Wipe Out: When the BBC Kept Erasing Its Own History

Frank Barratt/Getty Images
Frank Barratt/Getty Images

When Sue Malden started working as an assistant researcher for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the early 1970s, she imagined the broadcaster’s 20-plus year history of television was tucked away somewhere on shelves—a towering video library of cultural history from the Queen’s 1953 coronation to hundreds of episodes of Doctor Who.

But as Malden began to familiarize herself with the spare inventory of past programming, the reality was much different. “What I found was that there were many gaps,” Malden tells Mental Floss. “A lot of things just weren’t there.”

It would take years, but when Malden eventually assumed the post of Television Archive Selector in 1979, she had educated herself on the BBC’s stern and unsentimental methods for dealing with the bulk of their content. Because shows weren’t often repeated, there was no long-term need to retain them. And because videotape was an expensive storage medium at the time, it was far more sensible to reuse cassettes rather than buy new ones.

The company kept a bulk-erasure machine on hand to systematically wipe out shows that were believed to have exhausted their usefulness. Reams of paperwork indicated a large chunk of their content was rubber-stamped into destruction using just three words: “no further interest.”

As Malden tried to corral the wastefulness, she decided to use Doctor Who as a research guide to track the steps of how the BBC went from filming a series to ordering its demise.

Out of 253 produced episodes of Doctor Who, the BBC had not a single original copy left.

A stack of cassettes await trash pick-up
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For much of the 1950s, television in the UK was viewed in much the same way as the radio programming it was beginning to replace: Live newscasts, teleplays, and other series were intended to be consumed in the moment. If viewers really liked something, then it would be “repeated” by reassembling the actors and performing it for a second time.

“Television meant being live, over, and done with,” says Richard Molesworth, a BBC historian and author of Wiped!, a detailed chronicle of how the channel discarded a large chunk of Doctor Who history. “When videotape came about in the late 1950s, it wasn’t seen as a means of preservation or as an archival format," he tells Mental Floss. "It was in case a program was to be repeated in a short period of time—days or weeks.”

The two-inch tape adopted by the broadcaster beginning in 1958 was perceived as a way of getting a program on the air by having completed and edited footage ready for transmission. Across departments, there was virtually no incentive to treat those tapes as part of a long-term storage approach. In fact, it was the opposite: Because tapes often came out of a show’s budget, wiping old episodes and reusing them saved money. Barely any episodes from the entire first season of The Avengers, for example, are believed to have survived; Z Cars, a popular cop drama, was also snuffed out.

The lone motivation for not disposing of content immediately was the potential for overseas sales, a lucrative enterprise that allowed the BBC to capitalize on its inventory in foreign markets. But once BBC Enterprises—the arm responsible for dealing with those markets—struck a 16mm print of a taped show (which guaranteed compatibility, as video formats differed) and sent the film to the buyer, there was no reason to retain the tape. By the time BBC 2 debuted in 1964, virtually doubling the amount of content being produced, the order to “wipe” shows by deleting them in the bulk-erasure unit reached an all-time high. Unlike the U.S., with its many fractured local affiliates, there weren’t multiple copies of shows to ensure their continued survival. If the BBC scrapped it, it was likely scrapped for good.

Producers, Molesworth says, tried to resist the extinguishing of their media. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook tried to pay out of pocket to make certain their series, Not Only... But Also, remained in existence. They were turned down. (Monty Python experienced a similar incident, fearing they’d be wiped, but Monty Python's Flying Circus was too pervasive in America for that to have happened.)

When tapes would begin to pile up in dressing rooms, corridors, and other areas, it became an untenable situation. “New productions would need tape, and no one would want to spend money on new tape,” Molesworth says. “Not when there was perfectly good tape sitting right there.”

When the BBC began issuing color television licenses to viewers in 1969—a fee that essentially amounted to a donation for programming—the problem grew malignant. There was now even less incentive to keep black-and-white programming for either local consumption or to sell abroad. And when series were sold off, buyers typically had to adhere to the BBC’s “burn or return” policy. If the film wasn’t returned after the contracted number of airings, it was to be incinerated, with a “certificate of destruction” returned to the UK.

