I would be willing to part with one of my kidneys in exchange for a Spitting Image puppet of Jarvis Cocker! These collectors are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain a prized possession from television.
What defines a treasure? Is it its rarity, sentimental value, or beauty? Or is it simply a thick rubber dolphin with a functioning blowhole?
When my editor requested assistance in locating individuals who possess rare television items, my initial inclination was to reach out to Nathaniel Metcalfe, the comedian and broadcaster currently featured on James Acaster’s podcast Springleaf. I believed that if anyone had knowledge of obscure and unusual cultural artifacts, it would be him. As expected, his response was: “After the passing of TV star Peter Wyngarde, his estate held an auction during the Covid pandemic to sell off his belongings. I placed a bid on his personal VHS recording of his appearance on the Lenny Henry Show because I was intrigued by the idea of owning something so obscure. Unfortunately, I was outbid when the bidding exceeded the £30 limit I had set for myself.” I was disappointed, but then he followed up with: “Have you heard of Tom Neenan? He acquired one of the original puppets from Spitting Image at an auction. He couldn’t afford any of the more famous puppets, so he ended up with a latex puppet head of a dolphin that is now deteriorating.”
I was intrigued by the subject. Tom Neenan is a multi-talented professional in the field of comedy, working as a writer, script editor, comedian, and actor. He has contributed to various shows such as Spitting Image, The Mash Report, Hypothetical, The Last Leg, Have I Got News for You, and several radio comedy programs like The Now Show and The News Quiz. He has achieved significant success in his career. However, what led him to invest in an animatronic dolphin? And is it truly deteriorating?
Tom informs me that the item is not in poor condition; it has a substantial size. However, it is made of foam latex, so he is aware that one day it will disintegrate. He has come to terms with this fact. For Neenan, the appeal of owning something with a connection to comedy history is coupled with a passion for puppetry. He notes that the puppet has a mechanism for blinking eyes and a squirting feature from its blowhole. He admires the craftsmanship and mechanics of the piece. Despite their grotesque appearance, he sees a certain beauty in them. I cautiously mention that his dolphin resembles Gregg Wallace. He does not end the conversation.
I have another question to pose: where does he store it? Currently, it is in a glass display case in the crawl space of my attic. I believe it is secure there and the temperature is regulated. When I have a library in my home, it will have a prominent location. Is there any coveted television memorabilia that he still hopes to acquire? According to Neenan, there is a 90s Spitting Image puppet of Jarvis Cocker that he admires for its delicate design. If given the opportunity, he would even consider selling a kidney to obtain it. Additionally, he is currently constructing a Dalek based on the plans from the new series. Although he has personally built it, he admits to feeling envious of those who own a Dalek used on screen.
Oh, I see. Daleks. Wow, there are a lot of people who collect, search for, and love Doctor Who. They gather at conferences, museums, and online forums to show off their collections. It was on one of these websites that I discovered Chris Balcombe, who is the proud owner of a restored Dalek from the 1960s.
According to Balcombe, many people collect items that evoke strong memories or emotions, such as fear, fascination, or curiosity. He recalls being scared by the Daleks in 1965 when he was five years old. When asked about how he acquired his own Dalek, Chris shares that it was a lengthy process. He explains that he purchased the rear-third of the alien from the show’s producer, John Nathan-Turner, at a “Doctor Who Day.” Through some research, he discovered that it was a front half currently being used as a “walk-in Dalek” at an exhibition in Llangollen. After some skillful negotiations, he was able to obtain the entire Dalek, despite having to trade other collectibles, including a giant fly from a Jon Pertwee episode.
The vehicle is currently on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. I am curious as to why he chose to loan it out. Balcombe explains, “Many items are kept in private collections and are never shown to the public. However, I have always been open and willing to share. Plus, it also creates more space in the garage.”
At times, these valuable items are nearly completely lost. A container of the renowned Peckham Spring Water that appeared in a special Christmas episode of Only Fools and Horses in 1992 was recently auctioned off, narrowly avoiding being thrown away. According to Andrew Stowe, associate director, auctioneer, and appraiser at Auctioneum, “Last year, we sold a different bottle of Peckham Spring Water for £6,000, which was the only one signed by David Jason. This inspired a cameraman from the episode to come forward with his own bottle. He was decluttering and mentioned to his daughter that he was discarding the bottle, but she informed him that it could be worth a significant amount of money!”
Stowe has also successfully auctioned off Compo’s costume from Last of the Summer Wine, the famous “Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies” painting from ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and Ronnie Barker’s original script for the “four candles” sketch. According to Stowe, the original owner came across it while clearing out a relative’s house and it was later featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow where it was valued at £1,000 to £2,000. However, Stowe was able to sell it for £28,000 in 2018. When asked about the buyer, Stowe is unable to give much information due to their celebrity status.
In today’s world of digital archives, online databases, and virtual auctions, it may seem odd that valuable treasures can still go missing. However, upon browsing the charmingly low-tech website missing-episodes.com, it becomes clear just how many pieces of television’s past have been lost, destroyed, discarded, or recorded over. And there are many individuals who devote considerable effort to locating these missing pieces. One such person is Ray Langstone, who jokes about his circumstances as a disabled individual and his search for lost episodes. He carries out his hunt in the comfort of his cozy, unheated apartment.
His initial breakthrough was uncovering an installment of the TV talk show Late Night Line-Up from the 1960s and 1970s, which he stumbled upon in a university archive in Brighton. “I have no inhibitions at all, which is a great asset for someone like me who has Asperger’s. So I reached out to the show’s host, Joan Bakewell, to inform her that it was stored in the archive, despite the fact that the BBC did not possess it. And that’s when I began to suspect that I may have a talent for this.”
For several years, Langstone did not have access to his own personal computer and had to rely on his local library. He faced financial struggles and relied on government benefits. However, he used to work in telemarketing and stumbled upon an interesting forum post about an interview with someone who owned a David Bowie tape. Langstone reached out to the person, who turned out to be a cameraman named John Henshall. This led him to discover a rare videotape of David Bowie performing “Jean Genie.” Langstone shared this finding with the BBC, who were very enthusiastic about it. In addition to this, Langstone also uncovered a lost episode of Orson Welles’ show “Around The World” at the University of Wisconsin’s archive, as well as the soundtrack for a program called “Pig Farming Today” at The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. He compares these discoveries to finding fragments of Egyptian pots, sometimes only small pieces and other times the entire artifact.
Referring to physical objects, Fil Baker, a drummer now residing in Dorset, possesses a paving slab that was initially used in the testing episode of the TV show The Inbetweeners. Baker explains, “We received a notice in our mailbox about using our home as a filming location for a pilot of a show with the working title Baggy Trousers.” He continues, “The person behind it was the son of one of my children’s teachers at school. They were familiar with the area and wanted a similar type of house. We eagerly accepted the opportunity.” The production team took over for approximately a week and even filmed an important scene on the front driveway. “One of the guys painted ‘I Heart Carly D’Amato’ all over the entrance to our house,” Baker chuckles. “They did clean it off afterwards, I must mention. However, there were some quite large concrete slabs on the path leading up to the front door. An artist created convincing MDF replicas and placed them over the original slabs, also writing ‘I love Carly D’Amato’ on them.” While magpies are known for collecting shiny objects, Baker has a collection of wood and MDF pieces. “They’re all stored in the garage,” Baker reveals. “We even brought them with us when we moved houses.” I ask if he displays them for guests during Christmas, to which he laughs and replies, “Only when they’ve overstayed their welcome.”