05 October 2017 | Sue Malden | The Guardian
“Christine Whittaker, who has died aged 74 after complications from Parkinson’s disease and cancer, was the first acknowledged archive film researcher for the BBC. In the 1970s, she sought out film that could add depth and credibility to historical television documentaries, bringing dusty archives to life. By the late 1980s, there was a recognition that the expertise she had helped to pioneer had led to the creation of a profession.
Before her arrival on the scene, television documentary presentation was flat, with perhaps a clip of archive film to illustrate the views of the expert presenter. But this was beginning to change.
The producer and writer Peter Pagnamenta, with whom Christine worked on many series, said: “Some of us were trying to let archive film breathe and speak for itself, with its original voice if possible. We were moving away from the first generation of history series, in which a perambulating historian spouted to the camera, or smothered sometimes striking footage with over-written commentary. It was Christine’s ability to find and offer up the most evocative film extracts that could pithily convey a historical attitude or moment, that gave a special distinction to so many of the programmes she worked on.”
Her great strengths were her sensitivity to what a producer needed, her sense of humour and her editorial sharpness. She built up an incomparable knowledge of possible sources in an era that predated digitisation and website catalogues of archive content.
In 1972 she researched the first Richard Dimbleby Lecture, by Lord (Noel) Annanon universities. Then, working on films about naval warfare presented by Ludovic Kennedy, she stumbled on her true vocation – the finding and assessing of rare archive material, often misdescribed, misplaced or lost. As the producer Edward Mirzoeff recounted: “It wasn’t long before the head of the Naval Historical Branch admitted that the young woman from the BBC knew more about some archive footage than they did.”
Born in Corbridge, Northumberland, she was the daughter of Margaret (nee Lawlan) and Gerald Smith. An academic high flyer at Sunderland Church high school, she went on to study French and German at Leeds University. Her hope after graduating was to work for the Foreign Office as a translator, but when it turned her down she went to the BBC. Her first job was with the World Service, in a unit broadcasting in French to Canada.
From there she transferred to television, becoming a factual researcher in documentaries, and inevitably was asked to look for bits of footage. She moved to the current affairs team based at Lime Grove, where she worked on the magazine programme 24 Hours, but it was when she transferred to the feature/documentary unit at Kensington House that Christine found her forte.
For All Our Working Lives (1984), an 11-part history of Britain at work in the 20th century, she sought out fresh and previously unseen film, whether from families, institutions or businesses. She worked on Out of the Doll’s House (1988), the path-breaking history of women’s experience in the 20th century, of which she was especially proud. For Nippon (1990), an eight-part history of post-1945 Japan, she spent months ploughing through libraries, helped by local researchers, with a dogged thoroughness that surprised the Japanese.
She researched the innovative and original documentary series Pandora’s Box (1992) for Adam Curtis. Then came People’s Century (1995-97), the 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 include Days That Shook the World, Now the War Is Over, An Ocean Apart, 40 Minutes, Timewatch and The Vera Lynn Story.
Christine worked tirelessly to spread the word about the value of archive footage and its proper use, lecturing at seminars and conferences around the world, and was greatly admired by those with whom she worked. She gave generously of her time to voluntary work with organisations that promote this specialist area of work, including Focal International (the Federation of Commercial Audio/Visual Libraries). She served on its board for many years, and in 2006 received its lifetime achievement award. She was also president of the International Association of Media Historians (1996-2004), and in 2009 was interviewed about her career for the British Entertainment History Project.
In 1972 she married Graham Whittaker, a cameraman whom she met when working on the BBC series of helicopter travelogues Bird’s Eye View (1969-71). She is survived by him, by their children, Georgina and Jack, and by two grandchildren.
• Christine Whittaker, film researcher, born 22 December 1942; died 16 August 2017