Archiving Radharc’s TV documentaries

Published in Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Volume 23

A Radharc film crew in action. What made Radharc particularly interesting, even peculiar, was that it was a TV programme made by Catholic priests. (Radharc Trust)

The Archive Scheme of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is making a serious effort to encourage an ‘archiving culture’ in the broadcast sector. The Radharc Archive Project is one of the first of the BAI-funded projects to come to fruition. Fifteen Radharc programmes from 1962/3 have now been digitally remastered in high definition, along with the digitisation of the associated paperwork.

Radharc started out as an experimental religious affairs programme on Telefís Éireann in 1962 and continued for another 35 years. What made Radharc particularly interesting, even peculiar, however, was that it was a TV programme made by Catholic priests. The ‘Radharc team’ of clerics (later joined by lay people) was Ireland’s first independent TV production unit, which made over 400 documentaries exploring issues of faith, values and social justice around the world. Contrary to what one might expect, Radharc programmes became noted for challenging the cosy Catholic conservatism of 1960s and 1970s Ireland and for presenting a radical theological perspective on the issues of the developing world.

Radharc ceased television production in 1997 after the death of co-founder Fr Joe Dunn. These days, the Radharc Trust works to promote the legacy of the production unit through initiatives like the biennial Radharc Awards for TV programmes in the spirit of Radharc. The Trust also oversees the film archive, which is carefully stored in the vaults of the Irish Film Institute and RTÉ Archives. Importantly, Radharc’s own collection includes production files of research notes, scripts and thousands of photographs. Each is an artefact from the archaeology of Irish broadcast history—and now there are more opportunities for researchers to explore that history.

Every archivist knows that good archive practice is much more than just storing material safely. With thousands of individual items involved, quality cataloguing is a prerequisite. Decisions in this regard required close collaboration with the Film Archive of the IFI and RTÉ Archives. The digital age is ideal for cataloguing and facilitating access, but digitising audio-visual material is complicated by literally hundreds of options when it comes to video format.

There are 5,500 Radharc programme elements in the vaults: finished films, rough cuts, soundtracks and off-cuts. The project set out to tackle the first fifteen films only and began by retrieving the best-quality elements. Fifty-three separate film reels were identified that provided the restoration team with routes to reconstruct the best version of each of the fifteen films involved.

Every frame of 16mm film was hand-inspected by staff at the IFI before undergoing telecine scan in high definition at Dublin facility house Screen Scene. Making a digital file from film requires the marrying of projection and sprocket technology with computer chips. Once in the digital domain, however, software restoration delivered the Radharc programmes as high-definition images to a standard never seen before. Although half a century old, the films are in remarkably good condition. And where there were problems, digital restoration smoothed away some of the wrinkles and flaws of old age.

Digitising the paper and photographic collection is simpler in some ways, but still a big task because of the volume of material. Thanks to the good working practices of the original Radharc teams, there is a file for each programme—scripts, shot lists, research and technical notes, interview transcripts, even fan mail. It is an extraordinary treasure trove, giving a fascinating insight into the workings of a small TV production unit. There are also scrapbooks of press cuttings, which are a wonderful companion for researchers to appreciate the context of the original broadcasts. About 1,300 scanned files have been digitised as part of this project.

One example of the value of the paper archive is the file relating to the film ‘Fr Casey and the Land War’, first broadcast in 1963, which recounts the story of the parish priest of Abbeyfeale, Fr William Casey. The film features interviews with elderly contributors who were eyewitnesses to nineteenth-century evictions and Land League agitation. The production file includes the original interview transcripts—the sections used in the film are clearly marked, but what are especially interesting are those sections of testimony that did not make the final cut. The interviewees, for instance, give the names of landlords with a bad reputation, as well as the names of some of those evicted.

The Archive Project will bring Radharc’s first fifteen films to new audiences, allow screenings and exhibitions, and ensure that vulnerable material is digitally preserved. An exhibition and screening of the restored films will take place in September 2015 at the Irish Film Institute, Temple Bar, Dublin.

Peter Kelly is a TV producer with Esras Films and a trustee of the Radharc Trust (and member of the Radharc team from 1985 to 1996).

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