The coverage of the news that BBC Worldwide is to release the recovered soundtracks of several previously-missing editions of the Hancock’s Half Hour TV series has been, at best, misleading. At worst, it’s been utter bollocks. Take this line from The Times: “They are thought to be the earliest examples of a DIY audio recording made directly from a television broadcast”. ‘They are thought…’ is a handy formulation. It enables a journalist to sound authoritative to the casual reader while admitting to those who know the way these things work that he/she hasn’t got a bleeding clue. I can’t be certain without making a few enquiries, but I’m sure I’ve heard of a number of DIY audio recordings from TV that predate these. There was a time when The Times didn’t think. It simply reported, and was a better newspaper for it.
Meanwhile, Chortle, which should perhaps know better asserted that “The episodes were first aired 50 years ago, but thought lost forever when the BBC wiped the master copies so they could reuse the expensive tape and save on storage space”. The shows in question never went near video tape. They were transmitted live, and telerecorded on 35mm film. These copies were repeated a few months after the first transmission and then junked. You don’t ‘wipe’ film.
The coverage has also been full of the usual emotive nonsense that gets spouted about missing programmes. Back to the Times, this time from the paper’s blog: “It’s a scandal that the BBC let so much of its programming be wiped or destroyed in the past”. Is it? At one time, the cost of repeating a show came close to the cost of putting on a new programme, and union regulations limited the number of screenings that a programme could have. Nobody foresaw sell-through video or multi-channel TV, and the renegotiation of the repeat agreements that eventually occurred. The pressure was on the BBC to use its funding as wisely as possible, and that involved making new shows, not recording and storing old ones that were, to all intents and purposes, unusable. It’s sad that some programmes are missing, but it’s not really a scandal. We should be glad when lost gems turn up, but retain a sense of perspective – in many ways, it’s a miracle that we have as much archive material to enjoy as we do.