In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, radio stations didn’t keep all their output – so many early broadcasts went missing for decades, from a 1965 version of George Orwell’s 1984, to the “holy grail” of lost programmes, the missing early episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour. Voice actor and our host Keith Wickham has a passion for tracking down lost shows, unearthing amateur recordings of programmes made by listeners. He is not alone: there’s a whole network of “audio archaeologists” rifling through car boot sales and dusty attics for old tapes. As we hear from Roger Bickerton – who founded the first collectors’ circle in 1996 and is “81 years and 362 days” old – this is a collegiate community. It’s wholesome, eccentric, but vital work.
We meet the composer and audio engineer Mark Ayres, who explains how the Radiophonic Workshop – the BBC electronic music department responsible for the soundtracks to Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – closed in 1998. Ayres, then a freelancer, grew obsessed with finding the workshop’s missing recordings. He explains how its archive sat in three dark rooms in west London’s Maida Vale Studios – a former skating rink and “mildewed wedding cake” of a building. Ayres suspected missing tapes lurked in the band storeroom where the BBC Symphony Orchestra kept instruments, and persuaded an employee to unlock it. Inside were towers of tapes, including the only copy of the theme for the 1984 TV version of The Box of Delights. The show makes a discovery of its own: in a tape-filled attic, Bickerton finds 94 instalments of Desert Island Discs (Wickham gives them to a delighted Lauren Laverne) – and (I won’t spoil it) “the biggest find of 20 years”.
This one-off show has a lo-fi, collaged feel – historical clips are spliced with scenes of Wickham interviewing hobbyists amid rustling boxes, or in the park (“we archivists don’t get an awful lot of fresh air”). There’s a tongue-in-cheek tone – but a real joy in the work, too. “I love that feeling when I think: nobody’s heard this programme in 50 years,” Bickerton says. “That’s a shiver-down-the-spine moment.”
Raiders of the Lost Archive
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency