February 10, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith
Sometimes there are things in the archives that enlighten our enquiries, underpin some new discovery or reveal an important truth. Sometimes there are things that are just silly.
I recently spent time working as part of a big collaborative and interdisciplinary research project on ‘Cultural Value’ led by the Open University (outputs can be found here). As part of this, I found myself in the BBC Written Archive Centre in Caversham. This was a great experience. The archive itself is full of fascinating files, the archivists attentive, and it’s closely situated to the café at the BBC Monitoring Centre next door. Food, files and friendly archivists – the holy trinity!
I found a lot of really interesting stuff there, none the least audience surveys that looked at British Overseas Representation in Francophone Africa. I spoke on this in November at a conference at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and I’ll almost certainly work it up into an article sometime soon.
Yet, despite a profitable time and a lot of interesting findings, there was one document that really stuck in the mind. It was the minutes of a BBC Executive Committee meeting from 22 January 1976 (BBC WAC – R1/44/1). In fact, it was one sub item on the agenda that day. These little pieces of ephemera were listed as ‘CANDLE ENDS’, small things to be clarified or discussed that you’d normally find listed under ‘Any Other Business’ for a business.
The agenda promised that the committee would discuss:
I was flummoxed. I’ve always been a fan of the surreal, but at this point my mind began to race ahead of me. What possible bizarre situation could be up for discussion? Was this the name of a new programme, or… what?
It didn’t disappoint. The entry read:
“D.G. confirmed that press reports of the expenditure of about £40 on transporting ten spiders by taxi from Hawkhurst (Kent) to London were unfortunately true. They had been wanted in a hurry by those producing “Our Mutual Friend” for Television. Mr Trethowan had made it clear to his staff that this should not have happened, and that the error should have been acknowledged as soon as it was revealed. Of all the “dotty” incidents known to him in this field, the Chairman said, this had been one of the “dottiest”.”
I burst out laughing, shattering the calm tranquillity of the archive. What a find!
I have to admit, it didn’t leave my mind either. I found, when I got home that I had to investigate further. Surely these spiders must be crucial if they merited their own hackney? With price inflation, that taxi ride cost about £290 in today’s money. Imagine these spiders sitting in a row on the back seat, seat-belted, of course. The taxi driver espousing, “I’m not racist but, these spiders, coming over here in crates of bananas…”
With that mental image, I went straight online and ordered a copy of the DVD of the 1976 BBC adaptation of ‘Our Mutual Friend’. After a few days, it fell through the letterbox and I put off real work to watch the entire thing. It was dark for Dickens, with a fairly complex thread. Jane Seymour was great in it, and it had all the production values of Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who.
But….. no spiders!
Despite everything, the fraught ride, the supposed scandal, the executive harrumphing, I still couldn’t see any evidence of these spiders being important!
This, it turns out, was a cul-de-sac in my research. Who knows, perhaps there is more to be found out, but not by me, it seems. Still, I thought I’d share a tale of how these travellers came to London and found their way into my purchase history more than 30 years after the spiders themselves presumably popped all 8 of their clogs. My working theory is that Jane Seymour ate them.