“As the Third Doctor might have said, ‘Science, not sorcery!’”
The BBC is home to a plethora of classic British programmings such as Doctor Who, Top of the Pops, and numerous other programmes in various genres such as comedies and dramas.
In an era where we can easily access our favourite shows, either by streaming services such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer or On Demand and on DVD, it is difficult to imagine not being able to watch the shows we grew up with and loved.
However, a sad reality lurks behind the BBC’s long broadcasting history, one of misguided practices and a lack of foresight which still has repercussions to this day.
Up to the 1970s, the BBC regularly destroyed, or ‘wiped’ the tapes of many of its early programmes from the 1930s to 1970s, and much of its output from that time period is now, seemingly permanently, gone.
Amongst this missing content is 97 episodes of Doctor Who and even footage of the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, one of the most important milestones in human technological advancement.
Thankfully though, measures have been put into place and since the late 1970s, the BBC has continued to make strides in ensuring the preservation and recovery of vintage British programming and films, through the efforts of the BBC Restoration Team who are still working on restoring many programmes today.
In order to understand why the efforts of the restoration team are important, we must look at the turbulent history of the BBC Archives and their practices or lack thereof at the time.
The process of wiping Doctor Who began in 1967, where just two months after its transmission, the story The Highlanders had its master videotapes erased.
The British film industry has been through an era of turmoil. The loss of countless hours of film has left a permanent void in the history of British entertainment. However, thanks to the efforts of numerous collectors and members of the BBC Archives, there has been great progress in plugging the gaps.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the BBC established a policy on archiving. Much of the BBC’s output from the 1930s to the late 1970s is seemingly lost because the BBC engineering Department wasn’t provided with a mandate for archiving the tapes they had at any given time.
At that time, there were no prospects of selling programmes on video directly to the public, so the only reason for keeping the tapes was if the material could be sold to a foreign broadcasted through the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Enterprises.
As a result, tapes would usually be kept in storage until the relevant production department or BBC Enterprises indicated that they had no further purpose or commercial use, and then wiped for re-use. Because of this, many parts of the BBC legacy were lost, including:
- The Wednesday Play (76 out of 170 episodes survived)
- Not Only… But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (all 24 episodes were wiped)
- The Beatles’ only live Top of the Pops appearance of their 1966 single Paperback Writer
- The first acting appearance of musician Bob Dylan, in a 1963 play entitled The Madhouse on Castle Street
- The majority of the BBC’s Apollo 11 Moon landing studio coverage
- The First Lady (only one out of 39 episodes survived)
- The soap opera United! (all 147 episodes wiped)
There were some attempts to salvage certain programmes from being culled. The BBC page on the now missing comedy series, Not Only… But Also, details how creators and stars Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had offered to pay for the cost of preservation and new videotapes so that the old tapes would not need to be re-used, but this offer was rejected.
Perhaps the most significant and culturally-enduring BBC series that has episodes still missing from the archives is the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, which ran from 1963 to 1989 before being revived in 2005.
As of the publication of this feature, there are currently 97 missing episodes from the 1963-1974 period. The process of wiping Doctor Who began in 1967, where just two months after its transmission, the story The Highlanders had its master videotapes erased.
This continued well into the 1970s and by 1974 every master videotape of the programme’s first 253 episodes was wiped. The last story to be removed was the 1968 serial Fury from the Deep from season five. The main reason for the existence of many episodes is due to copies of the stories being sold for transmission abroad, despite the master videotapes being wiped.
When the practice of wiping was ended in 1978 thanks to the innovations in home video (i.e. the VCR or video cassette), which led to a shift in philosophy to preserve programming not just for commercial reasons, but for their historical and cultural significance. This resulted in the BBC Film Library being turned into a combined Film & Videotape Library for the preservation of both media.
Since this point, various projects have been launched in an effort to preserve older programming for decades to come. One such project came in the form of a small group of individuals with an intriguing proposition.
Enter Steve Roberts, a member of the BBC’s restoration team. He explained to us how the team works and the common interests that the members have: “Firstly, it’s important to understand that the Restoration Team has always been a very fluid collection of individuals, mostly people from within the technical areas of TV production, who all share a common interest in Doctor Who and technical quality.”
He began by discussing the earliest iteration of the team, detailing the project which led the team to be recognised by the BBC, and what also led to their self-imposed moniker of the ‘Doctor WhoRestoration Team’.
