Sunday, December 14, 2008


A couple of recent television-related news stories caught yer actual Keith Telly Topping's attention this week, dear blog reader. These were concerned with, firstly, the donation - by his family and estate - of the late Bob Monkhouse's significant private television and film collection to the BFI. And, also, to BBC2 devoting a part of their fortcoming Dad's Army Night to the broadcast of a recolourised episode from 1970. Both of these stories have managed to highlight, once against, the oft-told but still very regrettable nightmarish tale of the casual junking of a large chunk of Great Britain's national heritage. Its television programmes. But first, because I feel like boring you all to death, frankly, dear blog reader, a brief technical history. Television technology had only existed for approximately fourteen years when the (then) British Broadcasting Company began regular transmissions from London's Alexandra Palace on 2 November 1936. The first programme - following the official opening of the station by announcer Leslie Mitchell - was a bulletin from British Movietone News. Other programming broadcast during that evening included the world's first TV documentary, Television Comes To London, shot by Bill Barbrook and showing activity behind the scenes leading up to the launch - including footage of the massive broadcast mast being erected on the South East tower at the Ally Pally. The big live offering on the schedule was Picture Page - a visual version of BBC Radio's In Town Tonight. It was billed as a 'magazine of topical and general interest', a talk show with a quirky, faked element of viewer participation. Presenter Joan Miller would introduce guests from a telephone switchboard, pretending to receive calls from the public. An early example of BBC chicanery, it would appear. For goodness sake, don't no one tell the Daily Scum Mail. Although a primitive (one hundred and eighty-line) broadcasting service had been running for some months in Nazi Germany (something Joseph Goebbels was very keen to stress to anyone that would listen ... and, indeed, anyone that wouldn't), the BBC (motto: 'And nation shall speak peace onto nation,' let us remember) remains fiercely proud of its achievement in producing the world's first 'regular high definition service.' As to who actually 'invented' television, that's a slightly more complex (and contentious) tale.

In 1884 Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, a twenty-year old university student from Germany, patented the first electromechanical television system which employed a scanning disk with a series of holes spiraling toward the centre. The holes were spaced at equal intervals so that in a single rotation the disk allowed light to pass through each hole and onto a sensor which produced an electrical pulse. As a - photographic - image was focused on the rotating disk, each hole captured a horizontal 'slice' of the whole image. Nipkow's design, however, had no practical application until advances were made in amplifier tube technology in the early years of Twentieth Century. Even then, the device was only useful for transmitting what were described as 'half-tone' images over telegraph or telephone lines. Later modification of Nipkow's design used a rotating mirror-drum scanner to capture the image and a cathode ray tube as a display device, but moving images were still not possible, due to the poor sensitivity of the selenium sensors used.

The Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, who had been working on a television system since 1922, first demonstrated the transmission of moving silhouette images in London three years later, and of moving, monochromatic images in 1926. Baird's scanning disk produced an image of thirty-lines resolution. By 1927, the Russian Léon Theremin had developed a primitive mirror drum-based television system which used interlacing to achieve an image resolution of approximately one hundred-lines. Also in 1927, in America, Herbert Ives of Bell Labs transmitted moving images from a fifty-apeture disk producing sixteen-frames-per-minute over a cable link between Washington DC and New York City. Ives used viewing screens as large as twenty four-by-thirty inches. His subjects included the Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.

In 1928, another American, Philo Farnsworth made the world's first working television system with electronic scanning of both the pickup and the display devices, which he demonstrated to the assembled news media on 1 September. The following year, Baird and Bernard Natan established France's first television company, Télévision-Baird-Natan. Baird, had originally used a system which scanned mechanically, rather than with electronics, although by the time that the BBC began their first, experimental, transmission both Marconi and EMI had experimented with early forms of the present system. From 1929 to 1932, BBC transmitters were used to broadcast television pictures using the thirty-line Baird system and, from 1932 to 1935, the BBC also produced the programmes in their own studio at 16 Portland Place. In November 1936, the BBC began a full service, alternating a more robust Baird two hundred and forty-line output with (the now merged) EMI-Marconi electronic scanning system which had recently been improved to four hundred and five-lines. The BBC ceased broadcasts using the Baird system in February 1937, due mostly to the immobility of the the system's cameras. Initially, the station's range was, officially, a mere twenty five-mile radius of the Alexandra Palace transmitter and had an audience of just a few hundred people as a TV set cost 'as much as one hundred guineas' at the time (roughly two and a half grand in today's money). In practice, however, transmissions could be picked up a good deal further afield. On one notable occasion in 1938, pictures were even received by engineers at RCA in New York, who were experimenting with a British television set.

