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Getting the full picture: a new study into women’s contribution to the UK film and television industries

An ambitious project will help address a significant gap in the history of the UK’s film and television industries.

Spanning 1933 to 1989 – a period of considerable social and institutional change – the study will be the first to document women’s contribution to the industries.

Led by Dr Melanie Bell, of Newcastle University, this three-year AHRC funded research will examine historical records such as personnel files, union membership data and trade journals. However, researchers will also be gathering personal life stories from some of the women involved.

“Women worked in a wide variety roles in film and television - from director and producer to editor and continuity ‘girl’ – yet this doesn’t feature in most existing historical accounts,” explains Dr Bell, principal investigator. “What’s exciting about this study is that it will finally enable us to more fully understand women’s contribution to the industry, both on a creative and economic level.”

While only a minority of women worked as directors, thousands more were employed as hairdressers, script editors, wardrobe assistants, negative cutters, vision mixers, researchers, production assistants, and more.

Some production areas - such as costume and make-up - became dominated by women, but it proved difficult for them to break into other roles, such as those in camera and sound.

Dr Bell adds that women’s participation in the cultural production of film and television is “diverse and historically variable”.

During the Second World War, for example, there were more opportunities for women in editing and film processing and the introduction of independent television in the mid-1950s created jobs for women as reporters and production assistants. ??“Employment pathways, traditions and cultures develop over time,” says Dr Bell. “Knowing more about what these were like in the past will help us understand their legacies and their impact on women working in film and television today.

“This is particularly pressing because although the creative industries are major employers in the UK, recent reports highlight a small number of women currently occupying senior roles in film and television, and a high attrition rate among the female workforce.”

Dr Bell’s study Women’s Work and Working Women: A Longitudinal Study of Women Working in the British Film and Television Industries, 1933-1989 is a collaboration between Newcastle UniversityUniversity of Sunderland (Dr Vicky Ball, co-investigator) and BECTU, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union.

The project team will work closely with the union to create a permanent digital research resource for others to use in the future. This will include union records, case studies and life story interviews. “The union records are a fantastic resource for any historian as they tell us lots of valuable information about the numbers of women in the industry and the jobs they did,” says Dr Bell. “But we also need to understand more about women’s experiences at work.

“The life story interviews will complement the statistical data and bring personal meaning to history through the voices of those directly involved.”

Research starts this month (February 2014) and the aim is to produce a monograph and a major international conference in 2016 and a digital resource featuring oral history interviews, profiles of individual women, and case studies of key production roles including costume design, make-up, editing, producing and script-writing.  

The team are keen to hear from women who worked in film and television between 1933 and 1989. They are particularly interested in writers, producers, production assistants, script editors, costume designers, make-up and wardrobe workers, editors and negative cutters, although they would welcome responses from women in any roles.

Letters from women that tell their stories are also welcome and there will be a limited number of oral history interviews carried out to reflect the diverse roles women have played in production.

For further details about the study, contact Dr Melanie Bell, Principal Investigator, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Newcastle, NE1 7RU. Tel: 0191 208 7760 or email For information about how to take part, visit the website for the project.

published on: 27 February 2014