Charles Norton on missing episodes, home recordings And The Graham Webb Archive

AS MANY of you may know, freelance writer Charles Norton recently recovered home recordings containing the soundtracks to many episodes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s comedy show Not Only… But Also. Wiped caught up with Charles to talk about his hunt for the lost classics of British TV and radio, and find out what other treasures have been found in the Graham Webb archive…

Q. How did you get involved with the search for missing material?

I started working on a freelance basis for BBC Audio (the part of BBC Worldwide responsible for the release of BBC TV and radio programmes on audio CD) a few years ago. I initially worked on writing some of the linking scripts for a short-lived range of Are You Being Served? discs.

I knew that there was a large amount of otherwise lost BBC TV and radio archive material out there in the hands of private collectors. And I knew that a lot of this material had never been made commercially available.

Hancock’s Half Hour

There was a new head of classic comedy at BBC Audio – a great chap called Steve Crickmer – who was very excited about the idea of releasing otherwise lost material. I pitched a number of ideas to Steve. The first of these to reach fruition was the lost Hancock’s Half Hour episodes.

Hancock's Half Hour: The Lost EpisodesI had traced a number of missing Hancock’s Half Hour recordings to the archives of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society. The society had a lot of material, most of which was of very poor quality. However, some of their tapes were very clear and crisp. I worked with Steve on two CDs worth of Hancock’s Half Hour: The Lost Episodes – all drawn from the society’s archive.

The Hancock stuff went down quite well and I continued looking for material that might also be worth releasing on CD.

Q. From your experiences, how much missing material do you think is still out there waiting to be discovered?

Both the BBC and ITV have done fairly well since the late 1970s. A great deal of lost material has been returned from foreign television stations, national archives and private film collectors. Most of these rediscovered recordings have been 16mm telerecordings or large-format videotapes.

It’s comparatively straightforward to go through various channels, in order to check for these officially distributed recordings. Paperwork documenting their existence leaves a trail and sometimes this can be followed.

However, many of these avenues of enquiry have now dried up. Most things that are going to be found, already have been found. I’m not saying that there isn’t more out there, but I think that now could perhaps be the time to broaden the search to look in other less obvious places. One largely untapped line of investigation is in the field of home-recordings.

Reel-to-ReelHome Recordings

Home radio and television recordings were common in the sixties and seventies. They weren’t as common as they are now, of course. However, people were still making home-recordings. Most of these tapes don’t survive anymore, but some are still sitting in sheds and lofts and I feel that potentially there could be a wealth of lost recordings out there.

We’re mostly talking about audiotapes here and the sound quality won’t always be great, but I think that it might be worth exploring in more depth. Until now, most of these recordings have come to light almost by accident.

The horrible thought is that as we sit here, somebody, somewhere, is going through their loft. They find a box of dusty old tapes. Written on the box is “The Quatermass Experiment – 6 Episodes”. They look at the box and think to themselves – “Who’s interested in this load of old rubbish?” They pick up the box of tapes and toss it all in the bin.

There you go – a chunk of TV history – gone, just like that. This kind of thing must happen all the time, and yet we’d never know about it. It will continue to keep on happening, because people just don’t know that these kind of recordings are potentially of great interest and importance. It can be quite upsetting if you let it.

Q. Tell me about the Not Only… But Also recordings you recently helped recover.

Graham Webb

Dick Fiddy (of the BFI) mentioned to me that the previous year he’d come into contact with a chap named Graham Webb. Graham Webb had claimed to have a lot of lost material in his own private collection.

Sadly, Dick didn’t have any contact details for Graham. They’d been lost somewhere along the line. Offices had been reorganised and desks were shuffled. At some point, the scrap of paper with Graham’s phone number on it had been lost. These things happen.

Anyway, Dick had mentioned some of the titles of the programmes that he believed Graham had. It sounded quite exciting, so I decided to try and track Graham down.

I found mention of a chap called Graham Webb listed in the acknowledgements for a book on the history of Walt Disney. I emailed the author of this book (in America) and it turned out that the Graham Webb in the book was an expert on the history of motion picture animation and lived down in Kent.

Apparently, this Webb didn’t use a computer and I nobody could give me a phone number. However, I did get given a postal address.

I wrote a letter to this elusive Mr. Webb. Luckily, I had found the right person. This was the same Graham Webb that had spoken to Dick. I went down to see Graham, we got on well and it all started from there.

With help from Richard Bignell, I managed to get all the tapes picked up from Graham. I digitized the first thirteen tapes myself and then handed over to Chris Perry and the Kaleidoscope people, to do the rest.

