This modest little essay was inspired by Jason Z in the comments section of Alex Skerrat’s article, Are There Any Missing Third Doctor Episodes? Jason Z said:
“I think I read in the letters page in DWM about a talk given by someone from the BBC in 1973 about the future of home video – that stories such as Galaxy Four need not have been junked because there were people who saw that home video was coming, well before the junking ceased…”
I can’t shed any further light on this particular talk – and I will come back to the comment – but this got me casting my mind back to the first visual media that I collected. Most of my tales usually start from my childhood and this is no different.
When I was about 13 years old, I had a very cheap 8mm/Super 8 projector and a small collection of cine films stored in a shoebox. Most of them were edits of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, or Looney Tunes, but I also had an edit of the finale of Thunderbirds pilot episode, Trapped in the Sky.
These were all on reels holding 50 feet of cine film, which meant that they each only lasted about three minutes and they were silent; any dialogue were sparse subtitles or had inserted caption-cards similar to films from the silent era.
Cine Film’s Endurance
Just for those who may not know much about 8mm cine film, it was invented in the 1930s where 8mm referred to the width of the celluloid, and in its original form had quite large sprocket holes. Film itself was one of the first formats where someone could easily watch films in their own home. It would usually mean getting out a cumbersome screen and a projector, but 8mm projectors were much more portable than the large 16mm projectors us older readers might remember from our school assembly days.
The main drawback with cine film was where the projector’s bulb would get so hot, it would burn the celluloid should the film stop or get caught in the transport gate.
In the mid-1960s, 8mm was then superseded by Super 8: the film was still the same width, but the sprocket holes were much smaller which allowed more space for a slightly larger and better picture. Projectors around the time of Super 8 would usually be able to play both types.
Home projectors came in two variants. The most common would project a picture only, but more expensive projectors would also be able to play a soundtrack from the film as well. There were projectors that could only handle up to 200 feet spools (like mine) and others that had the ability to accommodate much larger spools of up to 830 feet of film; the larger the spool, the longer the film: roughly 15 feet per minute.
Oh yes, to watch a home-movie, all the lights had to be turned off and the curtains closed.
My projector wasn’t particularly good – a Brevette Cine Max (above); a very cheap plastic effort – but it gave enough power for me to watch my meager collection projected onto my shoebox lid and, thankfully, being so cheap, the projector’s bulb wasn’t strong enough to cause any burn; hence the poor projection range. It also played the movies significantly slower than they should have been, but it worked and that was all I cared about.
8mm/Super 8, although primitive to today’s digital media, was actually quite versatile, as film didn’t always need electricity to watch them: there have been a number of toys using 8mm/Super 8 where short films could be watched using a hand-cranked viewer.
The Movie Viewer alone had variants featuring Disney, Superhero cartoons, Star Wars, and – bizarrely, as it was an adult horror film – Alien!
Like everything else, 8mm/Super 8’s resilience would be subject to storage conditions and the original film stock used. Colour film would often be prone to fading and, like audio tape, it didn’t take too well to being creased or scratched. However, it was relatively easy to edit out segments or damaged parts as editing kits were freely available.
The First Visual Home Movie Recording of Any Kind
The cine camera was the very first visual home recording format; the vast majority of which were yards of film that people shot on their holidays and bored you with at dinner parties.
A cine camera’s film cartridge limit was to produce a 50-foot spool of film and, like the projectors, the cameras came in a silent version and ones that could record sound. Many also had the facility to take single frames. Useful for any budding animators.
There are a several behind the scenes captures featuring Doctor Who cast and crew taken using cine cameras. An example is on The Sea Devils DVD where a naval rating captured footage from the location filming in Portsmouth.
Similarly, there are lots of clips of off-air captures (pointing the cine camera at the TV screen), but home ‘telecine’ was much more low-tech than the BBC’s own version of converting video to film stock. Nevertheless, sections of The Tenth Planet Part Four VHS reconstruction used footage recorded in this manner.
But back to commercial releases and the 1970s…
Always on the lookout to improve my collection, I obtained a catalogue of available films and poured over the contents. Rather optimistically, as it turned out, as the vast majority were from feature-films and they were ALL too expensive. They had longer running times and were offered on a scale starting at colour and with sound down to black and white and silent. The further down the scale it went, the cheaper the product. Some were short edited segments; others were full movies spread over several reels.
The cheaper stuff I could afford with my pocket money were either from the silent film era or cartoons that I’d never heard of and these would usually be found in the bargain buckets of larger photography shops (and didn’t appear in my catalogue). Imports were on the cheaper side too; the Looney Tunes reels I mentioned were presented with Italian packaging.
Of note that I can remember from the catalogue, were episodes of the 1970’s cop-show The Sweeney which were available in three or four reel sets to cover a whole episode. They also had full soundtracks and had a very high price tag.
