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.

Sounds Familiar

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 archiving.

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 recordings.

John 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 that of The Avengers.

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 result!

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 elsewhere), please 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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