IF you are keen on classic British radio comedy, then you probably listen to BBC Radio 7.
The digital station’s schedule is packed with vintage shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour, The Navy Lark, Round the Horne and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.
If the recent run of ISIRTAs sound crisper and and more comprehensive than you remembered, then you have KEITH WICKHAM to thank.
In addition to being a voice actor and writer, Keith is also an audio restoration enthusiast and has been working with Radio 7 to give listeners the closest approximation to how the shows would have sounded when first broadcast.
Better still, Keith took the time and effort to track down previously missing episodes not heard since 1965.
He spoke to Wiped about his work on ISIRTA and other radio shows, including The Goon Show and Septoe and Son.
Wiped. Can you relate your background in audio restoration and how you became involved with the missing episodes scene.
Keith. My job is as a voice over and character performer for cartoons and commercials, but I’ve also done radio comedy and I’ve always been interested in it, which is mainly why I chose to become a voice actor in the first place.
The need to record and restore radio shows is a long standing interest of mine, which as my income grew along with the spare time I had and the kit I was able to buy, became a full time hobby and eventually led me to restore all the Goon Shows way before Ted Kendall was commissioned to do so by the BBC.
I spent four years collecting and editing all the copies I could lay my hands on, which included masters from TS (BBC Transcription Services), and, thanks to Dirk Maggs, a set from the BBC, plus all the off air-copies I was handed. I was lucky in that I was handed 100 original off-air broadcasts in one go right at the start, and then I managed to get the set of John RT Davies‘ recordings from the chairman of the GSPS (Goon Show Preservation Society).
I had a complete set of restored shows which Ted has been using to augment his Goon Shows that are being released now. He, of course, has access to all the masters. I didn’t, and he has a few more contacts, but the basic job was done, and that started me off. In the meantime I’ve got hundreds of shows from various people, and I spent a lot of spare time restoring stuff for fun.
W. Some of your work is currently being aired on BBC Radio 7, namely, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.
K. ISIRTA was suggested to me by Ian Bradbury, a fellow collector, and I did the first restoration run about three years ago, using the then available TS and off-air recordings. It was by no means complete. However, several people found out I was doing it, so I got sent a massive amount of stuff.
There was a set from George Johnson, who apparently was at Cambridge with the ISIRTA team, and a member of the Cambridge recording society. His first series recordings in particular were stunningly good, and he had taped most of the shows for the whole run. Those made up a lot of the UK inserts.
The BBC7 broadcasts are not all simply restorations. Many of the second series (i.e. first proper series of nine shows) were missing, and have not been broadcast since 1965. What they have now are mostly off-air from George Johnson and Humphrey Barclay (who was kind enough to lend me his tapes and his scripts of the first five series. Why no-one had thought to ask him before is beyond me).
However, most of the shows you will hear are restorations of existing recordings. The Transcription Services copies are all that remain in archives of most of the shows up to series 7, so they were missing on average three minutes of material per show.
Again, I was extremely lucky. A collection turned up what was clearly a set of TS masters that had been dubbed off ages ago by someone in TS, and these were complete with the missing edits spliced on at the end of the tapes. Not all of them had these edits, but most of them did, so I could replace the missing material with the broadcast quality material in these edits.
Ted has done the same with the Goons and Hancock where TS had kept the edits. TS also had a habit of keeping bits in the main body of the show that the UK producer removed, so some shows are longer than the 30 minutes you’d expect. The off-air copies I’ve used have been, on the whole, very good, so the set I have now is almost perfect. I’m missing a few words at the start of 2/2, and the quality of some of the inserts in series 7 are less than the quality I’d like, but none of them are appalling.
Radio 7 will be broadcasting series 7 for the first time since the ’60s, as they didn’t have copies of the TS masters due to an oversight when the station opened, and only got them when I asked for them to do the restoration. You will notice that for this first complete run of the shows; they decided to use my complete copies only where they didn’t already have a master. So this will be a mix of complete and TS copies.
I don’t quite know why they did that, but they have promised a complete run the second time round. It does mean that many of the shows I’ve done will get an airing, so I’m not complaining.
W. How long does the restoration process take?
K. On average, a show will take an hour or so to restore, depending on how much work is needed on the hiss or crackle. I try not to use hiss reduction if I can avoid it. I prefer a level of hiss to overdone Noise reduction, which often renders the recording unbearable. I’ll line up a copy of the off-air and a copy of the TS version in a multi track, re-speed the off-air to match the master, and then simply find the edits.
Where the TS copy had the edits spliced on, I’ll use the off-air as a template, and to replace anything TS didn’t keep. The best thing about this process was that I was able to sort out the butchering that TS gave this show. They moved sketches from show to show, sometimes from series to series, and created hybrids that bear no relation to the original broadcast.
