It’s a massive exaggeration to describe the archive purges of the 1960s and 1970s as a tragedy, as there are things in life that are far more deserving of the word. However, it’s certainly a crying shame that so much classic TV material was lost, some of it for good.
There were many reasons for the wiping of shows – for one thing, the cost of video tape was so prohibitively expensive that it was a necessary cost-saving measure to re-use them once a show was broadcast, and then again and again, unless it was a programme of real importance. The start of colour television also meant that many black & white programmes were seen as having no commercial value, so there was no real need to keep them anymore.
It was also a time before home video was conceived, let alone streaming services, so there was no thought anyone would want to see old shows again; they’d get a repeat or two if you were lucky, but then they’d either be consigned to the archives, or – more likely – scrapped altogether, partly due to a lack of storage space. Contracts had been drafted so that if any further showings were planned in future, there would need to be renegotiations for the artist royalties, which could prove to be very expensive, and not worth bothering with.
The series which gets most attention in this regard is Doctor Who; however, a great many other programmes ended up being affected, one of which was Dad’s Army. Five episodes of Series 2 – which was the last to be made in black & white – were at one time missing from the BBC’s archives. Two of these – ‘The Battle Of Godfrey’s Cottage’ and ‘Operation Kilt’ – were eventually returned by a collector who had film prints, but it still left three missing, believed wiped: ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Walker’, ‘A Stripe For Frazer’, and ‘Under Fire’.
Thanks to the diligent efforts of viewers, off-air sound recordings of some missing TV material have survived, including the soundtrack to ‘A Stripe For Frazer’. Back in 2016, the short-lived online BBC Store service released a recreated version of this episode, marrying the audio with a newly-commissioned animation. Since then, no further animated versions have been commissioned, nor have any of the three missing episodes turned up, so we could only imagine how they would have looked on original transmission back in 1969. Until now, that is.
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In 2018, UKTV made an announcement it was planning to remake those episodes with a new cast, using Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s original scripts, for its Gold channel. The cast were announced back in January, and studio recordings with a live audience were done in March, with all three episodes scheduled to be shown across three consecutive days during the August Bank Holiday period. It won’t be the first time we’ve had newly-recorded versions of missing TV comedy, with the BBC Four series The Lost Sitcoms back in 2016 bringing us remounted episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, and Till Death Us Do Part.
Kevin McNally – Captain Mainwaring in The Lost Episodes – is no stranger when it comes to recreating comedy classics; he took the role of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock in The Missing Hancocks, the Radio 4 series which gave us brand new renditions of Hancock’s Half Hour radio episodes which no longer exist within the archives. It’s also no longer a sacrilege to consider recasting a classic sitcom, as this is actually the third new Dad’s Army line-up which we’ve had in the last four years: the first was 2015’s We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, and the other was in 2016’s big screen movie version.
Out of the three Dad’s Army recasts, this one is probably the strongest ensemble – they work together beautifully, as well as managing to evoke the originals without trying to do a slavish imitation of them; instead, they manage to capture the very essence of them, and it would be easy to think that they had all been doing this for years, rather than just the three episodes we get here. It’s a hard act to follow, with the series being held in such high esteem, but everyone involved pulls it off, and in no way disgraces the memory of the cast with whom we’re so familiar.
McNally gives us a recognisable Captain Mainwaring, with all of his pomposity and bluster; however, his somewhat odd vocal performance can be best described as James Mason playing Arthur Lowe as Mainwaring, and it’s slightly offputting at times. Far more vocally faithful is Kevin Eldon as Corporal Jones, and at times you could close your eyes and believe it was Clive Dunn. However, Jones is actually a much harder part to pull off than you may think, which is shown in Eldon giving us a caricature at times, lacking a great deal of Dunn’s subtlety and nuance.
Matthew Horne truly shines as Private Walker, and – dare I say it – is actually far better in the role than James Beck. Horne gives us a far warmer, more personable Walker, and seems to make the jokes land much more effectively than Beck ever did. Another revelation is the barnstormer by Robert Bathurst as Sergeant Wilson, who manages to succeed in perfectly capturing the character, with every little look and hand gesture, without trying to produce a carbon copy of John Le Mesurier, and his wonderful – and natural – effeteness.
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The Perry and Croft scripts still mostly stand up today, despite the moments of near-casual xenophobia which crop up during ‘Under Fire’. It’s also surprising to hear Private Frazier call one character a “bastard”, not due to any pearl-clutching rush to be offended by some members of modern audiences, but instead to realise that this was actually something which they’d managed to get away with saying on screen some 50 years ago without any repercussions. It also makes us realise the original Dad’s Army wasn’t actually quite as quaint and cosy as collective memory might have us think.
All in all, this was a bold exercise, and has been well worth all the effort. It can be a daunting task indeed to try and recreate something which is so well-loved and part of our cultural heritage, but everybody involved in bringing The Lost Episodes back to our screens should feel incredibly proud, and give themselves a truly well-deserved pat on the backs. If anything, it’s managed to whet the appetite for more of these recreations of lost television shows, but only if they’re all done with the style and feeling of authenticity which they’ve achieved here, with immaculate attention to detail.
To anybody who thought this was a bad idea: Who do you think you are kidding? These are the boys who will make you think again.