The British gave Americans the Beatles, James Bond and Shakespeare. The Library of Congress is returning the favor by repatriating a treasure trove of television programs that represent Britain’s “golden age of television.” Considered lost for more than 40 years, the programs include footage of some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud, Robert Shaw, David Hemmings and Susannah York.
In an unprecedented collaboration between the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute (BFI), the two largest archives of film and television in the world, more than 68 rare recordings from 1957 to 1969 will be returned to the United Kingdom. The return of those recordings would be the library’s first repatriation of television programs to another country and the largest such repatriation in history.
The programs represent a key period in British television and many of the programs reflect adaptations of literary classics, including works by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov. Highlights include Sean Connery and Dorothy Tutin in a rare BBC production of “Colombe” (1960) by Jean Anouilh; Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in “Much Ado About Nothing,” stage-directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1967); Leonard Rossiter and John Le Mesurier in “Dr. Knock” (1966); and Rudolph Cartier’s drama about Rembrandt (1969). The earliest production among the programs was Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” in 1957. The roster of recovered dramas also includes episodes of “The Wednesday Play,” “Thursday Theatre” and “Play of the Month.”
The vintage television programs were discovered in the library’s National Educational Television (NET) Collection. NET was the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which donated its film and video holdings to the library through PBS’ flagship station WNET/Thirteen in New York. For many years, NET imported a host of British teleplays and comedies, which were included in more than 20,000 reels donated to the library.
“In the archival world, television repatriations are exceedingly rare," said Mike Mashon, head of the library’s Moving Image Section. The library is “delighted” to make high-quality preservation copies of those programs and share them with the BFI and the British public. “In the meantime, we’ll keep looking for more lost shows,” he added.