A ticket to the dream palace: Teaching modern British cultural history at the Bill Douglas Centre

A  ticket  to  the  dream  palace:  Teaching  modern  British  cultural  history  at  the  Bill  Douglas  Centre  by David Thackeray, Lecturer in History, University of Exeter


Ask  any  History  student  starting  their  second  year  at Exeter  which  module  they  find  most  daunting  and  they  are  likely  to  say  ‘Doing  History’.  For  the  first  time  you  are  faced  with  the  prospect  of  conducting  an  independent  research  project  in  which  you  have  to  fashion  a  question  and  select  a  range  of  different  types  of  primary  sources  to  consult.  There  were  certainly  some  eyebrows  raised  when  my  students  learnt  that  there  were  over  70,000  items  to  consult  at  the  Bill  Douglas  Centre  for  Fiilm  Studies.  After  all,  many  had  not  heard  of  the  centre  before  moving  to Exeter.

 But  why  should  this  come  as  a  surprise?  Film-going  was  arguably  the  main  leisure  activity  in  Britain  during  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth  century  with  cinemas  according  weekly  attendances  of  nearly  twenty  million  during  the  1930s.  But  film’s  importance  went  beyond  these  mere  figures,  it  was  arguably  the  main  medium  for  the  development  of  popular  culture.  As  the  resources  of  the  BDC  vividly  demonstrate,  film  generated  an  enormous  range  of  ephemera:  cigarette  cards  of  movie  stars,  fan  literature,  magazines,  postcards,  and  innumerable  adverts  for  fashion  products.  The  current  ‘Film  and  the  rise  of  female  consumerism’  exhibition,  curated  by  History  students,  provides  an  excellent  introduction  to  the  ways  in  which  cinema  pervaded  everyday  life  and   influenced  social  identities  in  the  golden  age  of  film  culture  during  the 1920 and 1930s.


   Teaching  at  the  BDC  provides  a  unique  window  on  these  lost  worlds  and  an  opportunity  for  students  to  consult  a  wide  range  of  sources  which  they  are  unlikely  to  uncover  elsewhere.  Moreover,  it  is  enormously  fun.  Most  students  have  seen  and  enjoyed  The  Artist,  but  at  the  BDC  they  can  learn  about  the  silent-age  stars  who  inspired  the  film,  such  as  Clara  Bow,  the  rags-to-riches  ‘It’  girl  who  came  to  fame  after  winning  a  magazine  talent  contest. 


 To  date,  I  have  organised  seminars  at  the  BDC  focusing  on  gender  roles  in  inter-war  Britain  and  social  change  in  the  1960s,  but  there  are  a  range  of  other  potential  uses  for  the  collections  beyond  the  confines  of  British  history,  as  evidenced  by  recent  student-led  exhibitions  focused  on  African-Americans  in  film  and  the  depiction  of  Chinese  culture  in  cinema.

  Moreover,  being  the Exeter  History  department’s  Employability  officer  over  the  last  year  has  made  me  more  aware  of  the  value  that  the  BDC  holds  in  providing  students  opportunities  to  develop  transferrable  skills  beyond  the  confines  of  the  undergraduate  curriculum.  As  well  as  organising  an  exhibition,  and  undertaking  independent  research  projects,  students  from  my  course  have  volunteered  at  the  BDC,  cataloguing  incoming  items,  supporting  school  visits,  and  contributing  to  this  blog! 

    The  BDC  is  only  part  of  a  vibrant  film  culture  in Exeter  promoted  by  organisations  such  as  the  Bike  Shed  Theatre,  Campus  Cinema,  the Exeter  Phoenix,  Ignite  Festival  and  the  Picturehouse.  After  a  successful  start,  I  hope  to  see  next  year’s  group  of  students  use  this  blog  as  a  means  to  talk  about  their  experiences  using  the  BDC’s  collections  and  to  discuss  their  research  projects. 




Homosexuality and British media in the 1960s:What you can find in the BDC by Victoria Rogers

Homosexuality and British media in the 1960s:What you can find in the BDC by Victoria Rogers

When I began my second year research project on media representation of homosexuality, the thought of utilising the resources at the Bill Douglas Centre never even crossed my mind. I focused specifically on media representations in the period between the Wolfenden Report and its recommendations to decriminalise homosexuality in 1957, and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which decriminalised homosexuality. Initially, I stuck to the familiar ground and cosy shelves of the university library for research, but when information was getting low on the ground, I thought that the Bill Douglas was unlikely to save the day, but was worth a shot! Soon after searching the online collection, I was surprised by the resources the museum held, and the extent of knowledge and help provided by its curators which led me to sources otherwise not utilised in my research. In particular, I was eagerly directed to a swathe of information on the 1961 film ‘Victim’ and the BBC Radio sketch ‘Julian & Sandy’ hidden away in the depths of the Old Library.

Released in 1961, ‘Victim’ was the first English-speaking film to deal with the topic of homosexuality, and explicitly mention the word itself. Producers Michael Relph and Basil Dearden had worked on a number of social problem films previously to ‘Victim’, and were seen as pioneers in their approach.


The plot follows a successful married barrister Melville Farr who risks his career and reputation to uncover a gang of blackmailers who are extorting money from both Farr and other homosexual men. Through the filmmakers portrayal of Farr (played by the popular heart-throb Dirk Bogarde) and the other extorted men, they aimed to legitimise homosexuality and highlight the hypocrisies of the law, as they believed that it encouraged blackmail by hardened criminals on innocent, respectable men. Resources in the Bill Douglas Collection gave me a broad overview of the film and its response, from books containing essays on the topic, photographs of the actors and press publicity packs, to original copies of The Daily Cinema  containing promotional material and reviews. Not only could I watch the film, but discover the popular culture and wider themes that surrounded its conception and response.

When researching the popular BBC Radio sketch show Julian & Sandy, the Centre provided invaluable resources. Running from 1965-8 the sketch followed two flamboyant and coded gay out of work actors played by Kenneth Williams (also starring in the Carry On films) and Hugh Paddick, accompanied by Kenneth Horne, who would act as their comic foil.

The diaries of Kenneth Williams were particularly revealing of behind the scenes tensions in the show, and his growing dissatisfaction with the overtly camp character as one of the only representations of homosexuality at the time. He also stated in these published diaries that despite its faults, the team had great fun producing the show, and how he felt that the sketch had an intimate feel, making the queer world more accessible and familiar, and therefore less threatening and deviant.  Furthermore, transcripts from the show held in the BDC explained the use of double entendre and ‘polari’- a lexicon used by gay men in theatre in the 1930s, but which had extended into the British gay subculture in the 1950s/60s- in Julian & Sandy. Words such as ‘drag’ and ‘camp’ were introduced into mainstream vocabulary by the show, and reflected the evolution of homosexuality from a taboo topic, to one that could be represented across the airwaves, provoking and allowing discussion of homosexuality.

The Bill Douglas Centre not only provided the resources for me to research selected sources in greater depth, but also led me to discover other primary materials and artefacts that I would never have found on my own accord. Magazines, diaries, autobiographies, essays and books held by the Centre gave me a more vibrant, and rounded picture of popular culture at this time, and provided an unprecedented insight into coded gay subcultures of this period. From thinking the Centre would have nothing to interest me, I ended up with a plethora of information hidden in the depths of the Old Library and moved away from my comfort zone amongst the library bookcases.

Considering a new way to find literature and sources definitely paid off- the only problem was tearing myself away from the resources available, and actually getting down to writing the mammoth 7,000 word essay!

Victoria Rogers

BA History with Study Abroad