I don’t recall anything from the BBC.
When I still visited comic marts during the 1980s and 1990s – the Central Hall in Westminster was a regular haunt – I’d often see the odd Super 8 reel knocking about. The only BBC-related material I’d ever come across were reels from the Cushing Dalek films or Hammer’s remake of The Quatermass Experiment.
Still nothing directly from the BBC.
That was until a visit to a boot fair during the early 1990s when boot fairs were still fun to visit before all the traders invaded them. I found two small 50 ft reels of The Magic Roundabout; silent, black and white. 50p each. A snip!
So there had been release of a BBC programme after all.
The company that released these was Walton who were a big name in the home movie market, but before some exclaim that The Magic Roundabout was originally French, on the box it states “a BBC TV Enterprises Film”.
I have also recently discovered a second release of a programme, shown on the BBC, of the cartoon Tales from Hoffnung. Although this time the box states “as shown on BBCtv” (rather than mentioning Enterprises). Tales from Hoffnung was a BBC co-production, so it’s unclear who pushed the rights to clear this for release: the BBC or the co-producer Halas and Batchelo? My money is on the latter…
What Could Have Been
If we therefore take an average Super 8 as an edited release, how would Doctor Who fare in the three to 10 minute ‘soundbite’ (or silent-bite) stakes, pre-1978?
The evidence seems to suggest that the small three-minute reel tended to be cartoons, comedy shorts (Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy), or children’s interest (Thunderbirds, Stingray, ‘Trips to the zoo’ types). Doctor Who could have provided a few sequences to play around with, especially with the Daleks or Cybermen (suggestions in the comments section, please).
But I’d hazard a guess that The Magic Roundabout’s release was a tester and one that doesn’t appear to have gotten anywhere, considering the complete lack of further releases of any BBC material (although I’d love to find out if there have been any further commercial releases that I don’t know about).
There was also the huge issue of price, but we’ll tackle that one later.
Tales of Hoffnung was from 1965 and The Magic Roundabout’s reels were released later the same decade. If Doctor Who had been exploited around the same time, releases would have pre-dated the junkings. It’s an interesting notion that if BBC TV Enterprises had decided to release Doctor Who snippets before the junking started, there may be at least some clips still existing from missing episodes and of a better quality than captured by fans who pointed their cine cameras at the telly!
What Possibly Is
BUT, while trawling t’internet for 8mm/Super 8 information – and there’s very little of it – I happened across a spool of episode two of The Evil of the Daleks on Super 8, that had been sold on eBay.
How this reel came to be is a mystery because this wasn’t commercially available and the BBC’s film stock would have been 16mm. Someone, somewhere, made the effort to produce this. How this was achieved, I have no idea, but presumably they had to have had access to the 16mm print to do it. What is evident is that there are still many 8mm/Super 8 collectors and who knows what may be out there lurking in their private collections in this format?
We tend to think of missing Doctor Who episodes being discovered stored in large 16mm film cans, but this spool would only be 10 inches in diameter and fit easily on a shelf with a collection of Doctor Who LPs!
More to the point, let’s say that a missing episode was found on Super 8; would Super 8’s resolution be good enough for a decent transfer to digital? With an eye on my previous essay, Doctor Who on Blu-Ray: Why Can’t it all be in Proper High Definition?, if the condition of the celluloid is pristine then there is no reason why a decent Standard Definition transfer couldn’t be achieved. Steve Roberts’ Restoration Team may need to weave their magic, but it is argued that a resolution of 720p (i.e. half HD) can be extracted from a good quality Super 8 picture.
As hinted earlier, the only Doctor Who to be officially released on the home movie format were the two Peter Cushing Dalek films. Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD were both released in two variants in 1977.
The first, was a two-reel edit costing around £32 in colour sound (£10 for b&w silent).
The second was an eight-reel version of the whole movie (although it appears that there may have been some slight edits here and there). The price of the full versions would have been around £130. Bear in mind that the average weekly wage, in 1977, was about £70… Ouch! And for that, you also got those badly drawn covers.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t sell very well.
A Possible View of ‘Home Video’ in 1973
If the BBC had been able to exploit Doctor Who on 8mm/Super 8 then it’s possible that the junkings could have been avoided but, bearing in mind the price of a full Cushing Dalek movie, to release a full four-part (at least) Doctor Who story on home-movie with sound – or any BBC drama come to that – the purchase price would have been eyewatering, despite some being black and white only. And what of longer stories such as The War Games?
This would also scupper any ideas of releasing a series of stories as it would simply be too expensive to collect.
Maybe some BBC employees could have seen the home video market on the horizon, but there is a ten-year gap between 1973, when the issue was raised, and the first video tape release. Within that time period the only home-media market (i.e. Super 8) just wasn’t viable.
The prices of those original VHS releases don’t seem so bad now…