‘Missing Believed Wiped 2016’ at the BFI

❉ This year’s annual celebration of recovered archive television entertained across the board. Though possibly not if you’re a boa constrictor.

I love the British Film Institute’s ‘Missing Believed Wiped’ festival. Always staged in early December, for me it’s the first sign that Christmas is really on the way. It contributes to the pleasure/relief that we’ve made in to another end-of-year holiday, as well as combining nostalgia for Christmases past with the equally nostalgic glow of vintage television you either thought you’d never see again, or, for a lot of the audience, were seeing for the first time.

Wartime hero and comedy legend Jimmy Edwards in ‘Whack-O’ (Photo credit: BFI)

Session 1: Comedy Plus

The light entertainment selection was the most consistent for some years. First up was the corpulent, be-whiskered Jimmy Edwards in an episode of ‘Whack-O!’, the sitcom about – as the title indicates – corporal punishment-happy ‘Professor’ Edwards, the roguish headmaster of a minor public school in the 1950s.

Jim’s Better Self, a Christmas episode that, like so much festive TV fare, riffed on Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, found Edwards regretting his beastly treatment of his much abused sidekick Mr. Pettigrew (a great, simpering turn from Arthur Howard) and sort-of making amends. Like a lot of 1950s and early 1960s comedy fiction – ‘The Phil Silvers Show’ (1955-59), ‘Private’s Progress’ (1956), ‘The Army Game’ (1957-1961) and ‘I’m All Right Jack’ (1959) – the plot turned on the idea of a malingering/incompetent serviceman (Edwards) out for himself, in this case diddling ex-RAF commander Pettigrew out of the headmastership of Chiselbury school.

Edwards was a true original, knowing how to fill every inch of the ‘50s TV screen – in more ways than one – in a still sharp and funny script by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. If BBC Worldwide or Network are in the mood, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these (if enough exist to release).

Speaking of Network, the were good enough to hold back issuing an exhaustively complete box set of Johnny Speight’s bigotcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, until after the recently recovered 1966 episode Intolerance was shown at ‘MBW’.

As played by the great Warren Mitchell, the racist, homophobic, sexist and – needless to say – prejudiced and opinionated Alf Garnett, by the mid-1960s an unpleasant reminder of a bygone era, was one of those comedy monsters (c.f. Basil Fawlty, Jeremy and Mark from ‘Peep Show’, Gordon Brittas et al) made tolerable and human by a gifted actor. I hesitate to add “enjoyable”, because sadly, as far as I can see, the world seems to be moving back towards the point of view of people like Alf instead of further away. As Intolerance made sharply clear, it wasn’t just him who was racist in ‘Till Death Us Do Part’; Alf’s middle-aged neighbours all deserted the waiting room of their local surgery because they didn’t want to be examined by a black doctor.

A word of praise, however, for the underrated Tony Booth. As Alf’s “long-haired git” son-in-law Mike, he point for point, and memorably, demolished Garnett’s arguments and, looked at today, ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ plays as perhaps the definitive example of Baby Boomer generation gap tensions. You also know you’ve hit the zeitgeist when celebrities want to appear in your show as themselves. Liverpool FC players Ian St. John and Willie Stevenson followed in a long tradition of real people in comedy shows trying to keep a straight face, as the starring actors do their best to make them laugh.

In between these two highlights was an example of archive TV that truly defies description. The variety show ‘Stars and Garters’ (1963-65), produced by the long defunct ITV company Associated Rediffusion, more than lived up to host Dick Fiddy’s wry description of it as “television they don’t make anymore.”

Based in a TV studio mocked up like an East End pub on the Krays’ manor – where, ironically enough, ‘The X Factor’ is now recorded – this edition, presented by comedian Ray Martine (me neither), included turns from singers Kim Cordell and then heart-throb Adam Faith, backed by a live band who looked like they more used to accompanying Gracie Fields.

Programmes like this can often tell you more about their era than more well-known examples. Someone, somewhere had decided that to add authenticity, the production team would invite a real East End audience of mixed ages, in a kind of cockney ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (1963-66). Fair enough, except that no-one had bothered to tell the EastEnders how to behave in a TV studio.

This resulted in such wonderful wrongness as a suited and booted guy nonchalantly handing out cigarettes to his mates right behind Faith’s star turn, then having a natter. The best bit, though, was an older geezer nearly spilling his pint as he shook in fear from the attentions of a tame boa constrictor; naturally, its singing, fire-eating lady handler was warbling ‘Embrace Me’ at the time. To add to the overall atmosphere of surrealism, Tsai Chin, a Chinese actress who featured in the 1965 movie ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’, gamely tackled “a traditional Irish ballad”. There are no words.

Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee in ‘The Avengers’ (Photo credit: StudioCanal)

Session 2: Drama

The second screening opened with a real treat. Earlier this year, the archive TV organisation Kaleidoscope rediscovered an instalment of the first, videotaped season of the much loved spy-crime show ‘The Avengers’ (1961-69), one of only three (and a bit) episodes known to exist.

Tunnel of Fear is a heady brew: Cold War tropes, such as an English spymaster indoctrinated in Communist North Korea, meshed engagingly with the parent TV network ABC’s consistently credible portrayal of working class people, together with ‘The Avengers’ distinctive oddness, in this case an enemy spy ring – run by an estate agent – operating under the cover of a funfair’s ghost train. The story also aired contemporary prejudices about unmarried mothers, an element of social realism you’ll never see in the later, highly stylised film seasons. Even at half a century’s worth of distance, its striking how different ‘The Avengers’ was in the period before the ‘60s began to swing.

Tunnel of Fear is particularly interesting as shows Dr. David Keel (the always watchable and charismatic Ian Hendry) and special agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee, as effortlessly entertaining as ever) working as a partnership. Early episodes, such as Girl on the Trapeze which also survives, often alternated Keel and Steed as the star character, but here they’re in the thick of the intrigue together, anticipating Steed’s later partnerships with Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King. Their double act is easily the equal of the better known duos, with Keel/Hendry getting some compelling scenes with escaped prisoner Harry Bates (Anthony Bate, also strong) and Steed/Macnee inventively outwitting the villains with what might, or might not, be high explosives disguised as a cigarette.

Fast forward a year, and the next drama delight was from the typewriter of Troy Kennedy Martin. He’s always been one of my heroes. Even in the gritty and controversial milieu of his series ‘Z Cars’ (initially 1962-65), a punchy look at the policing of one of the new towns built after World War II, Kennedy Martin was able to inject his customary skewed world view laced with comedy, an approach that would later flower in ‘The Italian Job’ (1969), ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) and his 1985 masterpiece, ‘Edge of Darkness’.

Family Feud is a North Country, ‘kitchen sink’ take on Romeo and Juliet, as two rival branches of the same Irish family, the Madigans, try to stop young lovers from either side getting married. The farcical progression of the story is always believable and peppered with humour that still sounds contemporary. When Grandpa Madigan (the magnificent J.G. Devlin) is asked by PC Lynch (James Ellis, clearly relishing the larky script) just when he stopped talking to the matriarch of the family, he replies, dead pan, “About 1922.” Marvellous.

It’s been a very good year for ‘Missing Believed Wiped’. Throughout this year’s screenings, Dick Fiddy was good enough to highlight the work by various individuals, such as Ed Stradling’s YouTube channel, essential contributions to the happily ever-expanding archive of recovered, vintage television.

This year’s festival was a classic. Roll on December 2017!

❉ ‘Missing Believed Wiped 2016’ took place at the BFI Southbank on Sunday 4 December, 2016.

Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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