David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood's first sitcom partly recovered

ExclusiveThursday 30th November 2023, 1:21pm

  • Episodes from two different, otherwise totally wiped sitcoms, have been recovered
  • Dating from the mid-1960s and early 70s, Lance At Large and Them are works by celebrated comedy writers
  • The two programmes will be screened by the BFI this Sunday
Courtesy of BFI. Image shows left to right: Fred Emney, Alan Day (Lance Percival). Credit: BBC

The BFI and British Comedy Guide can exclusively confirm details of two further recoveries of lost sitcom episodes.

Most notably, one is from the otherwise entirely wiped Lance At Large - the first ever television series by David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood, who would go on to be widely lauded comedy-writing greats, responsible for sitcoms including The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin and I Didn't Know You Cared.

The organisation's Missing Believed Wiped initiative, which seeks to identify and recover television programming that was not officially archived by original broadcasters or production companies, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with a special comedy-centric screening of 2023's discoveries to be held this Sunday, 3rd December. Tickets are on sale now.

Starring Lance Percival (That Was The Week That Was, Carry On Cruising), Lance At Large ran for a single series on BBC1 in 1964 and had been wiped by the BBC. A sole episode, the fifth, originally broadcast on 10th September, was discovered in Coventry Cathedral earlier this year.

The episode guest stars Fred Emney (pictured, above left), Hugh Paddick and Diana Chappell amongst others.

The other newly announced discovery is an episode of 1972's Them.

Written by Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part) and produced by Dennis Main Wilson (Hancock's Half Hour), it also ran one series on BBC1, and the second episode has been recovered. Originally broadcast on 3rd August, it follows a pair of tramps - "gentlemen of the road" - one Irish and one Cockney. Starring Cyril Cusack and James Booth, in this episode they seek refuge overnight in an abandoned house that turns out to be haunted.

The series picks up on a tramp theme Speight had first created with The Arthur Haynes Show character Hobo Haynes almost 20 years previously, and would revisit again a decade later in The Lady Is A Tramp. The episode was recovered through the Radio Times Treasure Hunt campaign.

Courtesy of BFI. Alan Day (Lance Percival). Credit: BBC
Courtesy of BFI. Alan Day (Lance Percival). Credit: BBC

Both recoveries will be screened during Sunday's event, with Them guest star Madeline Smith in attendance to discuss the episode. The session will also include a look at Gold's new animations of missing Dad's Army episodes, and a discussion with some of those behind them.

Speaking to BCG, BFI Archive Television Programmer and Missing Believed Wiped co-ordinator Dick Fiddy says: "Comedy is one of the three elements of Missing Believed Wiped that garners the most interest: sci-fi, notably Doctor Who; comedy; and music.

"As luck would have it, earlier this year we were contacted by the archivist at Coventry Cathedral. Apparently the BBC used to have a studio in the cathedral, and they were going through it when they found this 'BBC'-marked 16mm film called Lance At Large. The cannister had an Australian label - it had been sent to ABC and shown there - and somehow returned to the BBC and ended up at Coventry Cathedral.

"I'm a big fan of the star, Lance Percival. He'd made a splash in That Was The Week That Was and then appeared in Impromptu, one of the very first BBC2 programmes from early 1964 - a sort-of parlour game show - and he'd impressed in that, he was a rising star. It's unclear whether the BBC had this sitcom already and were looking for a star, or had the idea that Percival needed his own sitcom, but as Nobbs and Tinniswood had both written on That Was The Week That Was I suspect the latter. Nobbs in fact wrote in his autobiography that, as the series wasn't a success, he and Tinniswood nearly killed Lance's career before it had started!

"It is fascinating - that's often the thing about Missing Believed Wiped. All missing television is like missing parts of a jigsaw puzzle: it doesn't matter how innocuous these things are; the more you get back, the bigger, better a picture you have of our televisual, comedic and cultural history. This particular episode is a really good find and example of that.

"Them, the other recovered programme, from Johnny Speight, really is extremely good. This episode is very much like a sketch show in many ways: three long sketches featuring the same characters. The first shows them at breakfast, the second shows them at lunch, and the third shows them at night trying to find somewhere to sleep. That latter one is fascinating because it belies all of Speight's obsessions and just becomes a pure bit of fun following these two tramp characters - and it's a pure ghost story.

"Now this sounds made up, but actress Madeline Smith often attends our events and was already due to come to Missing Believed Wiped, and is a key guest star in this episode of Them. When I asked her if she'd like to talk about it, she told me that for forty years she's been struggling to remember what that job was! She remembers filming, but had no idea what it was for.

"The two main planks of this year's event are thus previously completely lost sitcoms. They're really interesting."

Lance Percival
Lance Percival

Lance At Large has been remastered and is being digitally preserved by the BFI National Archive, with the original film print - made for overseas sales - returned to the BBC Archive.

Missing Believed Wiped screenings usually occur once a year, but such is the volume of recovered material that this will already be the second in 2023, with another extra event already planned for 2024.

Dick Fiddy adds: "It's amazing that precious material is still being recovered over 30 years since the initiative began. This is mainly due to the diligence of TV archivists and the generosity of private collectors, many of whom have rescued and preserved such items for decades."

Over its 30 year existence to date, the initiative has rediscovered more than 200 television programmes, including landmark comedies, dramas and current affairs programming, and one hundred hours of one-off plays from the US Library of Congress alone.

Reflecting on discoveries made over the past three decades, Fiddy explains: "Very early on we were able to screen missing episodes of Dad's Army. When Columbia Pictures made the original film version in 1970 they were sent examples of two Series 2 episodes by the BBC for reference, which were simply disposed of when finished with. But - so the story goes - someone working at the film studio rescued them, and years later when he died, his daughter was clearing out the garden shed and found these BBC-marked film cans. She alerted them and they turned out to be episodes that had since gone missing.

"So comedy, as I said, has always been a big part of Missing Believed Wiped. The very first year we found one man who had copies of episodes of At Last The 1948 Show, a Comedy Playhouse starring Terry-Thomas, and more. We've found and screened all sorts - Till Death Us Do Part, The Likely Lads... Comedy's always been very important."

In full, comedies to have been recovered in whole or part under the Missing Believed Wiped banner to date are as follows:
Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp, At Last The 1948 Show, Benny Hill, Comedy Playhouse, Do Not Adjust Your Set, Frankie Howerd, Frost On Sunday, The Good Old Days, Horne A'Plenty, Hugh And I, It's A Square World, Lance At Large, Not Only... But Also..., Our Man At St Mark's, Out Of The Trees, Play Of The Week: The Wild Duck, Played Upon A Stage, Queen Of Hearts, The Rag Trade, Rats To You, The Ronnie Barker Playhouse, Showtime, Steptoe And Son, Strictly T-T, Summer Comedy Hour, Sunday Night At The London Palladium, Theatre 625: Dr. Knock, Them, Till Death Us Do Part, and Whack-O!.

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