Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Back on the radio again

Digital radio has given us more channels and this has led to a greater demand for both original programming and rare archive material to fill the schedules. Kevin Hilton looks at the recovery and restoration of two classic British comedy shows that have now been heard again after many years.

Two series airing now on BBC Radio 4 Extra owe their continued existence to the enthusiasm and dedication of enthusiastic collectors and modern audio restoration technique. The seventh series of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (ISIRTA) has not been heard since it was originally broadcast in 1969. Early episodes of the radio adaptation of the TV series Steptoe and Son had also not been repeated and those that were available were incomplete. Both have been restored by Keith Wickham, a voice-over artist who says he got into broadcasting because of his love of radio comedy. He had been a collector for some time and started restoring The Goon Show as a hobby ten years ago. After completing this, friends suggested he should look at ISIRTA. Starting in 1964 this is an important show because it featured a pre-Monty Python John Cleese and Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, who later became The Goodies. Also in the cast were Jo Kendall and David Hatch, who went on to be a producer and, later, managing director of BBC Network Radio. The last series was broadcast in 1973. Wickham received off-air recordings made on 7.5 ips open reel by a man called George Johnson, who had been at Cambridge at the same time as the ISIRTA team and was a member of the university’s recording society. He was then sent DAT copies of BBC Transcription Service masters that had been given to an American collector. These were significant because they also contained material edited out of the shows for overseas transmission. “That was a brilliant find,” Wickham says, “and was the starting point of this full restoration. Using off-air copies as templates I could reconstruct broadcast quality versions of most of the shows.” Wickham later received all the shows held in the BBC archive and off-recordings from Humphrey Barclay, producer of the first five series of ISIRTA. Wickham has his own home studio and worked on The Goon Show using a PC with a Yamaha sound card. “I doing that as a hobby, for fun,” he comments. “But for ISIRTA I invested a lot of money because the opportunity to do this was too good to miss. I bought an Apogee Rosetta A-D converter because that’s where the work’s done. I figured that if you’re going to run-off master tapes you have to have a good converter because sound cards aren’t up to that.” Two Studer tape machines – a 310 and a 302 – are used to transfer open reel material. Wickham also has four DAT machines. All this runs into a PC through an S/PDIF and the Yamaha sound card. “It’s fine, it does the job. None of this is complicated, really. I think for spoken word you don’t need the same level of sophistication you do for music. I’m working from mono shows here and all I needed was a very good A-D converter and some software.” Once the material was transferred the job of editing all the different sections could begin. Wickham uses Adobe Audition for this: “It’s very nice, very intuitive and for what I do it’s perfect. I only need two or three tracks and it allows me to de-click, reduce hiss and expand or contract the timing for pitch and speed changing of open reel material. As long as the original recording and lay-down of the sound you’ve got is very good, all you have to do is edit it back together. Wickham is not keen on de-hiss programs, saying he avoids them if he can. “I’ve been using good off-air recordings or master tapes so I haven‘t had to use much hiss reduction,” he comments. “There’s only one episode in all the ones I’ve restored that I’m not quite happy with. It’s very hissy and you can hear that it’s an off-air copy. I did reduce the hiss but I don’t like it because it damages the recording and if you do it too hard or too much, it ruins what you’ve got there. It makes a tight top end, which can be unlistenable.” Fans are just glad to have not just more of their favourite shows to listen to but complete versions of culturally important programmes. With Doctor Who back on the TV, the 1969 ISIRTA send up Professor Prune and the Time Trousers suddenly has a new relevance.