While the practice would later be vilified as a kind of cultural vandalism, there was no malice on the part of employees. For most of the programming, talent contracts prohibited more than one or two airings; relying on public funds for support meant tight budgets. No one really considered the programs could have a life decades into the future. “Had they kept those tapes, and newspapers found out they were sitting on hundreds or thousands of hours of programs they couldn’t show, they’d be accused of wasting public money,” Dick Fiddy, a consultant to the British Film Institute (BFI), tells Mental Floss. “What they did was good housekeeping.”

By Molesworth’s estimate, 60 to 70 percent of all BBC programming produced between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s was deleted. It was an amazing number of casualties, but the bleeding would soon halt thanks to several factors.

Around 1975, control of managing tapes went from the Engineering Department to the BBC Film Library, which was soon renamed the BBC Film and Television Library. There, archivists were not motivated by budget to keep programs shelved. At the same time, newspaper articles began to point out that the BBC had been rather mercenary in their approach to archival material. As the VHS revolution was just starting and people with home recording units were able to preserve programming, they found it unsatisfactory that the broadcaster itself wasn’t retaining content.

Financially, the latter was beginning to make a lot more sense. Exports like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, sold to American public television affiliates, were becoming profitable, and actor’s equity had eased demands on payments for repeats. That, coupled with the lowered cost of storage and the increased revenue from selling color TV licenses to viewers, led to a paradigm shift. According to Malden, however, it took some time to convince employees.

“I remember going around to heads of production departments and explaining what we wanted to do, which was keep everything,” Malden says. “And sometimes I’d hear, ‘Well, OK, but this episode wasn’t a writer’s or actor’s best work.’ I’d have to say, ‘No, look, it’s all the output.'" The engineering department, once tasked with exploiting every inch of tape it could, looked at Malden’s approach with puzzlement. “They basically asked, ‘Why on Earth do you want to keep all of this?’”

Once Malden felt confident the current crop of programming wasn’t going to be obliterated, she began looking to see if the gaps in the archive could somehow be restored. “A lot of programming went out live in the 1950s and 1960s, so there was never any recording to lose,” she says. “It was better to look at an iconic series, see how many were broadcast, see how many exist, and what happened to the rest.”


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Doctor Who was an easy choice. Debuting in 1963, the low-budget series about a time-traveling alien who could regenerate to explain his repeated recasting had become a cultural institution that was still on the air. (And would remain so until 1989, at which point it took a 16-year break before resuming in its current incarnation.) Malden found just 57 episodes out of the 253 produced through that time scattered throughout the BBC's various departments. Some had even been earmarked for destruction when Malden was still in the process of staying their executions.

To try and restore the BBC’s past, Malden and other historians had a remarkable resource: the foreign territories where the BBC had sold off several programs. Some didn’t bother either returning or destroying the 16mm film reels they had been supplied with. In writing to these stations, Malden discovered episodes of Doctor Who and other material that had survived the intervening years as a discarded and forgotten canister in a storage room. In other instances, various BBC departments had retained Doctor Who episodes after they had been returned by buyers. By 1981, Malden wound up securing 116 of the 253 episodes.

The BBC, however, had no official staff devoted to repossessing content. That fell in some measure to Malden, who effectively managed to assemble a small group of volunteers when a 1981 magazine article publicized the large chunk of missing Doctor Who episodes. “I started getting lots of letters from fans, saying ‘There might be a copy here,’” she says. “That gave me a lot of leads to work with.”

At the same time, a Who fan named Ian Levine had approached the BBC looking to buy original copies of episodes for his own private collection. He was introduced to Malden, and together they found a number of crucial episodes throughout the 1980s.

In 1983, a Mormon Church in London was cleaning out its basement when several BBC film cans, including two episodes of Doctor Who, were discovered among the clutter. In 1985, Levine found several episodes idling in a Nigerian television station. Two more episodes were returned to the BBC after being found at a yard sale. On a few occasions, Malden was able to retrieve episodes that had been seized by BBC employees simply because they were fans of the show.

Eventually, the idea of writing or faxing foreign TV stations to find episodes slowed to diminishing returns. (An Iranian station, asked to look for content, responded with incredulity. According to Wiped!, they wrote back asking, “In the name of Allah, what are you talking about?”) That paved the way for television archaeologists to try to physically locate missing prints.

