Eddie Mair on the joy of an online Radio Times archive

“I love the black-and-white pages from the days I first read RT in the 70s,” enthuses Mair after testing out a prototype digital archive of the magazine

Imagine a world where you could go online and find every edition of Radio Times… from that greying first issue trumpeting all that was fabulous in radio, to the 2000s by which time someone had invented ITV. A world where you could see every page of every magazine on screen. Not just all those classic listings, but the ads, the letters pages and those always scintillating entreaties from the editor.

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Well, brace yourself, because I am living in the world you just imagined. I know!

As you are aware, the BBC programme archive is incomplete. You won’t find the complete series of Doctor Who, even in the darkest recesses of the Tardis. You can search Broadcasting House but you’ll not stumble across the complete Fanny Cradock – or Dick Emery for that matter. Many of these valuable recordings were given to executives as leaving gifts in the 1960s and 70s, before the Corporation stumbled on the idea of giving them barrow-loads of cash instead.

While much of the BBC’s finest broadcast material has disappeared, the entire Radio Times archive is complete. And some very clever people at the BBC have been working on digitising it. Last week, it became available in beta (prototype) form for BBC folk to try, before any roll-out to the world and his wife. You can click on a given decade, then a given year, and then an individual issue of RT. You can download a PDF of the whole thing to read at your leisure. (I realise that in the last few sentences I have said PDF, digitising, beta and roll-out. I hate myself and will try not to use such ugly phrases going forward.)

I understand the whole thing runs to 420,000 pages, contains details of almost five million programmes and 120,000 articles. But never mind all those facts. I know what you want to know. What’s on page 6 of the edition from 6 February, 1948? Well there’s a look at the week’s Radio Plays by Stephen Williams, and charming ads from the Ministry of Food (“try these economical dumplings”… with a basic recipe and five variations… including curry) and the War Office enticing people into the services with the catchline: “Five years in the New Regular Army fits a good man for a better future”.

I love the black-and-white pages from the days I first read RT in the 70s. I can still feel the pages pull apart, even in the online version. Christmas Day 1976: after the Queen it’s Billy Smart’s Circus on BBC1 while over on 2 it’s The Snow Queen with music by Carl Davis, and featuring the voice of Arthur Mullard (honestly, that’s what it says).

Who are these bright young things on the cover of the multichannel issue of 4 July 1992? Why, it’s the cast of Eldorado with RT promising the “inside story from Spain on BBC1’s new sunshine soap”. Inside, Marti Caine reveals she enjoys Golden Girls, the most watched show on BBC2 was Rab C Nesbitt and Geoff Hamilton extols the virtues of deep-frozen strawberry plants.

You’ll have your own favourite years and things you’d want to search for. If and when this amazing resource goes public I will let you know. I look at it most days and have learnt so much. The only person to appear in every single edition of Radio Times is Barry Norman.

A BBC spokesman said that while there was an “aspiration” to make the digitised RT archive available to the public there was no timetable for its likely availability.


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Eddie Mair hosts iPM on Saturday at 5:45am and PM from Monday-Friday at 5:00pm on Radio 4