The Quest for Missing UK Television


The history of British TV and radio is long revered because of its rich heritage of comedies, documentaries and serials. However, there are massive gaping patches in their pre-1980s archival holdings. This is mainly due to carelessness and destruction of old recordings. The BBC, for instance, never truly exploited their historic recordings and junked many priceless programmes just before the advent of the video home market, which would have regenerated the value of the archival materials. Many "old" programmes were disposed of simply because they were in black and white, and colour transmissions had just started. Therefore, old programmes were seen as undesirable, and problems with acquiring repeat rights from actors and musicians unions meant that such programmes were simply filling up space in the archives. And exensive video tape had the advantage that it could be wiped and reused.....

Put simply, TV was seen as ephemeral, and not worth preserving in the same way as museum store paintings, books and other priceless exhibits.

The list of lost episodes makes for upsetting reading, especially for fans of certain programmes (see some sample statistics below), and very few programmes have a complete, or near complete survival record. But all is not lost; British broadcasters have now realised the error of disposing of unwanted programmes and are making great efforts to retrieve such material, and are offering an amnesty, whereby possessors of old shows will not be prosecuted for holding copyrighted material; the TV station simply wants to duplicate the film or video for their own archives, and the donor will be allowed to keep the original, although no payments for material can be made. Such acts of altruism from collectors and archives will greatly benefit those who are trying to plug the holes in the UK TV archival market. Even short extracts, non-broadcast quality off-air and audio recordings are seen as "better than nothing at all".

Z-Cars

approx. 462 episodes missing

Till Death Us Do Part

Approximately 22 are missing

Tops of the Pops/Juke Box Jury

Only a handfull exist (very few pre-1980s Top of the Pops officially exist).

Doctor Who

97 episodes lost

Dixon of Dock Green

Approximately 385 episodes missing.

Armchair Theatre

Over 300 episodes lost

Hancock's Half Hour

26 episodes missing

Above: Sample statistics of some "lost" shows.

Every year, the British Film Institute (BFI) holds a day long conference entitled "Missing Believed Wiped" to alert the public to the plight of the incomplete archives, with some success. Indeed, this is its 10th anniversary. However, it does seem that the news of this campaign seems to remain confined to the shores of the UK, and it is possible that potential overseas sources simply do not know the value of their possessions.

Some lost treasures have turned up in the most unlikeliest of locations. For instance:

Two episodes of a lost "Doctor Who" serial were found in the basement of a Mormon church in London c.1983! Actor Frank Windsor once related in an interview how some of his episodes of "Z Cars" were found in the basement of a restaurant in Cyprus! (NB: it was really Cypriot Television). A lost episode of "The Avengers" ("Girl on a Trapeze") was found in the UCLA archives a few years ago.
A 2 inch videotape of an edition of "The Black and White Minstrel Show" was found in an attic in London. Every single missing episode of "Steptoe and Son" were found as recordings made for the writers of the show in the 1960s and 70s (by a BBC engineer I recall). At "Missing Believed Wiped" in 1993, a VHS extract of a missing "Till Death Us Do Part" was shown. The owner of the original film print was in the audience and returned it later!
2 editions of "Z-Cars" were placed on E-bay and a consortium of fans bought them from the "owner". The BBC Science Fiction series "Moonbase 3" was shown once in 1973 and then wiped, thought lost forever. Years later, the series was repeated on a US SF channel! It turned out that the show was a co-production and the Americans had kept their tapes after the BBC junked theirs! An enthusiast noted that an edition of "The Rat Catchers", "The Unwitting Courier" had been uploaded to a file-sharing website. The file had originated from a VHS bought at a film convention ... so the original 16mm film is still out there...
A nearly complete edition of the very first Superbowl in 2005. A huge cache of missing TV was found in the US US Library of Congress National Educational Television (NET) Collection not so long ago... Despite assurances by the BBC that it was never recorded, the group "Kaleidoscope" found the missing 1959 play "Medico" at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) who had loaned one of its boats for the production.
Above: Many happy returns...

So, what can be done? There are a couple of ways of trying to recapture the past so that everyone can enjoy these historic recordings again. Here are some suggestions: