FOR A BRIEF but brilliant moment at the dawn of the 1990s, a new broadcaster emerged with the promise of high quality, high brow and high fidelity programming beamed down direct from the skies.
That company, British Satellite Broadcasting, made its final transmission barely six months after its first, but during those memorable months between March and November 1990 gave an early TV platform for, among many others, “everyone who was anyone in Nineties comedy”.
The likes of Chris Morris, Chris Evans and Armando Iannucci got their big TV breaks on BSB, as did respected sports commentator Jeff Stelling. Jools Holland had his own show, as did Keith Allen on the Galaxy Channel – one of five offered with the BSB package.
Ultimately, in a battle reminiscent of the famed Betamax vs VHS showdown a decade before, the economically struggling BSB would be forced to merge with its lower brow competitor SKY, to form British Sky Broadcasting. The only things to remain would be rusting Squarials on the sides of houses and a bulging archive of quality shows ripe for repeats and home release.
So why are there no DVDs of Holland’s The Happening sitting alongside his Later… titles, or reruns of topical comedy show Up Yer News alongside Have I Got News For You and Drop The Dead Donkey?
Sadly, and shockingly considering the relative recency, the BSB archive is in a sorry state. Research is ongoing, but it seems the vast majority, perhaps even all, of the programming broadcast by BSB is currently missing.
This is where Ian Greaves comes in. Ian, a TV historian, is leading a campaign to recover the lost BSB archive, working alongside classic TV organisation Kaleidoscope.
His investigations are turning up previously missing material feared lost for ever, but, as he explains in this exclusive interview for WIPED, there is still a lot to uncover…
Q. What is the current state of the BSB archive?
A. It’s important to make a distinction between ‘BSB’ – the network of five satellite channels launched in 1990 – and the many independent production companies who produced the vast majority of its original programming. As far as it is understood, this material isn’t necessarily under the same roof. Take, for instance,our present ‘case study’ of Noel Gay TV, which has dispensed with their entire archive of productions for BSB. We understand that John Gau Productions – who made daily magazine show 31 West – has also disposed of material.
Kaleidoscope are faced with the challenge of tracking down individual rights holders and from that establish how badly the BSB archive as a whole has fared. This is a particular challenge when so little off-air material is available, and the output so poorly documented. It’s often the case that we can only follow a lead if we actually have recordings – the credits often providing an essential pointer to the next fork in the road.
Q. When did a picture of the sorry state of the BSB archives situation emerge?
A. I’ve been researching British broadcasting, particularly comedy, for many years. For one project alongside fellow researcher Justin Lewis, our focus was the group of comedians who made On the Hour and The Day Today – inarguably among the most important British comedies of the past twenty years. We kept finding references to their very early TV appearances on shows like Up Yer News and The Happening, both Noel Gay productions for BSB. Although I had vague memories of BSB – my father was one of the few to throw his weight behind a Squarial – this early work had certainly passed me by, and was suddenly of great historical significance.
Speaking to an array of producers, performers and writers who worked at BSB, it became abundantly clear that early appearances by the likes of Chris Morris and Steve Coogan were a drop in the ocean. Everyone who was anyone in Nineties comedy seems to have appeared on BSB during 1990.
I first discovered that Noel Gay’s retention of material was negligible when I contacted Charles Armitage in 2004. He confirmed to me that their programmes for BSB had been dispensed with, and another researcher received a similar response from Noel Gay in 2009.
Aside from a handful of editions of the nightly topical comedy Up Yer News – which are timecoded VHS copies of the February 1990 untransmitted pilot – it’s thought no other recordings survive. It’s possible that Sky (who merged with BSB towards the end of 1990 to form BSkyB) have kept some material, but we’re working on establishing that for sure. The BFI, to their credit. have kept a sample of output – but it is vanishingly small compared to the number of hours’ actually produced.
What this echoes is a frequent problem with the explosion in the number of production companies operating in British television – certainly over the past twenty-five years. Although it is written into contracts that copies are produced for the broadcaster, it is often assumed by the indie that their own archive is dispensable. Kaleidoscope have uncovered very recent examples of this, in which the broadcaster and production company have both ditched masters – one thinking the other will have kept their clone.
The BSB campaign is as much about raising awareness of this problem as it is committed to finding lost shows. It needs to be made clear that there is a home for this stuff. Kaleidoscope can certainly provide one, as they are now a legitimate archive in their own right, firmly committed to the preservation of television history.
Q. How is the campaign to recover the BSB archives coming along?
A. Thanks to Kaleidoscope’s support, I’m only now getting started on the real campaign work. We’re grateful to Dick Fiddy of the BFI for his support in helping us launch the campaign at Missing Believed Wiped in January, 2010. There, we screened a ten-minute sample of material which should also be viewable on the Kaleidoscope website in the near future.
To begin with, we’re hoping that collectors will come forward to help set the ball rolling with the essential groundwork. VHS was becoming more affordable in 1990 and the Galaxy Channel represented a nostalgia boom, with repeats of The Goodies, Shoestring, Secret Army and, of course, early Doctor Who. I know that many people were recording this stuff, but were they leaving the ad breaks intact, setting the tape off a few minutes early or even running on to the next show?