W. What other series have you restored?
K. Ted uses my notes and some of the material for his commercial releases, and this is as far as I can go with those. However, I have been handed copies of Hancock, The Navy Lark and Round the Horne that are better or longer than the CD releases, simply because Ted didn’t have those copies available to him at the time.
Those shows are with Radio 7, and they’ve either used them or will use them. I’ve recently restored all of Steptoe and Son. Radio 7 are broadcasting those. Also The Embassy Lark and The Big Business Lark, which are being used, but not all of them, as the sound quality was pretty ropey. I also made up a complete run of On The Hour, using the masters from Radio 7 and a great set of off-air tapes.
W. Can you tell me a little about your experiences working with Radio 7 – a brilliant station that seems to sadly have the axe hovering above its neck.
K. Frankly, without 7, there would be little point in doing this for anything other than my own pleasure. If ISIRTA wasn’t being broadcast, I doubt the BBC would release it at all. The music copyright issues alone make it almost impossible. It’s also a lot of shows, a lot of CDs and a lot of hassle.
I’ve enjoyed being involved with 7. It meant my work gets out there, but also through it I got to meet Humphrey Barclay, and interview him. I doubt he would have been quite as easy a contact if I couldn’t say the shows were being broadcast. I also interviewed Edward Taylor (I met him through doing Stop Messing About in the West End) which again, was mainly because I had a proper outlet for it.
David Lortal, the archive co-ordinator at 7, deserves mention. He has been my main contact, and he is quietly doing a great job trying to get all this material on air. The whole set up is slightly hampered by lack of money, so a lot of potential archive material in BBC Worldwide is not used as it would incur a cost.
However, with the material they do have, I think we are rather lucky to have that station, as are music fans with 6 music. To think of axing two of the best examples of public service broadcasting for the sake of saving a few quid seems a little extreme to me. I think that 7 is to survive as part of radio 4, but we shall see.
W. I take it you are a fan of classic radio comedy. Which are your favourite series and why?
K. In no particular order. Round the Horne. I was lucky enough to be in the stage show of that, and did play Kenneth Williams for a while, and it was as near as anyone gets to actually being in the show. Wonderful. RTH was an unusual show in that it managed to be a variety/music hall show and a subversive/satirical show at the same time. It was up against ISIRTA, and yet managed to be as successful, if not more so.
Then, of course, Hancock, The Goon Show, and Take It From Here. I restored all the available recordings – TS discs/tapes and off-airs, of TIFH, and having listened to them all. I was won over. It passed me by before, but it is brilliant, Frank Muir and Denis Norden wrote the template by which all others were made, including the Goons and ISIRTA.
After that, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, On the Hour, The Burkiss Way (I used to go and watch these at the BBC Paris Theatre in the ’70s), and ISIHAC (again, I have a near complete run of these, and I used to see it at the Paris). There are many others, but you can only listen to so much.
W. What is the importance of restoring/recovering old shows?
K. Good question. I could argue that it has a social and historical context, which is certainly true. The humour (mostly the bits they cut out) is a good reflection of the times, and it’s fascinating to have this window into a world that has long since disappeared, but into which I was born and grew up.
There’s the argument that all this work, the writing, recording, performing, editing and so on, should be retained, as one retains stuff in a museum, but it’s more than a museum, it lives. As soon as you hit ‘play’, you’re hearing someone’s life work. I could also argue that it’s for the pleasure of doing it, which in my case is the main reason for doing it. In general, if something was very funny in 1965 or 1956, it will be funny now, and even if it doesn’t raise a laugh now, it is still worth hearing.
Frankly, as with most human endeavour, 80 per cent of comedy is not very good, so a lot of it does fade and get very tired, but that isn’t generally what survives anyway. I think it’s important, in any field, not to lose sight of the path that led you to where you are now, and to lose this heritage would be a crime.
Radio was part of the fabric of life in the UK for over 40 years, and you shouldn’t just let it go. One has to be careful not to get too nostalgic, and tied up in the past at the expense of the present, but it’s still a lovely way to spend a day.
W. Have you any particular restoration work you are particularly pleased with?
K. Oh, lots. The Goon Show set I created was the first time anyone has even bothered to do that. Ted is doing it of course for the box sets, but my initial stab was pretty damn good. I think the ISIRTAs are something to make a fuss about, for much the same reason, and the sound quality is far better than I had any hope of getting initially.
W. What future restoration projects have you got planned?
K. If I can get hold of all the remaining masters of TIFH, that would be a great project. Frankly though, the main work is done or being done. I’m left now with any series that anyone cares to throw at me. Ted is doing The Navy Lark and The Goon Show. If BBC Worldwide want to start releasing my recordings, then I could make some more headway, but it’s unlikely. Ted stopped doing Beyond Our Ken as they weren’t selling very well. I don’t really want to do The Clitheroe Kid to be honest, but there must be other series to do.
- You can find out more about Keith Wickham by visiting his website: keithwickham.co.uk.
- Click here to go to the BBC Radio 7 homepage.