Someone, somewhere deep in the BBC Archives, an archive selector is guiding a BBC Worldwide official through the maze of films and videotape that go only some way to chart the broadcasting history of the corporation. Pausing in turn at the entries for each of the most marketable brands with cult status in the aisles, such as Doctor Who, The Avengers, Dads Army, Steptoe and Son, and The Sky at Night, they tut as each incomplete catalogue is checked off. For there is no doubt that if the BBC Film and Videotape Library had made more of an effort to preserve the gems in their schedule in the 1960s and 70s, it’s safe to say the BBC would be coining enough from DVD sales to annul any annual budget constraints on Blue Peter.
As colour TV exploded onto our screens in 1967, and colour subscriptions started to overtake black and white ones in the mid-1970s, the 16mm film prints of black and white classics quickly depreciated in value for the sales arm of BBC Enterprises. When they had been bicycled through the plethora of TV stations in former British colonies, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone to Canada to Australia, and caused grief back in England among the repeat fee rights flaunted by actor’s unions, Enterprises decided to wipe the prints and re-use them to conserve archive space for more valuable colour TV, or simply dump them in a skip. As a result of this policy, there are 97 missing episodes of Doctor Who, only 55 of the 3500 performances on Top of the Pops have been kept from the 1960s (though the BBC are missing out on cashing in on TOPT Beatles performance compilations, it must be admitted that it may be a blessing these programmes are lost, given the fact that now almost half of them couldn’t be repeated due to the composition of the presenter’s panel). Whilst other than brief snippets of amateur home-made recordings with bulky 8mm cameras in the era before home video, the entirety of Patrick Moore’s coverage of the Apollo Moon Landings in July 1969 is ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’.
The Asa Briggs Report on the depleted state of the BBC Archives in 1978 highlighting the social importance of preserving current affairs, soaps and studio sitcoms and setting the standard for the BBCs retention activities, and the creation of the post of Archive Selector at the BBC Film and Videotape Library, first occupied by pioneer missing TV hunter Sue Malden, halted the destruction of our black and white TV heritage. ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’, an annual event originated by British Film Institute consultant Dick Fiddy, raises awareness about the ongoing campaign to recover lost TV footage, and screens recently recovered material to chart the success of the slowly accelerating bid to restore the archives to their former glory.
Missing episodes have been found in the collections of private film collectors and performers such as Bob Monkhouse who wanted to preserve their achievements, even if the BBC wanted at one time to wipe them off the face of the earth, whilst archive Historian Phillip Morris has set up the Television International Enterprises Archive (TIEA) to track down bicycled prints sent to foreign broadcasters from Hong Kong to Sierra Leone that were not sent back to the BBC after their repeat expiry date and were saved from the archive purge which blighted the sales arm of the corporation.
But have recent recoveries, and the attitude toward exploiting missing material in the archive for monetary gain, along with a reluctance to show recovered material which might afford an insight into societal attitudes towards race in the 1960s and teach a younger generation of TV viewers the stark reality that race was not accurately represented in the BBC only five decades ago, showm that the BBC have their priorities in the wrong place when it comes to replenishing their archives? When nine missing reels of Doctor Who from 1967 and 1968 starring Patrick Troughton as The Doctor were found in Nigeria in 2011 by Phillip Morris, although it would only take six months to negotiate their return to the archives, they were not released until 2013, to tie into the media hype and commercial fares to be made from the imminent 50th Anniversary of the franchise. Released on ITunes the day of the announcement, the two serials, ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Web of Fear’, were then released in a glossy DVD package in early 2014, and re-released as special edition with new cast interviews and commentaries in time for Christmas 2018. They have as yet to be shown on BBC One since their recovery.
