All boxed in 

30 March 2024

The Box, Plymouth

The Box, Plymouth. [Photo by user:geniCC-BY-SA 4.0]


When Television South West (TSW) lost the bidding war for the south-west England ITV franchise in 1991, they did something unprecedented. A vast film and tape library, the entire holdings of both Westward Television and TSW, was gifted to a newly-created trust, the TSW Film and Television Archive. This later morphed into the South West Film and Television Archive, better known as SWFTA. Not just the footage but all the rights to make commercial use of such were handed over. No other regional film archive in the UK has the same advantage. TSW’s final act of goodwill to the region was to give something back, a collection of huge value and national importance.

SWFTA seems to have been a labour of love and passion, mainly a volunteer-run organisation, and mostly made up of ex-Westward and TSW staffers. The SWFTA website, archived from 2016, gives some insight into the scope of the trust. From providing footage for public screenings, to retailing a wide range of popular DVDs, SWFTA was willing to go to great lengths to involve the wider community.

Under its stewardship a great deal of preservation and restoration took place, lovingly handled by teams of skilled volunteers.

One notable feature of the SWFTA website was a keyword search facility, where details of footage held on specific subjects or places could be found, and potentially licensed for private or commercial use. A good overview of SWFTA’s activities can be viewed on YouTube.

But in 2020 SWFTA was absorbed into an entity known as The Box. Housed in what was once the home of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, The Box is still Plymouth’s primary museum, but now with the addition of SWFTA.

The Box is based in a lovely building, and is a well thought-out “space”. Light and airy, it seems of far greater appeal than the kind of dusty museum that was once the norm. It really is a spectacular facility, although at a price tag of £46m that’s probably just as well.

But SWFTA, now rebranded as the Moving Image collection, seems like an ill-fitting addition to a high-end museum and gallery. It is hard not to wonder if this was actually something of a shotgun marriage, one that looked good on paper, but arguably makes no sense in reality.

The differences are manifold, and profound. One of the key buzzwords used at The Box is “accessibility”. Sadly, it is near impossible to see how anything about the Moving Image collection could be described as accessible.

To search the former SWFTA database a pre-booking has to be made, to use a dedicated laptop in The Cottonian Research Room. Whilst the room itself is actually very congenial for research, there are only four working spaces, and eight slots, in any one day. To use the facility a form has to be filled in, and photo ID must be provided. To take photos of any kind requires an image licence, which must be pre-bought online, and an e-receipt shown to the staff. Another form then needs to be filled in, part of which is a very long agreement binding the signatory not to use any images for anything other than for personal use.

There are plans afoot to create a new online searchable database, which would certainly be a vast improvement on what is available at the moment. Yet SWFTA had this all up and running a good 15 years ago.

The Box will, potentially, provide copies of footage for private users. And, of course, yet another form has to be filled in. They like forms at The Box.

As regards the human element of the equation, it is notable that a great many of the former volunteers at SWFTA have gone on record to say that they have been effectively “ghosted”, their services no longer required, with neither apology nor explanation. It beggars belief that so much experience and enthusiasm can have been treated with such disregard.

The staff at The Box, mostly employees rather than volunteers, are very nice people in person, and I can vouch that the senior media archivist is both sincere and passionate about the collection. The catch, however, is that it is now part of a museum. An archive that was created as part of two commercial enterprises, which has so much potential for licensing and exploitation, is now locked away out of sight.

Caution is the watchword at The Box. Every request to view material, and certainly to obtain or license it, is researched with scrupulous care, in case there are any third-party rights involved. This is seen as wise due diligence, but the reality is that 99.9% of what they hold is fully rights-owned by The Box. Footage of John Doyle at a farm auction surely doesn’t need to be dealt with as if it were the product of a massive international co-production deal.

Another evidence of just how badly The Box needs someone with industry experience and business acumen is the “one-size-fits-all” pricing structure for licensing footage on a commercial basis. Frankly their prices are very steep (see the rate card based on amount per second).

The hurdles are just too many. It’s near impossible to discover what The Box holds without making a personal visit, and even if material of value is identified, the would-be licensor has both endless form-filling and eye-watering charges to contend with, when this should surely be a matter of negotiation.

In a previous post I argued the case that the best way of preserving archive television, and making it widely available, is for it to be commercially exploited. The former SWFTA archive is now more or less completely subsidised by the council tax payers of Plymouth, plus sundry grant-awarding bodies. There’s almost nothing for the public to “see” of the collection when they visit, other than a few random news reports playing on various monitors in the building. The so-called Media Lab Gallery is more of a stylish art installation than a serious attempt to showcase footage.

Westward Plymouth 1965

I would argue that there are good reasons to be concerned about the long-term future of the archive. It’s not being allowed to pay its way; it’s not – in any normal sense of the word – “accessible”; and it has a very low-key presence within the physical set-up of The Box. It is all too easy to see which part of The Box would be first hit in the event of any serious cutbacks.

There are a number of measures that could be undertaken to put things on a steadier financial footing. A reputable clips agency, such as, could be appointed to market and license footage for national and international use. There are also a wide range of productions, both from Westward and TSW, which still have commercial value. The international streaming market continues to have a demand for English-language documentaries, and TSW had an excellent track record in these. There are many agencies who focus on supplying streaming platforms with content, and who could be engaged to market the cream of the archive’s wide range of programming.

One further suggestion would be to find sponsorship to create a new YouTube channel. If a thousand cherry-picked high-quality clips were uploaded to YouTube there’s no reason why such a channel couldn’t rapidly acquire tens of thousands of subscribers, and be monetised to benefit the archive’s long-term future. There would surely be one or more local companies who would be willing to fund this, and put their name to it.

Cultural institutions like The Box are notorious for spending endless amounts of time navel-gazing as to what their “purpose” is. As regards the SWFTA archive surely that should be obvious – to maximise opportunity for the widest possible audience to view and commercially licence as much of the collection as practicably possible; and to minimise (or, ideally, eliminate) its reliance on public money.

On both fronts it would seem The Box has a very long way to go.


“Philip Renfrew” is a pseudonym


You Say

1 response to this article

Jeremy Greenaway 9 April 2024 at 5:04 pm

One of the ‘exhibits’ at The Pox is a rolling video of a report by me, and showing me, of the Penlee lifeboat disaster.
The director of this outfit didn’t even respond when I offered some of my own items of historic interest to Plymouth to the museum.
Neither did they have the courtesy to contact me to either ask my permission or to tell me it was going to be a major feature of the museum.
At the time it was made, I was actually a self-employed member of Westward/TSW. I’ve got a medi lawyer looking into the legalities of this use of archive material, and its sale.
The driving force behind the SWFTA, Roger Charlesworth (he celebrated his 88th bday at the weekend) and his wonderful, late, wife Jenny as well as the volunteers who spent hundreds and hundreds of hours collating the SWFTA have been treated terribly by the organisation, and by the jobsworth nonentities of Plymouth City Council.

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