However, there was no way of preserving these live broadcasts and the only examples of television from the pre-war (and, indeed, immediate post-war) era which have survived are 'demonstration films' which were made to advertise the BBC's fledgling service. After 1945 certain performances and events were recorded for posterity. In The Television Heritage, the TV historian Steve Bryant notes that 'the sort of material most likely to be recorded was that of an obviously "newsworthy" or "historic" nature, such as the 1953 Coronation, or various television "firsts", particularly in the outside broadcast field.' The same applied to drama, so that whilst some of Nigel Kneale's groundbreaking early works were marked for telerecorded (all six episodes of Quatermass II, from 1954, exist), only a handful of Dixon Of Dock Green episodes were captured (notably five consecutive episodes from 1955 including The Roaring Boy and The Rotten Apple). The Grove Family, Britain's first TV soap opera, fared even worse with only two examples now in existence. 'Cultural attitudes were as important a factor as economic or technical considerations,' noted Bryant. 'A Wednesday Play was more likely to have survived than an episode of Z Cars although it was in the latter that many of the stalwarts of TV drama began their careers.' Telerecording essentially required an adapted film camera to shoot the picture coming from a flat TV monitor. At this stage, the picture consisted of four hundred and five horizontal lines (all transmissions by BBC1 and ITV prior to 1968 used that system). BBC2, which began in 1964, experimented with the technically-superior six hundred and twenty five-line system - which had the effect of making the picture less 'grainy' and reduced flickering - and, by 1969, the two main channels had also switched over to six two five. The various methods of recording also changed during this period; at first, all recordings were done on film (usually thirty five millimetre for pre-recording and sixteen millimetre for preservation and overseas sales). However, by the late 1960s this system had been largely replaced by the introduction of two-inch video tape. Colour television became a reality in 1967 (again, BBC2 was the initial recipient) and, within two years, almost all new television programmes in Britain were being made in colour, despite the fact that most sets still only received monochrome. There is a huge amount of nostalgia from British people of a certain age when it comes to describing their initial encounters with colour TV. This blogger's family, for instance, didn't get a colour set until sometime in the autumn of 1972. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping can still remember the utter shock of coming home from school at lunch time on the day of delivery and watching whatever was on - I think it was something like the TUC Conference - and saying, loudly, 'but ... but ... it's IN COLOUR!'

It got freakier that evening watching an episode of Star Trek when I discovered that those shirts worn by the Enterprise crew weren't various shades of grey, as I'd always thought, but rather were bright reds and blues and yellows. Suddenly, watching Match Of The Day was just like being at an actual football game - only without the aggro and the bovril at half-time - and the garish, dayglo, trip-out colours of things like Top Of The Pops were enough to make even a nine year old understand exactly what was going on in the lyrics of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.' Hell, this was the 1970s - purple and orange crushed velvet weren't just popular, they were de rigeur. Well, for Jon Pertwee, anyway. Colour technology also meant a massive leap forward in recording techniques. Everything from Doctor Who, The Goodies and Monty Python's Flying Circus to weather broadcasts benefited from technical developments such as Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), which allowed the relatively simple mixing of two separate images to produce one. But, all of this progress came at a price. In the early 1970s, due largely to space restrictions and to the cost of maintaining a large archive of recordings, the BBC (and, to an equal extent, some of the independent television companies) embarked upon a misguided and, with hindsight absolutely unforgivable, purge of their back catalogues. The losses which television suffered during this period have been very well documented elsewhere, but some specific cases deserve to be highlighted. As Steve Bryant notes, of the three black-and-white seasons of Till Death Us Do Part ('a milestone in television comedy, a critical reference point in the debate on "taste" and a social document in its own right'), only four episodes remain in the BBC archives, together with a ten-minute fragment of another and a 1967 Late Night Line-Up documentary about the sitcom's creator Johnny Speight which includes several clips from otherwise lost episodes. 'Enough to make a point,' notes Bryant, sadly, 'but scarcely what one might hope to find.'

