Scavenging lost Doctor Who episodes: it’s an amazing true tale of keen advocates breaking bureaucracy with dogged and determined passion – and no one’s tale is more fascinating than Sue Malden’s quiet yarn of changing hearts and minds at the BBC during the late seventies and early eighties.
It may be hard to believe now but when Sue started out on a student placement at the BBC film library in the mid-1970’s, there was no formal BBC Videotape archive – only a working film library which maintained the use of current productions.
Speaking to SciFiNow, Sue recalls the slow progress she and her fellow archivist had convincing the BBC to merge both units as a mutual concern:
“There was quite a protracted, drawn-out discussion at the BBC, that eventually ended up with the merge of the film and videotape [collections]. I can’t exactly remember when that happened. It must have been about ’77/’78, something like that.
Prior to that we’d just been the film library and that was because, in a way, all the film that was produced by the BBC was produced by film department and so the library looking after it was managed by film department. Videotape recordings were very much the province of VT engineers and the VT department. And the two didn’t have much to do with one another.”
The onus on changing the minds of the very production minded VT engineers fell to fellow film archivist Anne Hanford, who, arguing quite rightly, that both creative fields were the BBC’s library finally broke that barrier – however, this presented a new problem of cataloguing all the recently admitted videotape stock:
“I remember us getting printouts coming into the library, showing videotape that was being wiped. My boss at the time found out that this sort of thing was going on and managed to get into the loop so that these printouts came to us and we could then start marking them with stuff for retention – overriding the production department’s decision to get rid of it.
For the first couple of times of us doing it nobody took any notice of our decisions, but eventually we got that going… I went and spoke to all the heads of production and engineering, explaining that now we were going to be keeping more videotape and I was going to have responsibility for that.”
The first part of her job was to stop the wiping, rather than actively looking for missing episodes. Unfortunately, when the BBC first starting broadcasting programmes on videotape in 1950, almost nothing of the first ten years remained while for the next ten years prior to Sue’s arrival the records were patchy at best.
Narrowing her focus, Sue decided that she needed a seminal series; something that had touched more than one generation – and only one programme would do; Doctor Who.
During the 1970’s attitudes towards television began to change. Thanks to the a new appreciation of television as an art form in its own right and the sterling work of both the British Film Institute and The National Film and Television Archive, Sue found herself working closely with Paul Madden (their work lead to Madden’s book Keeping Television Alive), fact-checking against the BBC archive.
Discovering an anomaly between the two archives, Sue managed to track down episodes missing from the BBC’s archive to BBC Enterprises – an early incarnation of what we now know as BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC.
Speaking to Paul’s contact at Enterprises, Sue made a discovery that is still being examined and studied today:
“I explained to her that: ‘You don’t realise, but some of these titles aren’t actually in the main archive.’ …They’d got no idea… They assumed that the tape had survived. It wouldn’t have occurred them to think that this film recording was unique… This woman was flabbergasted when I told her [and] agreed to let me check out everything they got back; everything that was in their store and everything that was in their catalogue… So, that became a very fruitful period… Obviously there was some Doctor Who in that.
I started to talk to Enterprises’ people asking them if they would communicate with their contacts to let them know that we’d prefer to have it back, rather than them wipe it or junk it… Sometimes they would give me lists of countries to who they knew they’d sold things and I suppose that then I was focussing specifically on Doctor Who – trying to trace specific countries where it had been sold…”
It’s down to the hard work of Sue and the BBC archive that we have now recovered and can enjoy most of the lost episodes on VHS first and then DVD – and it’s these practices started by Sue and her department that are responsible for recently turning up more of those fabled lost episodes.
Fandom owes her a great deal indeed.