Quality Concerns Over The Avengers, ‘Tunnel Of Fear’ DVD Released By Studio Canal On April 9th 2018 [Review]

This week should have been one with a purely celebratory mood with the release by Studio Canal of the previously missing series 1 episode of The Avengers, ‘Tunnel of Fear’. It’s great that it’s now available and I know many people have enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

And I contributed a significant amount of time and content to try and help the team at Studio Canal make this as high quality a release as possible.

But there are a number of issues which could have been avoided with greater care and attention to detail by Studio Canal. And that has cast a bit of a cloud over proceedings this week, as I have tried to focus some minds on the various issues at hand.

This article focuses more on the known issues. For an in-depth review of the episode itself, I can thoroughly recommend Richard McGinlay’s article.

Firstly, however, I want to provide some context on exactly why the discovery of Tunnel of Fear episode is so important and a brief ‘potted history’ on The Avengers and the ABC TV archive.

Some Background On Series 1 – And Why Tunnel Of Fear Is Such An Important Find

Series 1 of The Avengers has, for a long time, been the Cinderella of all the six series made of The Avengers. One of the key reasons for this is that for many many years, only one episode was known to have survived from the 26 episodes originally made back in 1961. That episode, The Frighteners, was used to provide the clip used in Ian Hendry’s This Is Your Life, broadcast in March 1978. In the early 200os, more episodes were rediscovered on 16mm film, this time at the UCLA archive in Los Angeles, including Girl on The Trapeze, another copy of The Frighteners and the first act of Hot Snow [c.15 minutes].  That still only made it 2 and a bit episodes out of 26. So no wonder the focus always remained on series 2-6 for the simple reason that they were available and viewable.

Fast forward to autumn 2016, a surprise announcement is made that another episode has been rediscovered, Tunnel of Fear. It was in the US until about 20 years ago when it was returned to the UK and into the collection of a private collector. And it remained there, forgotten about in a box, until the collector was informed that it might be quite rare and a much sort after missing episode. Kaleidoscope negotiated for it’s acquisition and the rights holder, Studio Canal were then able to add their own copy to their archive.

The Avengers – A Production/ Archive History In Brief

The Avengers was produced by ABC TV from 1961-1969. When they lost their ITV broadcasting franchise in 1968,  ABC TV’s parent company Associated British Picture Corporation [ABPC], was asked to form a new television company along with Associated-Rediffusion/ Redifusion London’s parent company BEP – for the London weekday slot. Both ABC TV and Associated-Rediffusion/ Redifusion London would then cease to exist as production/ broadcasting entities in their own right.

The newly formed company was, of course, named Thames TV. But ABPC still retained the ABC TV archive, which included The Avengers, along with all the rights.

Warner Bros. owned  a 40% stake in ABPC, purchased back in 1940 following the death of John Maxwell. Maxwell, a Scottish solicitor, founded the company in 1927 after he had purchased British National Studios and its Elstree Studios complex and merged it with his ABC Cinemas circuit, renaming the company British International Pictures [BIP].

[Note: The Wardour Film Company, with Maxwell as chairman, was the distributor of BIP films. The company was renamed Associated British Picture Corporation in 1933 and was now in a position to vertically integrate production, distribution and exhibition of films. Under Maxwell’s paternalistic management the company prospered and during 1937 it acquired British Pathé, which as Associated British Pathé now functioned as the distribution division.]

In 1967, Seven Arts, the new owners of Warner, decided to dispose of its holdings in ABPC – with the 40% stake being purchased in 1968 by EMI. 

In 1969, ABPC was bought out completely by EMI and The Avengers, along with the rest of the ABC TV/ ABPC archive became 100% EMI owned. How much of The Avengers archive was still intact at that time and where it was being archived is not fully known and open to much conjecture, particularly with regards to series 1, but suffice to say it is a complex story with various theories and facts – often interwoven with one another.

