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Tele-snaps

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OneBenPollyPOTDTypicalTelesnap

A typical tele-snap, this one from The Power of the Daleks episode three.

Tele-snaps — also rendered Tele-Snaps and telesnaps — were photographs taken by John Cura of a television programme's transmission. In the days when the price of videotape was still prohibitive, they offered a means of capturing some kind of visual record of television. In many cases, they became the only surviving visual record of monochromatic episodes that went missing from the British Broadcasting Corporation's archives.

Tele-snaps were only taken of Doctor Who episodes produced from An Unearthly Child in 1963 through to The Mind Robber in 1968. Not all stories were known to be tele-snapped, however, so there are some stories which are both missing and without tele-snaps.

Overview edit

In 1947 John Cura, a self-taught man with a passion for electronics, sent a letter to the BBC offering what he called "Tele-Snaps", or still photographs taken at various intervals during the programme's broadcast. His basic method was simple: point a 35mm camera at a television and shoot.[1] Normally, Cura would take around sixty photographs for a half-hour episode and provide these on a contact sheet to the BBC[2] or other interested buyers.

The devil, however, was in the details. Cura's process was unique, which is why the word "tele-snaps" applies solely to his work. Two things made his services unique: his camera and his practice of providing contact sheets of entire episodes. His camera took images at the speed of 1/25th of a second — the standard PAL frame rate. And he had his camera set to an unknown focal length so that it would appear slightly blurry to the operator, but stood a better chance of counteracting the convex nature of early television screens. These two things meant that he was able to capture individual frames of programmes with each click, whereas his rivals, at least initially, couldn't. Thus their waste rate was much higher than his, meaning he got a much higher percentage of "good" images of each show.

Tele-snaps can further be characterised by what they are not:

  • They are not any off-air pictures. Thus, although images of the transmission of "The Feast of Steven" exist, telesnaps do not.
  • They are not publicity stills. Though Radio Times were known to have used telesnaps for publicity purposes and this usage arguably turned John Cura into a kind of "accidental still photographer", they aren't what are generally thought of as publicity stills. They were records of transmission, not stills taken during production for the express purpose of publicity.
  • They are not the same as casual photographs taken by cast or crew members. Thus telesnaps are not images derived from, for example, the several 8mm home movies made of location filming. Nor are they on-set images taken from a vantage point other than the one the recording video camera would have had.
  • A telesnap is never in colour, as Cura died just before the beginning of colour television in the United Kingdom.

Though Doctor Who fans are naturally focussed on tele-snaps of Doctor Who, this work was only a minor portion of Cura's output. His heyday was in the 1950s and his workload increased tremendously after ITV started broadcasts in the middle of that decade.

When he first started capturing Doctor Who he was nearing the end of his "golden age". He made a decision in 1964 to increase his prices, and this made the BBC balk. Almost immediately, business from the BBC began to slow, and certainly by 1965, Doctor Who producer John Wiles couldn't quite justify the tele-snap expense in his budgets. Although Cura would regain his Doctor Who commissions under Innes Lloyd, Wiles showed they were a producer's choice not a pro forma part of making Doctor Who. Of course, this had pretty much always been the case, since Doctor Who episodes had always been completely telerecorded.

After Cura died in 1969, his widow offered his complete collection of negatives and prints — literally hundreds of thousands of images — to the BBC. When they rudely declined the offer, she burned the entire archive. This was a devastating loss to cultural historians, since unique images from television of the mid-20th century were destroyed in that intentional blaze. Certainly, the negatives to Doctor Who tele-snaps were lost en masse at this point. But it was also probable that tele-snaps that we now consider "missing" were destroyed then, too.

Legality edit

The legality of Cura's tele-snaps was never settled by the courts or Parliament in his lifetime, though the BBC were certainly concerned about it. In the 1950s, they tried to get the British Parliament to enact legislation that defined ownership of the image of a transmission, specifically because they wanted to restrict or even eliminate Cura's business. Parliament, however, never obliged. Despite this, they did ask him to limit the people to whom he sold the telesnaps. He mostly ignored this request.

In fact, the BBC were never able to exercise any traditional element of copyright control over tele-snaps. They had no physical access to the negatives, nor did they get a royalty when he sold his images to others. Worse, they actually paid him for images of what was ostensibly their own work. So they were his de facto copyright — even though, technically, the matter was never resolved.

Availability edit

The hunt for tele-snaps is a bit like the hunt for missing episodes themselves. The BBC largely trashed their collection of tele-snaps, leaving it up to amateur sleuths to find them. After a lot of false trails, a few discoveries have been made. The biggest haul of tele-snaps was the stupendous find at the BBC Written Archive Center in Reading, England. Discovered in 1993 by Stephen James Walker and Marcus Hearn, the find included virtually every known tele-snap from the Innes Lloyd and Derrick Sherwin eras. They were immediately fast-tracked for publication in Doctor Who Magazine by its then-editor Gary Russell.

