Mission Statement:

Audio drama is one of the most intimate and expressive dramatic mediums, rivaling theater and film in poetic, visual, and narrative qualities. Many people are unaware of this - a stigma lingers that "radio drama" is a scratchy, cartoonish thing of the past, as if people thought that cinema ended with silent movies, unaware of all the great films made since that time. In reality, audio and radio drama is the great frontier of modern theater - with subtle, intimate performances and powerful, gripping stories.

My aim is to promote a discussion of the art, sociology, theory, and future of this remarkable artistic form. The current state of audio drama is precarious, but through careful consideration of how content is presented, distributed, and interacted with, I believe that the radio and audio drama community can grow and prosper and reach an even wider audience.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interview with Roger Bickerton of the VRPCC

Roger Bickerton

interviewed by Modern Soundling

One of the most vital projects for the future of radio drama is based upon the past. In order for the medium to grow and prosper, it is essential to draw upon the triumphs (and also the failures) of the previous decades of radio plays. In order to do so, this body of work must exist. As it turns out, much of it no longer does.

The BBC has produced and broadcast thousands of radio plays over the years, but until fairly recently, they were not archived or preserved in any way. I'm not sure what the official policy on master tapes was or is – if anyone knows, I'd love to have some clarity on that. What we do know is that the majority of programmes have not been preserved in any format. The ones that still exist are often the result of individuals recording broadcasts for their own personal use. Much of the work of finding, preserving (and even compiling lists of broadcasts) has been conducted by the Vintage Radio Programme Collector's Circle, and its founder Roger Bickerton. I am very pleased he agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

I should note that Roger and the VRPCC are occupied with preserving and archiving this body of work, and not with distributing it. So please do not inundate them with requests for copies of materials, they do not distribute recordings.

Roger Bickerton: I set up the VRPCC (Vintage Radio Programme Collectors' Circle) in 1996, having had no previous connections with any aspect of broadcasting. I'd discovered, to my surprise, that much of the BBC's output had either never been archived at all, or that some of its library had been recycled at a time when the cost of keeping recordings on the then-preferred medium of quarter-inch tape was very high. Because I'd taped programmes on a very ad hoc basis since 1972 (work pressures permitting), I'd got to know of a few private collectors who had recorded broadcasts for many years on both open reel and cassette tape and one who had recorded from the late 1940s on so-called "acetate" (cellulose nitrate lacquer) discs. All this acted as a spur after I retired to locate as many more as I could through a long process of networking to try to ensure that what they had recorded could be backed up so that a unique part of our social historical heritage might be preserved.

The current membership is largely focused on those who collect radio drama and features programmes because there are other Societies which cater for, in particular, comedy enthusiasts.

It was the establishment in about 2002 by Nigel Deacon of the DIVERSITY site which was a critically important factor in the continued development and maintenance of a small and enthusiastic core of members, reinforced by non-member contacts, both in the UK and Overseas, all of whom support the original aim of finding "missing, believed wiped" material. In parallel with the massive development in Internet capacity, this site was instrumental in locating a good deal of recorded material which otherwise might have remained hidden.

As regards membership numbers in general, I prefer only to take on board people who can contribute to this goal because, for personal reasons, I cannot handle an over-inflated group. Nor has the Circle ever pursued a policy of hiring out or otherwise providing recordings to third parties, except for proven study or research purposes.

As the years roll on, it is more likely that the public's overall awareness of the historical importance of such material will increase ; sadly, though, at the same time, it may become less likely that hidden caches of old tapes with lost/wiped programmes will be unearthed. This is especially so in the case of an individual long-term collector with no Internet access and few, if any, relatives, who passes on.

Modern Soundling: When did you start listening to radio drama?

Roger Bickerton: My earliest memory dates back to late January, 1949 when with millions of other listeners, I was captivated by the adventures of Dick Barton, Special Agent and distinctly recollect being spooked by a story called “Jordan’s Folly”. Later memories are hazy, but such as “Paul Temple” and “PC49” are other series which made an impression. One particular play which had me rooted to the spot was the 1953 adaptation by Jon Manchip White of “The Wages of Fear” and I am still searching for a recording of that or the 1961 remake!

MS: How did you discover that there were so many missing BBC programmes?

RB: When I joined an organization called ORCA, run by the late Barry Hill, who had a truly immense collection of recordings both from this country and the States. Hill’s knowledge of the subject was considerable and it was when I met him that I found out about the gaps in the BBC’s archives.

MS:I'm not sure how familiar with BBC policy you are, but I am wondering – what was their policy regarding archiving programmes?

RB: I cannot be specific on detail, but the cost of retaining material in the 1930s and 1940s would have been very substantial, as virtually all of the recordings were on shellac or so-called “acetate” discs. As from about 1954, the use of quarter-inch tape increased significantly, but the recording standard of 15 inches per second full-track would give a 2400 ft. 10.5” reel only 30 minutes’ recording time : even at 7.5 ips, this would be 60 minutes, and, at today’s prices, you are talking of a figure of well over £100.00 per reel. Therefore archiving complete programmes was massively costly and a strict policy of what could be retained (as opposed to “it would be nice to have such-and-such”) had to be enforced. Another factor was that of storage capacity and, not least, weight. Finally, tape needs to be carefully stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment, all of which adds to overheads.

