At Last The 1948 Show – BFI DVD Review

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Background

Broadcast in 1967 on ITV (Rediffusion London) At Last The 1948 Show is one of a handful of shows which laid the groundwork for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Do Not Adjust Your Set is another key pre-Python programme which I’ll be taking a look at next week).

Earlier in the sixties, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor had been part of the Cambridge Footlights team who took the revue A Clump of Plinths/Cambridge Circus first to the Edinburgh Festival and then onto the West End, Broadway and a tour of New Zealand.  Some of the best of their revue material would later be pressed into service in At Last The 1948 Show.

Cleese and Brooke-Taylor were also integral members of the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again from 1964 whilst Cleese and Chapman also kept busy writing for The Frost Report.  Feldman was another key Frost Report contributor (he co-wrote the Class sketch which featured Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett). And like the others, Feldman was also enjoying considerable radio success (co-writing Round The Horne with Barry Took).

David Frost was something of a television powerhouse during this period. Although he would be the subject of harsh (but loving?) ridicule in both At Last The 1948 Show and Python, there’s no denying that he pushed the careers of many of his contemporaries forward (something which both Cleese and Brooke-Taylor are happy to acknowledge today).

Produced by Frost’s company Paradine Productions, At Last The 1948 Show ran for two series in 1967 (six episodes during February and March with a further seven following between September and November). Joining the four writers and performers was the lovely Aimi MacDonald who managed to wring the absolute maximum out of the small amount of material she was given.

Although At Last The 1948 Show had a more convential format than Python (sketches with punch-lines for instance) MacDonald’s fractured linking material does echo the way that Terry Gilliam’s animations would later be used in Python to provide a brief interlude between the sketches.

The likes of Bill Oddie, Barry Cryer and Eric Idle also pop up from time to time (Cryer having the smallest of small parts in probably the most famous sketch the series produced – Four Yorkshiremen).

Archive Status

Like a great many shows made during the sixties and early seventies, most of At Last The 1948 Show was wiped during periodic archive purges.  By the time that the remaining Rediffusion archive was donated to the BFI, it was found that only two episodes (four and six from series one) remained.  That most of the series now exists is testament to the tenacity of several key people (notably Steve Bryant and Dick Fiddy).

The first breakthrough was the return in 1990 of five compilation programmes broadcast in Sweden (these were issued on DVD in 2007).  Over time, several other shows were also located whilst fragments of footage have been obtained from disparate sources which include the Australian censor and Marty Feldman’s widow, Lauretta.

Most recently, two virtually complete editions (including series one, show one) were donated from Sir David Frost’s archive. For this release, where no video footage exists (the second episode of series one is the most incomplete) off-air audio has been synchronised to the camera script in order to fill the gaps.

The Series

Right from the off, the comic personas of the four main players are deftly established. John Cleese displays the type of manic intensity which would be his signature performance style for the next decade or more. Graham Chapman has a nice line in authority figures (albeit ones who have some fatal flaw – such as the Minister who literally falls to pieces). It also has to be said that he gives good yokel.

Tim Brooke-Taylor is always perfect as the hapless sufferer but also, like Cleese, does manic intensity very well. His clockwork hospital visitor (attempting to comfort a bed-bound Bill Oddie) is a wonderfully energetic spot of nonsense.

And although Marty Feldman had far less performing experience than the others, he impresses right from the off.  His boggle-eyed stare (something which David Frost thought would be offputing for the viewers) means that he’s perfect casting as the more eccentric characters, although he’s equally able to play the straight man when required.

Series one is stuffed with memorable sketches, a number of which were later recycled by the Pythons. For example, in the first show we see Graham Chapman’s solo wrestler in addition to the Secret Service sketch (which later appeared on the Python’s Live at Drury Lane album).

The Undercover Policeman sketch in show four is a delightfully ramshackle piece which saw all four struggle (and fail) to keep a straight face. In his interview on the third disc, Brooke-Taylor fills in some of the background – what was transmitted appears to be a second take and the others, for whatever reason, decided to devitaite from the script the second time around. This initially leaves Tim a little at sea ….

Several of the Cleese/Feldman two-handers, especially the bookshop sketch (Feldman as a customer requesting more and more unlikely books, Cleese as the increasingly ticked off proprtieter) are top notch. This one was recycled several times, both by Feldman and the Pythons, but the original is hard to beat.  The Wonderful World of the Ant is another which gets the thumbs up from me.

I also like the way that the hostesses increase by one each week, meaning that by the sixth and final show there are half a dozen glamourous girls all vying for attention. The lovely Aimi always comes out on top though.

She has a slightly increased role in the second series, which continued very much in the vein of the first.   Highlights include the period drama The Willets of Littlehampton and Tim Brooke-Taylor’s fairly savage parody of David Frost (The Marvin Bint Programme). The Four Yorkshiremen sketch is the undoubted jewel of show six, but Tim Brooke-Taylor’s chartered accountant dance is also worthy of a mention.

The seventh and final show has another classic Cleese/Feldman sketch and whilst it’s a shame that this edition isn’t quite complete (the final skit – a performance of The Rhubarb Tart Song – is missing) at least the end credits (which feature Ronnie Corbett gatecrashing proceedings to trail his new show) do still exist.

Special Features

The three disc set contains a generous amount of supplementary content.  Copies of the two scripts which feature the most missing material are included on the first two discs, along with a handful of other brief features.(such as photo galleries and John Cleese’s 2003 introduction from the BFI Missing Believed Wiped event).

The bulk of the special features are on the third disc.  Two newly shot interviews with John Cleese (31 minutes) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (38 minutes) are both of interest.

Cleese’s comments on his increasingly distant relationship with Feldman and his fondness for performing with Brooke-Taylor (who he likens, in performance style, to Michael Palin) were a few highlights from his interview whilst it’s hard not to love the all-round good egg that is Tim Brooke-Taylor. Indeed, rather like Michael Palin it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever having a bad word to say about him.

Also included is a 2006 interview with Cleese at the BFI (36 minutes) and 25 minutes of rushes from a 1969 interview with Marty Feldman which was never broadcast. Several audio features – Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (44 minutes) and a chaotic Dee Time interview (12 minutes) are also worthy of investigation.

Picture Quality

The previous DVD release (of the Swedish compilations) was incredibly grotty so any upgrade would have been welcome. The picture quality is certainly much improved, although given that several episodes were patched together from various sources it’s not surprising that some sections look better than others.

Given the age and condition of the telerecordngs, there may have only been a finite amount of restoration work which could have been carried out. So you can expect to see tramlining and other picture defects from time to time. But these are only intermittent issues, so in general the picture quality is quite acceptable.

Conclusion

Whilst At Last The 1948 Show will probably always be viewed as a son of Monty Python, it’s a series that really deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. Like every sketch show it doesn’t have a 100% strike rate, but when it clicks (as it so often does) the results are simply glorious.

It’s also very pleasing that after a great deal of hard work by the BFI, we have the series reconstructed in as complete a form as possible. Together with a raft of impressive contextual extras, it results in a very impressive package which comes highly recommended.

Do Not Adjust Your Set to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

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Also released by the BFI on the same day as At Last The 1948 Show is Do Not Adjust Your Set, which looks to be equally as essential. The press release is below –

Do Not Adjust Your Set
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

Do Not Adjust Your Set, a madcap sketch show with a cult following, was a huge influence on television comedy. Written by and starring Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, with performances and additional material by David Jason and Denise Coffey, it also provided a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s animations and the musical antics of art-school jazz-anarchists The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

This collection brings together all the existing shows from the Rediffusion and Thames series for the first time. Among the five episodes entirely new to DVD, two were previously thought lost entirely. The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, At Last The 1948 Show, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive. Both represent huge cross BFI projects with extensive work done by the Video Publishing and Technical departments, to ensure the best releases possible.

Do Not Adjust Your Set will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 17:40 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of two episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set (one newly recovered). After the screening, a fully illustrated panel discussion will look back at the series and assess its importance within the Monty Python canon.

