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Wipe Out: When the BBC Kept Erasing Its Own History

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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.

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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.

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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

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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12 Admissible Facts About Judge Judy
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Judge Judith Sheindlin was 54 years old when her namesake TV show premiered on September 16, 1996. Two years later the diminutive (5’1”) adjudicator was trouncing the powerhouse Oprah Winfrey Show in the Nielsen ratings. Today, she is one of the highest paid TV celebrities, earning $47 million per year—which she will continue to do through 2020, thanks to a new extended contract.

Fervent fans are familiar with Judge Judy’s more outrageous cases, like The Tupperware Lady and the eBay Cell Phone Scammer, but they might not know some of these fun facts about both the show and the woman behind it, who turns 75 years old today.

1. THAT GRUFF, NO-NONSENSE STYLE OF JURISPRUDENCE IS NOT AN ACT.

Judge Judy spent a little over 20 years in New York City’s family court system, where she earned a reputation early in her career for being blunt, impatient, and tough-talking. “I can’t stand stupid, and I can’t stand slow,” was one of her oft-repeated “Judyisms” at that time. She also frequently warned attorneys appearing before her: "I want first-time offenders to think of their appearance in my courtroom as the second-worst experience of their lives ... circumcision being the first." 60 Minutes filmed her in action as part of a 1993 profile, and while her hair color and eyebrows have softened since then, her impatient rants and verbal smackdowns haven’t changed a bit.

2. SHE BEGAN WEARING HER TRADEMARK LACE COLLAR AS SOON AS SHE WAS APPOINTED AS A JUDGE.

New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed Judith Sheindlin to the bench in 1982, and to celebrate she and her husband Jerry—both civil servants at the time—took a $399 package trip to Greece for two weeks. While passing by a row of street kiosks with various locally made crafts for sale, she impulsively purchased a white lace collar from a vendor. She explained to her husband that male judges wore stiff-collared white dress shirts and colorful neckties that peeped out of the top of their robes, so that they had a nice colorful “buffer” between the austere black gown and their face. Female judges, however, had nothing but neck peeping out of their robes and the unforgiving black color revealed every minute of sleep deprivation as well as any skin tone irregularities. The white lace collar, she decided, would not only perk up her face but would also be a bit disarming for litigants—she could picture them thinking “That nice little lady with the lace collar sitting behind the bench couldn’t hurt a fly!”

3. DESPITE THOSE NEW YORK CITY SCENES ON THE COMMERCIAL BUMPERS, JUDGE JUDY IS TAPED IN CALIFORNIA.

Sheindlin spends 52 days per year taping her show. She flies to California via private jet every other Monday and hears cases on Tuesday and Wednesday (occasionally Thursday if there are production delays). One full week’s worth of shows are filmed each day. Many viewers, however, are fooled into thinking Judy is holding court in her native New York, thanks to the scenic Manhattan footage in between station breaks and the New York state flag behind her chair. That is, until something oh-so-unique to the west coast—like an earthquake—occurs on-camera. (Note that in the clip below, Judge Judy quickly ducks beneath her bench once the room begins to tremble.)

4. SHE IS BRIEFED ON THE CASES BEFORE SHE ARRIVES ON THE SET.

Judge Sheindlin does not go to the studio unprepared; producers FedEx the sworn statements and relevant information on each upcoming case to her home (Naples, Florida in the winter; Greenwich, Connecticut in the spring and summer) and she familiarizes herself with enough details to have some background, but not enough so that the case doesn’t appear “fresh” when she questions the litigants during filming.

5. THE CASES REALLY ARE REAL.

The production company has a staff of 60-plus researchers across the country who spend their days poring over lawsuits filed in local small claims courts. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they are able to photocopy cases that they think might make for interesting television and those copies are forwarded to the show’s producers. Any cases that make it to the next stage (about three percent) involve contacting the litigants involved and asking them if they’d like to forego their civil court hearing in exchange for a free trip to Los Angeles, an $850 appearance fee, and a per diem of $40 (as of 2012). An added incentive is that any judgments awarded are paid by the show, not by the plaintiff or defendant. The best cases, according to the executive producer, are those that involve litigants with a prior relationship—mother/daughter, father/son, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. Such cases engage the audience because it’s an emotional tie that’s been broken (the recurring plot on many soap operas).