I initially thought that there were only a few dozen tapes. However, Graham found another box-load in his loft. Chris and company are still going through the tapes even now. There’s a lot of stuff.

Graham’s been great and so have Chris and Richard. I think that Graham’s been taken a bit aback by all the press attention, but we are all very grateful to him. He’s been so very kind and we’re so very lucky to have so much of this stuff back. It’s been missing (and lusted after) for so very long.

Q. Can you give some detail about the quality of the recordings?

The quality varies. A lot of home audio has been captured simply by someone propping a microphone up against their TV set. This doesn’t always work very well and produces very soft and noisy recordings.

However, Graham took it quite seriously and made his tapes very professionally. He had a lead soldered in from the back of his television’s speaker output. This means that all of his recordings are very clear and crisp. A direct ‘line-recording’ is exactly what you want really.

They were made at a very low-speeds on non-professional equipment and there are lots of things wrong with the tapes – tape hiss, mains hum, wow, flutter and dodgy levels. However, there’s nothing that’s beyond some sort of repair.

We’re very lucky with Not Only… But Also because we’ve often got multiple recordings (from other collections) for each episodes. They all have their problems, but you can use the best bits of each recording to produce a pretty credible patchwork.

Q. What highlights for you are captured on the Webb recordings?

What has been somewhat glossed over is the fact that we’re not just talking about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore recordings. There’s been lots of newsprint spilled over the Pete and Dud stuff, which is understandable. However, Graham Webb recording all sorts of programmes.

Lost Comedy Shows

He was mainly into recording comedy – so that accounts for most of the contents of his collection, but it’s still pretty varied.

There’s some lost Monty Python material and stuff with Eric Sykes, Ronnie Corbett and Spike Milligan. There are all sorts really.

N. F. Simpson

N.F. Simpson

N.F. Simpson

For me, the best things are all of the N.F. Simpson tapes.

N.F. Simpson was a brilliant surrealist writer, working in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote largely for the BBC and scripted some truly amazing pieces of television. He is one of the true greats of the genre and a true one-off.

Huge chunks of his cannon are lost. So, it’s great to have so much material on Webb’s tapes. It was quite a thrill to be able to ring up N.F. Simpson himself (who likes to be called Wally*) and tell him about the discoveries. He was so pleased, and I’ve sent him some copies of the tapes.

*’Wally’ Simpson is a bit of a joke nickname, that Simpson acquired in 1936.

Q. How important would you say these recordings are?

Television was doing things during the fifties, sixties and seventies that it had never done before – that nobody had ever done before. This is culturally important and it is tragic that this was not realised earlier. The history of TV owes everything to its ancestry and I think that it’s desperately important that this sort of history is preserved. It won’t come again. You can only make history once. Once it’s made, it’s terribly important that you remember it.

Q. Have you any particular shows you want to track down?

Radio:

Paul Temple, Dick Barton, Dan Dare and Hancock’s Half Hour.

TV:

Doctor Who (obviously), The Quatermass Experiment, The Road, the lost Dennis Potters – so much material.

8 responses to “Charles Norton on missing episodes, home recordings And The Graham Webb Archive

  1. It’s encouraging to learn that a lost ‘Paul Temple’ radio serial from 1947 (‘The Sullivan Mystery’), starring Kim Peacock, has recently been recovered.

    I run a website dedicated to radio comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, at http://www.JimmyClitheroe.co.uk and I’m constantly being surprised by people contacting me with lost material which the BBC doesn’t hold.

    Yet BBC sound archives invariably show no interest in any material, unless they perceive it to be of commercial value. Because the Tony Hancock radio shows sell well, on CD, that class of material is treated rather differently to any other. Television material on film is evidently handled differently too, i.e. not by Sound Archives.

    But one reason for a lack of radio material being recovered is that the obvious point of contact is the BBC, who are as likely as not to simply say, sight unseen, “We don’t want it!”

    Whatever their official line might be, the reality is that they will not accept any material that is not immediately saleable. They apparantly look at any item offered solely on the basis of cost: how much will it cost us to clean-up and restore a half-hour show, and can we recover that cost through sales of that show?

    No weight at all ever appears to be given to the prospect of broadcasting the material, e.g. on BBC Radio 7; and in fact the only recovered material which Radio 7 ever airs is from shows that can be sold commercially on CD, namely The Navy Lark and Hancock’s Half Hour.

