The lost tapes

The BBC needs your help to find some lost Christmas Lectures tapes

26th November 2018

A nationwide search is underway to locate 31 missing episodes of the first science show ever to be broadcast on UK national television.

From today, people across the country are being urged to search through their long-forgotten videotapes and contents of dusty attics, to help discover past series of the Christmas Lectures. Described as “national treasures” by Sir David Attenborough, the Christmas Lectures are the Royal Institution’s (Ri) biggest and most famous demonstration-based science events for young people.

The Christmas Lectures have been delivered every year since 1825, making them the longest running series of scientific lectures in the world, inspiring children and adults alike. They were the first science programme broadcast on the BBC, in 1936, with the aim of presenting science in an accessible and entertaining way.

Unfortunately, 31 episodes broadcast between 1966 and 1973 are missing. This includes footage of Sir David Attenborough which has not been seen since it was first broadcast live nearly 50 years ago.

While the missing episodes of the Christmas Lectures are officially “believed wiped”, the BBC and the Ri think copies may exist somewhere, made during the earliest days of video recorders. Sir David is among a list of scientists and presenters who have signed a letter to the media, asking for the public to keep an eye out for the missing episodes.

I’m hoping that the great British public will really get behind this campaign and help us find these wonderful recordings that are almost certainly out there somewhere

Head of archives at the BBC, Sarah Hayes, said: “I don’t think the importance of finding these broadcasts, to make them available again for new generations, can be overstated. They are to science what the missing Doctor Who episodes found a few years ago are to science fiction.

“I’m hoping that the great British public will really get behind this campaign and help us find these wonderful recordings that are almost certainly out there somewhere.”

The full BBC archive of these broadcasts is being made available on the Royal Institution website for the first time.

The response to past episodes of the Christmas Lectures already made available on our website has been amazing

Director of Science and Education at the Ri, Professor Gail Cardew, said: The response to past episodes of the Christmas Lectures already made available on our website has been amazing and testifies to their enduring popularity.

“It would be wonderful to complete the archive and make each broadcast from a golden age of television available again for new generations. And out there somewhere, somebody will be able to help us do that.”

The Christmas Lectures were created by Michael Faraday, a prominent British scientist who, despite having little formal education, became one of the most influential scientists of all time in his field of electromagnetism. Though the first Christmas Lecture was delivered by John Millington, Faraday went on to deliver 19 Christmas Lectures, more than any other scientist. Other notable speakers over the years include Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Sir David Attenborough.

The 31 missing Christmas Lectures are made up of five complete series of six lectures each, plus a single episode of Sir David Attenborough’s much loved 1973 series on The Language of Animals. You can find out more about the missing episodes here.

If anyone has clues as to the whereabouts of the missing Christmas Lectures episodes, contact Charlotte New, Curator of Collections at the Royal Institution on 020 76702923 / cnew@ri.ac.uk.

Use the hashtag #missingxmaslectures on social media to join in with the conversation and keep up to date with the search for the missing episodes.

26th November 2018