Special features
• Putting Strange Things Together (2019, 33 mins); Michael Palin recalls his early TV days, including Do Not Adjust Your Set;
• We Just Want You to Invent the Show (2019, 34 mins): Humphrey Barclay on his comedy career from Footlights to Rediffusion;
• The Uninvited Guest Star (2019, 5 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor on his Do Not Adjust Your Set appearance;
• The Funniest Thing on English Television (2019, 7 mins): John Cleese reflects on the show’s impact;
• Bonzos on the Box (2019, 60 mins): new feature-length documentary on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band featuring Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin-Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith;
• The Doo-Dah Discotheque (2019): a Bonzo video jukebox;
• The Intro and the Outro (2018, 2 mins): a newly filmed introduction by Neil Innes;
• The Christmas Card (1968, 3 mins); Beware of the Elephants (1968, 3 mins); Learning to Live With an Elephant (1968, 4 mins): animations by Terry Gilliam, newly scanned from his own 35mm film masters;
• Lost Listens (1969, audio): rare sound-only excerpts from missing Thames episodes;
• Do Not Adjust Your Scripts: reproductions of scripts from missing Rediffusion episodes;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: photos, cuttings and drawings from the legendary producer’s personal archive;
• Illustrated booklet with an introduction by Michael Palin, an exclusive interview with David Jason, new contributions from Humphrey Barclay, Neil Innes, ‘Legs’ Larry Smith and Kaleidoscope’s Chris Perry, plus essay and episode guide by the BFI’s Vic Pratt, comedy context by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy and musical notes by The Doo-Dah Diaries’ David Christie.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2120/ Cert PG
UK / 1967-1969 / black and white / 361 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

At Last The 1948 Show to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

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A three-DVD deluxe set of At Last The 1948 Show is due to be released by the BFI on 16/9/18. The press release, detailing the mouth-watering collection of extras, is reproduced below.

At Last The 1948 Show
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

At Last The 1948 Show debuted in 1967: the silly, cerebral team effort of future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Goodie-to-be Tim Brooke-Taylor and the marvellously fizzogged Marty Feldman. With laconic links by The Lovely Aimi MacDonald and set-pieces including the debut of the landmark ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, this pioneering comedy series is now ready to be enjoyed by a new generation of fans (or by old ones all over again). The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, Do Not Adjust Your Set, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive.

Initially beginning work six years ago, a team of the BFI’s specialist TV curators gathered every episode known to exist. Further down the line, the Video Publishing and Technical Delivery teams work tirelessly to reconstruct missing episodes, using audio recordings and shooting scripts, to create the most complete collection ever assembled of this series.

This Collector’s Edition includes all 10 surviving shows, plus two near-complete reconstructions and a partially complete episode with full-length audio: all presented with an array of archive gems and newly filmed extras. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by curator Steve Bryant detailing the research and technical work that was carried out.

At Last The 1948 Show will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 15:00 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of At Last The 1948 Show (two recovered editions from the series plus an exclusive preview of some of the extra material from this DVD release) followed by a Q&A with Tim Brooke-Taylor.

Special features
• Something About the Year 1948 (2019, 31 mins): John Cleese on working with Humphrey Barclay, David Frost and Graham Chapman, At Last The 1948 Show and the path to Python;
• We Just Wanted to Be Silly (2019, 38 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor recalls his comedy influences and the making of At Last The 1948 Show;
• John Cleese in Conversation (2006, 36 mins): John Cleese joins comedy historian Dick Fiddy at BFI Southbank to reflect on At Last The 1948 Show;
• Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (2000, 44 mins, audio): the BFI’s Steve Bryant in discussion with Aimi MacDonald, Tim Brooke-Taylor and audiophile Ray Frensham;
• John Cleese Introduces At Last The 1948 Show (2003, 2 mins): an introduction recorded for the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped event;
• At Last It’s Dee Time (1967, 12 mins audio): the At Last The 1948 Show team’s unruly guest appearance on the BBC chat show;
• Now and Then: Marty Feldman (1968, 25 mins): Feldman discusses the nature of comedy in this unedited interview, shot for a never-broadcast Bernard Braden documentary series;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: rare photos and drawings from the legendary TV producer’s personal archive;
• At Last Some Pictures: image gallery of promotional material;
• Reproductions of two scripts for the incomplete episodes;
• Illustrated booklet with Not Quite 500 Words by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Steve Bryant’s account of recovering and restoring the programmes and a look at the show’s place in comedy history by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, plus episode notes with transmission dates and credits.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2121/ Cert 12
UK / 1967-1968 / black and white / 320 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

Pinter at the BBC – BFI DVD Review

This is an incredibly welcome release, as it brings together a very healthy chunk of Harold Pinter’s BBC output (none of which has been commercially available before). Indeed, Pinter’s television work on DVD has, until now, been rather sparse (a few isolated offerings from Network – the Armchair Theatre production of A Night Out and the Laurence Olivier Presents staging of The Collection – have been the highlights so far).

Disc One

Leo McKern in Tea Party

Tea Party (25th May 1966). 76 minutes

Tea Party was commissioned for a prestigious Eurovision project, entitled The Largest Theatre In The World, which saw the play performed in thirteen separate counties over the course of a single week (some took a subtitled version of the BBC original whilst others staged their own adaptation).

It’s a layered and uncompromising piece, with Leo McKern mesmerising as a self-made businessman who begins to lose his sense of reason (and also his sight). Has he been destabilised by inviting his brother-in-law Willy (Charles Gray) into his business or has his infatuation with his new secretary, Wendy (Vivien Merchant), pushed him over the edge? Do his two young sons from his first marriage really harbour evil intentions towards him or does his new wife, Diana (Jennifer Wright), possesses secrets of her own?

So there are plenty of questions, but as so often with Pinter the answers are less forthcoming. The final scene is extraordinary. Disson (McKern) – his eyes firmly bandaged – sits immobile in the middle of a party held in his honour. Although Disson plainly can’t see, we’re privy to his thoughts (he imagines a three way intimate exchange between his wife, brother-in-law and secretary) as he slowly regresses into a catatonic state.

All of the principals offer polished performances, with Merchant – Pinter’s first wife – especially eye-catching. Given the subject matter and the already rocky relationship she was enjoying with Pinter, it’s fascinating to ponder just what she made of the material. Tea Party is fluidly directed by Charles Jarrott and given that the cameras of this era were bulky and not terribly manoeuvrable, some of his shot choices are quite notable.

It’s a shame that the telerecording isn’t of the highest quality (a new 2K transfer was struck for this release, but given the issues with the original recording the benefit of this was probably minimal). A pity, but at least the worst of the print damage occurs early on.

The Basement (20th February 1967). 54 minutes

Harold Pinter contributed three plays to the Theatre 625 strand in 1967. For some reason the third of these plays appears on the first disc whilst the first two are featured on the second. That’s slightly odd, but since all three aren’t linked in any way it doesn’t matter which order they’re watched in.

We’re in absolutely classic Pinter territory here as Law (Derek Godfrey) discovers his cosy basement flat has been invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused – at first – about Jane ….

The arrival of an outsider into a settled domestic setting is a dramatic device that Pinter would use time and again, but The Basement – the only one of his three Theatre 625 plays to be an original work – is notable since it plays with the artifice and techniques of television.

Even more so than Tea Party, the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred as the play continues. Some scenes (such as when Law and Stott, both stripped to the waist, fight each other with broken bottles) seem obviously fantastical, but what of the others? Time certainly seems to move in a disjointed fashion (one moment it’s winter, the next summer) whilst the final scene posits the possibility that everything we’ve seen has been a fantasy.

Pinter is menacing and monosyllabic as Stott but not as monosyllabic as Markham’s Jane, who is passive throughout whilst Godfrey has most of the dialogue and seems to be the most decipherable character of the three. A tight three-hander, The Basement has aged well.

Special Feature

Writers in Conversation – Harold Pinter. A 1984 interview with Pinter, running for 47 minutes.

Disc Two

Hazel Hughes and Maurice Denham in A Slight Ache

A Slight Ache (6th February 1967). 58 minutes

Another three-handed play which also pivots on the arrival of an disruptive outsider, A Slight Ache boasts remarkable turns from both Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes. Husband and wife – Edward and Flora – they seem reasonably content in their country cottage, but when they invite a nameless and mute matchseller (Gordon Richardson) into their home everything changes.

Denham’s fussy, pernickety Edward is slowly destroyed by the matchseller’s ominous silence whilst Flora finds that her long-dormant sexuality has been reignited by his presence. Some contemporary reviewers found this a little hard to swallow, but realism isn’t the chief component of this play. The matchseller simply serves as a catalyst for Edward and Flora to indulge in several powerful monologues.

Despite its radio origins, A Slight Ache has a much more of a theatrical feel than The Basement. Barry Newbery’s sets (especially the lush garden) are a highlight of the production.

A Night Out (13th February 1967). 60 minutes

It’s interesting to be able to compare and contrast this production of A Night Out to the 1960 Armchair Theatre presentation. Honours are pretty much even, with Tony Selby here proving to be equally effective as the repressed mummy’s boy as Tom Bell was back in 1960.

Anna Wing, as the mother in question, makes for an imposing harridan – although wisely she doesn’t overplay her domineering nature. Albert (Selby) is all she has left, but she ensures that her psychological games comprise honeyed words and pitiful entreaties rather than abuse.