In April 1970, EMI struck up a co-production agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Hollywood studio announced they would sell their Borehamwood facility and move their equipment to EMI’s Elstree studio. MGM and EMI would then distribute and produce films in co-operation through a joint venture to be called MGM-EMI and MGM began to finance some of EMI’s productions. EMI’s studio complex was renamed EMI-MGM Elstree Studios while a film distribution company MGM-EMI Distributors Ltd. was formed as part of the co-production agreement. This company, headed by Mike Havas would handle domestic distribution of MGM and EMI-produced films in the United Kingdom.

MGM pulled out of the amalgamation in 1973, and became a member of CIC, which took over international distribution of MGM produced films. At this point the distribution company became EMI Film Distributors Ltd., and EMI-MGM Elstree Studios reverted to EMI-Elstree Studios.

In October 1979, EMI merged with Thorn Electrical Industries to form Thorn EMI. Aside from the merger and name change, nothing much appears to have changed structurally.The archives and their locations remained as they were.

It is known, however, that Thames TV despite being a separate company, still held significant amounts of ABC TV material in it’s archives in the 70s. Should they have had this material? No, but it was time when television companies had material stored in many locations across London and cataloguing and archiving systems were much less sophisticated. Things are clearly very different today and Fremantle – who now own the Thames TV archive – have thoroughly checked their holdings to ensure that no ABC TV material is still in their possession.

For a more detailed account on this period and series 1 as a whole, I can recommend Two Against The Underworld, by Richard McGinlay, Alan Hayes and Alys Hayes.

Thorn EMI later sold its film production and distribution arm [Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment], home video [Thorn EMI Video], and cinema [ABC Cinemas] operations to businessman Alan Bond in April 1986. Bond, in turn, sold it to The Cannon Group a week later. A year after the purchase, a cash-strapped Cannon Group sold the film library to Weintraub Entertainment Group. The Cannon Group, however, retained ownership of Elstree Studios, Shemley Road, Borehamwood and in 1988 sold it to the property company Brent Walker. Most of the backlot and several facilities were demolished to build a Tesco superstore. A “Save Our Studios” campaign led to the site being purchased by Hertsmere Borough Council in February 1996 and management company, Elstree Film & Television Studios Ltd was appointed to run the studios in 2000.

So the ABPC/ ABC TV archive had to find a new home. And in 1988, it was relocated to Pinewood Studios where it still remains to this day.

The Weintraub Entertainment Group went bankrupt in 1990, with ownership of the archive then passing into the hands of Lumiere Pictures and Television.

Lumiere Pictures and Television was then bought by European cinema operator UGC  in 1996, who were in turn bought by Studio Canal’s parent company, Canal+ Group. 

So after a long and fairly complex history, what remained of the The Avengers and ABPC/ ABC TV film archive finally ended up with it’s current custodians, Studio Canal, formed by the Canal+ Group in 1998.

The Big Issue

With that background in place, here is the nub of the issue for me:

“Given the long and complex history of the archive and it’s various owners and given the rarity of The Avengers Series 1 episodes,  I think we all hoped that Studio Canal would then treat Tunnel of Fear with ‘kid-gloves’ and give it the 5 star treatment the episode – and the fans – deserve. Studio Canal spent a lot of time and effort on the booklet, sourcing extras etc. So why not spend a bit more effort on the quality of the episode’s digital transfer?”

“And that is one of the main reasons for my frustration. Having waited for over 55 years for this episode to reappear and then a further 18 months for Studio Canal to release it – the final product could and should have been better with more attention to detail, especially with regards to the audio quality of the 16mm film to digital transfer..”

Quality Control Issues

I have been made aware of several quality control issues with regards to Studio Canal’s DVD release of the rediscovered episode, ‘Tunnel of Fear’.

– Poor audio quality
– Missing scripts [one of the Extra items]
– Incorrect credits for actors/ billing order
– Incorrect order of Reconstructions [Extra item]

There are a couple of other issues as well, but I think that the above are the key ones that I want you all to be aware of at this time.

