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The Life & Times of Neil Lambess

[Neil Lambess]Neil promises that this is the last time he will ever talk about missing episodes... Ever... Cross his little heart.

First off, a very big thanks to BBC Enterprises for leaving both mine and Paul's name off the British version of The Crusade & The Space Museum. It makes all those years of toll calls, bus trips, train trips, bribery and corruption as I chased missing episodes so much more worthwhile than it would have been had they actually bothered to officially say “thanks”. Actually, make that: “Thanks for making us jillions of trillions of dollars richer by finally giving us an excuse to sell an expensive boxed set of The Space Museum that would have sunk without a trace if we hadn't stuck a missing episode on the front.”

Am I bitter and twisted... hell yes!

Actually, genuine and heartfelt thanks must go to Steve Roberts who managed to get our names included on the Australasian release. Steve's a genuinely nice guy who hopefully will end up as the Beeb's Director-General if there's any justice in this world. He even sent me a complimentary copy of the British version of the box set (and thanks also to Roadshow New Zealand who very kindly sent me a copy of the Australasian version!).

Anyway, welcome to the second instalment of my brand-new column for TSV. Yes, that's right, thanks to all the favourable comments on my ramblings last issue, Paul's signed me on as a regular. In the months to come I will touch on my many dubious theories about Doctor Who and fandom in general, speculate about the lost Yeti stories that actually got filmed, and the true identity of the American telemovie Master. If any long-term TSV readers remember my Watergate-like exposé that Grace Holloway is the Doctor's mother, you'll know what to expect...

Hey! Come back - don't go! I haven't told you my theory about Adric eating the dinosaurs yet...

Since my last column, lots of people have asked about my various missing episode leads and theories. So sit back and relax as I relate how the sight of anything even remotely silver and cylindrical has me ringing Paul to tell him I've found The Macra Terror. Join me as I enter my own personal quantum accelerator to travel back to the early 1970s, with my faithful companions Ziggy and Al. Hang on, something's not quite right... wrong series.

The Macra Terror

When I was at primary school in Masterton and Troughton was on the telly, I was what could be termed a ‘casual viewer’ - by this I actually mean ‘casual’ as in ‘casualty’. Invariably Doctor Who scared the willies out of me, and my mother always tried to keep me from watching it cos I would always catch a scary bit of the episode and run screaming to her chair. Despite this (and the fact that I much preferred Thunderbirds at the time), I've ended up with happy memories of most of the Troughton era and bits of Hartnell. In fact, many a happy school playtime memory involves me playing Troughton, my friend Andrew playing a blond Jamie (!) and the big charred log at the back of the playground playing the monster of the week. All the other kids lying down at the base of the log, died spectacularly as it logged them to death...

Sometime during this period, a school sports day was cancelled and we were all bundled into the school hall to watch some films. The projector started, and we watched a short film about speedboat racing, and then one about ice sculpture in Japan (which showed a spectacular Thunderbird 2 carved out of ice - wow!) If anyone has a copy of this film out there, please let me know!

Then, as an extra special treat, we watched at least two episodes of a Doctor Who story, and I'm damned sure it was The Macra Terror as a) I'd seen it before, and b) Andrew and I kept fidgeting and playing Jamie and the Doctor. What's confusing is the dates, as I think these events happened around 1972 or '73. But The Macra Terror was supposedly destroyed in 1974.

As I didn't start intermediate school until 1975 it's possible that if The Macra Terror slipped out of the NZBC archives that I could have seen it in late 1974 - but both Andrew and I transferred to a country school in late 1972. However, we often had combined school sports days at my old school so there's still the possibility that I saw it on one of these combined school visits (but I can't be sure). That's what happens when you turn 35 and senility sets in.

Needless to say, in the mid-1980s, once I reacquainted myself with the Doctor and realised that there were episodes missing, I wrote to the school several times, to no avail. Once, whilst visiting my sister and brother-in-law, I actually visited the school and found out that the teacher who was in charge of the audio-visual equipment had since died, and that the school no longer held any 16mm film or a projector. Apparently the teacher was a film buff and after his death, his collection was sold off - so the tantalising and incredibly frustrating possibility exists that something - possibly episodes of The Macra Terror - has survived.

Ironically, at the time I visited my sister and brother-in-law, they were farming the foothills of the Tararua mountain range very, very close to the shed where a 16mm film print of The Lion was being stored. In fact, the number of times I would have passed by the farm gate leading to that shed in the 1980s and early 1990s is staggering. Talk about ironic!!

The Highlanders

In late 1977 or 1978, my best friend Lance and I were avid sci-fi buffs and collected all the Target novelisations. This caused endless tears, as despite Masterton having a population of 18,000 people, only one copy of each novelisation came in, and whoever missed out on buying it had to wait months for a back order to turn up. In fact, it wasn't until 1992 that I finally got a copy of the Chris Achilleos-covered Doomsday Weapon! (Damn you Lance - not that I was holding a grudge or anything.)

Anyway, Lance's older brother's best friend worked in some capacity at the Avalon television studios in Wellington. One day, no doubt due to our incessant pestering about when Doctor Who was coming back, he mentioned that there were still episodes in storage at the Avalon studios. He mentioned that there was one about Scotsmen and a Scottish war - I didn't realise it at the time but it had to be The Highlanders, which indicates that it survived at least until 1978, and was in storage at Avalon. (At which stage a bandsaw probably ripped through the film and the remains were fed to the warthogs at Wellington Zoo!)

Don't worry, I'm still trying to track this guy down through Lance, as I suspect that he may have been involved in some of the ‘slippage’ of film prints from TVNZ - which brings me to an interesting point...


One of the things that always amazes me about Doctor Who fandom is the form of our obsession with the programme. Back in the 1960s, we recorded the show on reel-to-reel audio tape, we shot bits of it on 8mm film, we took photographs off the telly... It's almost as if we knew it was going to be lost forever and took precautions in advance (I mean, how many people taped all the soundtracks of Z-Cars or Coronation Street?) In fact, unlike other shows, a large percentage of Doctor Who fandom is obsessed with the production of our favourite show rather than the product. We can produce lists and exact dates for destruct orders, we've found episodes in Hong Kong, rubbish dumps, car boot sales, church basements and even (ahem) Grey Lynn villas...

All of these missing episodes that have turned up in unlikely places are supposed to have been destroyed, either by the BBC or an overseas television company that purchased the films. The fact that they weren't means that in some cases, someone didn't destroy the films, but slipped them out on the quiet ( hence the term ‘slippage’).

Slipping a film canister over a foot in diameter out quietly is no mean feat (I know - I've attempted it myself in the past!) and considering the fact that it's also highly illegal, it's also highly risky (particularly if you want to keep your job). Those of you who read Paul's article last issue about how The Lion and several hundred other film prints ‘slipped’ out of a truck at the Johnsonville tip (which really, if you think about it, is a spectacular way to do it), will know these ‘slippages’ do happen. (And the warthogs go hungry.)

I worked as a theatre projectionist and assistant manager for nearly ten years, and was continuously astounded at what ‘disappeared’ from the theatrical circuit in New Zealand. One day, while rummaging around in the basement of Whangarei's Odeon Theatre (yes, I was looking for Macra or Cybermen), I found not only a 16mm print of a little-known Goon Show film called The Case of the Muckanese Battle Horn, but also a complete 35mm film print of an even lesser-known film called The Crater Lake Monster (which was worth about $20,000 in film stock value alone). These films had been sitting abandoned in a dusty basement for around fifteen years.

Over the years I have stumbled across lots of ex-NZBC/TVNZ film prints that have been lost, forgotten, sold or smuggled out of the archives. I have on video several episodes of the sci-fi series Timeslip that are telecine transfers of old NZBC film prints (i.e. someone pointed a video camera at a film projection and pressed record). At the end of some episode, after the tail (the piece of film that runs through the projector after the episode ends), is the NZBC logo, indicating the origin of these Timeslip episodes.

At my high school we had two ex-NZBC Avengers episodes, one of which was Mission... Highly Improbable. I was in charge of the AV equipment and spent many happy hours screening these two films to students during rainy lunchtimes. Other schools had other ex-NZBC stock. I know of four or five Avengers films that are still out there, as well as at least one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Over the years I've heard mutterings from film collectors that stuff from the archives did change hands for small amounts of money. This would explain why most film collectors in New Zealand are in my experience very hesitant about admitting to owning anything of this nature. They are quite aware that they have (in their eyes) illegally purchased stolen property - and I don't think this situation only applies to New Zealand. The Evil of the Daleks part 2 and The Faceless Ones part 3 didn't just magically appear at a car boot sale in England - someone had to have taken them out of the ‘destroy’ pile with, perhaps, an eye to making a few pounds on the side. If these episodes slipped out, what else is in the hands of private collectors who don't want to let anyone know what they've got for fear of being sued or a finger being pointed at the employee of a television company?

It would be very interesting to know if the episodes that have turned up in private hands in the UK (particularly the two I've just mentioned), had similar or identical destruction dates (does anyone have a list of these?). If that is the case, it seems likely that the same person slipped the films out of the BBC at the same time. It would also make it feasible that other episodes scheduled for destruction at this time which are still missing were possibly also smuggled out - and still exist, somewhere. Even more intriguing is the possibility that, as The Evil of the Daleks part 2 and The Faceless Ones part 3 ended up in the hands of the same collector, their destruct dates could be wildly different, providing compelling evidence that someone was regularly smuggling stuff out of the BBC archives over a period of several years...

Where to from here?

The point I'm making is that things do slip out, get sold and somehow survive. I personally think that more stuff is sitting in private film collections, dusty basements and farm sheds. If you talk to the average person on the street - or, for that matter, the average film collector (who's probably afraid you'll get him arrested for theft) - and tell them that there's missing Doctor Who films out there, they will be surprised. The sad thing is that despite the massive publicity over The Lion's rediscovery, nothing more has turned up. However, I'm currently following up two tantalising leads - for now my lips must remain sealed!

Recently, I went back to my old high school to see if the Avengers episodes were still there. They weren't (sadly, in the early 1980s 16mm film projectors went out of fashion in schools very quickly as video came in), but my old teacher was, and surprise, surprise, not only did he still have the school's old projectors but also the Avengers films in his shed at home. I asked him how the school ended up with the films - a question I'd never previously asked. Apparently, in the 1970s if you asked the NZBC nicely, they were perfectly happy to send schools expired film prints to splice, dice, and play around with as long as you didn't screen them (at cancelled sports days and so on...). It was never ‘official’ in any way but it did happen.

And now here's where you come in. If you're still at school, why not quietly approach whoever is in charge of the AV equipment and politely ask, whatever happened to its old 16mm film holdings? If you've left school, why not drop in to visit that old favourite teacher? Chat about old times and quietly steer the conversation to the AV holdings - who knows, we might all end up pleasantly surprised! Just try not to tell any reporters about it!!!

Distribution label

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: Life and Times of Neil Lambess