If you’re not a Doctor Who fan it is probably best to look no further.
Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.
I won’t bore you with the details of when and where I watched my first episode of Doctor Who, suffice to say that the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and that I was immediately hooked. But I was in for a surprise. In the serial The Three Doctors, Jon Pertwee once again played the Doctor. And so did Patrick Troughton. And so did William Hartnell. This was all rather baffling until it was explained to me that as they had played the Doctor in the past, these two apparent imposters were in fact every bit as genuine as Jon Pertwee’s real thing. Which raised an intriguing possibility: other episodes. Other episodes that I might one day watch. Other episodes that I might one day watch because the BBC with the unique way it was funded, free from the need to make a profit, would be looking after them for me.
Except it wasn’t. Something like two fifths of the Doctor Who episodes produced before 1970 are “missing” from the BBC archive. Although it is now 20 years since I found out about it, I still find it difficult to believe that such an act of cultural vandalism was allowed to take place. But it was.
So why are so many missing? In Wiped! Richard Molesworth describes the whole sorry tale in exhaustive (and some times exhausting) detail. It begins with Doctor Whos being recorded on videotape. In the 1960s videotape was a new technology and as such, expensive. Broadcasters were understandably keen to re-use the tapes whenever they could.
Another factor in this was the deal that the BBC had made with the actors’ union Equity. Younger readers may be unfamiliar with this but in the 1960s and 1970s unions were extraordinarily powerful. The deal between Equity and the BBC meant that an episode could only be repeated for two years and after that only with Equity’s specific permission. So, you’d have a situation where after 2 years you would have videotapes that effectively could not be broadcast and an engineering department banging on the door demanding they be allowed to wipe them. As a consequence every single inch of 1960s Doctor Who was wiped. It was far from alone. Episodes of Top of the Pops, the Likely Lads, Not only but also…, Z-Cars, Til death us do part and many others met a similar fate.
In the interests of fairness I should point out that when it came to wiping TV programmes the BBC was far from the only offender. There is almost nothing left of the first season of the Avengers for instance. Or Sexton Blake. About half of the highly-rated Callan (played by Edward Woodward) is also missing. However, all the Saints and Danger Mans are still with us. Meanwhile, my understanding is that most American TV, even from the 1950s still exists.
But that is not the end of the story. Britain was not the only market for Doctor Who. Episodes were sold throughout the former British Empire and, oddly enough, Ethiopia. To do this the videotapes were used to create films in a process known as “tele-recording”. The telerecordings were sent to the customers with strict instructions that after they were used they must either be returned to the BBC or destroyed. Why destroyed? who knows, but those were the rules.
Every episode of Doctor Who in the 1960s was recorded in black and white. By the early 1970s the BBC was broadcasting almost exclusively in colour. Most of the world was also going over to colour and sales of the black and white episodes started to dry up. Reels of film would show up at the BBC with almost no obvious commercial use – the home video market was still many years away in the mid-1970s. Short of space, the department responsible, BBC Enterprises, had three options. They could give the films to the BBC Film Library, to the National Film Archive or they could throw them on the skip. Although Molseworth does not state this explicitly, it would appear that private ownership of BBC copyright material was (and is for all I know) illegal, and so selling these films to the general public was not an option. In most cases the BBC chose to file the episodes in a skip.
One thing that particularly sticks in my craw is the fact that even after the BBC did everything in its power to destroy these episodes it still has copyright to them. This has some very peculiar effects as I shall explain.
As I said, many episodes no longer exist as films or tapes. But all the audios exist (recorded off-air by fans), as do the scripts and a large number of photographs, otherwise known as “tele-snaps”. Over the years a cottage industry has grown up assembling these disparate elements into what are known as “reconstructions”. Now, they’re not very good and they are really only for the dedicated fan – people like me in other words – but right now they are the best we’ve got. Sadly, these too are affected by BBC copyright. For many years they were only available on videotape and on a non-profit basis. The producers were wary of annoying the BBC. And then one day someone (quite reasonably you’d think) decided to start putting them up on YouTube. Oh dear, the BBC really didn’t like that. Not only did they force YouTube to take a whole load of them down but seem to have closed down the reconstruction business temporarily if not permanently. Bastards.