Thursday, October 10, 2013

The unjust hatred of Pamela Nash

I wonder if the MP for Airdrie and Shotts ever receives misdirected hatred from Doctor Who fans. If so then I hope she's aware that she shares a name with probably the most unfortunate person in the story of the missing Doctor Who episodes.

The Pamela Nash in question is a former employee of BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide), the section of the BBC devoted to commercial and international exploitation of the BBC's output. Amongst her tasks was ordering the creation of copies of programmes for overseas sales. At present out of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who made in the 1960s, only 147 survive (a number that may change very soon). However if the series had never been sold overseas at all then the number surviving would be just 7 - the seven unusually made as & transmitted from film copies that were then kept by the BBC Film Library. It is thanks to BBC Enterprises - and particularly Pamela Nash - that so many early Doctor Whos survive at all.

However that's not how Doctor Who fans traditionally regard Nash. For later on in the 1970s she oversaw the destruction of the BBC Enterprises stock of telerecordings - and not just Doctor Who was affected. She then had an encounter with a fan chasing rumours that some episodes still survived and wasn't the most sympathetic in the encounter.

Now the whole issue of lost television is actually quite complicated and it's easy to point fingers or talk about hindsight without considering the broader reasons. But it strikes me as somewhat ludicrous to focus on the destruction of the overseas sales stock without considering the consequences. The primary causes of the destruction of much material were the old attitude that television was an ephemeral medium with little interest in past performances (the view that the BBC was the "national theatre of the airwaves" applied in more ways than one), severe rights restrictions that limited the scope for repeats & overseas sales after so many years, changes in broadcast standards that saw the arrival of a higher resolution format and colour, and a general lack of belief or supporting money for maintaining a comprehensive archive.

It was primarily the cost of reusable transmission videotape that meant that many, many BBC shows were wiped over when they appeared to no longer be usable. A small number were made on and transmitted from film and some of these transmission prints survived but not all. However nobody ever seems to find a single name to blame in either the Engineering Department or the Film Library. But we have one in the sales division so the finger gets pointed.

Blaming Nash and BBC Enterprises for the holes in the Doctor Who collection is probably on the scale of blaming publishers and booksellers for the gaps in the British Library's holdings (and there are some items that have been lost or which were never held in the first place). At the end of the day Enterprises was focused on selling programmes it currently held the rights for and which were profitable. And it had limited storage space. It could no more be expected to hold onto rights expired old material any more than publishers maintain huge backlists on books either where they no longer hold the rights for or which just don't sell any more. Anyone who's ever browsed a remainder bookshop knows what gems can be found in them but publishers have to take a broader approach.

Nash's "crimes" seems to be:
  • Not recognising that Doctor Who (or for that matter any number of series that were either very popular, had a strong fan following and/or are important in the history of a particular genre) was a special case that should be preserved at all cost.
  • Not realising that it was BBC Enterprises' duty to do things it wasn't its duty to do.
  • Not having the available budget to hand and using it to create a special archive to retain the old shows.
  • Not giving the desired response to a stranger who didn't work at Enterprises who came charging into her office one day freaked out about old film prints being cleared out.
In the last case many of us have had experience of outsiders of one kind or another butting in and telling us how to do our jobs and what our priorities should be; and our reaction is rarely going to satisfy them.

At the moment the Doctor Who world is abuzz with reports that some missing episodes have been recovered but strangely the BBC is embargoing the precise information. But whilst we await it, let's stop the hated for somebody just because we have their name and they didn't meet up to the standards of an obsessed fan one day.


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