Albert’s humiliation at an office party eventually leads him to a prostitute (Avril Elgar). That she, in her own way, is just as controlling as his own mother unleashes his ugly side. All the pent-up emotions he can’t express at home are unloaded on this poor unfortunate.

Well-cast throughout (John Castle and Peter Pratt catch the eye) A Night Out is the most straightforward of the three Pinter Theatre 625 productions, but is no less fascinating.

Disc Three  

Henry Woolf in Monologue

Monologue (13th April 1973). 20 minutes

We’re now in colour for the fifth play in the Pinter set. At just twenty minutes it’s one of the shortest and only features a single actor – Henry Woolf, but it still packs plenty of content into its brief running time though.  An unnamed man (Woolf) addresses an empty chair, which is standing in for his absent friend.  Or does he believe that his friend is actually sitting there? Or is his friend simply a figment of his imagination?

As so often, several readings can be made, each one equally valid.  The story which unfolds – male friendship disrupted by the arrival of a female – echoes back to the likes of The Basement and is skilfully delivered by Woolf.  One of Pinter’s oldest friends (the pair enjoyed a relationship for more than fifty years) Woolf doesn’t really put a foot wrong (he later reprised this piece at the National in 2002).

This might be a Pinter in miniature, but is certainly deserving of attention.  Something of a neglected piece (there’s no listing on IMDB for example) hopefully this DVD release will shine a little more light on it.

Old Times (22nd October 1975). 75 minutes

Old Times has a very theatrical feel.  This form of television staging would eventually fall out of fashion – for some it was simply electronic theatre (a bad thing apparently).  But it’s always been a style that I’ve enjoyed – when there’s no location filming or clever camera angles, the piece has to stand or fall on the quality of the writing and acting.  

It’s another triangle story – married couple Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper) find their status quo disturbed by the arrival of Kate’s old schoolfriend Anna (Mary Miller).  With Kate remaining passive for most of the play she becomes an object that both Deeley and Anna seek to claim as their own.

Several theories have been propounded to explain the meaning of the play. When Anthony Hopkins tackled the role of Deeley in 1984 he asked Pinter for some pointers. The playwright’s advice? “I don’t know, just do it”.  

Anna’s presence at the start of the play (standing at the back of the living room in darkness and immobile) is a early indictor that the production isn’t striving for realism.  She shouldn’t be there – the dialogue between Deeley and Kate makes it clear she’s yet to arrive – so her presence ensures that a tone of oddness and disconnection is set.  Foster and Cropper duel very effectively (a lengthy scene where Deeley and Anna discuss the best ways to dry a dripping wet Kate is just one highlight).

Puzzling in places (has everything we’ve witnessed simply been Deeley’s imaginings?) Old Times is nevertheless so densely scripted as to make it a rewarding one to rewatch.

Landscape (4th February 1983). 45 minutes

Landscape is a two-hander shared between husband and wife Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin).  Both indulge in separate monologues which never connect to the other person’s conversation.  Beth in fact never acknowledges Duff’s presence, although he does appear to know that she’s there (or at least that someone is).

The Lord Chamberlain’s office, back in 1967, found itself unimpressed with Landscape. “The nearer to Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets. This is a long one-act play without any plot or development … a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer … And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies”.

A little harsh maybe. Landscape is plotless but leaves a lingering impression. The music, composed by Carl Davis and played by John Williams, helps with this.

Special Feature

Pinter’s People – four animated short films (each around five minutes) from 1969.  A pity that a fifth – Last To Go – couldn’t be included for rights reasons, but the ones we do have are interesting little curios (Richard Briers, Kathleen Harrison, Vivien Merchant and Dandy Nichols provide the voices, so there’s no shortage of talent there).

Disc Four

Derek Newark in The Hothouse

The Hothouse (27th March 1982). 112 minutes.

Watching these plays in sequence, what’s especially striking about The Hothouse is just how funny it is.  There have been moments of levity in some of the previous plays, but the farcical tone seen here is something quite different.  Originally written in the late fifties and then shelved for twenty years, The Hothouse is set in a government rest home which, it’s strongly implied, uses any methods necessary to “cure” its unfortunate patients (who we can take to be political dissidents).

Although a dark undertone is always present (indeed, the play concludes with the offscreen deaths of all but one of the senior staff) there’s also a playful use of dialogue and even the odd slapstick moment.  Derek Newark as Roote, the hopelessly out of his depth manager, steamrollers his way through scene after scene quite wonderfully.

A man constantly losing a running battle to keep his anger in check, Roote seems incapable of understanding even the simplest of things. Although he may not be quite as dense as he appears (his culpability in the death of one patient and the pregnancy of another is certainly open to interpretation).

With a strong supporting cast, The Hothouse was certainly the most surprising of the main features.

Mountain Language (11th December 1988). 21 minutes.

A one-act play which was first performed at the National Theatre in late 1988, it swiftly transferred to television just a few months later with Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson reprising their stage roles. One of Pinter’s more political pieces, Gambon and Richardson (along with Julian Wadham and Eileen Atkins) all offer nuanced performances.

Gambdon and Wadham are soldiers, facing down a group of prisoners who include Richardson and Atkins. Language, so often key in Pinter’s works, is once again pushed to the forefront.

“Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists. Any questions?”

Mountain Language is another prime example of the way Pinter could make an impact in a very short space of time.

Disc Five

Colin Blakely, Kenneth Cranham and Harold Pinter in The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party (21st June 1987). 107 minutes.

Written in 1957, when Pinter was touring in a production of Doctor In The House, The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full length play.  Revived thirty years later for this Theatre Night production, it’s plain that time hadn’t diminished its impact.

Kenneth Cranham is mesmerising as Stanley, a man haunted by vague ghosts from his past.  Treated with stifling maternal love by his landlady Meg (Joan Plowright), the arrival of two mysterious strangers – Goldberg (Pinter) and McCann (Colin Blakely) – marks the beginning of a nightmarish twenty four hours.  Also featuring Julie Walters and Robert Lang, The Birthday Party baffled many critics back in the late fifties – the reason why Goldberg and McCann have decided to target Stanley and the others is just one puzzle – but in retrospect it’s fascinating to see how key Pinter themes, such as the reliability of memory, were already firmly in place.

Special Features

Face To Face: Harold Pinter. Sir Jeremy Isaacs is the out of vision interviewer since – as per the style of all the programmes in this series – the camera remains firmly fixed on Pinter throughout.  Some decent ground is covered across the forty minutes of this 1997 interview.

Harold Pinter: Guardian Interview. Audio only, 73 minutes. This is selectable as an additional audio track on The Birthday Party, even though it doesn’t directly refer to that play (or run for its whole length). 

It might only be January, but this looks set to be one of the archive television releases of the year. Highly recommended.

Pinter at the BBC is released by the BFI on the 28th of January 2019.  

Harold Pinter, 1997

Missing Believed Wiped – 25th Birthday Bonanza at the BFI Southbank – 15th December 2018

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Below is the press release for the forthcoming Missing Believed Wiped event at the BFI Southbank on the 15th of December.

The BFI celebrates Missing Believed Wiped (MBW)’s 25th birthday on 15 December at BFI Southbank with a treasure of television riches. Reflecting on the initiative’s successes from the last 25 years in tracking down and screening rediscovered ‘lost’ television classics. The 15 December event will present newly discovered material including top-quality music, comedy and variety titles as well as welcome repeats for much-requested items taking place across two sessions.

We’re thrilled to announce the premiere of the much anticipated Doctor Who animated mini-episode based on the now lost first part of the 1968 Doctor Who story, ‘The Wheel in Space’, starring Patrick Troughton. We are delighted to be joined by a number of special guests including the Indiana Jones of lost archival television Philip Morris, who will be presenting some of the rare television gems he’s recently unearthed, including missing episodes of Morecambe and Wise, Sid James’s sitcom Citizen James and children’s television favourite Basil Brush including the only surviving live performance of The Kinks performing their hit Days. Pop star and songwriter Vince Hill looks back over his distinguished 60+ year career in music plus we also feature a rare performances by Aretha Franklin on British television.

The BFI National Archive has grown to become one of the largest and most important collections of British television in the world. This special anniversary edition of Missing Believed Wiped offers a chance for reflection, looking back at some of the success stories and achievements from the last 25 years, which have deepened our understanding of British TV heritage.

