Caribbean Eye

Georgia Popplewell on the priceless archives of independent TV production house Bayan

Actor/musician Ron Reid in Banyan’s first television series Callaloo; 1975. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonDirector’s Christopher Laird (2nd from left) and Tony Hall (right) on the set of  Ham for Christmas; 1984. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonJoanne Kilgour and Albert Laveau in Who The Cap Fits; 1977. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

Later, the company became closely identified with the television magazine Gayelle, which opened many a Trinidadian’s eye to the true breadth of the national culture. (For those who may not remember, stand-up comedian Sprangalang got his start — and his sobriquet — on Gayelle, as the wacky host of the quiz segment “Cultural Sprangalang”.)

Banyan went on to make the 13-part series Caribbean Eye (“our Master’s thesis,” according to one of the company founders), and in 1992 was commissioned to produce a segment of the BBC’s Developing Stories series. The resulting documentary, The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon, was an indictment of cultural penetration in the Caribbean, and in a sense presaged the events which would push Banyan even further away from the mainstream.

Today, the pan-Caribbean vision that informed much of Banyan’s work has largely succumbed to the forces of globalisation. Recent television programmes produced in the Caribbean tend to reach for some metropolitan ideal, rather than for an indigenous style.

Presided over now by Christopher Laird, the last remaining full-time member of the company, Banyan still makes television programmes, though many of them are for overseas agencies and aren’t seen in the Caribbean. But one solid result of more than 20 years’ work is a vast archive, sequestered behind a heavy wooden door with security glass panes, in the company’s offices in Port of Spain.

Says Laird: “After the Gayelle experience, after the Caribbean Eye experience, where we had travelled all over the region and gathered hundreds and hundreds of tapes of cultural products, we realised that our main asset — our only asset — was all this footage. We had footage we thought was extremely valuable, from the 70s right up. It amounted to more than 3,000 tapes of one kind of another, and we started doing some work on the archive, seeing if we could interest people in funding it.”

Three-quarters of the material has already been converted into digital storage in properly controlled conditions, and the archive has acquired a formal name, The Caribbean Motion Picture Archive. We wanted to place it in the Caribbean, not just Trinidad, not just Banyan. And we felt that if we created a proper space, other people might feel they could lodge their stuff with us for safety. Because, looking round the Caribbean, you can’t find archives being kept in any real way. We felt this could be a resource in that sense, accessible to anyone in the Caribbean.”

Laird believes this is the biggest archive of its type, certainly in the English-speaking Caribbean. When the JBC and the Smithsonian were collaborating on a series of videos on world culture, 90% of the Caribbean material was drawn from the Banyan archive. “When the Smithsonian guy was travelling around and he came to us to find out what we had, he sat right down in our editing room and more or less compiled the whole tape. He only had to go to Cuba and a few other places to pick up extra stuff. So if the Smithsonian can look at it and say this is the biggest cultural archive in the Caribbean, then I suspect it is.”

The collection is particularly rich in music and performance. “I would say we have the only existing videotapes of calypsonians in the tents for two or three years around the mid 1980s. So, you want Kitchener break-dancing, we have Kitchener break-dancing. We have a whole documentary on Machel [Montano] at age 11. You want David Rudder singing in 1977, ten years before he wins the Road March and Calypso King, we have that.” There is also extensive material with Ras Shorty I.

Caribbean writers are also well represented in the archive, including Sam Selvon and George Lamming. “We have eight hours of interviews with C. L. R. James. We have his funeral, covered by two cameras, though we’ve never had the resources to sit down and edit it. We have eight hours of interviews with Derek Walcott in 1980 and 1981, 12 years before the Nobel Prize.” There’s also an exhaustive collection of [Carnival designer Peter] Minshall, including all his bands.

Laird’s priority is to ensure that the material is protected and that it remains accessible to the Caribbean. “I feel my job is to make sure this investment does not deteriorate, and in fact appreciates. It’s still early. It’s still only 20 years. Give it 50 years and let’s see what is the value of it.”