Other notable losses include several early plays by the likes of David Mercer and Dennis Potter among others in the Wednesday Play strand, all bar a few tiny fragments of James Burke and Patrick Moore's live presentation of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, Kenneth Tynan's infamous first televised use of the 'f word' in an episode of BBC3 from 1965, The Madhouse On Castle Street a 1963 play starring the, then virtually unknown, Bob Dylan, The Beatles appearance on Juke Box Jury in 1964 (and a similar Rolling Stones episode from a few months later), twelve episodes of The Likely Lads and the entire first series and most of the second of Hancock's Half-Hour (only one 1956 episode featuring Kenneth Williams still exists, albeit, it's a very good one - The Alpine Holiday). And, sadly, there's more. Much more. All one hundred and forty seven episodes of the BBC's 1965-67 football-based soap opera United!, all bar two episodes of the second (1966) season of Adam Adamant Lives! and over half of the groundbreaking science-fiction drama anthology series Out Of The Unknown. Approximately ninety episodes of the popular oil-industry drama The Troubleshooters have been junked. Over one hundred episodes of Doctor Who, over two hundred episodes of the BBC's premier crime drama of the 1960s and 70s, Z Cars and all bar approximately forty of the four hundred plus episodes of the long-running Dixon Of Dock Green together with the original Kitten Kong episode of The Goodies, all bar two episodes of What's My Line? (1951-74) and huge chunks of 1960s and early-70s Top Of The Pops. Also, tragically, gone forever.

Believe it or not, it could have been even worse. Had not, for example, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson been affluent enough in 1965 to own an early domestic Shibaden SV-620 VCR then we would have also lost some of Steptoe & Son too, including what many critics consider to be the series' finest episode, My Old Man's A Tory. As it is, most of the first colour season of the sitcom (1970) now only exist thanks to off-air telerecordings which the pair made. And, thanks to the wonders of what one can do on a computer these days, all of the episodes of this truly landmark series have now been cleaned-up, restored and released on DVD for posterity. Many artists, when they discovered what was happening to their work, were obviously dismayed by this shocking state of affairs. Dudley Moore used a memorable appearance on Parkinson in the mid-1970s to flay the BBC's junking of Not Only ... But Also ... but he was powerless to do anything about it. With delicious irony, Dud and Peter Cook released a video of some surviving sketches in the mid-1980s under the sarcastic title The Best Of What's Left Of Not Only ... But Also. For many years it was believed that the 1966 Not Only ... But Also Christmas special, featuring a guest appearance by alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie John Lennon, was also gone. Thankfully, a copy has, seemingly, now found its way back to the BBC from private hands. Critics such as Séan Day-Lewis and Peter Fiddick called for an accessible national television archive and Howard Schuman, whilst criticising the 'ephemeral nature of television' in an early 1970s issue of The Listener, acknowledged the 'tremendous psychological difference if a writer knew his work would be available for showings and re-evaluation well after its initial transmission.' Contrary to common belief, the junking didn't even end in the late 1970s. Rumour has it that when BBC Enterprises were putting together the Botham's Ashes video in 1982, they approached BBC Sport only to discovered that all that was left of their forty hours worth of footage of the Headingly, Edgbaston and Old Trafford tests (from, remember, just a few months earlier) were the dozen-or-so nightly forty minute highlight shows. All of the live coverage of play had vanished. Taped over by horse racing according to one, probably apocryphal, tale. Even worse, as late as the early 1990s a large number of videotaped children's programmes from two decades earlier were found to have been wiped without the BBC's Children's Department itself being consulted. Mind you, given that one of the shows to suffer was Rentaghost, possibly we shouldn't be complaining too much. So long as they left The Changes and Carrie's War alone, I think we should all let them off with that one.