Missing Believed Wiped has been spearheaded by Dick Fiddy, BFI Archive Television Programmer, commenting on this milestone he says, “Over the last 25 years our events have showcased some of the most important finds to have been located and returned to official archives. Tracking down these ‘lost’ treasures has been a joint effort between the BFI, many individuals and organisations. One of our most impressive discoveries in recent years consisted of 100 hours of very important missing single UK plays, including the 1965 version of Orwell’s 1984, and now held by the BFI National Archive. Such finds energise the quest and inspire us to continue the search to plug more gaps in the British television archives”

Session 1:

‘Music and More’ 15:15, NFT1, BFI Southbank

Celebrating his 60th year in showbiz, Vince Hill, the multi-million selling recording artist and star of BBC TV and radio, best known for his 1960s mega-hit ‘Edelweiss’, will introduce Vince Hill at The Talk of the Town (BBC 1969), the prime time BBC TV special filmed at the popular ‘Talk of the Town’ nightclub at London’s Hippodrome. Unseen for nearly 50 years since its original transmission, the 16mm film came from Vince’s personal collection. He made the discovery when searching through metal canisters in his lock up. This special affords a snapshot of Vince Hill’s live show of the time, when he was performing sell out shows up and down the UK, as well as starring in his own BBC Radio series, and appearing as a regular star at London’s Palladium. Vince had already made his name with several big UK chart hits and Vince Hill at The Talk of the Town features the only surviving performance of ‘Edelweiss’ on BBC TV. Vince Hill kindly donated the 16mm film to the BFI National Archive.

On rediscovering the film and presenting it at BFI Southbank Vince Hill said, “I’m thrilled that my 1969 BBC TV special at the legendary Talk of the Town is to be screened at the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped, performing at such an iconic venue was a career highlight. I was surprised to rediscover the original film earlier this year in my lock up. I feel immensely proud that a new audience will have a chance to see the film after all this time and that the BFI have taken the film into their prestigious archive for safe keeping.”

Alongside this we are thrilled to announce the premiere of a brand new 10 minute animated Doctor Who mini-episode based on the now lost first part of the 1968 Doctor Who story, ‘The Wheel in Space’, starring Patrick Troughton as the Doctor and Frazer Hines as Jamie. This newly announced mini-episode, produced by Charles Norton and directed by Anne Marie Walsh who will introduce the BFI Southbank screening, will be included on a future BBC DVD release next year.

Back by popular demand, the infamous Stars and Garters segment that proved such a huge hit at our 2016 event. We also sneak in a very special – once missing – clip from It’s Lulu (BBC 1970), having previously screened the full episode at MBW in 2007, it is included here as a tribute to The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin singing ‘Spirit in the Dark’.

Session 2:

‘Philip Morris Presents’ 17:45, NFT1, BFI Southbank

Helping the BFI celebrate the Missing Believed Wiped’s special anniversary we’re delighted that the legendary CEO of Television International Enterprises Archives (TIEA), Philip Morris, is able to join us at BFI Southbank to introduce a specially selection of rediscovered classics drawn exclusively from the TIEA Archive holdings. An archive television archaeologist who has traveled the world to track down missing episodes, Philip’s never say die attitude has helped him over the years recover a wealth of ‘lost’ British Television, many found in small television stations in far flung places and return them to television archives in the UK. TIEA also assists television stations around the world to preserve their archives and digitise their back catalogue for future generations.

Among the clips and shows featured in this session are appearances from MBW favourites, Morecambe and Wise. In 2011 Morris discovered a badly deteriorated early missing episode from the first BBC series of The Morecambe and Wise show (1968) in Nigeria. Sadly unplayable, the BBC and researchers at Queen Mary University of London were able to recover some images through cutting edge lasers and X-Ray microtomography. There was existing evidence that two other shows from the first series had been sent to Sierra Leone as audition prints from London, however research found that all Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) holdings had been destroyed during the civil war in the 1980s and they were long thought lost. The ‘lost’ episode from the first BBC series of The Morecambe and Wise Show (Series 1, Episode 5, BBC TX 30/09/1968) which MBW are screening was recovered by Philip Morris, who found the two episodes in a derelict cinema in Sierra Leone.

The programme also features Basil Brush in the earliest surviving episode from the first series of The Basil Brush Show (Series 1, Episode 3, BBC TX28/06/ 1968). Located in Nigeria a few years ago, the last five minutes, featuring a barnstorming performance from The Kinks, was missing until recently. Now restored and complete, this episode contains the only surviving live performance of ‘Days’, as The Kinks Top of The Pops performance had been wiped by the BBC. Missing Believed Wiped are also excited to screen a rare episode, ‘The Day Out’, from the third and final series of Citizen James (Series 3, Episode 6, BBC TX 05/10/1962). Sid James’s hilarious BBC sitcom ran from 1960-1962, following the exploits of Sid’s scheming charmer, guest starring Liz Fraser, the late Carry On actor who recently died in September, as the object of Sid’s wandering eye. This ‘lost’ episode was recovered from Monaco Television, in an old store room during a clear out of their premises.

On the news of this recent discovery of Citizen James, Reina James, Sid James’s daughter said, “It’s wonderful that Missing Believed Wiped is giving audiences a chance to see Sid as Citizen James again in this ‘lost’ episode. And Liz Frazer too – they’re fantastic together. It’s a real treasure”

Tickets for both Missing Believed Wiped sessions on 15 December go on sale to BFI members on 6 November and the general public from 13 November, with joint ticket option available for both sessions.

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Missing Believed Wiped Special Event at the BFI Southbank – 11th August 2018

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Below is a press release from the BFI, detailing the archive treats from the upcoming Missing Believed Wiped event at the Southbank this Saturday. There’s plenty of interest, not least the fact that Hartley Hare will be in attendance! Hopefully the material featured will find a wider audience at a later date – either via television rebroadcasting, online streaming or DVD releases.

For more than 2 decades the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped has showcased rediscovered television material returned to the archives via Kaleidoscope, the classic TV archive based in Birmingham. 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the organization. To celebrate this special milestone and long term partnership with the BFI, Missing Believed Wiped has handed the reins over to Kaleidoscope to programme this 2 part summer special at BFI Southbank on 11 August. Reflecting on their 30th birthday, Chris Perry, Kaleidoscope CEO, commented, “For 30 years we have been finding lost television. Today is a great opportunity to showcase the many finds made since 1988, which have included The Avengers, Crossroads, Out of the Unknown, The Likely Lads and Top of the Pops.”

Screening a wealth of screen rarities and rediscoveries from the archives as well as presenting Kaleidoscope’s latest exciting finds, this curated programme will include a previously unknown 1963 Morecambe and Wise public information film, one of the earliest drink drive campaign films, and lost episodes of classic children’s television including early Ivor the Engine in black and white and an episode of Pipkins, starring Hartley Hare. Missing Believed Wiped audiences are also in for a rare treat with the first public screening of The Séance, a ‘lost’ untransmitted 1978 single drama from acclaimed playwright Jack Rosenthal (Yentl, The Lovers), directed by Renny Rye.

Started in 1988 by a group of college students, Kaleidoscope is a unique archive repository for lost television footage, working alongside the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped, BBC Treasure Hunt and ITV’s Raiders of the Lost Archive in helping to find, preserve and catalogue the nation’s television heritage. Over the years Kaleidoscope has collaborated with the BFI on programming Missing Believed Wiped, researching archive DVD releases and returning significant finds into the National Archive. Like the BFI National Archive, which looks after one of the largest and most important collections of television in the world, Kaleidoscope stores one of the UK’s largest private archives of British television with over 750,000 items, including The Bob Monkhouse Collection and the Jeremy Beadle Archive, alongside various holdings from both the BBC and the different ITV programme archives. Kaleidoscope also operates a flourishing publishing company, runs TV Brain (the television database equivalent to IMDb) as well as making archival television programmes and a recently launched DVD range.

On 11 August Missing Believed Wiped host David Hamilton will reflect on Kaleidoscope’s achievements from the last 30 years with 2 celebratory sessions introduced by special guests including ITV children’s television favourite, Hartley Hare (aided and abetted by his handler Nigel Plaskitt) and Renny Rye, director of The Séance.

The programme includes a compilation of classic public information films made for the Central Office of Information (COI) recovered over the last 30 years.  This includes a recently found Morecambe and Wise Drink Drive Christmas campaign from 1963. Ninety seconds of pure comedy genius, the film, which hasn’t be seen by the public for over 50 years, sees Ernie tell Eric to ‘be wise’ and not drive home after their Christmas party. The film was found in a box of 1960s-era 35mm cigarette advertisements recovered from Ulster Television who were in the process of moving to new premises in Belfast. On this incredible comedy find, Gary Morecambe comments, “I thought I’d seen every possible recording of Morecambe & Wise, so was both surprised and delighted by this recent discovery.”

Kaleidoscope will bring the retrieved film into the BFI National Archive, to be preserved on behalf of The National Archives as part of the Central Office of Information (COI) collection. Coincidentally, two decades later, Ernie Wise made another appearance in a public information film, for the National Blood Service alongside Morecambe and Wise regular, Glenda Jackson. Blood Donor: Glenda and Ernie (1981) was recently digitized and made available by the BFI as part of the NHS ON FILM collection.