The defects list clearly raises several concerns about Studio Canal,  the way in which they handle their archive and their attitude towards their customers when delivering products to their target audience. Especially, with regards to their diligence, technical expertise and the quality control required to ensure that their products are complete and of a satisfactory standard. For a company like Studio Canal, one would hope that they aspire for their products to be more than just ‘satisfactory’. But in this instance the ommission of material and poor audio quality suggest that they haven’t even achieved that with certain aspects of this release.

I have been in contact with Studio Canal and have flagged these issues up to them and made my position clear – in no uncertain terms.

Picture Quality

This is not to say that the product is without merit or the episode unwatchable. It is neither of these. The picture quality is good, but some have suggested that it is a bit ‘flat’ which may be a result of insufficient post-processing and adjustment in certain qualities such as contrast. It seems that no post-transfer processing work was carried out to improve the image quality. Or if any work was carried out it was cursory.

Audio Quality Issues

The audio is certainly audible but suffers from significant background noise. I listened to a 40 second sample which was sent to me and the defects were obvious. Using headphones, the defects became even more apparent. The sound quality was, in my opinion, extremely poor.

And my view is not an isolated one. Another comment received:

“There’s a noise on the soundtrack running variously through the entire episode. I watched listening on headphones which are BOSE and fairly sensitive. The sound reminded me of the type of effect caused in projection by imperfect loop near the sound head (vibration) or sometimes in film transfers the soundtrack is over scanned.

I doubt it is a fault in the 16mm film recording, though if it was it might have been a rejected print. I took a sample for you. About 38 mins in as the third act starts. I think the ‘motorboat’ effect is more obvious here, perhaps on a splice. Have to confess it ruined the experience for me. The actual transfer is not as well-defined as I hoped and doesn’t look as if any dirt removal has been attempted. Highlights possibly blown out.”

Again, it seems that no post-transfer audio processing work was carried out by Studio Canal to improve the audio quality. Or if any work was carried out it was very limited and executed poorly. So the end product reflects that lack of attention to detail.

Question: Can you hear the dialogue? Answer: Yes.

Question: Is it muffled at times and with plenty of background noise/ interference? Answer: Yes.

Question: Could it have been much better? Answer: Yes.

Question: Do you think the post-16mm transfer audio received any enhancement by a sound engineer? Answer: No

Question: Should it have? Answer: Yes, most definitely.

In a test, I was surprised that I was able to significantly improve the audio quality of the sample using Audacity audio software – available for free online. And I know next to nothing about sound engineering. So if I can improve the audio significantly on a sample using software I know very little about, in about 15 minutes, then can you imagine what a good sound engineer might be capable of doing with the whole episode?

Studio Canal – Original DVD Audio Sample From ‘Tunnel Of Fear’

Versus

Neil’s ‘Enhanced’ Version – Based On The Original DVD Audio Sample By Studio Canal From ‘Tunnel Of Fear’

I say it’s ‘enhanced’ – which I think it is – but it’s obviously still pretty ‘rough and ready’ as I really don’t know what I am doing with this Audacity audio software. I just used some simple presets.

So if I can improve the audio in a few minutes and I really don’t know what I am doing, one has to then ask the following question:

“Why was more care not taken by Studio Canal to improve the quality of the audio before this DVD was released?

 

Booklet

I was asked to contribute the Foreword to the 64 page booklet and Alan Hayes provided an excellent in-depth essay. In addition, I located a significant number of images from my own collection to help visually enhance the booklet. Although I say so myself, it is a very nice addition to the release and is well produced.

Extras

As mentioned above, one of the Extra items is missing altogether. This is the pdf collection of scripts from the first series which is promised on the back cover. Purchasers of the product would have only expected to find one mystery on the inside of the DVD case, that of the Tunnel of Fear. There is now a second mystery to solve, that of how to find the missing Extra/ scripts. Without wishing to spoil your fun, I understand that Studio Canal can help you with that if you contact them.