As the Third Doctor might have said, “Science, not sorcery!”
“We got together to try and restore a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story called The Dæmons back to colour by combining the only surviving broadcast quality copy, which was a 16mm monochrome (black and white) film print, with colour from a domestic video recording made during a transmission in the US in the late seventies.”
“This worked surprisingly well and was actually transmitted on BBC2 in 1993.” The team then went on to restore two other stories back to colour using the same techniques.
Roberts also took us through the current members of the restoration team, “The core team really came together towards the end of the nineties, when we brought together three people who worked on most of the DVD range from 2000 onwards:
- Mark Ayres had composed the music for three Doctor Who stories in the eighties. Mark is also the keeper of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s archive and a key member of the Radiophonic Workshop music group. He looks after the audio remastering of all our projects.
- Peter Crocker was originally a talented amateur video editor. I brought him in as an economic way to fix some more obscure faults and he quickly became a key member of the team, eventually forming his own company which specialises in film and video restoration.
- Jonathan Wood was a senior colourist for BBC Post Production with a keen eye for detail and quality. Jonathan was responsible for taking the raw film and tape assets and putting them through colour correction and noise and grain management to produce a solid base for Peter and Mark to work on. Jonathan’s work can be seen on many other highly acclaimed DVD and Blu-ray releases such as The Professionals, Space:1999 and UFO.”
Robert’s role in the team was as a manager or supervisor for each project, “My own input was for the most part overseeing their work and ensuring that the deliveries to BBC Video were complete, audited, documented and technically compliant.”
Over the years the team partnered with industry experts, creating and using cutting-edge technologies to solve restoration problems that the team faced. “One of the most amazing is a technique to process the remnants of the colour signal embedded in some monochrome film recordings in order to restore them back to colour.”
“As the Third Doctor might have said, ‘Science, not sorcery!’ but I think most of us would consider that a fine line in this case!”
Roberts explains the current projects of the unofficial Doctor Who restoration team. “As we’ve moved into the Blu-ray era for classic Doctor Who, it’s really only Mark and Peter that continue to work on the range, building on the team’s previous work in order to present Doctor Who in the highest possible quality.”
But it’s not just the Time Lord’s fans that have benefitted: “Doctor Who is obviously our key work, but as a team we did take a few weeks out of that schedule in order to restore the three 1950’s Quatermass serials for DVD release in 2005.”
“One of these, Quatermass and the Pit has recently been revisited for a Blu-ray release, with Peter providing a brand-new HD master of the story.” The series has also been made available on the BBC iPlayer.
Roberts noted that the list of programmes that the members had worked on as individuals outside the team would be too large to itemise but includes many highly regarded restorations.
There’s life left in the old dog yet!
Ayres and Crocker did take a break from Doctor Who in order to restore two previously missing episodes of Morecambe and Wise back to colour for broadcast last Christmas.
The restoration team make use of VidFIRE to restore film recordings to their highest possible quality. However, there’s a lot more to it than just that: “Any restoration process should begin by going back to the best possible source materials and that is absolutely key to our ethos. It gives you a solid foundation to build upon. If we can go back to original camera negatives or first-generation video recordings then we can ensure that we’re going to be optimising the quality of the final restoration,” Roberts told us.
The process of VidFIRE was itself a result of BBC practices: “When the BBC’s commercial arm, then called BBC Enterprises, sold the show to overseas broadcasters, it was usually in the form of a film recording. In essence, this involves creating a film print by shooting the episode using a film camera pointed at a TV screen,” Roberts explained.
“The VidFIRE process returns the live studio look by using advanced motion estimation techniques to invent 25 new pictures every second, slotted in between the 25 already on the film, to recreate the original studio video look. Of course, we don’t apply the process to those sequences which were originally shot on film.”
When we asked about how closely members of the Restoration Team works with film historians, collectors and archivists to restore film prints, Roberts told us: “Domestic video recording wasn’t really around until about 1974 and didn’t begin to ramp up until the introduction of Betamax and VHS in the late seventies.
”There are unlikely to be any recordings of missing Doctor Who episodes, although there is the faint possibility of domestic colour recordings of some of the handful of Pertwee episodes being out there still, although we have already used a variety of techniques to restore all of these back to colour in any case,” he said.
