The Lost BSB Archive – programmes nobody watched

The BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped Event took place at the National Film Theatre last night – somewhat belatedly as this was really 2009’s event. The phenomenon of lost television is rather fascinating: as well as the tantalising fascination of things that were once in existence and are now lost, the business of any missing cultural artefact provides an interesting insight into the values of the people who made and destroyed them, and the institutions and processes around this. There’s also something fascinating about misjudgment and error – and there’s plenty of those in this particular story.

We’re all familiar with the story of missing television from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, right? Until the late 1950s it wasn’t really practical to record television programmes at all, and between then and the late ’70s the BBC and the ITV companies had no real archive policies. Most programmes that survived were through copies made for foreign sales, and by the late ’70s many such copies were being routinely destroyed – they were expensive to store and of apparently no further commercial value. Some programmes survived through token efforts at archive preservation, and others still through more haphazard routes. A growing appreciation of television as an important cultural form rather than something ephemeral and worthless, plus the prospect of home video giving new value to old shows, meant that by the late 1970s sensible retention and archiving policies generally existed in the major national broadcasters.

All was not rosy in the garden of television archiving, however. It’s worth remembering that it’s still hard to re-live television output from past times even in the era of surviving shows, as continuity material was not (possibly still is not) routinely kept for the archive for many years. This means that programmes from the 1980s and even 1990s like (I think) Pebble Mill At One and the Children’s BBC Broom Cupboard segments are largely absent from the archive. In the early 1990s the old problem of storage space reared its head within the BBC again, which opted to junk all bar a few samples of the masters of many children’s shows, most famously Rentaghost. Happily the error was soon realised and copies were returned to the archive from UK Gold. And I won’t even mention The Adventure Game or Play School.

Home video and the proliferation of television channels have, to some extent, mitigated against further catastrophic archive losses. But not entirely: although terrestrial television was reasonably well-served by its archive policies from the late ’70s onwards, the emergent satellite broadcasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s had no such safeguards. This was therefore one of the most fascinating aspects of the Missing Believed Wiped event: while previously lost TV appearances by The Who, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and Procul Harum, the newly-recovered sole surviving episode of Ronnie Barker’s sitcom His Lordship Entertains and a previously lost Til Death Do Us Part were all well worth the price of admission, the less well-known story of what happened to the archive of British Satellite Broadcasting was particularly fascinating.

I just about remember the original advertising for BSB and its ‘squarials’ (was the slogan “it’s fair to be square” or something like that?) – I’d have been eight at the time. There was never any question of us getting satellite TV -in fact I didn’t live in a multi-channel household until 2006 – so the whole thing was mysterious and unknown to me. BSB’s story was arguably one of complacency and poor management: they spent far more than Sky when setting up, launched later, and arguably produced better programmes. But when the market did its usual thing and produced a monopoly instead of competition, it was largely to Sky’s benefit, despite Murdoch’s organisation also being on the brink of financial collapse. The BSB operation was largely shut down and its staff made redundant; most of its archive rested with the production companies, perhaps most notably Noel Gay and John Gau.

Exactly what then happened to the material is far from clear, and even Ian Greaves’ presentation at the MBW event was unable to go into much detail. Noel Gay certainly claim that their archive has all been wiped, although reports persist of copies of programmes being made available on specific request. Either way, the BFI’s line (taking its cue from Kaleidoscope, the TV preservation organisation) is that the archive is believed to have been junked; certainly they have not been able to catalogue or recover any of it.

Well, so what? BSB was broadcasting for all of nine months in 1990 – surely very little programming was actually made, even less of it of any merit? And effecdtively these must have been programmes seen on their transmission by, well, basically nobody – how important can they be? Well, yes and no: BSB was making about five hours of material a day, and over nine months that adds up. Some of what was made, particularly in the arena of comedy, was rather significant however: it included the first TV work of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, as well as shows from Keith Allen, performances from the likes of John Hegley and the controversial (and mostly un-broadcast) sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home. Such an archive would have a certain amount of commercial value today. Indeed one of the chief reasons for its loss may be that it was never catalogued by performer, so someone looking for clips of, say, early Chris Morris, would not have been able to find then with any great ease.

The one major exception is the sci-fi soap Jupiter Moon, which not only survives intact but is available on DVD. It was intended as BSB’s evening soap, and 150 episodes were made (only about 75% aired before the merger with Sky): if you can see past the staid sets, variable acting and dubious production values, the storytelling is actually rather good. I’m still resisting the temptation to buy all the DVD sets and watch the 120 episodes I’ve yet to see – trouble is I’d never get anything done if I did.

Beyond this overview, I really need to defer to people more expert, of whom there are many. A recovery exercise to reconstruct the archive as far as possible is underway. Artists and producers are being contacted to ask if they have their own copies of shows, and an appeal for surviving home recordings has been launched.  Frustratingly, I cannot find one single web resource that outlines what’s missing, who made it and where it might still exist. A list of recoveries in 2008-9 is available on page 5 of this document but it’s the sort of thing you’d think would benefit from a blog or other small site. If you do happen to have any material, Ian Greaves is the person to contact via bsb at kaleidoscopepublishing co uk. Although satellite TV material from 1990 might seem fairly recent and modern, it’s worth reflecting it’s now twenty years old – older than many of the lost 1960s material was when it was discovered to have been destroyed in the mid-70s. I hope more material from this archive emerges during its twentieth anniversary year, and might even find its way to DVD.

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