Updated: Apr 3, 2019
Although it seems hard to believe now, the BBC didn't have a TV archive until 1978. In the old days, video tape was expensive, and it was common practise to wipe and literally record over old TV Shows in order to make way for new ones.
As such, what has survived from the beginnings of the BBC up until the late 70s has been based upon almost pure luck. While a lot of shows have been recovered (often from copies that were distributed overseas and thankfully not taped over), thousands of shows are seemingly missing forever! But there may be something that we can do about this. Here are just a handful of TV shows that you might be surprised to learn are missing.
Dad's Army is one of the most famous shows that has lost episodes. Being such an iconic part of the BBC's output even to this day, it seems absurd that any episodes were ever wiped. But they were.
The first series of Dad's Army survived intact. The key to episodes surviving was their potential for the overseas market, seeing potential 16mm film copies were made of the first six episodes by the BBC Engineering Department before they wiped the master tapes, and as such these copies survived.
However, series two wasn't so fortunate - international interest had dropped off and the BBC apparently failed to make many (or possibly any) copies.
At the time the BBC founded their archive (1978), they realised that five out of the six episodes of series two were missing! The BBC became so desperate to find them that in 1998 they asked David Croft to make an on-air appeal film, which was broadcast on BBC 2. You can watch here:
Perhaps this worked, because four years later two episodes were discovered ('Operation Kilt' and 'The Battle of Godfrey's Cottage'). The story goes that the episodes had been saved by a worker from a skip at Elstree Studios in 1969, and had then sat in a garden shed for thirty years.
Then, in 2008, audio of another of the missing series two episodes was discovered. This time it was 'A Stripe For Fraiser' and this was remastered and then turned into a special animated episode.
However, four complete episodes remain missing to this day, along with a few Christmas shorts. UK Gold are currently remaking these lost episodes with a new cast. It is a travesty that part of one of Britain's most iconic comedy shows might be lost forever. However, the radio versions of the episodes have survived.
While it's tragic that there are any missing episodes of Dad's Army, Doctor Who fans would consider them lucky! During the first six years of Doctor Who's broadcast, a whopping ninety-seven episodes were lost and are still missing to this day. Fans did, however, manage to save every episode's audio. Some of the reasons for this loss are detailed here, in this excerpt from Wikipedia:
"(BBC) Enterprises' episodes were usually junked because their rights agreements with the actors and writers to sell the programmes abroad had expired.With many broadcasters around the world now switching to colour transmission, it was not deemed worthwhile extending agreements to sell the older black-and-white materials.
"The BBC Film Library, meanwhile, had no responsibility for storing programmes that had not originated on film, and there were conflicting views between the Film Library and BBC Enterprises over which party held the responsibility for archiving programmes. As each body believed it the other's responsibility to archive the material, each thought nothing of destroying its own copies as necessary. This lack of communication contributed to the erasure of much of the Corporation's film archive of older black-and-white programming.
"While thousands of other programmes have been destroyed in this way around the world, the missing Doctor Who episodes are probably the best-known example of how the lack of a consistent programme archiving policy risks permanent loss."
The loss largely affects William Hartnell's and Patrick Troughton's first and second turns as The Doctor respectively. There are even 'orphaned episodes' that are pieced together using short clips that somehow survived, along with animation, narration and pieces to camera. For more information on what's missing check out the full list of missing Doctor Who episodes.
The Likely Lads
The Likely Lads is considered one of the UK's classic comedy shows. It seems absurd then that of the 10 episodes that have survived the same number are missing. But sadly, that's the case.
It was only last year that two more episodes were discovered - they had been recorded in a rather unique and ingenious way, by pointing a 16mm film camera at a TV screen. That's the 1960s equivalent of filming the TV with your smartphone!
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, its much later counterpart, survives intact and the audio of five of the original Likely Lads episodes remains.
Pinwright's Progress - The First Ever TV Sitcom
What's Pinwright's Progress? That's probably the first question anybody would ask. Well, it's the world's first TV sitcom. It's literally the beginning of TV comedy and the start of sitcom. It was apparently pushing boundaries on all fronts, as it included a character called Mrs Sigsbee who apparently was the precursor to Mrs Slocombe from Are You Being Served?
We can assume then that it included quite a bit of innuendo. Pinwright's Progress was broadcast live in 1946 so the chances of anyone ever finding copies of this are probably zero. But it's worth noting that, for now, and most likely forever, all we have left is this picture.
Hancock's Half Hour
Hancock's Half Hour is more widely known as the first TV sitcom than Pinwright's Progress, and it's probably the only show that is as famous for its radio episodes as it is for its TV episodes. It won't stun you to read that a lot of both these incarnations are missing, approximately twenty-four radio and twenty-six TV episodes in all.
Using the recovered scripts, the BBC now makes The Missing Hancocks, a Radio 4 series now popular in its own right, and starring, amongst others, Andrew Secombe who takes up the role of his late father Harry.
If you think you might have any of the episodes, contact them here,
Morecambe and Wise
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Morecambe and Wise's output had survived intact, but unfortunately that's not the case! Six episodes of The Morecambe and Wise Show, along with the entirety of their first ever TV series together, Running Wild, are missing.
However, last November two episodes were discovered some fifty years after their first broadcast in an abandoned cinema in Sierra Leone, proving that there's always hope that anything can be recovered, and may be in the most unlikely of places.
What Should You Look Out For in the quest to find lost TV?
Realistically, there are two likely ways that these shows may still exist. The first is through the use of some of the first ever home tape recorders, more specifically, the Shibaden and the Sony CV-2000 machines. Here's a Shibaden in action recording an episode of Doctor Who:
As you can see from this video, the film reels are approximately five inches wide - much like the ones you get for old cine cameras. The other way the recordings may have survived is through someone saving dumped original 16mm tele-recordings. These might be more traditional larger reels that you'd commonly associate with old Hollywood films. They're probably the first type of thing that comes to mind when you picture movie film reels.
Of course, in this list, I've only picked out a handful of interesting cases. As you can imagine, the missing output from the BBC during this time runs into the thousands, but bits are being recovered all the time. Next time you're clearing out a loft, or you're at a car boot sale and a box of old reel-to-reel tapes catches your eye, take a closer look. You might play a vital role in restoring an iconic piece of British TV history!
Written by Rhianna Evans