How Do You Do!
Some of you, if you've been following my ramblings for a while, might well be aware that I have a keen interest in 'lost' programmes from the sixties, seventies and even the eighties. Most of you, however, won't be aware that I've actually found quite a few previously 'lost' programmes myself. That's because these have mostly been recoveries of missing radio shows, and they never really get the same sort of attention that wiped television does.
In fairness, most people probably don't even realise that there actually is any missing radio; and to be honest I didn't either until I started research for my books about Radio 1 comedy Fun At One, and discovered that there were a lot of surprising gaps in surprising places. Many of said gaps have since been plugged, and while I'm not that into blowing my own trumpet, it's fair to say that the schedule for Radio 4Extra's 'Comedy Controller' slot might be even more repetitive still without a couple of bits and pieces that I've tracked down and returned to the archives.
On a handful of occasions, I've also been involved to varying - and mostly tangential - extents with the recovery of lost TV shows. Rather than liberated from far-flung film libraries or spotted on a table at a car boot sale, however, these have all been recovered from early off-air recordings, usually made and kept by someone who had no idea of their rarity or value; sometimes even the people involved in the shows haven't been aware that they are in possession of potentially the only copy in existence. This has included a couple of notable comedy shows and one very notable pop music show indeed, but I've rarely ever discussed any of this as, seeing as I wasn't actually the person who negotiated a loan of the tapes and then spent hours painstakingly retrieving a watchable copy from the fragile recording on an obsolete format, I don't feel that I really deserve credit for their recovery.
However, this time it's a bit different...
One area of the BBC's archive where there are substantial gaps, though you may not necessarily be aware of this, is in late seventies and early eighties children's television. Cutting a very long story very short indeed, this was the result of a project to digitise the archives around the late eighties/early nineties, and a corresponding shortfall in funding that meant that not everything could be transferred. The tapes that had fallen outside the allocated budget were offered to the BFI, who took what they could but unfortunately had neither the space nor the resources to take everything. The upshot of this was that a difficult decision was taken to jettison huge swathes of formulaic shows with little percieved repeat value, where it was felt at the time that a couple of representative examples might be all that anyone ever needed. A definition that somehow didn't quite manage to extend to EastEnders.
As you can imagine, Children's Television was particularly badly affected by this decision, and large numbers of editions of the likes of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop, Ragtime and Jackanory Playhouse were consigned to archival oblivion. In fairness, however, a significant number were also kept, and if you want to start blaming anyone, look instead to the 'money men', the middle-managers, and that blue sky thinking-obsessed prat at the top of the bureaucracy-addled tree. Also, despite wild rumours to the contrary, this wasn't adopted as a long-term wipe-crazy policy, and no matter what Stewart Lee might vaguely suggest, all of This Morning With Richard Not Judy is still present and correct. It's not on DVD, though, but that's another story.
Anyway, since the realisation sank in that this might possibly have been something of an error of judgement, there have been a number of recoveries and often even in broadcast quality too; notably there are now complete runs of Rentaghost and the extended Alberto Frog-equipped editions of Bod in existence. But when it came to the more obscure and less well-remembered shows affected by the decision, was there any hope of ever finding any lost episodes? Would anyone really have kept any off-airs of long-forgotten science-for-under-fives show Over The Moon?
Well, that's a question that I've been keeping very much in mind while working on an ongoing project that has involved chatting to quite a few people who were involved with BBC Children's Television around this time. Wherever possible, I've taken the opportunity to ask cast and crew members if they might still have a couple of VHSes (or even Betamaxes) of their television appearances knocking around. Sadly most have drawn a blank, and a couple of others are sure they do but so far haven't been able to turn anything up; more often than not, any such tapes will be in boxes behind tons of other boxes in attics rather than neatly filed and proudly displayed on the mantelpiece. More recently, though, I turned my attention to a show called How Do You Do!.
For the benefit of anyone who doesn't remember it - and I'd wager that's the vast majority of the people reading this - How Do You Do! made its debut in the BBC's traditional 'Watch With Mother' lunchtime slot in 1977. Created by Play School presenter Carole Ward, and representing an early and surprisingly subtle move to acknowledge multiculturalism, each edition featured presenters Carmen Munro and Greg Knowles playing counting and rhyming games, and a story - drawn by Joe creator Joan Hickson - about the hip and liberated pre-school teacher Miss King and her diverse class of charges; snooty Caroline, timid Mary, practical Tony, moody Scott, worryingly surreal twins Annie and Louise, outgoing George, quietly cheerful Kevin, tomboy space cadet Sandra, and Cheng, who didn't speak much English but was keen to learn. The thirteen episodes of How Do You Do! were repeated a staggering number of times up to 1981 - surviving for a while into the rebranding of the timeslot as 'See Saw' - but by the end of the decade there were only seven of them left.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be able have a bit of a chat with Greg Knowles, who aside from providing me with all manner of fascinating background details on the production of this little-documented show, also mentioned in passing that he still had quite a few episodes of How Do You Do! on video. Needless to say, I was somewhat excited by this; as indeed was Greg, who had no idea that the series was no longer intact in the archives. I quickly arranged for copies, and sat down to watch them, hoping that they wouldn't just be the seven extant ones. And, as luck would have it, three of them weren't, and copies of Counting Time, Finding Out and Baby Sitting in full and in surprisingly good quality are currently winging their way back to the archives. Suddenly we've gone from seven existing episodes to ten and it all feels a lot less incomplete. And I haven't even spoken to everyone involved in the show yet.
Some people are probably reading this and scoffing that this is a rather trivial find compared to, say, A Madhouse On Castle Street, Doctor Who And The Macra Terror or The Beatles on Juke Box Jury. Which is quite possibly true from a cultural or mass popularity point of view, but in its own way, this is every bit as important a find as anything more high profile. Like so many other unlikely recoveries in recent years of shows that were thought to be lost forever, it proves beyond all doubt that even the most obscure and unlikely programme shown after the arrival of home video might still be out there somewhere. So if you've got any more off-airs of How Do You Do!, please let me know. Or Playboard. Or Ragtime. Or Take Hart, Play School, Play Away, Why Don't You?, Over The Moon, Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore, Get Set For Summer, Cheggers Plays Pop, Ring-A-Ding, Lucky Numbers, Screen Test, Star Turn Challenge, Play Chess, Chock-A-Block, Animal Magic, The Adventure Game, Jackanory Playhouse...
You can find features on many more obscure and long-forgotten programmes, including my top ten of The TV That Time Forgot, in my book Not On Your Telly.