    The situation used to be otherwise, during the brief period of the “Treasure Hunt” several years ago. But nowadays no value at all is attached to the fact that recovered material can be re-broadcast.

    • E Stokes

      Ithink the BBC should not be allowed to gobble up all this classic comedy that they didnt save in the first place. They will only use things to make money rather than letting the public enjoy the material as it was supposed to be. also if it wasnt for the writers of steptoe and son were wouldnt have the full series of that… The BBC might have lead the way through the 1940s 50s 60s now they should just leave well alone..

  2. rongrinder

    is there someplace i can find the original “Paul Temple & T he Sullivan Mystery” from 1947? i looking for it for a long time

  3. If i had 4 Hancock’s half hour radio epidsodes in very good condition, how would I know if they were some missing episodes, something everyone wants collectors etc, and would they have any monetary value, I’ve found a Ci20 tape of tony hancocks half hour in very good sound condition in a box that i have had since the 6o’s,i recall a friend who worked at theBBC in Shepherds Bush, and he asked me did I like Tony hancock, and I said he’s all right, I was to young to appreciate him when he was on the fadio, but I remembered listening to his radio show with my mother , anyway he gave me 4 tapes at the time 3 since have disappeared I have moved home about a dozen times, he told me the BBC were destroying them, and that one day they would be collectors items, i thought no more of that day until today when i found the tape amongst dozens of other music tapes,I have just played one of them and it’s about collecting money from a xmas savings club. that is just one of them, i have not sat to listen to the other 3 yet, I seem to recall him saying that some of the tapes had never been aired. the veracity of that I have way of confirming

  4. Details of which episodes of the radio version of “Hancock’s Half Hour” exist, and which are missing, appear at the following link:

    http://www.cambridge-explorer.org.uk/HBWEB/Comedy/Hancock.htm

    That list is not yet fully up to date. Some episodes shown as missing there – those shown in red – were recovered in recent years from fans.

    There are no titles to the radio episodes, in as much as the BBC Announcer at the start of each episode does not state an episode title. So the titles used by fans are a generic description of the episode, not an official title; yet the BBC tend to accept these commonly used titles for want of anything better.

    The Christmas episodes are few, and so are easy to identify. The one you describe sounds like it might be series 6 episode 13, broadcast on 22/12/1959, usually called ‘The Christmas Club’.

    If so, the episode is not missing; but your copy might be more complete than that held by the BBC, or might be of better sound quality (i.e. less hissy or less muffled).

    There are no lost radio episodes for series 5 or 6, since the discovery of a recording of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ which was recovered recently.

    Some episodes held by the BBC are Transcription Services disc recordings which were edited down to 25 minutes duration for the purpose of overseas sale, and some Transcriptions, being vinyl records, have poor sound quality compared to recordings on magnetic tape.

    • Robert Ross

      Incredible! Unbelievable! Crass! Stupid! If the BBC are only interested in recovering material they can sell, then surely they are effectively relinquishing copyright, and possessors of “lost” material should have the right to market it themselves – or donate it to an archive where it can be easily accessed! In years to come, I imagine the Beeb will regret their current stance!

  5. Sam

    These lost recordings of Pete and Dud should have been given to the community (i.e. “pirates”), not to the irresponsible publisher. Where is the commercial release of this material? Don’t clean it up, just give it back; we can clean it up. It’s really disgraceful that the BBC, a community funded organization, is not much concerned with preserving precious art. All of the BBC’s work should be in the public domain already, like NASA.

  6. Sir, I keep telling anyone who I can find that I have a large number of radio ( and TV ) recordings made from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Do you remember ‘Week Ending ?’ Well, I’ve got a lot of them – or at least I did have. I literally have hundreds of 7 inch reels of tape, VHS by the box full, Umatics as well. I no longer have access to them as they are in a hot garage in Jersey and I am in Sydney – so way distant. Many of my recordings are BBC Proms from the 1974 to around 1985 . I also have diary recordings – at least one for every day – covering events such as the Queen’s silver jubilee, Talk Back from Top of the Pops and the sound of Television Center VT Tel Rec basement being turned on – by me – at 05:30.
    I hope the tapes still play, they have been through a lot. I’d love someone to try and fix them. Oh yes, I have a recording of the entire Medium Wave – on VHS – play it back in to the ariel of a MW radio… I have no idea which tapes have what – such labeling as I did has faded..
    Oh yes, a few Quad and 1 inch tapes too. Don’t get excited when you see Dr Who written on a few of them – they are my experiments at recolourising the FRs in 1987ish I think…

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