The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Underwater Love

On Sunday went to Missing Believed Wiped where, as I’m sure anyone reading this knows, they showed the recently-recovered Doctor Who episode The Underwater Menace part two and a clip from the also recently-recovered Doctor Who episode Galaxy 4 part three. Of which more later. But those weren’t the only things they showed.

The reason why I’d originally been excited about the event, before I may have heard a rumour and been sworn to secrecy, was that it would include a long-long Dennis Potter play, Emergency Ward 9, first broadcast in 1966. The play’s story editor Kenith Trodd introduced it, but with caveats; it was written in a rush, it was from a different time where racism was more commonplace. I think, actually, the play is much better than he thinks it is. It’s essentially about two men in adjoining bates, Mr Flanders and Mr Padstow, and we follow them over a few days in a typical NHS hospital. The only part of the story that didn’t ring true was the wealth black character; if he’s so wealthy, why is he in an NHS ward? The death of a patient asking repeatedly for a ‘cuppa tea’ was pretty tough viewing; this, and some other parts of the play (including the use of archive music) turned up in a rewritten form in The Singing Detective 20 years later. It was a funny, moving and in places ‘angry’ play; much better than some of the dull tat he was knocking out for LWT a few years later.

We were also shown some adverts and music clips with puppets, which were amusing enough, and a rather stiff play from the 50’s starring Andre Morrell, a supposedly but not actually true story about an allied soldier having plastic surgery so that he could take the place of a Nazi officer in Norway.

And then Mark Gatiss introduced the Doctor Who discoveries. It was an incredibly thrilling moment, to see the Hartnell titles on the screen, and then to see a Rill (a monster which fans had previously only been able to see in two grainy photographs) in action, followed by Air Lock, the title of the third episode of Galaxy 4. The Doctor and Vicki are trying to escape from its spaceship, a rather flimsy-looking affair like a geodesic climbing frame. Part of the set breaks off out of shot, but Hartnell carries on regardless. But then Vicki is grabbed by a Chumblie (a robot that resembles a stack of upturned colanders) and we get to see that Chumblies have arms and guns and little lights. We then cut to a scene of Maaga, leader of the Drahvins, discussing the artificial genetically-modified nature of the Drahvin race, most of which was delivered as a soliloquy to camera. And then the picture cut out. Just as it was getting exciting.

The Underwater Menace part two was no less fascinating. It’s Patrick Troughton’s earliest surviving performance as the Doctor, and as such is more gimmicky and comedic than what would come later. My mum once told me how annoying he was to begin with, because he’d just sit and play his bloody recorder all the time, and yet until now we’ve never had a clip of Troughton doing just that*; I also suspect that this episode is so early in his run that he’s still wearing a wig over his own hair. He’s also still very much in the wearing-silly-hats –whenever-he-can stage. What was surprising was how dark the episode was, how seriously it was all taken (given that the plot and dialogue are both pure comic strip). The story’s villain, Professor Zaroff, is supposed to be mad, and seeing Joseph Furst’s performance in this episode puts his increasing mania in episode three (which has long-since existed) into context; it also makes more sense of the politics and religion of the Atlantean people. It was also lovely to see more of Ben, Polly and Jamie (Jamie still wearing his highlander outfit from his first story). The only major disappointment is that I’d expected to see a shot of Zaroff’s pet octopus, but alas, no octopus was forthcoming. But it was a surprisingly strong episode; the darkness and cavernous echo giving it a real sense of claustrophobia, of it all taking place deep below ground, where a whole society is slowly going stir crazy. It’s still a daft, random, clunkily-written story, but the joy is in seeing Patrick Troughton working with what dialogue he’s given, playing against it, or weighing up his moments carefully, and creating a believable, magical performance, not so much with the words but through his mannerisms and expressions. Even if he does play that bloody recorder.

The second half of Missing Believed Wiped wasn’t nearly so much fun. I should have just gone to the bar.