A generation of viewers grew up with Smallfilms’ timeless and much-loved colour children’s series of Ivor The Engine, but who remembers the earlier black and white films made for Associated-Rediffusion in the 1960s? Kaleidoscope’s Chris Perry went hunting and found a missing early episode; Ivor The Engine: Mr Brangwyn’s Box (ITV, 1963). Screening as a tribute to Peter Firmin, the Smallfilms co-founder who recently passed away, this fully restored episode was retrieved from a pig shed on Firmin’s farm.

Another children’s television favourite, ITV’s 1970s pre-school puppet series, Pipkins, featured the irascible rascal Hartley Hare. Introduced by Hartley himself and series creator Nigel Plaskitt, Kaleidoscope will screen the rediscovered, Pipkins: Snapshots (ITV, 1980). This episode was found whilst Kaleidoscope were digitising the IBA Education Archive, now held by the National Arts Education Archive (NAEA) based at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. As Hartley Hare says, “I’m so grateful to Kaleidoscope and the BFI for showing this lost episode. Now everyone can enjoy what I watch on an endless loop in my own luxury private screening room”.

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Hartley Hare

Master puppeteer and puppet coach Nigel Plaskitt (Spitting Image, The Muppets, PG Tips’ Monkey, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Avenue Q), will also present the world premiere of Monty and Co, with an episode of his brand new pre-school live-action puppet internet series, made and voiced by the original Pipkins team.

Kaleidoscope will also screen a recently recovered ITV promo reel from 1965. This showcase of children’s television from ‘around the regions’ includes rare contributions from the smaller stations such as Ulster, Grampian and Channel TV. A rare treat in this formerly lost promo is the only known 1960s live footage from Puffin’s Pla(i)ce, Channel TV’s birthday greetings show, which ran from 1963 to 2013 becoming ITV’s longest-running children’s programme. Previously, only filmed news footage survived from this era of the programme.

Over the years Kaleidoscope has helped the BFI and other archives recover a significant number of missing UK plays and single dramas into their collections. Most impressively perhaps, Kaleidoscope helped the BFI locate many prestigious UK plays that were missing from within the Library of Congress Archive, resulting in over 100 hours of very important single plays being brought back into the Archive, including the 1965 version of Orwell’s 1984, Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Jean Anouilh’s Colombe, featuring a young Sean Connery.

Missing Believed Wiped and Kaleidoscope are therefore very excited by the discovery of The Séance (BBC, 1978), a ‘lost’ Jack Rosenthal single drama which has recently come to light. Director Renny Rye (The Box of Delights) had kept the tape for 30 years in his personal collection before donating the tape to Kaleidoscope. Made as a training film for the BBC and adapted by Rosenthal from an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, this short play was never broadcast. A true rarity, Renny Rye will introduce this first public screening. Rosenthal’s widow Maureen Lipman comments, “I can’t wait to see The Séance after working with Renny on The Evacuees (1976), Alan Parker’s first film, and sharing my life with the Isaac Bashevis Singer of Manchester, Jack Rosenthal. Thanks to Kaleidoscope for completing Jack’s archive”.

Other programme highlights include Medico (BBC 1959). Long thought lost, this drama-documentary about the work of the Post Office coast stations who monitor distress calls from ships, features the RNLI Penlee Lifeboat shortly before it was destroyed at sea. The film was recovered from the RNLI Archives. This was a particularly poignant find for Kaleidoscope, who have supported and raised over £20,000 for the charity. Family members of those who survived the Penlee Lifeboat disaster are expected to attend and discuss the work of the RNLI.

Hollywood horror legend Boris Karloff was the host of Out of this World, a sci-fi plays series made for ITV in 1962. A rare UK television appearance by Karloff, only a single play survives which Kaleidoscope discovered in 1989 and the BFI subsequently released on DVD. Kaleidoscope will screen a specially-filmed trail for the series which was revealed and recovered into the archive in 2016.

The event will end with a unique screening of a long-forgotten John Betjeman television epilogue filmed inside the Granville Music Hall in London’s Fulham Broadway. Filmed shortly before the demolition of this beautiful Victorian theatre, Betjeman’s emotional epilogue was the very final broadcast of the defunct station Television Wales and West. Previously missing at ITV Wales Archive, this delight has not been seen by any audience since March 1968.

Tickets for both Missing Believed Wiped sessions on Saturday 11 August at 13:00 and 15:30 are now on sale, with joint ticket option available for both sessions.

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The Seance

Sherlock Holmes (BBC Douglas Wilmer series) – BFI DVD Review

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The Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes series (broadcast during 1964 and 1965) wasn’t the first time that the BBC had brought the Great Detective to the screen. Alan Wheatley and Raymond Francis had starred as Holmes and Watson in a short series of six adaptations, broadcast live in 1951. Wheatley would later call it the most difficult job of his career – as the adaptations had been structured in such a way which left little time for the actors to get from one set to the next or make costume changes. According to Wheatley, the worst example of this occured in one of C.J. Lejurne’s dramatisations when “in one particular scene she finished up with a sentence from me, and opened the next scene also with a sentence from me, in heavy disguise, with no time at all for a change!”

With no effective way for recordings to be made from live broadcasts in the early 1950’s, we’ll never know exactly how good (or bad!) the 1951 series was, as no visual or audio record exists. But we’re much more fortunate with the Wilmer series – as eleven of the thirteen episodes exist in their entirety (later, we’ll discuss how the BFI have dealt with the two partly missing stories).

The stories adapted for the first series of Sherlock Holmes (a second, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes with Nigel Stock continuing as Watson was broadcast a few years later) are as follows –

The Speckled Band (18 May 1964). This was transmitted as an episode of the Detective series.

The Illustrious Client (20 February 1965)
The Devil’s Foot (27 February 1965)
The Copper Beeches (06 March 1965)
The Red-Headed League (13 March 1965)
The Abbey Grange (20 March 1965)
The Six Napoleons (27 March 1965)
The Man with the Twisted Lip (03 April 1965)
The Beryl Coronet (10 April 1965)
The Bruce-Partington Plans (17 April 1965)
Charles Augustus Milverton (24 April 1965)
The Retired Colourman (01 May 1965)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (08 May 1965)

With the complete canon to cherry-pick stories from, the above list is an interesting selection. Some of the choices are no surprise, since they’re amongst the most popular of ACD’s tales (the likes of The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches, The Red-Headed League, The Six Napoleons and The Man With the Twisted Lip) although it’s surprising that a few others (The Retired Colourman and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example) were chosen ahead of arguably stronger fare.

Of course, had the series continued, then maybe the ultimate aim would have been to record all of the fifty-six short stories and four novels. This is something that no British series has ever done (the Granada series with Jeremy Brett came close – but by the time Brett died, there were still more than a dozen unfilmed stories).

By the mid 1960’s, television no longer had to be transmitted live, since it was possible to pre-record. However, it was still often recorded “as live” (shot in long continuous takes with recording only pausing for serious technical problems or when it was impossible for the action to continue from one set to another without a pause).

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The Speckled Band

Sherlock Holmes, like the majority of BBC drama of the period, was made largely in the studio (captured on 405-line videotape with exteriors shot on film). Since videotape was very expensive, the tapes would be routinely wiped in order to record new programmes – so virtually everything that still exists from these years does so thanks to the film copies that were made (either for overseas sales or because the programme was so technically complex that it had been decided to edit and transmit it from a film dub).

Anybody who knows a little about British television of this era will be aware that the survival rates of programmes can be frustratingly inconsistent – so we’re very lucky that virtually all of the Wilmer series exists (the Cushing series is sadly much less complete). Something else which the archive television fan will be aware of is that the existing film prints of any series tend to vary in quality – which can be for several reasons.

It may be because the prints were “biked” from country to country (when a particular country had finished broadcasting it, as per agreements with BBC Enterprises they then forwarded it onto the next country in the chain) and so the print would have suffered wear-and-tear (dirt, damage, etc). Or it might be due to the telerecording process used (The Speckled Band was the only one of the Wilmer series to be recorded with the ‘suppressed field’ process – a system that produces a noticeably lower picture quality).

The upshot is that whilst watchable, previous releases (such as the Region 1 DVD) left a little to be desired on the visual front. This BFI DVD features restored versions of all episodes and does offer a good upgrade. Although it’s true to say that it could be better (it’s not up to the standards of the frame-by-frame restorations and VidFIREd black & white Doctor Who stories, for example) it’s important to understand that the budget for restoration will only stretch so far.

