In April 2002, Alys Hayes and I, then webmasters of the now retired
Avengers on the Radio, were contacted by John Wright, an old-time
radio enthusiast living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. John had
initially contacted Mike Noon's Noon: Doomsday website
regarding his late friend, the Avengers author Douglas Enefer.
When Mike learned that John had recorded the Avengers radio
series off-air in the 1970s, he suggested John contact us.
Before long, it became abundantly clear that, although John scoffed
good-humouredly at the suggestion, without his endeavours there would
have been no Avengers on the Radio website and Donald Monat's
fine radio portrayal of John Steed would have been almost entirely
lost forever in the ether.
Starting in the 1960s, John - an avid listener of Springbok Radio -
began recording several programmes off-air on ¼" reel-to-reel tape.
Among these were series such as Address Unknown, The
Creaking Door, SF-68, Consider Your Verdict, Taxi,
Lux Radio Theatre, Medical File and the South African
adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes adventures... And The
Avengers. Nineteen complete serials of The Avengers! This
number included the thirteen that were already known to exist (offered
by OTR dealers in their catalogues) plus another six that had been
unheard since 1972-1973. Six serials - representing an additional
eight weeks of daily Avengers broadcasts - that were previously
thought missing by fans of the series and of Springbok Radio.
These serials - A Deadly Gift, Dial A Deadly Number,
The Quick-Quick-Slow Death, The Fantasy Game, From Venus
with Love, Train of Events, The Joker, The Super
Secret Cypher Snatch, Not to Be Sneezed At, Who Shot
Poor George / XR40?, All Done By Mirrors, Stop Me If
You've Heard This, Too Many Olés, A Case of
Interrogation, The Morning After, Love All,
Get-A-Way!, Straight From the Shoulder and A Grave
Charge - were all recorded off-air on quarter-inch reel-to-reel
tape in South Africa by John Wright. Eighteen of these serials of
these hail from Dennis Folbigge's tenure as adaptor/director with the
exception being The Fantasy Game, which appears to be the sole
surviving example of Tony Jay's work on the series. The overwhelming
majority of these recordings include the original Springbok Radio
jingles and commercial breaks.
There is clear evidence that the
thirteen serials that were previously available were, in fact, sourced
from John's recordings. His tapes proffer many clues which lead one to
this conclusion – episodes on the OTR retail tapes feature
introductory voice-overs on exactly the same episodes, and several
recording glitches are carried across from one to the other. To add
weight to the argument, John recalls making his Avengers
recordings for the benefit of Ron Baron, a partially-sighted radio
enthusiast living in America. Ron – "a truly nice guy," as John
recalled - was the only person that he ever copied his Avengers
tapes for. Clearly Ron made copies for others that he exchanged tapes
with - and thank goodness he did!
When questioned on the subject,
John could not say quite why he recorded so much of Springbok Radio's
output. He professed to a long love affair with radio and the desire
to capture some of it for posterity, fearing - correctly - that the
heyday of radio drama would not last forever. His recordings of The
Avengers and other South African productions are all the more
valuable when you consider the sorry state of South African radio
Quite Quite Ephemeral!
So why does so little remain from the output of one of South Africa's
most popular radio stations? The answer is straightforward.
Sonovision were supplied the blank recording media by the series'
sponsors, Lever Brothers, and due to the high cost of tape - and the
SABC's policy of airing programmes just the once - it was very common
that new programmes would be recorded over previous productions. This
was a very common practice, and for the most part, preservation of the
programmes was not considered. "Most programme tapes were wiped after
broadcast. The reason was simply economic. They could be re-used and
the cost of the blank tape was a significant factor in the production
company's budget," recalls Donald Monat.
The South African Broadcasting
Corporation Sound (Radio) Archives had been in existence since 1964,
after the SABC had identified a need to preserve South African
broadcast history. The collection focuses mainly on news and current
affairs, sport, drama and music from South Africa, in all South
African languages, although some international material is archived.
The Avengers unfortunately slipped the net, along with huge
swathes of South African radio drama. The Radio Sound Archive is keen
to fill in gaps in its collection, and regularly benefits from
donations from private collections.
Donation and Restoration
John Wright generously donated his
recordings to the Avengers on the Radio website (the precursor
site of The Avengers Declassified) and mailed them to us in
England in May 2002. This would no doubt have happened earlier had the
recipients not fretted over the possibility of the tapes becoming lost
in the post, and the best way to get them from South Africa and avoid
this nightmarish eventuality.