To destroy the master tapes of nine episodes, then discover duplicates in an overseas archive and rather than re-screen them to the licence payer upon their return, exploit a select group of Doctor Who fans to pay for the same product three times, demonstrates that BBC Worldwide show no respect to the 1960s and 70s generation whose social and political television programmes were wiped without record, triumphant in making a profit from these meagre recoveries rather than holding up their hands and saying – “this is a remarkable find, but we could have done more for you to preserve them at the time.” At the 25th Anniversary event of ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’ on London’s Southbank on December 15, a 10 minute excerpt of a reconstruction of another 1968 Troughton Story, The Wheel in Space, using the telesnaps taken by photographer John Cura, who took three shots of select programmes per minute to present in scrapbook form to a particular actor, director or writer on the series, will be screened. Of course, the excerpt will come to an end with the appeal to buy the rest of the serial on DVD, ITunes, and any other kind of online platform the BBC can flog it’s forgotten glories on.
And this commercial grip hasn’t just taken hold of the Doctor Who archives. Three episodes of the second series of Dad’s Army broadcast in 1969, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in July, counted among the archives purge. Last year, the BBC caught the whiff of a profit margin to be made in the build up to the anniversary, animating one of the episodes, A Stripe For Frazer, which became another ITunes Juggernaut. Not only have the BBC marketed script compendiums with the scripts for the missing episodes, released audio recordings of the programmes made by a fan on a domestic tape recorder, and backed stage re-incarnations of the script, it was recently announced that GOLD would re-make all three episodes in a mini-series of re-enactments next year. Talk about flogging a wiped horse.
Furthermore, what is even more damaging is the BBCs reluctance to acknowledge the rediscovery of film prints missing from the archives they’d rather forget were ever recorded to avoid offending a modern audience. Although it was discovered in the summer of 2016, the BBC are only getting around to releasing as part of a series box-set a missing episode of 60s sitcom Til Death Do Us Part on December 4. The reason; it is called Intolerance. Written by Jonny Speight, the series intended to satirise the bigoted and racist opinions of London Docker Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell, by contrasting his outdated attitudes towards race with the socialist outlook of his rebellious daughter and her boyfriend. Though the series was an initial hit among left-wing commentators, with Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech in April 1968 and the campaign to clean up TV launched by Mary Whitehouse, which was less of a clean-up operation and more of a bid for widespread state censorship of dissenting sexual and political opinion, Alf Garnett’s rants became indistinguishable from the satire, and toward the end of the series’ run, it was his son-in-law, rather than Garnett, who got most of the laughs and disdain from the studio audience.
The reluctance of the BBC to use this rediscovered archive material to make documentaries exploring changing attitudes to race in 60s Britian, and looking at what points we can take from the shift in the sitcom’s significance to avoid a repeat of this today, has missed a great opportunity; instead, the corporation wish currently to quietly release it under the radar and sweep any analysis of its content under the carpet. Similar instances have occurred with the recovery of episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which astonishingly saw white dancers and singers black-up to perform comic Deep South numbers as prime-time television as late as 1978. Instead of publicly acknowledging the significance of the finds for just how recent racial stereotypes were acceptable on prime-time TV, and how difficult it was for a Black performer to get onscreen time faced with competition from white actors Blacking-up, they again have slowly and silently trundled back to the archive without any lessons learned.
What gives me hope though is that two episodes from the missing first series of the Morecambe and Wise Show in 1968, which were recently found in a derelict cinema archive in Sierra Leone by Phillip Morris, have been restored by researchers and archivists at the Queen Mary University of London and will be shown on the BBC this Christmas. There will be a preview screening at the ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’ event in London, but there will be no lucrative ITunes or DVD release, no special books or CDs to commemorate their return and exploit the public for money for something that should have been preserved in the archive in the first place. Thus there is a general move in the right direction in terms of monetary gain. However, the BBC need to open up their archives, take a look at the treatment of race, nationality and class structure in many of their programmes, and present a critical analysis in documentary form to explain how far societal attitudes toward race informed TV scheduling, how it affected race representation onscreen, and how far has television yet to come to provide equal performing and creative opportunities for all genders, abilities and races.