Dicky Howett recalls a radio restoration project

"The BBC presents Jet Morgan in Journey into Space...!" 

So intoned the sepulchral voice of David Jacobs at the start of one of BBC Radios most successful series of the 1950s. Conceived, written and produced by Charles Chilton, these seminal stories of space-flight and strange goings on in space captured the public imagination for 20 weeks at a stretch.

At 7.3Opm every Monday evening, the latest cliff- or in this case asteroid- hanger was resolved, only to later plunge the listening millions into yet another week of anxious anticipation.

This vastly popular series (David Lean even proposed doing a movie version) emptied pubs and caused factory workers to forsake overtime. The programme was considered a landmark in radio drama.

Radio 2 re-aired the series a few years ago, re-creating on FM not only the exquisite thrill of it all, but also (or so it seemed) the cosy and reassuring sound quality of an old 1954 Light Programme whistling medium wave signal. The question as to why the series had never been repeated since those first 1950s transmissions was that a complete BBC library collection of Journey Into Space was thought to be totally lost.

From 1953 through to 1955, the BBC made a trilogy of programmes consecutively entitled, Journey lnto Space (re-recorded in 1958 as Operation Luna), The Red Planet and The World in Peril.  The actors originally were Andrew Faulds as Jet Morgan, Guy Kingsley Poynter as Doc Matthews, David Kossoff as Lemmy Barnet and Bruce Beeby as Stephen 'Mitch' Mitchell.  Each episode was recorded on magnetic tape (15 ips full track) and the evocative background music, composed and conducted by Van Phillips, was swung in situ off acetate discs. Sound effects likewise, these having been recorded at Battersea Power Station and the National Physical Laboratory at Kingston. (The ominous 'televiewer' sound was, in fact, naval ASDIC). Little or no editing of the master tape was undertaken at the time of production, so everything had to be 'all right on the night'

After broadcast, the master tape of each episode was transferred, using a BBC Type D disc cutter, on to 16-inch coarse-groove discs for sale overseas. It was BBC policy at that time to then wipe master tapes three months after transmission, so Journey Into Space went the way of all BBC taped programmes,  under the merciless magnet.

In 1986, Ted Kendall, a BBC recording engineer, uncovered a pile of mis-filed transcription discs which, incredibly, turned out to be spare disc copies of the long-lost Jet Morgan adventures. However, transferring these prized items back on to tape for possible rebroadcast had to wait until Ted Kendall could locate an EMT 927, 16-inch coarse-groove disc player running at 33 1/3rd rpm! The BBC, not surprisingly, possessed no such item, having consigned such equipment to the junk heap years before. Eventually, Ted acquired the requisite machine, having paid 'an arm and a leg' as he puts it, and he was able to commence the transfer,

The 16 inch coarse groove discs had withstood their ignominious mis-filing reasonably well, but before Ted Kendall could plug in his box of electronic tricks, he had to embark upon a cleanup campaign. The old discs were soaked in warm water to which was added a squirt of Fairy Liquid. A goats hair brush was then employed and the discs dried off with kitchen towels. An experts touch is needed for this sort of treatment! Ted Kendall's expertise (which has been used on commercial issues of vintage material) enabled him to recapture the essential 'roundness' and sonic spirit of those old Journey Into Space disc copies.

The tape transfers were performed without the use of any 'digitisation'. Instead, Ted pumped the signal through his novel 'de-clicker', which he calls a Mousetrap. To preserve timing, other cracks and bonks were removed by literally scraping the oxide from the copy tape. It was with these skills that vintage radio was, with fidelity, recreated.

Copyright  Dicky Howett, 2002

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