Back in March this year an amazing discovery was made when an episode of superior ’60s Associated Rediffusion spy drama The Rat Catchers was found, over 40 years after it was broadcast.
The recovery of season one’s ‘The Unwitting Courier’, from 1966, instantly doubled the number of complete episodes known to survive; the other being series’ opener ‘Ticket To Madrid’. (For more information on the episode and the series itself, click on previous Wiped news stories here and here).
What is even more remarkable, though, is how the episode, which is from a black and white VHS copy, came to light in the first place.
Usually, missing material is unearthed when it is put up for sale on the collectors’ circuit or eBay; stumbled upon in an archive; or handed in by someone who had it gathering dust in their attic for years.
This time, however, the method of recovery was very 21st century: It was spotted for download as a torrent on P2P file-sharing site, The Box.
The first person to spot the extreme rarity of the episode was Marcus Payne. Here, he discusses his find and what it says about the value of file-sharing, too often portrayed simply as the nemesis of the entertainment industry.
‘I came across the episode during one of my regular trawls of The Box website,’ explains Marcus. ‘Being a long-standing archive television drama enthusiast, I trawl sites like The Box at least twice a week looking for things of interest.
‘I wasn’t specifically hunting for missing material. This was my first discovery, unless you count pointing out to the owners of TV Ark that the final episode of Together (a Southern Television soap from the early 1980s) is missing from the archives, making the clip on their website rather rare!.
‘My first reaction on discovering ‘The Unwitting Courier’ was “oh – that’s a Rediffusion show which I’ve read about but never seen – I want that!”
‘It didn’t occur to me that it might be a missing episode at first; I just assumed it would be one of the episodes of the show that was “doing the rounds” on the collecting circuit.
‘I did know, however, that it would be rare because it is a Rediffusion show (I know what a sorry state their archive is in) and I have never heard of any episodes existing on the collecting circuit.
‘About 24 hours later I consulted my copy of Kaleidoscope’s The British Independent Television Drama Research Guide 1955-2005, fully expecting it to list ‘The Unwitting Courier’ as an existing 16mm t/r (transfer) episode, and was surprised (and a little excited) to see that it was listed as being junked.
‘I didn’t get too excited at first, though, because I’ve known the Kaleidoscope books to be inaccurate in the past. This is why I posted on forum The Mausoleum Club: To ask if the book was correct and the episode really was missing. When the answers came back that it was indeed a missing episode, that’s when I got excited!
‘I’m very pleased to have played a part in finding a missing episode. All I did was flag up its existence on The Box and know its potential significance although I suppose that’s how anything rare gets discovered at all – by someone who knows what they’re looking at.
‘I know it’s not as news-worthy as finding a lost episode of, for example, Doctor Who, but it’s an important find among enthusiasts nonetheless. Any recovered Rediffusion product is to be welcomed.
‘As for the episode itself, I thought it was very enjoyable and it struck me as typical studio-bound, talky drama of the time – a genre I’m very fond of. I think it has a slightly quirky edge as well which sets it apart from more straightforward drama of the time such as Public Eye.
‘Based on this episode, The Rat Catchers appears to be a little arch and camp, perhaps showing The Avengers as a slight influence. I was also reminded of The Corridor People – another rare show I got to see thanks to file sharing!
‘No matter where one stands on the morality and legality of file sharing, I think it’s safe to say that on this occasion it has had a beneficial outcome for everyone.
‘The copyright holders have recovered their property and a potential source of income; a tiny piece of the nation’s TV and cultural heritage has been restored; and, thanks to the medium in which it’s been re-discovered, anyone who wants to, has been able to see it for free (in the pre-internet days, no doubt only a small clique would have got to see it; that’s if it ever managed to escape from the film collector’s library at all).
‘I think this discovery goes a long way in challenging the notion that all file sharing is nothing but theft. On this occasion it has resulted in giving something back.
‘As such, I definitely believe that file-sharing websites are a strong potential source for new finds in the future. As more and more people upload their collections (without necessarily realising the significance or worth of what they have) there is a good chance that more rare and missing programming could turn up.
‘All it needs is enthusiasts like us who know what they are looking for and then we could find many more gaps being filled. I for one will certainly continue to keep my eyes (and my reference books) open while browsing these sites in future!’