Unlike the missing episode hunt, however, finding tele-snaps is a much smaller-scale affair that begins with the production notes held by the BBC. These notes tell whether the producer had actually commissioned the tele-snaps. Conventional wisdom holds that if a producer didn't commission the tele-snaps, they probably don't exist. This presumption may be incorrect, however. Cura could well have tele-snapped a serial for which he wasn't commissioned by the BBC, since he accepted commissions from actors and directors and — by the 1960s — simply anyone who would pay. He was also known to take tele-snaps speculatively in the hopes of selling them on to interested parties. Indeed, the fact that many tele-snaps were found in the hands of directors suggests the tantalising possibility that other individuals might well have commissioned Doctor Who tele-snaps privately from Cura. Adding fuel to this possibility is the fact that the relatively minor guest actor, Michael Wolf and writer Hugh David were the original sources of tele-snaps on The Moonbase and The Highlanders, respectively.

First principle edit

Nevertheless, the basic assumption of people interested in tele-snaps is that they have to have been commissioned by the BBC to exist. And what we can say in general is:

  • Verity Lambert often, but not always, commissioned tele-snaps.
  • John Wiles never did.
  • Innes Lloyd, beginning with The Gunfighters ordered tele-snaps and Derrick Sherwin followed his predecessor's lead.
  • Cura's last work for Doctor Who appears to have been The Mind Robber episode three, since that is the latest-surviving set of tele-snaps known to exist. He died only months later, during the week The War Games episode two was broadcast.
  • Cura took his precise tele-snapping process with him to the grave.

This means there's a significant period of 1965 where there are no known tele-snaps. Again, Cura could have made tele-snaps and sold them to other people, but we don't know.

Stories without any visual record edit

If the episodes themselves also are missing, then there simply is no visual record of those stories. This means that there are only three stories which have absolutely no visual record whatsoever, barring, in one story's case, some off-screen 8mm cine camera footage. [3]:

Episodes without any visual record edit

A number of partially-missing stories, however, have no visual records for their missing episodes. In most cases that means that individual characters do have some surviving material. But there are some unlucky actors who appeared in only a single episode who have no visual records at all. In addition to the above whole serials, individual episodes without visual records are:

Other cases edit

Obviously, the above questions are the ones that most interest Doctor Who fans. But if you're a fan of tele-snaps, then you might be interested in some other issues:

  • existing episodes for which tele-snaps were known to be made, but which no longer exist; and
  • cases where no record of a BBC commission exists, but it's likely that it happened anyway

Most fans simply don't care when tele-snaps of existing episodes go missing, but it is certainly known, for instance, that The Chase and The Web Planet — amongst others — were fully tele-snapped, but no one knows where those tele-snaps are.

Of slightly greater interest are those episodes whose tele-snap status isn't clearly known. "The Lion", for instance has an ambiguous status, which used to be a matter of some fan consternation. After the episode was recovered in New Zealand, however, the issue of whether Cura had been commissioned became less pressing. Indeed, The Crusade is a highly interesting case, because there are full tele-snaps for the missing episodes "The Knight of Jaffa" and "The Warlords", but production records don't clearly indicate whether "The Lion" and "The Wheel of Fortune" were tele-snapped. Still, they are presumed tele-snapped, since it would be odd to tele-snap only episodes one and three of a four-part story.

Where you can see them edit

Doctor Who Magazine was the first place that published tele-snaps for public consumption. They ran a regular feature, in which they tried to assemble a story by captioning tele-snaps. Even as late as DWMSE 34, they used tele-snaps in this way. The Doctor Who website took much the same approach, and even as of November 2013 had the most complete collection of tele-snaps available for public consumption.

Tele-snaps also form the basis for most professional and amateur video reconstructions of missing and/or incomplete 1960s Doctor Who adventures, such as those made by Loose Cannon Productions.

External links edit

Footnotes edit

  1. Telesnap Discoveries (includes lists of who discovered missing telesnaps)
  2. Howe, David J., Stammers, Mark, Walker, Stephen James, 1992, Doctor Who: The Sixties, Doctor Who Books, an imprint of Virgin Publishing Ltd, London, p.32
  3. It is possible that either publicity stills or internal production photos exist of these stories. But as Philip Hinchcliffe and Sylvia James pointed out in the commentary to episode four of Terror of the Zygons, these pictures typically derive from the final rehearsal and not from the episode as recorded. As such they do not represent the final make-up and/or wardrobe of the characters involved, yet they have been circulated in various publications as if they were genuine stills from the episode in question.
  4. "Four Hundred Dawns" was not believed to have been tele-snapped, but an extended motion picture clip of it does exist.
  5. "The Feast of Steven" was not tele-snapped by Cura, but Robert Jewell made a very casual attempt at photographing the television set since he was in the episode.
  6. These episodes were animated for the DVD release, so in that sense they "exist", but the animation is not based upon any surviving visual records from these episodes.