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Doctor Who: The Lost Episodes

There's a 108-episode gap in Doctor Who‘s history. Back in the '60s and early '70s it was customary for the BBC to dump episodes because, as Radio 4 presenter and Doctor Who fan Shaun Ley, puts it, “the psychology of broadcasting in the late '60s was one that was really a hangover from the days of live television, that it was really a transitory medium and it wasn’t one that you sought to preserve."

You can’t blame the Beeb. The corporation didn’t have a TARDIS to pop forward in time and learn about the home video and DVD revolution. To the BBC bosses at the time, once Doctor Who had been broadcast, maybe repeated once or twice, and been sold to as many other countries as it was going to sell to, there was no reason to keep it any longer. And so many episodes were simply junked.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. And that's where Archive on 4: Doctor Who - The Lost Episodes (Radio 4, 8pm, Boxing Day) picks things up. The show tells how disparate fans and professionals have spent the past three decades hunting down those lost treasures, a search which has seen over 40 episodes returned to the BBC archive.

The show’s presenter and researcher is Shaun Ley, who wistfully tells us, "I was born the week before Pat Troughton’s last episode was broadcast," reveals Shaun Ley wistfully, "so I've never seen any of these missing episodes. And for me, to get back something like 'The Massacre' – which I think has a wonderful soundtrack – would be amazing. And I'm sure there would be elements of it that would be disappointing, but I'd like to find that out for myself.”

SFX: So how did this show come about?

Ley: "It came about because of me, basically. It was my idea and I managed to persuade the commissioning editor of Radio 4 that this was something they should be doing. Especially given the good reaction to the other Doctor Who-related programmes they've put in the schedule – Mark Gatiss has done a couple of documentaries, and there’s also obviously been the Torchwood episodes – all of which have brought a bit of a new audience to the network.

“Also the timing was perfect, with the end of David Tennant's time as the Doctor, and the arrival of the new man, the programme is very much in the public eye, and is very, very prominent in both the schedules on TV and radio this Christmas.”

Doctor Who is clearly a subject close to your heart

"I am one of that generation of fans who was growing up with the show in the '80s, when the video revolution was only just stuttering into life, and I can remember (and I'm not sure if I should confess this, considering I now work for the BBC) but I can remember long sessions overnight with two video recorders plugged into each other, copying probably fourth or fifth generation off-air recordings from Australia or the United States, where the quality was so bad that the picture, even on colour episodes, dropped out alarmingly every few minutes.

“I was talking to somebody during the making of this programme who said that in some ways that's almost part of the nostalgia of it, that those old recordings were terrible to listen to and to watch. But you felt that you were getting your hands on something really unique. Something that most people didn't have access to."

So what the format of the programme?

"It is essentially about the lost stories and the lost episodes. What happened? Why it happened. And the efforts that have been made, particularly by the amateurs, if you like, to rediscover and locate some of these gems. We talk to Sue Malden who was the first archive selector at the BBC, and the person who discovered just how much of the archive was missing. This followed Asa Briggs’s inquiry into BBC archiving. There had been quite a lot of controversy in the mid 1970s about the BBC’s archive policy, and Professor Asa Briggs, who was the original – I think I'm right in saying - BBC historian, set up this inquiry, and the decision was made to appoint an archive selector. So she got that job and she basically focussed on two programmes, Z Cars and Doctor Who. She chose Doctor Who because she felt that it had been a programme that had had a major social impact. It introduced words into the English language, it had touched several ages groups over more than a decade. And she wanted to get a sense of what the BBC had in its archives. And once she'd gone down that route she then obviously discovered the gaps, and that started the process of trying to fill them.

"She told me some interesting stories to me, for example, about not knowing at BBC Archives that BBC Enterprises [which has since become BBC Worldwide] had its own collection of film cans. They were like a different world. So discovering all of this was a big thing.

"So we talk to Sue, and then we look at the work of the amateurs. We talk to one man who's in the oil industry by day, and in his spare time he spends his time travelling around Africa searching for those elusive episodes. He gives us a little bit of an insight into that process, and also an intriguing suggestion that he thinks he may be onto an important fresh lead that could open up new possibilities of finding things. I can’t give the details at this stage but that’s something you'll hear in the programme. It's not a promise that new episodes have been found but it's a new and very promising line of enquiry that they didn’t know about.

"So, in a way, the programme touches on the way the amateurs and the professionals have got together on this. And in many ways how the amateurs have really driven it. We look in a little more detail at some of the fans in New Zealand who were involved in the recovery of 'The Lion' (pictured left), and the process that lead to that episode being returned to the archive.

Where are most of these episodes found?

"Mostly overseas, but after some hard research. But there are surprises. The most recent one was 'The Daleks' Master Plan' episode which turned up when a former BBC engineer, who had taken it home with him, finally retired from the business and contacted the BBC rather sheepishly and said, "I think I’ve some things that might be of interest and really ought to be with you rather than in my garage."

"And so there’s still the vain hope that there might be people out there who just don’t know what they’ve got. There are also rumours about elite Doctor Who fans with episode four of 'The Tenth Planet' hidden under the bed, but I think those are urban myths to be honest. It's much more likely that the next episode to resurface will be found in the archives of a foreign TV station.

"it’s only really the random inefficiencies of a system called bicycling which have made these finds possible. Bicycling is where the film cans were physically moved from country to country – a country would buy them, it would have the rights to show them for six months, it would then ship them off to the next country on the list. That’s why a lot of people incorrectly think, 'Well, if 60 countries bought Doctor Who, that must mean there were 60 copies floating around, so there must be a couple left out there.' In fact there were a very small number of copies, and they were just moved from place to place.

"That explains how the restoration team did their some of their work on the Hartnell story 'The War Machine'. They had a rather poor quality, heavily edited version of one of the episodes found in Nigeria, and some off-cuts which had been discovered in the censor's archive in Australia. And the off-cuts fitted exactly into the gaps in the episode. So it turns out they came from the same film spool, so that spool must have at various times been in both Africa and Australia. It had travelled between the two.”

Have there been any close but no cigar moments during the search?

"Unhappy things happen. I was talking to one of the fans who found three episodes of 'The Reign Of Terror' in a Cyprus television station in 1987. When he talked to the archivist and asked what happened to the other episodes, the guy got out this great big ledger and painstakingly went down the list, and eventually found the line for those episodes and there was a big red cross next to the titles. And he said, 'I can tell you what happened there. They were in the main archive when it got bombed.' So there are a lot of near misses.”

“We got together Pauline Collins and Peter Purvis, who it turns out had actually known each other in the ’60s. Peter Purves’s then wife was in 'The Faceless Ones' with Pauline Collins, so they got to know each other. They were reminiscing about this - we had no idea when we brought them together that they were old friends. And Pauline had no idea that most of her episodes were missing and even less of an idea about the story behind the recovery of the two episodes we now do have. She was fascinated by it."

But doesn't the discovery of these episodes sometimes lad to disappointment? Many fans who had held "Tomb Of The Cybermen" in high regard before it was rediscovered didn’t think it lived up to its reputation.

“Whisper it softly, but you have to be honest – some of these episodes really aren’t as good as people's memories. But I think most people would say, 'Even if it turns out to be rubbish I'd still like to see it.'"