The British gave Americans the Beatles, James Bond and Shakespeare. The Library of Congress is returning the favor by repatriating a treasure trove of TV programs that represent Britain’s “golden age of television.” Considered lost for more than 40 years, the programs include footage of some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud, Robert Shaw, David Hemmings and Susannah York.
In an unprecedented collaboration between the Library of Congress and British Film Institute (BFI), the two largest archives of film and television in the world, nearly 70 rare recordings from 1957 to 1969 will be returned to the United Kingdom. This marks the Library’s first-ever repatriation of television programs to another country and the largest such repatriation in history. These programs represent a key period in British television.
The vintage television programs were discovered in the Library’s National Educational Television (NET) Collection. NET was the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which donated its film and video holdings to the Library via flagship station WNET/Thirteen in New York. For many years, NET imported a host of British teleplays and comedies, which were included in more than 20,000 reels donated to the Library.
“In the archival world, television repatriations are exceedingly rare,” said Mike Mashon, head of the Library’s Moving Image Section. “We’re delighted to make high-quality preservation copies of these programs at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation and share them with the BFI and the British public. In the meantime, we’ll keep looking for more lost shows.”
“The BFI’s ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’ campaign to recover the lost treasures of British television history has been going for 17 years now, but this is by far the largest and most significant collection of programs we have found, both in terms of the quality and the vintage of the titles concerned,” said BFI senior curator Steve Bryant. “We are very grateful to WNET-TV for having the foresight to donate them to the Library of Congress, to the Library for preserving them and now making them available.”
Many of the programs reflect adaptations of literary classics, including works by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov. Highlights include Sean Connery and Dorothy Tutin in a rare BBC production of “Colombe” (1960) by Jean Anouilh; Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in “Much Ado About Nothing,” stage-directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1967); Leonard Rossiter and John Le Mesurier in “Dr. Knock” (1966); and Rudolph Cartier’s drama about Rembrandt (1969). The earliest production among the programs was Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” in 1957. The roster of recovered dramas also includes episodes of “The Wednesday Play,” “Thursday Theatre” and “Play of the Month.”
The discovery of the films and tapes among the Library’s millions of items was serendipitous. In 2006, Moving Image Section reference librarian Zoran Sinobad and independent researcher Sam Serafy, a British native, set about combing the Library’s Shakespeare-related film and video holdings to select programming for a “100 Nights of Shakespeare” series in the Mary Pickford Theater. They were surprised to find among the adaptations 16mm films of two BBC productions: “Much Ado about Nothing” (1967) and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” (1958).
Intrigued by the discovery of the two teleplays, Serafy decided to search lostshows.com, a website devoted to missing UK television programs, and found both titles on the list of lost TV treasures. Serafy and Sinobad spent countless hours poring over collection inventories. Over time, they eventually unearthed a list of 68 shows that were considered forever lost.