After about half of the audience had left, Dick Fiddy took to the stage to remind people that they shouldn’t record stuff shown on the big screen. A reminder which might have been more effective before half the audience had left. But then it was on with the show...

First there were some clips from Oh Boy! An episode of the show has recently been found, but what seems to have happened is that someone has appropriated the footage in the hope of getting their Oh Boy! documentary off the ground, so rather than seeing the recovered footage in situ, instead we only got to see his trailer for his prospective documentary (which largely comprised of footage not from the recovered episode). I’m not keen on people trying to further their careers by interpolating themselves between recovered footage and people getting to see it. So rather than the footage of one of Cliff Richard’s earliest TV performance being made available for, say, a documentary about Cliff Richard, it seems either it will only see the light of day as part of some guy's documentary on Oh Boy! or not at all. Which seems counter to the spirit of Missing Believed Wiped – this stuff should be made available to as many people who want to see it, not hoarded or hidden or with an agenda attached.

Next up was an episode of The Rolf Harris Show. It was 45 minutes of sheer torture. I suppose it could be argued it has some historical merit – if nothing else it makes you appreciate how much better Lulu and Dusty Springfield’s shows were from the same time – and it was interesting to note that even when they were young, the Beverley Sisters looked like they were in their late 50s - but it was excruciating to sit through. As was the following ‘recovery’, a recording of a guitar festival from 1984. I put recovery in quotation marks because this concert was never actually missing, it was barely even broadcast in the first place (only being shown on a satellite channel that no-one could pick up) and has been retained in an indie's archive ever since.

What baffles me about this is that the people going to Missing Believed Wiped were only shown a measly 5 minutes of Galaxy 4, a recovery which will bring delight to thousands of people, and which made the national news, because the organisers thought it was more important to show 45 minutes of The Rolf Harris Show and a guitar festival from 1984.

Edit: Alternatively, they could have dropped the 50's play, as it hadn't been mentioned in publicity and, given the howls of derision with which it was greeted, I don't think it would have been missed.

Now, I’m not saying those things aren’t important in their own way, of course they are, but if the BFI's attitude to what gets shown at Missing Believed Wiped reflects their priorities regarding what they decide to keep and what they chuck then I worry. Unless, of course, it wasn’t their decision to make, and the fact that they could only show 5 minutes of Galaxy 4 was because of the owner of the footage or the BBC or for technical reasons.

But even so, I think there could be more flexibility in what gets show at Missing Believed Wiped. It’s not as if the programme is announced in advance. The publicity makes it clear 'As per normal not all the content of the day is verified at the time of going to press'. If you have a year in which lots of TV shows have turned up, but not many musical performances, don’t allocate TV shows and musical performances equal running time. Because, quite frankly, sitting through The Rolf Harris Show my attitude was that it should be chucked right back in the skip. I don't bedgrudge some highlights being shown, but the whole 45 mins? And the same goes for the guitar festival from 1984. The programme selection of Missing Believed Wiped should better reflect what the people paying to see the footage might actually be interested in and not the whims and personal tastes of the organisers. I mean, I was delighted to see the footage of David Bowie performing Jean Genie on Top of the Pops, but to play it twice? When you could be showing something else (like the rest of Galaxy 4 part three)? Because, I think, if the people paying to go to Missing Believed Wiped keep on being subjected to stuff like The Rolf Harris Show or a guitar festival from 1984 when there’s so much other more interesting and entertaining stuff turning up that could and should be shown (such as a whole edition of Top Of The Pops from 1976) then they’ll stop paying to go to Missing Believed Wiped. The event should be a showcase for gems from the past, not a feat of endurance.

Oh, I know I'm being greedy, I'm just annoyed that they didn't show all of Galaxy 4 part three. Because that would've been fantastic.

See blogs on previous Missing Believed Wipeds here, here and here.

* I have since been reminded that he does in The Abominable Snowmen part two.

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