16mm so you had to get 16mm reduction negs and prints made. Well, I didn’t know if I wanted single perf or double perf or whatever. So, it was terrifying. But actually, she was a very kind woman and she was terrified of lots of people and she was disliked by lots of people but actually she was a very gentle, nice woman really with this manner which put people off. She was very kind and interested in talking to me about my family and so on.

JERRY KUEHL: She wouldn’t accept an indemnity. i.e .a guarantee that if anyone came forward who owned the rights, the production, not the BFI, would be responsible. That was the problem.

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: No, she wouldn’t. She was absolutely strict about rights and also she wouldn’t, at the BFI, The National Film Archive, they were very strict about donors’ rights. If a donor had given the film, the donor would have the right to say, yes, we were allowed this to be duped or not and obviously, not all donors had said anything. So, if there was nothing in writing, she wouldn’t allow you to have the film. So, all the rights issues have always been there and, you know, been difficult. And it was very difficult to understand that at the beginning actually, for me. It still is in a way but particularly the BFI’s. They were very, very strict about it.

SUE MALDEN: So, presumably when a donor donated stuff they didn’t automatically give the rights to use.

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: No, because it was meant to preserve and to look after the film and also, that was the aim originally, to preserve, and still is in a way. So, you weren’t automatically given the right to use the material. So it is a bit of a dilemma.

SUE MALDEN: Was it difficult to trace donors?

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: Yes, a lot of them were dead!

After the birth of two children in the 1970s, Christine left the BBC and became a freelance with jobs at London Weekend Television and then back at the BBC.

What happened was that I was asked back for various programmes because, you know, most of my contacts were in the BBC. One of the things that I worked on was a programme about Lady Astor, Nancy Astor, she wasn’t actually the first female British MP but she was always named as the first. Absolutely fascinating story…

Married  to Lord Astor. She was an American woman and they lived at Cliveden. And (O)I had this wonderful  find because I put an advert in the Daily Telegraph. Had anyone ever done any filming at Cliveden?  Did anyone have any general home movies or whatever? Anyway, I got a call from a guy who said that he had been the electrician at Cliveden and when the items went up for sale he bid for a camera and he got some rolls of film. Because they had a little camera and they had a screening room. And when we looked at these films they were all the Astor home movies going back to the 1920s!

All people like MacMillan at Cliveden…. the children, I mean, David Astor who became the editor of the Observer; Bill Astor whom there was a bit of a scandal about at Cliveden. I think Jake Astor. Anyway, they were all there as children. And Lady Astor there with all these people… important people like George Bernard Shaw. There was even film of Kennedy’s sister and Kennedy visiting. So, it was absolutely extraordinary. So, we had David Astor, I think it was, around to look at the films, which of course he had not seen since they were children. It was a fantastic find which really helped the programme as you can imagine.

Unfortunately, what happened then was that it was given to the BFI and no-one saw it for about another 30 years. No-one was allowed to see it because the BFI sort of said, “Oh no, no, no!” You know, it was not catalogued, it was... anyway, I think it is released now. But it was colour footage, you know, it was extraordinary footage. So, that was one of the best finds ever, I think. And that was just by luck because I had put this advert in the paper.

SUE MALDEN: And presumably anybody wanting to look at them or find out what was in it would have to come to you?

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: Well yes. I mean we had the Astor family looking at it to tell us who people were but I mean some of them, obviously, George Bernard Shaw was someone we recognised and so was Harold MacMillan visiting Cliveden. And also, as far as I remember, there was film of, what was the name of the German Ambassador just before the War? The German Ambassador to London? Yes you would know.

JERRY KUEHL: Ribbentrop

One of the series Christine made with Peter Pagnamenta at BBC was All our Working Lives

All Our Working Lives was the first programme I worked on where we actually transferred the material onto one inch tape. Before, everything had been done onto film as I said. This was on to one inch tape which was a new format that had really just started. So we used to borrow the films and get the films to Lime Grove and we used to copy the films, you know from a telecine machine. A lot of the films were on nitrate and there was just one machine in the BBC that was allowed to run nitrate….

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: Most 35 mm was on nitrate stock, which is really inflammable material, which still, if it is kept well, looks brilliant but it can blow up, it can self-combust. So we had to have a fireman sitting with us at TK2 all the time we were running it and I used to run up and down stairs. You were only allowed to bring six cans of nitrate down from the vault at a time and the fireman would sit beside you as you were transferring this material onto tape. And, of course, we didn’t choose bits, we copied the whole reel….And it was very carefully kept in this one vault at the top of Lime Grove and you had the fireman with you. However, what was very odd was that it used to just get sent back by taxi to wherever we had picked it up. So it went through London in a normal car. It doesn’t any more of course, but... so that was it.