“We do retain the capability to replay just about every historic videotape format though, in case material does surface. Most of the work we do from domestic videotapes revolves around things like news items that may not have been recorded by the broadcaster and which we use as part of the extras package on DVD and Blu-ray.”
The importance of film preservation by collectors and their contributions to the BBC archives can’t be understated: “Doctor Who was in a bad state in 1978 when the BBC first established a Film and Videotape Library. By sheer good luck, the BBC’s first television archivist, Sue Malden, chose Doctor Who as a test case and it was through her efforts that the scale of the problem was understood and the BBC were able to reach out to other broadcasters to claw back copies that had been sold overseas,” Roberts said.
“Since the mid-eighties it has been the fans and film collectors who have continued to turn up the odd episode here and there, culminating in the return of one complete and one almost complete Patrick Troughton story in 2013 (Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear). We’re always happy to speak to film collectors. If they have something that is missing and wish to return it, we can arrange to borrow the film to scan, returning it promptly along with a video copy.”
When looking at the current state of the archive of Doctor Who content, there are still 97 episodes missing, all from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras, the days of black-and-white. Roberts said they “remain extremely hopeful that this number will continue to decrease.” Most collectors who have returned Doctor Who episodes have elected to let the BBC keep the film so that it can be properly archived for the future, however.
So what is the process involved when a missing episode or print is recovered and returned to the archives? In the case of the most recent finds Roberts told us it was “actually quite straightforward. As soon as the prints were handed over to the BBC by Philip Morris they went to film exam here at the Archive Centre, where Paul Vanezis went through them repairing any splices and physical damage.
“The next day they went to the BBC’s telecine facility at South Ruislip where they were first cleaned in an ultrasonic film cleaner to remove surface debris and then telecined in HD by Jonathan, using the BBC’s Spirit telecine. Sound files went to Mark and pictures went to Peter, finally marrying back together a few weeks later to form the finished master which was then sent off for authoring.”
We were keen to ask further questions centred around the BBC science fiction-classic. Firstly, we wanted to know what some of the highlights for the team were. “The Colour Recovery process, which ex-BBC R&D (Research and Development) engineer Richard Russell perfected, can decode the colour signal left embedded in a black and white film recording of a colour programme and has enabled us to return several episodes to colour for which there is no known colour source of any kind.”
“It has been used on shows such as Morecambe and Wise, Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? Mark has worked miracles on the sound side, rebuilding soundtracks with the help of original sound effects tapes and discs and even off-air tape recordings made by fans at the time! He has pioneered techniques to allow even mono soundtracks to be expanded out to immersive 5.1 surround,” Roberts told us.
Classic episodes of Doctor Who, from the 1960s to 1980s, are currently being re-released in Season boxsets. So far, Seasons 12 and 19 have been released, with Season 18 on the way in late February. The recent finds, Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were also released on iTunes.
We were intrigued as to how this development had come along, and though Roberts isn’t involved in the new projects, he still offered his insights. “At this point I’ve pretty much stepped away from a hands-on involvement in the Blu-ray range. I no longer have the time and to be honest I feel that I’ve already done this work once for DVD. I’m still involved in an advisory capacity and am the contact point for any archive materials that need to be accessed for the work though.”
“Blu-ray was something that we talked about for a few years, but declining physical media seemed to mitigate against it. However, Russell Minton at BBC Studios, who had produced a couple of documentaries for the DVDs in the later years, was keen enough to push it through and I think the sales figures have surprised everyone. There’s life left in the old dog yet!”
With many innovations taking place since 1978, film preservation and restoration is in very capable hands. As home-media outgrows its analogue, standard-definition roots, the future of classic BBC programming can be seen in Blu-Ray: a sturdier format that allows for more content and restoration to a better quality.
The success of recent Blu-Rays for older BBC programming such as the ‘Red Dwarf Series I-VIII set‘, the restored Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who season sets is a sign that lessons were learnt and that the importance of film preservation and restoration will continue to spur on future projects, bringing back older releases to a new generation, and hopefully also seeing further recoveries of what once was lost.
“The intention is very much to release every season of the classic series run. Each has its own challenges, some more extreme than others (those 97 missing Hartnell and Troughtons for one!). I think we’ve found ways to get the most out of every season.”
By Jimmy Ioannou and HW Reynolds
Featured Image by Paul Vanezis