Monday, 11 January 2010


My friend Neil took me to the pictures on Saturday afternoon. The main feature was less than three minutes long and in 'a seriously poor condition', according to the British Film Institute fact sheet. Tempting?

Cued up for the silver screen was a missing (presumed wiped) clip from a July 1967 "Top of the Pops" show. The BBC had long since junked this programme - along with many others from its archive - but this off-air recording had festered for nearly 43 years in the collection of an unspecified 'eminent rock musician'.

The clip was on one-inch video tape, an abandoned format, and in a deeply sorry state. Technicians at the BFI's lab in Berkhamstead struggled to transfer what footage they could as the fragile reel shedded its dusty oxide with each rotation. Their painstaking project was archaeology in action.

Pints in hand, Neil and I settled in our plush black cinema seats and waited. Our fact sheets warned: "The picture quality is poor and sometimes non-existent. The picture rolls and sometimes disappears altogether, the sound fades in and out and rolls when the picture does. Virtually not one single minute was unscathed and yet... and yet...."

The BFI's Dick Fiddy was similarly pragmatic as he took the stage for his introduction. "The best way to watch this," he suggested, "is to imagine that we've discovered an amazing machine that gives us a tiny peephole through time."

We leaned forward as the lights dimmed. At once, a beaming Alan Freeman filled the screen, beseeching pop pickers to welcome that week's number three hit parade disc - from Pink Floyd.

The picture flickered, the sound dropped out, then Syd Barrett's face broke suddenly through a digital dropout to sing the opening line to 'See Emily Play'. After a few seconds, the music stopped. It rolled monstrously to a slowed-down growl, like a terrible death machine going into spasm. There was another flash of rolling picture, a drumkit, a flash of guitar, then a small explosive pop followed by a monochrome snowscreen. A flatline hiss roared through the speakers and we stared through the dots on the blank screen, willing the image to return. Another 30 seconds of black and white clarity followed and we once more saw Syd, resplendent in a tailored psychedelic jacket, sweating from the cheeks downwards: his chin glistening across a 20-foot screen. His eyes seemed full of excitement, nerves and worry. He looked, to borrow a 1990s vernacular, 4REAL. The BBC cameras turned to Roger Waters, his hair cropped savagely short, like a pageboy in blue velvet at a David Lynch wedding. He looked sinister and distant; uncomfortably numb.

By pop TV standards, this had to be special. These creatures were surely sent from space. Unlike the (actually very good) Turtles clip that followed it, this was more than kitsch 1960s nostalgia. Pink Floyd had re-emerged through this digital blackout like resurrected monsters from a different time and planet. They had come back for us. It was like that scene in Quatermass and the Pit, when the scientists in the Hobbs End tube station get their first view of the locusts from Mars...

It was a thrilling, voyeuristic, exhilirating experience, and Neil and I went off to drink wine and talk about it. Did the tape damage add to the experience? Did it make this clip more of a relic than it was? Is it just funny old telly? Or were Pink Floyd in 1967 really something to get excited about?

Perhaps a little of all these things. We had born witness to an extraordinary performance. And as we battled through the ice and arctic winds that whipped through the South Bank, we agreed that the archiving of pop culture by the BFI had to be a good thing. Pop culture has finally become more culture than pop.

1 comment:

  1. I love that song by the Floyd, they were only any good when mad old Syd was writing for them. Wish I'd seen that clip with you!