It is purely for reasons such as these that we have a copy of Chris Morris’s first proper TV work. What may strike someone as unremarkable could be critical to us, so we welcome all comers. Unfortunately, we’ve missed the boom in transferring tapes to disc; but I hope many collectors have been careful to preserve programme scraps, presentation and trails, even if they haven’t retained the original tapes.
Q. What sort of material did BSB broadcast?
A. Of the five channels, most launched officially in March 1990… although naturally some programming was being made at an earlier stage. Also, the network was only initially available via cable. The Galaxy, Now and Sports channels all went off the air in late November of the same year, with many series abandoned mid-run and several new productions left in suspension. Some were lucky to find new homes and continued into the new year, with the Power Station finally closing in February 1991. The Movie Channel, of course, survived much longer, as a popular alternative to Sky Movies.
BSB’s output was a genuine attempt at ABC1 programming, although Christopher Biggins’ Wife of the Week would seem to contradict that! Admittedly, some of the surviving programming leaves much to be desired. In amongst American imports and archive shows from the BBC, Galaxy offered a raft of new entertainment shows. Gameshows such as Laughlines, with Nicholas Parsons; the daily comedy show Up Yer News; music show Into the Groove; Nick Hancock’s La Triviata, and Jools Holland’s excellent variety show The Happening. I Love Keith Allen was the major star vehicle, once mooted for a BBC2 transfer.
Over on Power, the music channel, Chris Evans hosted a groundbreaking breakfast show and specially shot concert films abounded. The Sports Channel was a stepping stone in the careers of Jeff Stelling (Sky, Countdown) and Garry Richardson (Today). Now was a more cluttered affair. A channel rather vaguely devoted to ‘living’, it featured high profile slots for Robin Day and Selina Scott, as well as the irreverent late night current affairs review Left, Right and Centre. The programmes on that particular channel are rather more elusive as the audience share was reportedly terrible.
There was a modest afterlife to some programming. A small amount of Galaxy programming, including archive shows, ended up on repeat cycle on the short-lived Comedy Channel in 1991. A video release of the Ben Elton edition of The Last Laugh was released, and of course many episodes of Jupiter Moon eventually surfaced on DVD. Super-VHS recordings of the September 1990 Doctor Who Weekend have emerged on the DVD release of ‘The Three Doctors’.
Q. Why is this material important?
A. BSB offered people a great opportunity to try and fail, safe in the knowledge that hardly anyone would see the results. It was extremely encouraging toward experimentation. The conduit show in comedy terms was Up Yer News, BSB’s live, nightly sketch show. Alistair MacGowan was a regular here, but there was a huge range of guest contributors and one-off hosts: Steve Coogan, Spike Milligan, Phil Cornwell, Stewart Lee, Patrick Marber, Punt & Dennis, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Jerry Sadowitz, Mark Thomas, Jo Brand, John Thomson and Sean Hughes, the latter just a few hours after winning the Perrier.
The Happening was perhaps the best show. As well as showcasing some great musical performances, it documented many rising comics’ standard club sets – at a point just after the demise of Friday Night Live and a good while before the launch of The Stand Up Show. A time when there were very few vehicles available on terrestrial television. Longer sets appeared on The Last Laugh, which was the Live at the Apollo of its day. Galaxy easily exceeded BBC Radio in documenting live comedy during a vibrant period.
The regular hosts on Power included Chris Evans, Boy George and Suggs. Then we have to consider the guests on the various magazine shows aired across the network. The Movie Show, for example, is a potential goldmine. Frankly, anyone on the promotional round in 1990 was likely to give BSB ten minutes of their time.
There’s important social history to look back on too.1990 saw the downfall of Thatcher, German reunification and the invasion of Kuwait that sparked the Gulf War. The Now channel had a media hub in Westminster, where they interviewed politicians and closely followed developments. This material could provide valuable insights for historians and I, for one, would love to see some examples of it.
Q. What are the prospects regards recovery?
A. The recoveries to date have very largely emerged as domestically-recorded VHS. While you would expect production team members to have kept good off-master copies, a surprising amount of what has been recovered by that route is in a pretty poor state: unfortunate for such unique material, but better than nothing. A major recent discovery was a good run of Nick Hancock’s La Triviata, all dubbed from the masters and in excellent nick. A rundown of complete shows recovered to date was given in Kaleidoscope’s recovery list for 2009.
Ultimately, we intend to contact everyone credited on surviving shows in order to seek out privately-held material. Although we have spoken to a good many people already, there’s a huge amount still to do.
I’m optimistic that plenty more material can be found. Given the programmes are less than twenty years old, most of the participants are still with us and this is all within the era of home recording. Of course, many of the younger contributors were new to television so it seems far more credible that they asked for a copy, especially as they were unlikely to have their own dish. That’s certainly true of people we’ve spoken to who were in quite junior production roles.
Q. What the ultimate destinations of the recovered material
A. Kaleidoscope will archive all recovered material permanently. as well as making it available to the original rights owners. If it is well documented, the potential for use in documentaries will grow. There is certainly no shortage of programmes about comedy today – many of which would benefit from the archive. I just hope their researchers are up to the job!
- If you have any recordings of BSB material, or can help Ian and Kaleidoscope in any other way, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Click here to see the list of BSB recoveries (Correct to December 2009).
- For further details on BSB program holdings, visit Kaleidoscope’s Lost UK TV Shows Search Engine.