6. THE AUDIENCE, HOWEVER, IS NOT SO REAL.

Regular viewers will note that the same faces seem to pop up in the audience regularly. Those folks in the spectator seats are paid extras (often aspiring actors) who earn $8 per hour to sit and look attentive. Prospective audience members apply for the limited amount of seats by emailing their contact information along with a clear headshot to one of Judge Judy’s production coordinators (sorry, we cannot provide that info). If chosen, the spectator must dress appropriately (business casual or better) and arrive promptly for the 8:30 a.m. call time. Audience members must pass through metal detectors on their way in and are not allowed to bring cell phones or any electronic devices with them, and food, drinks and chewing gum are also verboten. Spectators are rearranged after each case so it’s not as obvious that it’s the same group of people, and the most attractive folks are always seated in the front row (it’s Hollywood, after all). The audience is instructed to talk animatedly amongst themselves in between each case so that Officer Byrd’s “Order in the court!” admonition has more impact. Bad behavior is grounds for immediate expulsion (in front of 10 million viewers, as Judge Judy likes to remind us).

7. JUDGE JUDY DRESSES CASUALLY FOR THE JOB.

Sheindlin has been known to publicly chastise litigants who come to her courtroom in skimpy clothing or “beach attire,” but behind that bench and under that robe she is usually sporting jeans and a tank top or T-shirt.

8. OFFICER BYRD IS A REAL BAILIFF.

Brooklyn native Petri Hawkins Byrd earned his B.Sc. degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1989 and started working in the Brooklyn Family Court system. He first worked with Judge Sheindlin when he transferred to the Manhattan Family Court. “We [the court officers] used to call her the Joan Rivers of the judicial system,” he recalled in a 2004 interview. “She was just hilarious.” Byrd relocated to San Mateo, California in 1990 to work as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal and a few years later he read an item in Liz Smith’s gossip column about Sheindlin’s upcoming TV show. He sent his old colleague a congratulatory letter and added, “If you need a bailiff, I still look good in uniform.”

9. DESPITE HIS SOMETIMES IMPOSING COURTROOM DEMEANOR, OFFICER BYRD IS ALSO A VERY FUNNY GUY.

He is a talented impressionist, but his sense of humor almost cost him his job—or so he thought at the time. Once, back when he was working with the feisty Judge Sheindlin in New York, he donned her robe and reading glasses to entertain his co-workers with a barrage of Judyisms. Of course, as always seems to happen when one mocks the boss in the workplace, he was caught in the act.

10. THE OCCASIONAL CELEBRITY RELIES ON JUDGE JUDY’S BRAND OF JUSTICE.

Depending upon your own definition of “celebrity”, of course. Actress Roz Kelly (Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days) appeared on the show in 1996 as the plaintiff, suing her plastic surgeon for a leaky breast implant that was impeding her acting career. One year later, former Sex Pistol John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) appeared as a defendant when drummer Robert Williams, who was hired to support Lydon on a solo tour, sued the singer for lost wages and an assault. Despite Lydon’s occasional bad courtroom behavior, the decision was made in his favor.

11. THE STAR ORIGINALLY DIDN’T WANT THE SHOW NAMED AFTER HER.

Sheindlin first envisioned calling her show Hot Bench, a term used frequently in the appellate court, but the producers wisely advised her that the term was meaningless to TV viewers who didn’t work in the legal system. Her next thought was Judy Justice, since she’d overheard her court officers warning deadbeat parents who were delinquent in child support payments that they were in for a load of "Judy Justice" if they weren’t prepared to cough up some money. In retrospect, Sheindlin realized the wisdom in calling the show Judge Judy: She couldn’t be easily replaced, as the various judges had been on The People’s Court. However, after 19 years on the air, she still does not refer to herself by that sobriquet; whether introducing herself to someone or advertising her show in a promotional clip, she is always either “Judge Sheindlin” or “Judge Judy Sheindlin.”

12. JUDGE SHEINDLIN INHERITED HER SENSE OF HUMOR FROM HER FATHER.

Murray Blum, Judy’s beloved father, was a dentist whose office was in the family home. In those days—before sedation dentistry was an option—a dentist’s best tool to distract nervous patients was the gift of gab, and Murray became a master storyteller out of necessity. Years of listening to her father at the dinner table and at family gatherings taught Judy how to deliver a punchline. One evening outside of a hotel in Hollywood, Sheindlin was approached by a woman who introduced herself as Lorna Berle. She told the judge that her husband Milton was a huge fan and asked if she would mind talking to him for a moment. The elderly comic slowly emerged from a limo and Judy greeted him by singing the theme song to Texaco Star Theater, her favorite TV show as a child. Milton Berle complimented her in return, saying “Kid, you’ve got great comic timing.”

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