A couple of weeks ago, something incredibly rare and rather extraordinary happened: the BBC announced that two full episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been recovered. One was “Air Lock”, the third episode in the four-part story “Galaxy 4”, with William Hartnell as the Doctor. The other was the second episode of “The Underwater Menace”, this time with Patrick Troughton in the lead.
This wasn’t just significant news for Doctor Who geeks (although, as a card-carrying one, I have to say it certainly was that), but also big news for cinephiles and movie lovers who may not care one iota about a black and white 60s UK series. Here’s why.
In the 1970s, the BBC began deleting their old TV shows. Tape was expensive, and back then it was practically and financially ridiculous to even consider repeating these old shows, so the likes of Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Steptoe and Son, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also…, and Doctor Who began disappearing from the archives.
When it was realised by the fledgling fan community – made up of people who had only just realised, in pre-internet times, that there were others out there just like them and they could probably form a community of some sort – that these episodes were being wiped, an outcry began. The BBC’s policy changed overnight. They went from junking episodes to recovering them, and, with no small sense of irony, the search for the missing episodes begun.
It’s easy to scoff at the short-sightedness of the BBC, but back then television was not the eternal, well-preserved artform much of it is now. There was no home video, and repeat viewings were exceptionally rare. It was radio with pictures, ephemeral and soon forgotten, and the idea that they would one day be treasured, fifty years on, would not have crossed a single person’s mind.
So, with the benefit of that cautionary tale, with hindsight clear and present, why are we being so short-sighted now?
The big film studios have recently announced that they will soon stop renting archival 35mm prints of their old films to theatres, because the costs of storage and transport have become too hefty, and the number of vintage theatres too scarce. The old film prints, so goes the plan, are going to be junked, and replaced with a 4K digital scan.
On one level, I totally get this. Why have expensive physical copies of films when you could have a single hard drive with multiple hi-def movies stored with greater efficiency? When the rental is – or will one day be – the simple click of a button, rather than a pricey courier? Why continue pouring all these resources into films most people don’t really want to watch?
The answer – or answers, for there are many – should be obvious. We’re talking about our cultural heritage here. This is the modern artform. The actual, physical film that these movies exist on are not simply bulky storage methods, but an intrinsic part of the work. Digital prints are useful, but they don’t have the soul of the film print. And if you think I’m being needlessly sentimental here, ask yourself if you’d destroy the paintings of da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pissarro, because someone took a photograph of them. The celluloid is the canvas.
But even if keeping exclusively digital copies was a good idea, we’re not there yet. The technology is great, but it doesn’t yet have the depth that film provides. If, as has been suggested, the replacement backups are in 4K, what will we think in a few years when 4K is superseded? The technology keeps getting better, and as crazy as it is to pointlessly draw a line in the sand, this is not the place to do it.
Melbourne’s Astor Theatre has been fighting the good fight for a while. Although it’s adapted to include 4K digital, it still regularly plays 35mm prints, as well as 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and others. The theatre has its own distribution arm, Chapel Distribution, co-directed by Astor proprietor George Florence and Potential Films director Mark Spratt, who have worked to acquire as many prints as possible. The Astor even goes so far as to offer free storage of film prints to other, storage-challenged distributors to discourage them being junked. Many older films are kept in regular rotation on the calendar to keep the prints alive. The Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double, for instance, plays every few months to ensure those prints remain in circulation. From 2014, the Astor is going to be one of the last few places in the country still projecting film.
Hasn’t the BBC’s immediate about-face on the junking of old programs taught us anything? Can’t we weigh up the importance of having these works against the mild inconvenience of storing them and arrive at the conclusion reached by the village idiot ahead of the film executive?
There’s a cinema in Los Angeles called the New Beverley, which is basically the spiritual sister of the Astor. It also plays classic doubles in 35mm, and is committed to film preservation. It has started an online petition to save film prints, and I urge you to take two seconds out of your day to sign it. You may not see the value in it at right this moment, but we’ve lost enough over the past century to recognise what we’ll one day wish, with clarity of hindsight, we’d saved.