For years, however, little thought was given to what was happening to the television programmes that we, the viewers, were watching after they had been broadcast. People, by and large, didn't much care (thinking that the medium was both culturally insignificant and, to use Howard Schuman's snooty assessment 'ephemeral'). Or, if they did care then, like as not, they blandly assumed that everything which had ever been broadcast had been recorded for posterity and was now safely stored away in some massive TARDIS-like vault deep within the very bowels of the BBC itself. Unfortunately, that was very much not the case. From the late 1960s and, particularly in the early-to-mid 1970s a considerable amount of Britain's TV heritage was - and there's no easy way to say this - destroyed. Monochrome episodes (as well as some of those made in colour) were routinely junked, the video tapes on which they were held being, in many cases, wiped over to be used again. The introduction of colour television meant that broadcasters felt there was even less value in keeping hold of the monochrome recordings they had. Such tapes could not be re-used for colour recordings so they were simply disposed of to create more space in the archives buildings for more recent, colour tapes. The Madhouse On Castle Street, for instance, according to the - meticulously maintained - BBC card index, literally went up in flames in 1968. The increased cost of colour two-inch Quadruplex videotape (approximately one thousand pounds per tape at today's prices) meant that companies often re-used tapes simply as an efficiency saving. Although such cultural vandalism is unthinkable now, not least by the very companies who make a considerable amount of coin from the sale of videos and DVDs of these very shows, episodes of popular series were casually destroyed because, frankly, no one could see any further use - commercially, or otherwise - for them.

From the TV companies' point of view it did make a kind of weird sense. Most contracts for TV performance were signed on the basis that the producers, writers, directors, musicians and actors involved would be paid for one broadcast only (and, perhaps, for one additional repeat transmission). So any opportunities for domestic usage in Britain were considered to be not a viable option. Particularly, if the episode in question had also been sold abroad, to countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong or Singapore all of which purchased much British television during this period. A mountain of paperwork would have faced someone in the Department of Knives, Forks, Spoons and Rhubarb should it have been decided to hang on to a particular episode of a particular show just in case it was going to be needed at some hypothetical future stage. For some genres, such as drama and entertainment, those creative artists involved all held various underlying rights. In the past, these rights had been defended rigorously - permission could even be denied by a contributor for the repeat of a programme (for instance, for many years any repeats of both The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? were alleged to have been held up because James Bolam had a veto over them and chose to exercise it for reasons which have often been speculated upon, but never confirmed). Talent unions were highly suspicious of the threat to new work if television programmes were to be endlessly repeated. Indeed, before 1955 Equity actually had a clause with the BBC that any telerecording made of a repeat performance could only 'be viewed privately' on BBC premises and certainly not retransmitted. Another important factor, of course, was the introduction of colour TV. Perceived wisdom, widely held within the industry at the time, was that if the punters were paying for a colour TV licence then they certainly didn't want to watch old black and white programmes. That's why, for a long time well into the 1970s, Radio Times would always, apologetically (almost grovellingly), note whenever the BBC were showing a monochrome TV show, or movie. It was felt that repeats of the black and white material would not be of sufficient interest to the general public. And, since overseas sales of these episodes had - by this stage - more or loss met their full potential, the junkings at the BBC began in earnest some time around 1972.

To be scrupulously fair, the BBC were by no means alone in this practice - the commercial companies which formed its rival, ITV, also wiped videotapes and destroyed telerecordings with alarming abandon. The state of archives varies greatly between the different regional companies. At one extreme Granada Television continue to hold the vast majority of its back catalogue, the company having had an unofficial policy almost from its beginnings of retaining as much broadcast material as possible (albeit, usually in the shape of telerecordings). This, despite some financial hardship in its early years. These includes all the episodes of Coronation Street from its début in 1960 onwards, now held at the Granada archive in Manchester. Yorkshire Television also possess largely intact archives - although some shows from the early 1970s such as the drama Castle Haven and the children's variety show Junior Showtime are missing believed wiped. The former ITV company Thames Television also has a significant library (although, tragically, they junked two-thirds of Ace Of Wands) as have the various companies who served the Midlands region over the years. Although, here too, there have been some, critical, losses such as a particular favourite of this author, 1972's seminal ATV psychological children's drama Escape Into Night - made in colour but now existing only as - poor quality - black and white telerecordings. Crucially, it seems, responsibility for archive preservation at ITV was always left to individual regional companies and thus, at the other end of the scale from Granada's 'keep everything, we might need it one day' policy we have the fact that ITV has no recordings of any of its live coverage of the moon landings as the station responsible - London Weekend Television - were one of the worst offenders and wiped the tapes as soon as they were considered 'of no further use.' The output of some other independent broadcasters - such as the majority of the first series of The Avengers produced by Associated British Corporation in 1961 - have also, tragically, been destroyed.