In summary then, much of the archive’s content had to consist of extracts from programmes and, in the case of serials, perhaps one episode only, to provide a flavour of the whole. It’s true to say that some of the costs I have mentioned declined noticeably in the 1960s and 1970s, maybe not enough to persuade the decision-makers that more and more complete programmes should be placed in the main sound archive. Clearly, in the light of the tiny cost (in comparison) of storing both audio and video material in 2011, there is no reason why almost everything which is broadcast cannot be retained.

MS: I've read that original recordings of plays were often returned to the producers, but I'm not sure if that's true or not. Are former producers possible sources for missing broadcasts?

RB: I am aware that some writers, producers and studio technicians retained copies of programmes in which they had been involved, the same occasionally applied to radio actors. I cannot say whether this was against BBC policy, but suspect it may have been! In retrospect, a debt of gratitude is owed to them.

MS: How do you know which plays are missing/lost? Did you compile a master list of known broadcasts yourselves?

RB: It is, unfortunately, impossible to compile a definitive list of plays/serials which are missing. As a group, there is no composite catalogue of items in everyone’s collection, and, of course, there are without doubt collectors “out there” we don’t know about who may have such material. Inevitably, there are certain “Holy Grails”, just as there are in the realm of radio comedy : one example being the final 3 serials in the “Inspector West” canon, and, of course, several of the original “Paul Temple” serials broadcast in the 1940s – although in this case, new productions of some of these have appeared since 2004.

MS: The VRPCC has been around for over a decade now. How many of the lost plays have you been able to locate?

RB: I have absolutely no idea, but I’d be surprised if the figure were less than 300. Unfortunately, because only a fairly small number of private collectors had deep pockets, some recordings are on second-grade tape and may have been made using only average-quality equipment. And the cost of tape was such that this was often re-used. Nevertheless, some strikingly good recordings have emerged from wholly unexpected sources and the old adage “half a loaf...” does come to mind!

MS: In regards to the various recording formats – what is the life span of such materials?

RB: (a) It’s rather ironic that the LP disc, if looked after, and played on good equipment, can last far longer than some more up-to-date media. However, I’m unaware of any privately-recorded material on this source. Recordings on “acetate” discs are playable on most record decks, but the discs can deteriorate if exposed to damp, as the lacquer will bubble and peel away.

(b) Quarter-inch tape, properly stored, is surprisingly robust (I have some reels over 50 years old which give very good results). One caveat, though. Some brands of back-coated tape suffer from hydrolisation, which is to say that the material absorbs water vapour and is therefore liable to stick together. Playback is thus severely impaired (and may be impossible). Certain types of Sony and Ampex tape are known to have this weakness, and, as regards non-premium brands, Concert Tape and Shamrock can cause major problems. Various solutions to overcome this have been advanced, such as controlled baking in a convection oven for a given time at a given temperature. Once more, the Internet will reveal suggestions.

(c) As to the oft-derided cassette, this, too, has proved to be surprisingly robust and capable of excellent results, but, again, some cheaper brands have problems with the transport mechanism.

(d) DAT tape is very thin and can, in some cases lose its signal altogether, whilst the complexity of the machines needed to play it is a drawback (as are their repair/servicing costs), so it is a fairly poor longer-term medium, overall.

(e) MiniDisc - personally, I find this to be a very good system and maintain 5 machines.

(f) I cannot comment on more recent media, but there does not appear to be single system which is totally fail-safe long term : the development of the Solid State Hard Drive may solve this eventually.

As to the machines to play all this, there are still specialist businesses which can be located (here and overseas) to maintain and service them, the main snag being spare parts availability, but, again, small business units seem to manufacture items, such as drive belts, to keep old friends going. Record/replay heads, however, can be a particular problem, but the Internet is a wonderful source of information. The MiniDisc players are still to be found, as are the discs.

MS: What are the VRPCC's goals for the future? In regards to the organization and in regards to the material you have already recovered.

RB: These depend on the willingness of the younger generation to keep it going. In general, though, the prime aim has to be to locate lost recordings before they end up in landfills. The continued generation of contacts both in the UK and Overseas is crucial to this. As to the material already rescued, I have already explained why a full catalogue cannot be produced, but we will try to ensure that it is all digitized and backed up in at least three different locations. However, there is still a fair way to go to achieve this. Eventually, I see no reason why the broadcast-quality copies should not be offered to the relevant archive(s).

MS: If someone found old audio recordings that might be missing radio broadcasts, what should they do?

RB: If old tapes are discovered, I am quite happy to act as the first point of contact. This is a not uncommon scenario, and the first thing to do is to see if the owner is prepared to allow us access, to ascertain whether the tapes are playable and what they contain. Within the group are a number of people with professional experience in handling and digitizing tapes and with the wherewithal to do this properly. It has to be said that, in over 90% of cases, what’s on the tapes is either already in existence or are recordings of commercially-released material, but one never knows!

Modern Soundling: Thanks again to Roger for taking the time to be interviewed, and to Nigel Deacon for facilitating it.

If you happen to know of old tapes of radio drama broadcasts and think they might be of interest, you can find Roger's contact information at the bottom of the VRPCC web site.

Next time – the roving eyes – the question of the what to do with one's eyes while listening to an audio drama.

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