If you have the BFI release of Out of the Unknown, then the restoration carried out here is comparable – certainly every story now looks better than it did on the Region 1 DVD and various picture flaws that were previously very evident (a tramline scratch on a long section of The Devil’s Foot, for example) have either been fixed or made much less obvious. With more time and money the episodes could have been improved even more – but when so many programmes of this era languish unreleased in the archive (and of the few that are released, many don’t receive any restoration) the picture quality of these episodes are generally very pleasing.  Peter Crocker, of SVS Resources, should be applauded for his efforts, considering the limited time and budget he had to work with.

If the improved picture quality is one reason to upgrade, then the strong selection of special features is certainly another. Chief amongst these are the inclusion of the existing footage from the two incomplete episodes – The Abbey Grange and The Bruce-Partington Plans (which is very welcome since neither story was represented on the previous DVD releases).

The first half of The Abbey Grange no longer exists, so it’s completed with a newly shot sequence of Douglas Wilmer reading an adaptation of the story. The second half of The Bruce-Partington Plans is missing from the archives and it’s been completed with an off-air soundtrack syncronised to extracts from the camera script. Neither is a substitute for having the complete episode (and it might have been wise to cut-down Wilmer’s piece to camera for The Abbey Grange) but it’s certainly much, much better than nothing (like the Region 1 release offered us).

Like Out of the Unknown, Toby Hadoke and producer John Kelly have assembled a mouthwatering series of commentary tracks with directors Peter Sasdy and Peter Cregeen as well as actors Douglas Wilmer, David Andrews and Trevor Martin across five episodes.

Wilmer’s involvement (on two commentaries, a 22 minute interview and the first half reading of The Abbey Grange) is particularly welcome. The BFI should be applauded for including so many good supplementary features, as these help to place the original programmes in their correct historical and cultural contexts.

From Tuesday onwards, I’ll be blogging a quick review of each story (where I’ll go into more detail about the merits of both Wilmer and Stock) but suffice it to say that if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or simply a fan of 1960’s British television, then this is must buy. Good picture restoration and a quality selection of bonus features help to enhance a very strong series. Hopefully sales of this will be good enough to persuade the BFI that other BBC series of the same era deserve similar treatment.

But for now, I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of this classic series.

Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer (BBC 1964-1965) to be released by the BFI on R2 DVD (March 2015)

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It’s very welcome news that the BFI will be releasing the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes series on DVD next March.  Their press release reads as follows –

SHERLOCK HOLMES (4-DVD SET)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Classic BBC TV series.

Regarded by many to be the best incarnation of the Baker Street sleuth, Douglas Wilmer gives a career-defining performance in this celebrated BBC series. Intelligent, quick on his heels, and bearing a striking resemblance to the original Sidney Paget illustrations, Wilmer’s portrayal as possibly the closest to Conan Doyle’s original vision that there has ever been. In 2012, his status as legend within the Sherlock pantheon was cemented when he was asked to make a cameo appearance in Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch.

The first story in the series, The Speckled Band, was originally produced as part of the BBC drama strand Detectives. Appearing alongside Wilmer, as Holmes loyal companion Dr John Watson, was the great Nigel Stock. Such was the success of the adaptation that Wilmer and Stock were reunited a year later for a full 12-part series. With a supporting cast that included Clochemerle star Peter Madden as Inspector Lestrade, TV veteran Derek Francis as Mycroft Holmes, and guest starts such as Peter Wyngarde (Department S, The Innocents) and Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who), the popularity of the series gave rise to a second series, in which the role of Sherlock was played by Peter Cushing.

Presented for the first time on UK DVD, this long-awaited release also includes an array of fascinating special features, including two reconstructions of partially-surviving episodes, an alternative presentation of the Detectives pilot, an alternative title sequence, an interview with Douglas Wilmer and a number of newly-recorded audio commentaries

Special features
Original 1964 Detectives pilot episode The Speckled Band
All surviving episodes from the 1965 series
Alternative Spanish audio presentation of The Speckled Band
Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client
The Abbey Grange episode reconstruction, featuring a newly-filmed sequence of Douglas Wilmer reading the first half of the story, followed by all surviving original footage
The Bruce-Partington Plans episode reconstruction, using all surviving original footage and original shooting scripts
Douglas Wilmer…on Television (2012, Simon Harries, 20 mins): the iconic actor discusses his career in British film and television
Five audio commentaries, including contributions from Douglas Wilmer and celebrated directors Peter Cregeen and Peter Sasdy, all moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke
Fully illustrated booklet with new essays and full episode credits
UK | 1964-65 | black and white | English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles | 650 minutes approx | Original broadcast ratio 1.33:1 | 4 x DVD9 | PAL | Dolby Digital mono audio | Cert: 12 | Region 2 DVD

Although the series has received a R1 release and a French R2 release, as the above indicates this will be the first UK release and the inclusion of the existing material from the two incomplete episodes as well as the Douglas Wilmer interview and commentaries are the icing on what looks like a very appealing cake.

A DVD review can be found here.

Out of the Unknown (BFI DVD Review)

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As I’ll be posting individual reviews of each episode as I move through the set during the next month or two, I’m going to take a quick look here at the content in general, the picture quality and also examine the special features.  The episodes and special features are spread across the seven discs like this –

Disc One
No Place Like Earth (+ audio commentary) (53 minutes)
The Counterfeit Man (59 minutes)
Stranger in the Family (53 minutes)
The Dead Past (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Stills Gallery 1 (6 minutes)

Disc Two
Time in Advance (+ audio commentary) (58 minutes)
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…? (61 minutes)
Sucker Bait (+ audio commentary) (59 minutes)
Stills Gallery 2 (4 minutes)

Disc Three
Some Lapse of Time (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Thirteen to Centaurus (60 minutes)
The Midas Plague (+ audio commentary) (63 minutes)
Stills Gallery 3 (3 minutes)

Disc Four
The Machine Stops (+ audio commentary) (51 minutes)
Lambda I (51 minutes)
Level Seven (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Tunnel Under the World (52 minutes)
Stills Gallery 4 (9 minutes)

Disc Five
The Last Lonely Man (50 minutes)
Beach Head [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
The Naked Sun [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
The Little Black Bag [incomplete] (31 minutes)
An Interview with James Cellan Jones (16 minutes)
Stills Gallery 5 (19 minutes)

Disc Six
The Yellow Pill [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
To Lay a Ghost (50 minutes)
This Body is Mine (+ audio commentary) (49 minutes)
Deathday (48 minutes)
Deathday film insert (1 minute)
Stills Gallery 6 (8 minutes)

Disc Seven
Welcome Home (+ audio commentary) (50 minutes)
The Man in My Head (+ audio commentary) (48 minutes)
The Uninvited [reconstruction] (47 minutes)
Return of the Unknown (42 minutes)
Stills Gallery 7 (8 minutes)

The video was restored by Peter Crocker and the audio by Mark Ayres.  Both names will be familiar to some people via their work on the Classic Doctor Who DVD range, but the PQ on OOTU is a little more variable than the Doctor Who releases.  Crocker discusses the various reasons why this is the case in the booklet included with the DVD.  For the majority of the B&W episodes, existing tape transfers were used and then cleaned up as much as possible, although some (like Tunnel under the World) had so much damage that a full restoration was impossible.  Generally though, the picture quality is as good as could be expected.  The film sequences on some stories are out of phase (a common occurrence on material of this age) but it’s difficult to see how, given the time and budget, things could have been any better.

The menu screens are quite simple, with a static image and no music.

Apart from the audio commentaries (where the ever-cheerful Toby Hadoke teases reminiscences from both actors and technical staff) and a new 42 minute documentary, the most substantial extras are four reconstructed episodes.  Anybody who’s ever seen a Doctor Who recon will be familiar with how three of them (Beach Head, The Naked Sun and The Yellow Pill) are presented.  Available publicity photographs (along with a little CGI) have been married up to the original soundtrack to produce a pretty watchable experience.  The audios all sound pretty good (and subtitles can be switched on if there’s ever any muffled dialogue).  The audio of The Naked Sun is incomplete, so subs help to explain what’s happening during the audio-less sections.  Photographs for The Uninvited are thin on the ground, so the audio for this recon is matched up to the camera script.

Below are a number of screenshots from a variety of episodes. Although I’ve only scratched the surface of this release, it looks an impressive package, with a healthy selection of special features which help to place the original stories in context.

Trailer for the BFI DVD release of Out of the Unknown

With the release of Out of the Unknown less than a week away, the BFI have put this rather nice trailer up.

This link will take you to the BFI’s website, where there’s highlights of an Out of the Unknown panel moderated by Toby Hadoke and featuring director John Gorrie, SFX sound engineer Brian Hodgson and author Mark Ward.

For more info on the DVD set, please look here, here and here.

An overview of all four series can be found here.

BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC 1954) now cancelled

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It’s disappointing that the BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four, adapted by Nigel Kneale, produced by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing, is still in limbo.  The original release date was planned for the end of 2014, then it was pushed back to March 2015.  At the time of writing this update (07/03/15) the DVD is no longer listed on the BFI’s website and the provisional release date has vanished from e-tailers such as Amazon, which indicates that it’s not going to appear any time soon.

This isn’t the first time that a DVD has been mooted only for it to never materialise.  The story starts in 2004, when it was announced that it would be released by DD Video.  This was exciting news and when DD issued a press release it became clear that considerable effort had been expended in order to present the programme in the best possible quality.  Their 2004 press release is reproduced below –

BBC CLASSIC SF DRAMA PAINSTAKINGLY RESTORED

Classic TV specialist DD Home Entertainment claims to have set a new quality benchmark on its restoration work for the 1954 BBC drama Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This early landmark of British television, which will be available for the first time ever on DVD and video on November 8th, required extensive work on it, but viewers will – according to DD – find the restored picture even better than when it was first transmitted.  In December 1954 videotape recorders (even for broadcast use) were two years away and existed, if at all, only in prototype form in research laboratories.

Since 1947 BBC engineers had been able to make crude recordings of TV pictures simply by pointing a film camera at a monitor screen.  However, dramas were not recorded until 1953 and Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the earliest surviving examples of the art-form. It was recorded at the time using an ingenious system of modified telecine machines.

New transfers of the film recording were commissioned from BBC Resources using its highest quality Spirit datacine equipment. Special arrangements were made with the BBC Film and Videotape Library for access to the archive master material, which cannot normally be used.

The new copies of the play were graded. This is the process of taking each shot (or even part shot) and adjusting the brightness and contrast. Dirty cuts (where a frame is made of superimposed and distorted pictures from two cameras) were removed or, where possible, repaired using paintbox techniques.

Next, every frame of the play was examined and film dirt, scratches and other defects were laboriously re-touched and pointed out by hand. Finally a video process was applied to give the studio sequences the fluid motion appearance that they would have had on original broadcast.

The result – one of the earliest surviving examples of British television has been restored to exceptional quality.

Nineteen Eighty-Four will be available from November 8th 2004

But the DVD was never released in November 2004, instead it was announced that it had been postponed due to a dispute with the Orwell estate.  The 1984 film of Nineteen Eighty Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, had been released on DVD in 2004 and it appears the Orwell estate didn’t want the BBC version to be available at the same time.

After this, everything went quiet until the BFI’s press release in July 2014 announced they would release it as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder SF season.  And the even better news was that they intended to use the restored master prepared in 2004.

It could be that it’s been delayed in order for the BFI to source more special features.  There’s some interesting material that could be added, most especially the 1965 version starring David Buck (a remake of the 1954 script).  Although it’s missing a few minutes, it would still be a very worthwhile (and long!) special feature. Further information about this production can be found here, in an article written by Kim Newman.

Or it could be that the Orwell estate are once again flexing their muscles.  If so, it’s their last opportunity, since in a few years their copyright claim to this production will have expired and they’ll no longer be able to block it.

It does seem bizarre that the BFI would announce the release without ensuring that all the necessary clearances had been obtained (but then the same thing seems to have happened a decade ago, with DD Video having spent money on a restoration that remains unseen).  Whilst it’s hardly difficult to source a copy of the unrestored print via the internet, it was the restored programme (along with some decent special features to place it in context – like the Out of the Unknown and the forthcoming Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes DVDs) that the majority of us were keen to see.

For now, we’ll just have to wait and see if any more hopeful news surfaces in the future.  Anybody who is interested in more detail about the production may find this of interest.

Edit (Jan 2016).  Unfortunately the BFI DVD has now been cancelled.  The reason why isn’t known (possibly problems with the Orwell estate).  It does seem remarkable that both DD and the BFI prepared DVD releases which stumbled due to unspecified complications.  It possible that someone will try again in a few years time, but for now the restored version remains locked in the vaults.

The World At War by Taylor Downing (BFI TV Classics) – Book Review

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In his introduction, Downing writes that –

“The World At War is unique in factual television.  Forty years after its first transmission it is as popular, possibly even more popular, than it was when first shown.  Factual channels that were not in existence when the series was made eagerly compete to show it today.  This is as true in the US and in many other major television markets, as it is in the UK.  No other factual series can claim this.”

The stature and enduring appeal of The World At War makes it an ideal programme to merit an entry in the BFI’s Film & TV Classics series.  Each book offers a concise, well-written overview of its subject as although Downing’s book is only 180 pages, it manages quite effectively to describe the factors that enabled Thames Television to undertake what was an expensive, time-consuming and potentially very risky programme.

When The World At War entered production in 1971, there hadn’t been a major British television documentary series produced about WW2.  The BBC had been mulling over  various ideas for some time but hadn’t made any firm commitments.  And Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1, was of the opinion that since the BBC had only recently launched colour television, a lengthy documentary series featuring mainly black and white footage wouldn’t be a good idea.

Over at Thames, there was more interest in the idea and the return to power of the Conservatives in 1970 was a key factor in kick-starting the production of The World At War.  Under the previous Labour government, all the ITV companies were required to pay a hefty Levy to the government for the privilege of operating an independent television licence.  The Conservatives substantially reduced the amount of the Levy, which immediately freed up substantial funds which could be put into new programming.

Jeremy Isaacs, an experienced programme-maker at both the BBC and ITV, knew that the reduction of the Levy meant that the time was right to make the series.  The speed at which it was green-lit was remarkable and it’s impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening today.  Within twenty-four hours the Managing Director of Thames, Howard Thomas, had agreed and the wheels started to move.

In retrospect this was a big risk, as the Thames board hadn’t been consulted and neither had the other ITV regions.  At this time, the dozen or so ITV regions all had to agree to network their programmes, so if the other regions had decided not to take The World At War then it would have been a major blow.  Twenty-six prime-time slots devoted to a WW2 documentary was a substantial undertaking, but Thames were happy to leave thoughts such as scheduling to a later date.

The first thing that Isaacs needed was to get a major figure onboard as a historical consultant.  Dr Noble Frankland, Director of the Imperial War Museum was an obvious choice, but he had not enjoyed the experience of working with the BBC a decade earlier on their WW1 series The Great War.

Frankland felt that on far too many occasions The Great War had used archive footage incorrectly by failing to distinguish when it had been reconstructed or faked.  He was heartened to learn that Isaacs shared his desire to be rigorous with the use of archive footage and happily agreed to work as the consultant on the series.

Taylor Downing deftly examines the various production processes that over the course of the next three years were responsible for bringing the twenty-six episodes into existence.

Several different directors worked on individual programmes and they all brought something different to the subjects tackled.  The availability of footage and interviewees also affected each episode, so that some featured only scant footage and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and vice-versa.

Downing also discusses the role played by composer Carl Davis and narrator Laurence Olivier.  Olivier and Davis contributed to all twenty-six episodes and so they helped to give a unity to the overall series.  The inclusion of a major figure like Olivier was deemed essential by Thames’ management, and was somewhat against the wishes of Isaacs, and Downing feels that his mannered delivery is something that now dates the series.  I’d disagree with this as Olivier’s narration, for me, tends to always be spot on – and his narration is only used sparsely, as generally either the pictures or the eye witnesses are used to tell the story.

Also examined by Downing is the style of documentary that The World At War was and its enduring legacy.  Whilst, he concedes, it was out of date almost as soon as it was first broadcast (the revelations of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, came to light just too late to be used) the programme’s main themes and its use of first-hand testimonies means that it remains a series that is still able to resonate with audiences today.

Episode 20, Genocide, which documents the terrible events of the Holocaust, is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was forty years ago, but the impact of both the footage and the eye-witnesses from both sides remain undimmed.  Many episodes of The World At War are outstanding, but surely none more so than this one.

Downing concedes that the series isn’t perfect, as although it presented a more global picture of the war than had previously been seen, there are still omissions – China and Poland, for example, are barely mentioned.

Overall, Downing’s book provides the reader with a clear overview and is the perfect companion to this landmark British documentary series.

Look and Read – The Boy From Space. Series overview and BFI DVD review

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Look and Read (1967 – 2004) was a long running BBC Schools programme that is fondly remembered by several generations of school-children.

Its aim was to help less developed readers gain confidence but the drama segments (each twenty minute episode would be a mix of studio based learning lessons and a continuing serial) ensured that the programmes appealed to most children.

The Boy From Space was the third in the Look and Read series, originally broadcast between September and November 1971 and was scripted by Richard Carpenter.