A company called Kaleidoscope worked with both the BBC and the BFI to scout yard sales and private collections for material. In 2011, a footage hunter named Philip Morris located nine missing episodes of Doctor Who in Jos, Nigeria, where employees had ignored instructions to burn them. His company, Television International Enterprises Archives, seeks to “repatriate” old British television from foreign sources.

A film canister sits on the ground
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Although fans of Doctor Who have virtually guaranteed that the most zealous searches will be reserved for the remaining 97 episodes of the series that are still missing, the BBC doesn’t play favorites when it comes to accepting lost programs. Dozens of old television plays, including one titled Colombe featuring Sean Connery, were recovered from the Library of Congress in 2011 because they had been acquired for public broadcast in the States; Fiddy organizes a semiannual event called "Missing Believed Wiped," which celebrates recovered material of every stripe. Recent screenings have included a film directed by a young Ridley Scott, a previously thought-to-be-lost episode from the first season of The Avengers, and footage of Woody Allen boxing a kangaroo. A 1967 show titled At Last the 1948 Show featuring Graham Chapman and John Cleese was discovered in 2013 and is considered a precursor to Monty Python; it went unseen for nearly 50 years. Fiddy located them from a producer who had filmed the television screen with a 16mm camera.

“It’s sort of a return to the way television used to be viewed,” Fiddy says of his media festival. “The only thing that links the material together is that it’s been rediscovered. People will stay and watch things they wouldn’t otherwise.”

How much more undiscovered material is out there is open to debate. Malden and Molesworth believe that overseas stations have probably been exhausted for material, and enough press has been devoted to the search for Doctor Who episodes over the decades that any private collectors have likely already come forward. But Morris thinks there’s more to be unearthed in the Middle East and Africa; Fiddy continues to have enough material for his screenings, with bits and pieces of the BBC’s history rematerializing all the time.

“We want to find things for cultural value, for what it tells us about the past,” he says. “The more witnesses you’ve got, the more accurate you can be.” Fiddy’s holy grail of sorts remains Madhouse on Castle Street, a 1963 film starring Bob Dylan.

Today, it’s inconceivable HBO would scrap a Game of Thrones episode after two airings. But 50 years ago, television was simply a diversion that wasn’t supposed to endure. “Television is such an important part of reflecting our society,” Malden says. “I don’t think we should ever give up looking.”

Additional Sources: Wiped! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up Is a Festive Holiday Decoration, Calendar, and Book for Potterheads

Insight Editions
Insight Editions

If you find the weeks leading up to Christmas to be interminable, Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up from Insight Editions can help make the wait a bit more whimsical. This unique, interactive hardcover opens up to a festive illustration of Hogwarts’s Great Hall, modeled on its appearance from the Harry Potter movie series. In the center is a pop-up Christmas tree that measures 13 inches tall. And since no tree should be left barren during the holidays, there are 25 ornaments, all based on magical artifacts from the series, that can adorn the branches.

The ornaments are housed right in the pages of the Great Hall and can be removed one day at a time like an Advent calendar. Also included in the package is a mini book that features behind-the-scenes details and images about the props, sets, and holiday moments from the movies.

Buy Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up on Amazon for Christmas 2019.
Insight Editions

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up will be available on October 22 for $39.99 (or $27.99 if you pre-order on Amazon), but that’s not the only Harry Potter book on offer from Insight Editions this fall.

Harry Potter: Magical Places brings the film series’s most iconic locations to life with the help of fully illustrated, multi-layered diorama scenes. These immersive depictions of Potter locales are combined with behind-the-scenes details and descriptions to throw you further than ever into Harry’s world. Harry Potter: Magical Places is on sale now for $29.99.

Harry Potter: Magical Places: A Paper Scene Book
Insight Editions

There’s also Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts An Illustrated Guide, which showcases full-color illustrations of the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts, shining light on some of the more obscure details hidden in the school of witchcraft and wizardry. It goes on sale on October 8 for $29.99 (or $20.99 on Amazon).

Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts: An Illustrated Guide.
Insight Editions

And be sure to check out our latest List Show, where we discuss the origins of 30 words and spells from the Harry Potter series.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

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