I know there’s a certain bias towards the Oxbridge School of Comedy on this blog. It’s their fault that I ended up deciding to really academically study comedy in the first place (who even does that to begin with?), but they’re brilliant to boot and their influence on comedy is still felt long after their ascendance in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, a lot of what members of the movement did was lost due to a horrendous practice called tape-wiping. You can ask any of my archival colleagues what that is and they’ll probably all grimace or make other disgusted faces at you. We don’t like it very much nowadays, but it was often the norm when a studio needed to reuse tapes due to space and monetary concerns. Tapes of television broadcasts were cleared of data and reused over and over again, and as a result a lot of valuable material was lost. That’s why we only have a little bit of the famed Not Only…But Also, one of the major groundbreaker programs during the period. I’m still not over that. I don’t think I’ll ever be over that. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore offered to buy the tapes and pay for new ones and they still wiped it.
I’m totally not bitter or anything. Okay, yes I am.
I’m heartened now, though, because apparently back in March someone managed to uncover audio of all six episodes of Peter and Dudley’s Beyond the Fringe confederate Alan Bennett’s program On The Margin, which ran in November of 1966 and repeated twice in 1967 before allegedly being a victim of the tape-wiping epidemic:
Audio of Alan Bennett’s first major TV show has been recovered, decades after it was wiped in a bid to save tape.
The recordings of the six-part satirical BBC Two series On The Margin were made in 1966.
The show, written by and starring Bennett, also featured Prunella Scales and John Sergeant, who later became the BBC’s chief political correspondent.
The recordings, made during a 1967 repeat of the series, are due to be returned to the BBC archive.
The show, which originally went out on BBC Two, contained satirical and observational sketches, including its own mini-soap opera.
There were also serious poetry and musical slots during the programme, including readings from actress Scales, and archive footage of music hall stars.
On The Margin was a critical success, and was repeated on BBC One, prompting the wrath of television campaigner Mary Whitehouse.
She objected to a sketch which contained the line “knickers off ready when I come home” and was perceived as insulting to Norwich, which emerges by putting together the first letter of each word.,
The programme was wiped after its final broadcast, with tape recycling a common practice at the time.
Michael Brooke, writing for the British Film Institute, said the show was “one of the most notorious victims” of material being destroyed.
It was feared that with the exception of some fragments, On The Margin had been lost forever.
I’ve always held out hope that these shows would turn up in some format somewhere, and it’s a huge relief to know we haven’t lost On The Margin completely after all. It makes me believe that my beloved Not Only…But Also is out there somewhere and might just be recovered someday.
An archivist can dream, you know.