How RBS bankers wiped The Life of Brian rushes: Stories from Missing Believed Wiped

 

Image from DoctorWhoArchive

Image from DoctorWhoArchive

TV archiving is, it turns out, a lot like classic archaeology.

“What archaeologists want to find most is the midden – [the dump] full of waste, and ephemera which tell you the most about a society.”

Chris Perry ofKaleidoscope Television, has over 25 years turned his love of TV archive salvage into a professional business. And his observation during a panel discussion to celebrate the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped 20th Anniversary Special earlier today, was the most astute comment about the archive business.

MISSINGBELIEVEDWIPED“The perception was that it’s plentiful,” Perry observed. “It’ll always be plentiful so no one bothers to keep it.” Ads, continuity – the ephemera that captured the reality of social aspiration and attitudes.  In Rory Clark’s fascinating preceding documentary The Native Hue of Resolution the audience was treated to wince-inducing ads featuring Tudor Queen luncheon meat that smells like real pork and Stanley Holloway making weak My Fair Lady puns about Mace Supermarket special offers. The most historically fascinating recovery screened last night was a sales film made for the now long gone Westward Television ITV franchise, about the demographics of the West Country in 1961. Its audience, the fruity voiced presenter informed us weren’t just “peasants”. Among the statistics: the fact that (slightly higher than the national average)  only 28% of the population had a fridge, compared to nearly 100% who had a television.

Both Perry and ex-BBC archivist Sue Malden observed how light entertainment and music shows like Oh Boy! (so central to so much of British pop and rock history) and genre programmes were dumped on an industrial scale, as middle class executives made the decisions. “The BBC consciously would keep the ballet or politicians speaking,” said Malden, commenting on the snobbery at the top about  “common” entertainment. The reality of having to clear 3rd party and more complex artists’ rights in entertainment may have played a part, too, she said. “But of course, if they valued it they’d see it as something they just needed to do.”

“Why would anyone want to keep The Animals performing on 10 different shows?” was, Perry reflected, the logic of bosses at the time. “Just keep one.” Hence much of that rich musical TV archive history is lost.

Steve Bryant, the BFI’s Keeper of Television, added: “The view of genre TV was that it was low art – Comedy, entertainment [and therefore not worth keeping]. But comedy is where history is, like the old Punch cartoons from the 19th century.” Bryant also pointed out, “some performers didn’t want their content kept” – because they wanted to preserve the exclusivity of their live performances for earning. He gave the example of Benjamin Britten, whose publishers, he said,  insisted that a performance of The Turn of the Screw could not be archived.

It was Dick Fiddy, coordinator of the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped initiative who explained in the documentary the importance of making the campaign “a treasure hunt and not a witch hunt”. Looking to blame individuals wasn’t going to help recover anything. But at times watching the clips that featured in the documentary and the following “new discoveries” screening, one couldn’t help but feel sadness and occasionally stronger emotion. The first clip in the documentary of the night was a delightful moment of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only.. But Also. It was counterpoised later by Moore’s bitter aside, from a Parkinson interview, on the BBC’s cavalier decision to wipe the series.

Alan Bennett also featured – only a tantalizingly exquisite 4 minute sketch survives from his entire comedy series On The Margin. Interviewed in the documentary about it, he referred to the “vandalism” of BBC tape destruction with quiet dignity,  blaming the attitude of the time. Veteran children’s producer Joy Whitby, who made Play School, recalled a Kafkaesque system in which tapes were labelled with numbers, not descriptions of content. So producers were asked to select tapes by number to keep or record over and found, in one case, that he’d recorded over his own material.

Terry Jones’ early ITV work “The Complete and Utter History of Britain was itself missing believed wiped. A fair amount still is. The show is uncannily similar to the more recent Horrible Histories (though with rather more rape jokes, it being the 60s and all). Ironically Jones said he had always wanted and tried to hold on to copies of his programmes, initially for personal rather than financial reasons. “I insisted on getting all of the film inserts. I’ve got them in my cellar.”

In addition, “the BBC were going to wipe the first series of Python,” Jones said.  BBC colleagues tipped them off and they hatched a plan to smuggle the tapes out. It was only the sale to a US network that changed the BBC’s mind. And in a third horror, around a legal dispute over the film company ownership of  the second Monty Python film Jones told the audience, “We had all the rushes of The Life of Brian in storage. Then RBS [Royal Bank of Scotland] took over and wiped them all.”

One of the mysteries of the night was about Philip Morris – the enthusiast turned treasure seeker who went with the BBC and BFI’s blessing on a personal mission round African TV stations. He was seeking to round up some of the 97 missing Doctor Who episodes. The BFI’s Dick Fiddy,  who chaired the panel, said they believed he might have recovered thousands, even tens of thousands of missing British TV programme tapes.

We learned from the documentary that it cost £7,000 for the tape to store an early TV drama in the 1950s. That was nearly a third of the programme budget, which helps us appreciate the harsh wiping culture of the early days. Hollywood was the same in its early years, the LA Times’ film critic Ken Turan once told me, regarding films as disposable, and obsessed with the new. But what about now, when many broadcasters know the commercial value of re-releasing their archive material? And what to do about changing formats?

Malden spoke of the challenge of keeping old players, like old Route Master buses, perhaps, in operation: “You have to keep all the spares and the heads and the guys who know how they work.” Eventually you just can’t anymore and then “it’s like having the rosetta stone and no one can read it.”

At ITN more than 2 years ago, executives had, much to the dismay of many staff, announced a plan to computerize all the tape archive and then destroy the tapes. What about the unknown unknowns of potential damage and computer failure? Parry, Bryant and Malden, all urged caution on jumping to transfer to new formats which could prove short lived. In some cases new formats had proved unreliable or faulty. Film and certain video tape formats, including the recent digi Beta are, they said, much more stable and enduring. Malden urged keeping the original masters.

The personal collections of figures such as Pipkins’ creator Nigel Plaskitt, Bob Monkhouse, and Oliver Postgate’s Small Films – the latter two recently acquired by Kaleidoscope – featured. The BFI had had to turn down the Monkhouse archive because, Bryant and Fiddy said, they couldn’t afford the time and cost to go through such a volume for the 5% of gems that might be on the tapes.

So what of the future? The panel feel small independents are much better at keeping their original rushes, from the programmes they make for the big broadcasters. Sue Malden said in turn, though that “Big broadcasters need to take on the responsibility [of preserving their own programme archives] and not rely on enthusiasts.”

The highlights of the night were 2 of the sketches from the 1960s BBC satire show “BBC-3” that referred to censorship. One is  an “uplifting” film about life after a nuclear attack made as an alternative to Peter Watkins’  The War Game, inspired by the BBC’s decision not to screen the drama. The other, a slick parody of the Nativity, followed pop star Jet Crispin, from discovery  in the Manger club to downfall via Juke Box Jewry. It had been pulled from the show before a near Christmas transmission date, and never broadcast.

Proof, if we needed it that these finds from the rubbish heaps of TV excavation, have so much to tell us about our own current battles over offence and free speech.

Further reading/viewing

Joy Whitby’s Mouse and Mole Christmas Special is on BBC1 Boxing Day at 925am

The Lost  Treasures of British Television – good overview including Bob Monkhouse’s court battle over copyright

How to reprogramme your children in 6 easy steps

Alan Bennett: Why spilling all is not the art of the monologue

 

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