The other extras have been well-received and include:

  • Big Finish Audio Play Series 1 Reconstruction – Tunnel of Fear
  • New Interview with John Dorney – writer of the Big Finish episode
  • Ulster TV interview: Ian Hendry (1962)
  • Ulster TV interview: Patrick Macnee (1964)
  • Reconstructions – Series 1 – Slideshows
  • 64 page booklet mentioned above

Summary

In summary, this release falls in the ‘could do much better category’ and in the interests of transparency, it is only right that I bring these issues and concerns to your attention. It’s great that the episode has been discovered and is now available. The extras have been well received and the booklet has a lot of very good original content.

But given that we have had to wait 57 years to see it again, it would have been nice if  Studio Canal could have taken more care in the product’s overall delivery – especially with the audio quality of the actual episode itself – and that the release was complete with all the Extras which were promised.

“Remember the saying that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating‘? Well this particular pudding is lacking in certain ingredients and is slightly undercooked.”

Studio Canal have responded to me pointing out that despite the various issues, many people have been very happy to see the episode this week. And I have no doubt about that and I am glad that they have had a chance to see it.

“But they would probably have been glad to see ‘Tunnel of Fear’ if it had been presented to them on an old VHS tape cassette, handed over in a brown paper bag”.

So that is not the point I am trying to make here or the point I have been trying to make to Studio Canal.

Studio Canal may own the rights to The Avengers but that does not then give them the right to try and pass off sub-standard or incomplete goods to fans that love the series.

“Studio Canal are custodians of television history and, to use a museum curation analogy, you wouldn’t expect the British Museum to treat their acquisitions poorly and their visitors with contempt.”

With ‘Tunnel of Fear‘ I think they could have presented it much better. Some proper restoration before presentation, as a precious rare artefact would be displayed by a reputable museum.

“But that comes down to having a vision and some aspiration. If the aspiration of Studio Canal is only to ‘get it out there so people can see it’ type mentality, then we can all forget about quality.

But that would also says something pretty fundamental about how they value their acquisitions and how they also value you, the fan and customer. And that for me is the real concern here. I think we all deserve a lot better than having to accept the minimum standards or the minimum viable product [MVP] as they call it these days.”

Studio Canal performed a basic digital transfer and then made no real effort to improve the sound quality before release, which would have been relatively easy to do. Another symptom of malaise from a company that doesn’t appear to care too much about quality. Their approach seems to be:

….get it out there, people can watch it, what’s the problem?

And it’s really not a problem if you have a slack approach of quality and don’t care that much about the customers. Which is currently my perception of Studio Canal as an organisation.

Studio Canal are now fully aware of all these issues. But it appears that they plan to keep on selling the original version 1 – warts and all – for now at least. I think that alone speaks volumes.

A recent comment by P.J. on the Ian Hendry Appreciation Society Facebook Page sums it all up very well for me:

“This is why I never buy a 1.0 DVD release from Studio Canal”

Perhaps that quote should be printed out and framed?

And L.P. also commented to me on the Facebook page that:

“The sound on the DVD is appalling. It’s really not on. Thanks for pursuing with this. Really annoyed at the moment”

And others have felt the same way. P.O. on Twitter said:

“Well said, sloppy audio transfer from them…”

and:

“Shame it was not Network… I’m sure would have made a better job”

Studio Canal are now talking about a version 2 of this release which will rectify these errors.

“But Studio Canal haven’t yet confirmed that they will address the audio issues”

Given that version 1 has only been out for 4 days, at the time of writing, it’s a clear admission to me that they’ve got many things wrong. Exactly how long we will have to wait for version 2 to be released is not yet known.

Hopefully, it is significantly less than another 57 years.

I’ll keep you posted on any breaking news.

Until next time,

Neil Hendry
Editor, Official Tribute To Ian Hendry

Further Reading

A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography:

Read: ‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

Send In The Clowns - The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry

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