Carpenter had started his career as an actor and during the 1950’s and 1960’s he racked up an impressive list of credits on shows such as Z Cars, Softly Softly, Emergency Ward 10, No Hiding Place, Sherlock Holmes, Dixon of Dock Green and Strange Report.  But by the late 1960’s he had decided to change course and become a writer.

His first series, Catweazle, was an instant success.  Broadcast on LWT between 1970 and 1971, it starred Geoffrey Bayldon as a magician from Norman times who found himself adrift in the modern world and totally unable to understand many of the simplest things we take for granted.

Carpenter would continue to notch up an impressive list of writing credits over the next few decades (creating The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin and Robin of Sherwood, amongst others) and he also penned several further serials for Look and Read – Cloud Burst (1974) and The King’s Dragon (1977).

Turning back to the original 1971 broadcast of The Boy From Space, it comprised 10 episodes of 20 minutes duration.  Although it was repeated several times up until 1973, sometime after that the tapes were wiped which meant that that only the drama inserts remained.

At this point in time the majority of BBC programmes were made and broadcast on videotape.  Videotape was expensive and could be re-used, hence the reason why so many shows from this era are lost for ever – as periodically the tapes would be wiped so that new recordings could be made.

Film, however, could not be re-used, which explains why these sections of The Boy From Space remained in the archives.

In 1980 BBC Schools were looking around for a new Look and Read serial, so it was decided to use the material shot in 1971 along with newly created learning inserts.  And as the original music was lost Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop was commissioned to write a new score.

Wordy and Cosmo
Wordy and Cosmo

The 1980 series was presented by Phil Cheney as Cosmo with Charles Collingwood providing the voice of Wordy whilst Katie Hebb was the puppeteer who brought him to life.  Derek Griffiths led the team of singers who performed the educational songs.  The cast list from the 1971 drama inserts was as follows –

Anthony Woodruff as Mr Bunting
Colin Mayes as Peep-peep
Gabriel Woolf as Peep-peep’s father
John Woodnutt as the thin space-man
Loftus Burton as Tom
Stephen Garlick as Dan
Sylvestra Le Touzel as Helen

As with the 1971 series, it was broadcast over 10 episodes –

01 The Meteorite (15 Jan 1980)
02 The Spinning Compass (22 Jan 1980)
03 The Man in the Sand-pit (29 Jan 1980)
04 In danger! (5 Feb 1980)
05 The Hold-up (12 Feb 1980)
06 Where is Tom? (26 Feb 1980)
07 The Hunt for the Car (4 Mar 1980)
08 The Lake (11 Mar 1980)
09 Captured! (18 Mar 1980)
10 In the Spaceship (25 Mar 1980)

It’s fair to say that The Boy From Space is an odd viewing experience.  The drama sections concern two children, Dan (Stephen Garlick) and Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who, whilst out stargazing, spy an object plummeting to the earth.  They decide to explore and discover a crashed space-ship.

Peep-peep
Peep-peep

Amongst the ship’s inhabitants is a young alien boy christened “Peep-peep” by the children due to his backwards language.  But there is danger from another alien who the children refer to as  “the thin space-man”, played by John Woodnutt.  He seems to have a hold over their new friend from space and this puts them all in danger.

Whilst this is obviously quite low budget, there’s plenty of merit here.  The child actors are pretty good (Le Touzel would go on to have a lengthy career) whilst Gabriel Woolf and John Woodnutt are as solid as you would expect.  Another plus point is the score by Paddy Kingsland.  Anybody who loves early eighties Doctor Who music will find much to appreciate.

The thin space-man
The thin space-man

The educational inserts may be of less interest to some, but thanks to the comprehensive package prepared by the BFI, there are several different viewing options.

You can either watch the series as broadcast in 1980 or there’s an option to view just the drama sequences in a new 70 minute edit on the second disc.

There’s also two versions of the BBC Schools LP recording.  The first is the original audio, with narration from Wordy himself and the other marries footage from the show along with the LP audio.

The original LP cover
The original LP sleeve

In addition to this, there’s Wordy’s Think-ups (animated lessons from the episodes), PDFs of the school brochures from both broadcasts and an interesting booklet which contains information about BBC Schools programmes in general as well as detail on the Look and Read series.

The DVD is part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder series of releases.  Also available now is The Changes, with others such as Nineteen Eighty Four and Out Of The Unknown to follow later in the year.

The series by itself would have been a worthwhile purchase but the supplementary features mean that it’s an even more attractive package. It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s nice to see the BFI releasing something slightly left-field like this. Hopefully there will be more to follow in the future.

Commentary participants for Out Of The Unknown (BFI DVD) announced

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The commentary participants for the forthcoming BFI DVD of Out Of The Unknown (to be released in October 2014) have been announced by Toby Hadoke on his website.

All commentaries are moderated by Toby and they feature a comprehensive collection of guests –

No Place Like Earth with Mark Ward (Out Of The Unknown expert) and Dan Rebellato (playwright, lecturer and John Wyndham expert).

The Dead Past with John Gorrie (director) and Brian Hodgson (Special Sounds).

Time In Advance with Peter Sasdy (director), Wendy Gifford (Polly), Philip Voss (Police Officer) and Danvers Walker (Dan).

Sucker Bait with Clive Endersby (Mark), Roger Croucher (Fawkes).

Some Lapse Of Time with Roger Jenkins (director), John Glenister (PA), Jane Downs (Diana Harrow) and Delena Kidd (Dr Laura Denville).

The Midas Plague with Peter Sasdy.

The Machine Stops with Philip Saville (director), Kenneth Cavander (adaptor), Michael Imison (story editor).

Level 7 with Mordecai Roshwald (author), Michael Imison (story editor).

This Body Is Mine with John Carson (Allen).

Welcome Home with Moris Fahri (writer), Bernard Brown (Bowers Two).

The Man In My Head with Peter Cregeen (director), Tom Chadbon (Brinson), Jeremy Davies (designer).

Given the short time that was available to record these commentaries, the range of participants assembled Is extremely impressive.  The 11 commentary tracks should shine plenty of new light on the making of these stories and they promise to be one of the highlights of an impressive sounding package.

The complete list of extras can be found here.

A brief history of Out Of The Unknown is here.

Extras announced for the BFI DVD of Out Of The Unknown (due Oct 2014)

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An impressive list of extras have been announced for the BFI DVD of Out Of The Unknown, due for release in October 2014. In addition to the twenty surviving episodes –

Return of the Unknown (2014, 42 mins). All-new documentary with cast and crew interviews, and clips from lost episodes.

11 audio commentaries with cast, crew and experts. Moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke.

Archival interview with director James Cellan Jones.

Episode reconstructions for Beach Head, The Naked Sun, The Yellow Pill, and The Uninvited.

Film insert from Deathday episode.

Seven extensive stills galleries.

Fully illustrated booklet with essays by Out of the Unknown expert Mark Ward.

Out Of The Unknown was a ground-breaking BBC science fiction anthology series that ran between 1965 and 1971. OOTU adapted stories from the likes of Frederick Pohl, E.M. Forster, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham with an impressive roll-call of talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Acting-wise, George Cole, Wendy Craig, Graham Stark, Rachel Roberts, David Hemmings, Warren Mitchell, Hannah Gordon and Burt Kwouk were amongst the featured players whilst Ridley Scott was one of a number of designers who brought the series’ future visions to life.

Initially this was going to be a fairly bare-bones release, but the BFI were amenable to consider various proposals regarding extras.  For example, Toby Hadoke (an experienced commentary moderator on the Doctor Who DVDs) approached them on spec and the result is a series of commentaries that should be one of the highlights of the release.

This looks like it should be one of the best Archive TV releases of the year.

A brief history of OOTU is here with a full DVD review to follow in October.

Look and Read – The Boy from Space comes to DVD

The Boy From Space BFI
The Boy From Space BFI

The Boy from Space is one of a number of British TV science fiction titles due to be released shortly by the BFI.  Originally broadcast in 1971 as part of BBC Schools’ Look and Read strand, it has gained a certain cult status over the years.

Written by Richard Carpenter (Catweazle, Robin of Sherwood), the original broadcast tapes were wiped following transmission, although the Boy from Space drama inserts were retained.

This meant that when, in 1980, Look and Read were looking for a cheap new production, it was decided to use the original 1971 inserts with newly shot studio footage featuring presenters Cosmo and Wordy.

The two disc release includes –

The 1980 series (10 episodes, each running for 20 minutes).

A new feature length edit of the drama inserts (70 minutes).

An audio version of the 1972 BBC Schools LP (running time 55 minutes) narrated by Charles Collingwood (Wordy).

A new presentation, syncing audio from the BBC Schools LP together with footage from the television broadcast.

Animated sequences and an illustrated booklet.

A full review of the DVD can be found here.