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Vale Wendy Borchers – Renowned Archive Producer

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It was with great sadness that we learned last week that legendary archival powerhouse, Wendy Borchers has died at the age of 78 years. Wendy spent four decades at the ABC and has left a legacy of some of the ABC’s most important and memorable archive-rich programs. In retirement, she was a strong and active member of ABC Alumni, contributing articles on 4 Corners’ 60th Anniversary and her memories of growing up as an Argonaut. She was also a passionate campaigner for an independent and properly funded public broadcaster.

The ABC Archives Research Group has written this tribute to their former colleague, mentor

Wendy was a life-force. An inclusive and generous mentor to everyone that came through the Archive research area, she shared her knowledge across the Content Services areas and the wider ABC.  Welcoming and flamboyant, she had a million stories to tell.  Always passionate and loyal to the ABC, she’d been working at Aunty since 1967.  

The ABC was one of her great loves.  Typed film cards were not analogue relics to Wendy – she was there when they were created!  She knew the faces and names of most of the staff; she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the programmes; she could decipher the old numbers and codes and helped develop the depth of information that we all use in our digital databases today. Wendy was the corporate memory that doesn’t exist anymore and won’t exist in the new digital AI future. 

When new people would start in our area at the ABC, she made them welcome by personally introducing them to everyone on the floor. She was old school heart and soul ABC, proudly wanting you to know you were part of something important.  She was, as ABC documentary maker Paul Clarke said, “A film-maker – with a film-maker’s eye for what would make a sequence sing”.  She helped us battle for our professionalism as archive researchers and producers, supporting us to ask for credit where credit was due.

The Archive Researchers were unusual as an ABC workplace group. The core team largely worked together, uninterrupted for over 20 years.  We learnt via an oral tradition of where to look for footage in what we would affectionately call the “ABC Archaeological Dig Site”, via a methodology which would horrify the HR qualitative, documented standards of today.  Pre-digitisation, there were so many places to look. (There still are!).  We embraced lateral thinking.  We were always encouraged by Wendy to do the deep digs.  Referencing and cross referencing the various strata of systems that had developed at the ABC over the years.  Learning to “read through” the records. Finding the gold.  We all learnt a lot from her mentoring. 

She was also a great public defender of our group – as we were often having to defend the ABC archive from public attacks over what had been lost, what was not kept – the endless swirling misinformation and misunderstandings about what the ABC holds.  Here’s a classic example of Wendy in action in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999.

When I spoke to Bob Ellis a couple of weeks ago about his article “How little we do to hold onto our past” (Herald, January 11), I was not singing my own praises, but those of the television archives at the ABC and the dedicated staff who have always worked here.

Although I am grateful to Mr Ellis for his comments about my archival skills, I am embarrassed by the portrayal of me in the latest article ‘The Lost Picture Show’ as a modern-day Boadicea, galloping around the vaults on a white horse, waving a sword to lop off the heads of prospective marauders!

Not only that, but the series ‘My Brother Jack’ has never been missing and production on Monday Conference did not begin until 1971, which could be why the series from 1969-1971 is not on the shelf!

As an archival researcher, finding footage just happens to be the way I earn a living. I like finding footage – not lost footage, you understand – but just hidden a bit, by time.

‘TV footage so crucial to our heritage’: Letters – Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, NSW, 24 Feb 1999: 12.

John Williams – a fellow archive producer recalls:

“It was through Wendy’s efforts that much of our Indigenous content was preserved and disseminated to the wider community (and shared with the AustralianInstitute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, AIATSIS). Wendy worked on a vast number of projects and in her final stint here, collated and itemised our huge collection of Vietnam War related material.

Her enthusiasm, her professionalism, her constant efforts to enhance the collection, and her drive to give archival research the respect it deserved all helped to create the archives that we have today. We can build a twenty first century digital version of our archives but much of what we have today has been made possible through the tireless work of Wendy over the past  40 years.”

Our Archive Co-ordinator, Natasha Marfutenko, celebrating Wendy on her fortieth anniversary at the ABC, detailed very clearly her brilliant career:

“It was actually in 1964 when Wendy started her career in television. I remember Wendy talking about her days as a producer’s assistant at NBN Channel 3 Newcastle. She said she sort of bumbled along without any training for a time until she abruptly brought a children’s program off air one minute early.

Wendy then became the newsroom secretary, which meant she did a bit of everything – driving the news car and producing “Wedding Bells.” But more importantly, one of her other jobs was to look after the news film once it had been to air. Before long Wendy started a library. She’d catalogue the film to her specifications and stored it so it could be accessed at a later date. So, probably without knowing what would lay ahead for her, she soon developed a taste for film research.

When hopes of a journalistic career were dashed by the insensitive comments of the station manager at NBN – “sorry but it’s not company policy to employ female journalists” – Wendy did what any self-respecting woman would do: she took off for New Zealand for a working holiday.

A year later, Wendy settled in Sydney, and despite her disillusionment with the idea of working in TV, she nevertheless took herself off to the personnel section of the ABC at Broadcast House in Elizabeth Street. She had an interview, sat a typing test and was offered a job in Radio Talks. She was the news operations assistant when AM began in 1967.

Brian Wright with Wendy Borchers preparing AM.

However, it was always Wendy’s ambition to work in television again. She soon came to Gore Hill television studios where she became the assistant to the Chief of Staff in the newsroom. Wendy’s duties were to allocate numbers for film assignments and look after payments for stringer camera crews.  While working there Wendy came across the film research area. Something must have struck a chord, because when a job eventually came up in the area, Wendy applied and the rest is history.

Wendy soon discovered a natural ability to find the precise piece of footage to illustrate a story. TDT, Four Corners and later Nationwide were to become her specialist areas throughout the `70s and `80s.

Wendy Borchers, Production Manager, Current Affairs, ABC TV. November 02, 1987. (Photo by Palani Mohan/Fairfax Media).

After taking a break from the ABC to pursue work as freelance TV producer from 1988-1991, Wendy returned to the fold when an application was made by the ABC’s Television Archives to AIATSIS in Canberra to research a major preservation project. Wendy worked solely on this project for the next two years, with the aim of locating and identifying the physical items of film and videotape material of historical and cultural significance to Aboriginal Australia, which had been produced by the ABC since 1956. It has been a very significant and successful, collaborative project.

Wendy continued to work tirelessly and with good humour on a wide variety of programs, including: Flashbacks with Barry Humphries, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Future Eaters, Beyond the Fatal Shore, Whitlam, The Fifth Continent, Dynasties, Jimmy Little’s Gentle Journey, 100 Years: The Australian Story, The Way We Were (Wendy’s concept), Rewind and the annual Anzac Day marches.

All these years of experience culminated in the work Wendy did on The ABC of Our Lives, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ABC in 2006. Another highlight of her career was the book which Wendy co-authored with Tim Bowden, Aunty’s Jubilee – Celebrating 50 years of ABC TV.

She deservedly was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her work in preserving Indigenous heritage through TV and radio in 2015.” 

All of us in the Archives Research area and the Content Services group will miss her dearly.  She was a one-off total legend.  

Go well dear Wendy. Love from us.

Wendy (in centre) with the NSW Archives Group as it prepared to move from Gore Hill to Ultimo in 2003

Written by Michelle Baddiley, ABC Senior Researcher Content Services/Archive Producer 4 Corners – on behalf of the Archive Research Group.

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