This project assesses the contribution women have made to film and television production in Britain, during a period of considerable social change for women and substantial institutional change for the industries: 1933-89.
The minority of women who worked in the high-profile roles of director, producer and costume designer are relatively well-known (Muriel Box, Verity Lambert, Shirley Russell) but the majority of women were employed in ‘below-the-line’ roles: hairdressers, continuity ‘girls’, production assistants, negative cutters. These ‘auxiliary’ roles, described by Sally Potter as ‘invisible labour’, are notoriously difficult to research and as a result the history of these women and their economic and creative contribution to production has barely been studied.
Our research draws on trade union records and oral history testimony to investigate the role women played in shaping the output of these two major creative industries of the twentieth-century.
Between 1933 and 1989 film and commercial television operated as a closed shop and BBC employment was similarly regulated. By tracing women’s contribution through union membership this project will provide empirical data about how many women worked in the industries, their roles and their movement between film and television. This data will be supplemented by oral history interviews with women which explore their working lives.
In bringing these two approaches together this project will unlock previously hidden evidence about women’s work, and develop new ways of conceptualising and historicising the film and television industries through the experiences of those in ‘auxiliary’ roles. This will have a wider impact on both the study of film and television and our understanding of the role of women in twentieth-century creative industries.
Why do we need this research?
Recent reports have highlighted the lack of opportunities for women filmmakers in Britain, with few female directors working in the action, fantasy and thriller genres that dominate the box office. Television drama fares no better, with less than ten per cent of contemporary drama being directed by women. What are the reasons behind this? How could the situation be changed? The debate has focussed on the current picture, but can explanations for the present be found in the past?
How are we going about it?
We are looking at the period from 1933 to 1989, a time of considerable change for women and for the industries themselves. While a minority of women worked 'above-the-line' as directors and producers, thousands were employed 'below-the-line' as hairdressers, continuity 'girls', production secretaries/assistants, negative cutters, editors, wardrobe assistants, make-up artists, researchers, librarians and more. Yet the contributions of women in these roles barely feature in existing historical accounts. We are using a wide range of sources, including trade union records, production files, industry journals, biographies, letters, and oral history interviews, to extend our understanding of women's contribution to film and television production in Britain, and to create a lasting historical resource to be hosted online by the British Universities Film and Video Council.
How can you help?
If you are a woman who worked in film and/or television before 1989 we would like to hear from you, whether you worked as a secretary or director or any grade in between. Whatever your role – and whether you might like to contribute in writing or talk to us directly – please get in touch.
We are Dr Melanie Bell (Principal Investigator), Dr Vicky Ball (Co-investigator), Sue Bradley (Research Associate in Oral History) and Frances Galt (PhD student).
Our project partners are BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) whose archive is providing us with important sources, and the British Universities Film and Video Council, which is producing a database and web-resource that will make the materials we produce available to others.
Advisory Board: Julia Hallam, Reader in Film and Media, University of Liverpool; Tracey Hunt, Administrative Officer, BECTU; Kate Kinninmont MBE, Chief Executive, Women in Film & TV (UK); Julia Knight, Professor of Moving Image, University of Sunderland; Sarah Street, Professor of Film and Foundation Chair of Drama, University of Bristol; Penny Summerfield, Professor of Modern History, University of Manchester.
Women's Work in British Film and Television is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is a collaborative partnership between Newcastle University and De Montfort University and will run from January 2014 to June 2017.