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.
I 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.
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.
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
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?
Paul Temple, Dick Barton, Dan Dare and Hancock’s Half Hour.
Doctor Who (obviously), The Quatermass Experiment, The Road, the lost Dennis Potters – so much material.