Mangling the Archives 

31 December 2006

Archive television is a precious commodity. For vast stretches of the medium’s history, nothing exists. Telerecording began experimentally around 1947, but it was used sparingly, either on technical or cost grounds. The introduction of videotape in 1958 resulted in even more losses, as the tape was regarded as reusable. There are just two editions of Dee Time, plus a reel of clips. All that exists of Fred Emney’s 1950s series Emney Enterprises is half an episode.

The quality of what does survive is often bad or indifferent. The suppressed field method of telerecording, used from the start until the late 1950s, captured only half the fields of the original interlaced television picture. This means that only half of the lines are there – to be precise, a suppressed field telerecording of a 405-line picture retains only 188.5 lines, each of which is painfully visible. However, it’s the content that matters.


Without grotty old telerecording, we would have no permanent record of the 1953 Coronation coverage – a pioneer OB. Without nasty old telerecording, the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment would be as distant a memory as the rest of the series.


Without telerecording, the chances of the last two series of Hancock’s Half Hour and the sole series of Hancock surviving would be slim – and that means no ‘Blood Donor’, ‘Radio Ham’, ‘Reunion Party’ or ‘Missing Page’.

Into the colour age, the cameras and recording technology were improved greatly, but tubed cameras needed a lot of light. Without it, the pictures became noisy. Nonetheless, a well-maintained EMI 2001 in ideal conditions could put pictures on 2-inch video tape that stand up well alongside anything modern technology can create.

Progress means that we now have widescreen, digital television and high definition for those who like watching demonstration films showing shoals of gaily-coloured fish swimming. Even so, television keeps looking back into the archive. A precious commodity it may be, but modern television seems hell-bent on devaluing it as much as possible.

First, there’s the reprehensible practice of cropping programmes made in the old 4:3 Academy aspect ratio into 16:9 by lopping off the top and bottom. On a 625-line colour analogue recording, this looks bad enough. The composition created by the original camera crew and director is ruined, and because the picture has been zoomed to fill the frame, everything is smeary. BBC2’s recent Comedy Doubles series consisted of old sitcoms cropped to 14:9, pleasing no-one. On a 405-line suppressed field telerecording, however, the effect is even worse, to the point of being unwatchable, as I found on a recent repeat of Face to Face. The loss of the top and bottom of the frame results in an effective picture of 141 lines. Baird was doing better than that with a bicycle pump, a Box Brownie and the remains of his old glasses in 1935.

Secondly, there’s the issue of historical context. BBC Four is to be applauded for showing archive programmes in their entirety, and letting the viewers make up their own minds. Other channels fail to credit their public with the same level of intelligence, and repackage their archive offerings into inane clip shows. Zoomed and cropped to widescreen, selected solely for embarrassment value (usually recycling the same clips that featured on the last clip show) and peppered with ‘reminiscences’ from people who weren’t actually there (and who, judging by the drivel they speak, shouldn’t actually be free to roam among humanity). The cynical interpretation is that by doing this, the programmes don’t qualify as repeats. The charitable interpretation is that the compilers of such visual kapok actually believe they’re proper television producers, bless them.

BBC Four apart, archive television’s presentation these days seems to be directed at rewriting the past to make the wretched present look halfway decent. It seems to be saying ‘look, the picture quality was crap, and the acting was even worse’. As transmitted, however, old television was actually rather good. A 405-line picture on a good set came a close second to 625-line monochrome in quality terms. The sawtooth subtlety of the line structure and the awful, tweedy haze of film weave and scratches are products of the recording medium’s inadequacies, and not those of the producers, directors and crew who made these shows or the research teams who made the technology. Starting from this position of disadvantage, why make it look even worse?

The conclusion is simple: show old programmes in their entirety, in their proper aspect ratio, without a former editor of Smash Hits interrupting to twitter about dated hairstyles. Give the crews and performers the respect they deserve. The viewers, too. If something is crap, we will know it, without any external help.

It all used to be so easy. In November 1986, BBC2 ran a whole week of archive programmes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Television Service. Don’t expect anything similar for the 70th.

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