So, many videotapes were wiped, many telerecorded film copies were bundled up to be used as landfill or were simply burned in the BBC's overused incinerators. Hundreds of thousands of hours of your favourite TV shows - from A For Andromeda to Z-Cars - were, seemingly, lost forever. Or were they? Often, crucially, shows were transferred to 16mm film for sale overseas, prints of some of which the BBCs merchandising arm held onto. And it is this fact which gives us all a bit of hope that one day some episodes of some series may be recovered. Although foreign broadcasters were supposed to either return these prints to the BBC to be destroyed or to destroy them themselves once they had been shown, this often did not happen - through a combination of laziness and bureaucracy rather than any deliberate plan, let it be noted. Films either lay for years in archives, forgotten, or escape into the hands of private individuals on the rapidly growing collectors circuit. Doctor Who is a case in point. As - thanks to its rabid fandom - probably the most high-profile of all the casualties of junking, at one point over one hundred and thirty of the 1960s monochrome episodes, from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras, were missing, presumed wiped from the archives. Everything from 1970 onwards still exists in one form or another (albeit some early Jon Pertwee episodes are only held as black and white telerecordings). But then odd episodes started to turn up, often in the most unlikely of places - the BBC found all four episodes of 1967's Tomb Of The Cybermen in Hong Kong, for instance. Another handful of William Hartnell episodes turned up in Nigeria, some more in Cyprus. They even found four of the six episodes of 1968's Patrick Troughton story The Ice Warriors in a filing cabinet in one of their own offices, the cans having, simply, been misfiled. The steady trickle of returned episodes during the 1990s now seems to have more or less dried up - occasionally the odd film print of an episode may turn up in some third-world dictatorship or in the hand of a private collector (the most recent such gem was an episode of The Daleks' Masterplan in early 2004), but, for the moment the number of lost Doctor Who episodes now stands at one hundred and eight and it seems increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see television masterpieces like The Evil Of The Daleks, Fury From The Deep or The Web Of Fear in their entirety again.

Since the BBC archive was first fully audited in 1978, a huge number of episodes thought to be gone forever have been found and returned to them from a variety of different sources. An appeal to broadcasters in other countries to whom the BBC had sold such missing programmes (notably Australia, New Zealand, Canada and a number of African nations) produced many positive responses. Episodes have also been returned to broadcasters by private film collectors who acquired sixteen millimetre copies. The BBC, these days, appear to operate, essentially, a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy; they're not particularly bothered where you got the material from, and they'll even let you keep it. They just want to borrow it to take a copy. Important finds continue to occur every now and then such as when two episodes of the - almost completely junked - first series of The Avengers which had been missing for many years were found in the UCLA film archive. The BBC also has close contacts with the National Film and Television Archive, which is part of the British Film Institute and their Missing Believed Wiped event which was first held in 1993 and is part of 'Treasure Hunt', a campaign aimed at locating lost gems of British Television. Missing tapes are often found in unexpected places: Copies of several compilations from At Last The 1948 Show were discovered in the archives of the Swedish broadcaster SVT, to whom the producers Rediffusion had sold them upon the companies' loss of its broadcasting licence. (The master-tapes, along with much of Rediffusion's programming, having been wiped or disposed of by their successor, Thames.) The relatively recent discovery of two classic episodes of Dad's Army in a garden shed (bringing down the number of episodes missing to just three), another rediscovered Likely Lads episode and, just last week among Bob Monkhouse's videotapes, two off-air episodes of Top Of The Pops from 1971 remind us that the quest, as ever, goes on. And if anybody out there had a copy of the Little Big Time serial Oliver In The Overworld starring Freddie Garrity (1971) locked up in their attic, just do me a favour, will you and give it back, y'bastards!

For further details, the following three websites contain much additional information on Missing Believed Wiped - including what exists, what doesn't and how you can help in the search.

If you're interested in the history of home video recorders and the development of the technology involved these two, excellent, websites will give you hours of endless family fun.

For details on the early days of the BBC, check out

And, finally, the following site is an 'everything you could possibly want to know about TV' nuts and bolts guide

Selected Bibliography:
Bryant, Steve, The Television Heritage, BFI Publishing (1989)
Cornell, Paul, Day, Martin and Topping, Keith, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV [Second Edition], Guinness Publishing (1996)
Emmerson, Andrew, Old Television, Shire Publishing (2002)
Vahimagi, Tise, An Illustrated Guide to British Television, Oxford University Press (1994)