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 announced, 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 probably 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.