Imagine, if you will, the thought
of what may well be the only surviving off-air recordings of The
Avengers ending up in some postal Bermuda Triangle. This was a
very real concern, and it was therefore a great relief when the four
packages arrived safely! Fingernails had been bitten down to the quick
while the consignment was in transit, but fortunately, all nine tapes
survived the journey very well, with no appreciable damage to either
the reels, boxes or the recordings themselves.
Alys and I then set about
transferring the tapes to the digital domain (photos above) and slowly
restored the nineteen serials (and Escape in Time: Remake 1-3)
over a ten year period, completing the project on 28th July 2012. We
couldn't be accused of hurrying things... though we transferred and
restored the serials twice during this period.
The Tapes - The Full Lowdown
John Wright's tapes are mostly
1800' reels, with some 1200' and 2400' in the mix. Each tape is
divided into four separate monaural tracks (two on each side), each of
which are recorded at 3¾ inches per second. Originally, John recorded
these tapes in two-track mode only (giving the possibility of
recording from stereo sources and a marginally better recording
quality), but the scarcity and expense of reels of blank tape (this at
a time when compact cassette was making a significant impression on
the home recording market) meant that he eventually recorded over the
inner tracks on many of his tapes.
This practice preserved the
original recording as a single rather than double track recording, and
allowed the taping of another programme over the other track. The
great majority of John's off-airs of The Avengers serials were
recorded in this way, taping over the inside tracks of earlier
made his recordings on Sony equipment - most regularly on a
Sony-O-Matic with the remainder on a Sony 260 stereo recorder, which
John still had in working order in 2002. An example of this model is
shown on the right.
Most recordings were achieved with
a direct patch connection to the radio, giving an excellent frequency
response and a warm sound (and thankfully lacking, of course, the
cries of "dinner's ready!" and "who's a pretty boy, then?" that were
preserved forever on many a fan recording!). Occasionally, out of
necessity when away from home, some recordings were made by placing a
telephone (suction-cup style) microphone over the speaker of a
portable radio. Even in these latter instances, while obviously not
being of a studio quality, the results were perfectly audible.
The tapes, on the whole, were
remarkably well preserved. These recordings were thirty years old in
their year of recovery (and the tapes themselves, even older).
Inevitably, the tapes have developed drop outs; some reels more than
others. However, the overall quality is excellent, with minimal
background noise, good frequency response and clear sound. The fact
that they were recorded using a direct connection to the radio means
that these are as near in quality to the original master recordings as
fans of South African radio and The Avengers are ever likely to
hear today; the low recording speed being the fly in the ointment, if
one is ultra-critical. They are very impressive, with a few
exceptions, and a marked improvement over the multi-generational
copies previously in circulation. It is a pleasure to have been
involved in their recovery and to have restored them.
Lightning Strikes Twice!
In addition to the nineteen serials recorded by John Wright, the first three installments of the
second version of Escape in Time (again from the Folbigge era),
also survive (Episodes 1 and 2 as recordings taken from the
original studio masters and 3 from an off-air cassette recording). This story remains incomplete, but Avengers fans should be grateful for
small mercies, as some Springbok series are lost forever, or have a
handful of episodes remaining from transmission runs far greater than
The off-air cassette recording of
Episode 3 came to light soon after John Wright's tapes had arrived in
England. Searching the web for information about The Avengers
radio series, Barbara Peterson found Avengers on the Radio and
dropped us a line to say that she too had recorded a single episode in
the early 1970s. It transpired that the Escape in Time episode
in question was one for which no other recording existed. Another
Barbara lived in South Africa as a
child while her father flew food into famine-struck Mozambique. She
made the recording on compact cassette shortly before moving to
Lobatse, Botswana (and out of range of Springbok Radio transmissions,
unfortunately!) in 1973. Barbara now lives in her native America.
In common with John Wright before
her, Barbara was very kind and trusting in sending her original master
recording to us. The episode is missing the very first few seconds,
though this is simply a reprise from the end of Episode Two, patching
was possible. We're very grateful for the generosity of both Barbara
and John. They have both earned themselves places in the Avengers
Hall of Fame!
Let's See What's Out There...
There is a good chance that there
are further Avengers serials waiting to be discovered in the private
taped collections of South African radio enthusiasts. If you are a
person who recorded any serials off-air in South Africa (or
drop us a line if you think you might be sitting on anything
exciting. We'd be delighted to hear from anyone who has as much as a
clip from a missing episode! Thank you.
by Alan Hayes
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