Christine’s career took her, literally, worldwide.  This included Japan, where the BBC paid for her to have language lessons:

 I worked on an amazing programme, again with Peter Pagnamenta, called Nippon which was the history of post-war Japan and then I had the amazing experience of going to Japan and doing research in Japan which was extraordinary. I actually tried to learn Japanese. The BBC paid for me for two weeks to learn Japanese, but unfortunately, when in Japan, you know, they have three alphabets in Japan and when you are at university in Japan, you are still learning the alphabet! So there was no way that I could learn to read the cards in Japanese in two weeks. But anyway, it was good fun. So I spent quite a lot of time in Japan. I had various trips to Japan looking. We had an office in NHK and I can remember the first day I arrived because the rest of the team were there. I arrived and I had got there by the subway, the underground station to Shinjuku, which was near where our office was and I walked out of the station….There are no street names in Japan at all. Of course, I couldn’t read where I was. I’ve got no sense of direction. Unless there was a sign of a Kentucky Fried Chicken or something I recognised, there was no way that I would find my way to the office. I went to Japan three times for a month each time.

After working on a series called Out of the Dolls House which was about the history of women and work Christine worked on a series called An Ocean Apart - about the relationship between Britain and America - and she had her first experience of transatlantic archives

It was an amazing experience to have and which of course, I kept on doing more in my career. And I worked with a researcher.  Somebody suggested David Thaxton in Washington as a colleague and he didn’t do the research without me. A lot of the material obviously was in the National Archives and it was extraordinary experience.

SUE MALDEN: Did he work in the National Archive?

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: No, he was a freelance researcher. He worked at the American Film Institute. He had also worked at West Point and taught film there actually. So that was when I got to know the American Archives. That was really when I started travelling. I was so lucky. I mean I’ve been all over the world really. So I did that. I used to go to America, a lot, to Washington and to New York.

SUE MALDEN: So did you use the Library of Congress as well?

CHRISTINE WHITTAKER: I did but the Library of Congress was of course, mostly for early film and feature films. I did use both but most of the material that I was talking about for the post-war period was in the National Archives. And, of course, that’s when I got to know about public domain material because, as you know, there is no such thing as public domain material in this country, at least in Britain. A lot of people think there is. There is not. It is not official. It is only America that has this law that material shot for and by the Government, is counted as in the public domain. It’s just the same way as written archives are. So, I suppose it is a Hollywood thing really. You know, that the film industry has played a part in them taking film more seriously.

… I made a lot of trips to America. I went to New York a lot as well and went to the Sherman Grinberg Library who have the Pathé and Paramount material and to CBS and NBC etc. etc. So, it was all terrific.


Christine Whittaker  - the ‘doyenne’ of British film researchers (The late Jane Mercer, former Chair of FOCAL International) for more than  30 years she has spent defining – and indeed refining – the role of the film researcher in television production.

Christine has also given generously of her time to voluntary work with organisations such as FOCAL and, most notably, IAMHIST, the organisation of which she has been the President for many years. She also lectures and teaches about Film Research at national and international events and at Birkbeck College, University of London. After taking a degree in Modern Languages with a view to becoming a translator, Christine joined the BBC World Service, where her work included broadcasts to French-speaking Canada. From there she transferred to BBC Television and became a factual researcher in documentaries and, inevitably found herself being asked to look for bits of footage. It was while seated one day at a Steenbeck at the Imperial War Museum, according to Christine, that she realised that film research was what she really wanted to do. The rest is history. For many years Christine was the only film researcher on the BBC staff. Eventually, the late 1980s saw a recognition of the expertise that she had helped to pioneer as a profession in its own right. By that time her list of credits had become legendary – Nippon, All Our Working Lives, Out of the Doll’s House and Pandora’s Box. Then of course came People’s Century - a 26 part Emmy award winning series on which she was credited as the Archive Producer – marking a giant leap forward for the film research community as a whole. Other credits are Days That Shock The World (Lion Television);
Now the War is Over (BBC);An Ocean Apart (BBC);40 Minutes (BBC);Time Watch (BBC); the Vera Lynn Story
Christine has worked tirelessly to spread the word about the value and virtue of archive footage and its proper use. She lectures at seminars and conferences around the world and she  campaigned enthusiastically on behalf of the archive business. 

Christine was honoured in the FOCAL International Awards 2006 with the Lifetime Achievement Award. This Award is a gift of the FOCAL Executive to one of its Members who has performed long service in the archive industry and is recognised in a general sense to have contributed to the promotion, good practice or understanding of the content industry.