The Pilots That Time Forgot

The Day Today - Pilot (Talkback/BBC, 1993).

If there’s one image from a DVD extra that’s really stayed with me, it’s a despairing and despondent Adam Buxton reading online ‘reviews’ of the unbroadcast and unsuccessful pilot for hastily abandoned sketch show project Adam And Joe’s TV Show, which the duo themselves hated and which nobody else should have got to see, and wearily debating with himself whether to let the unfair comments about a discarded project stand or risk looking foolish and precious by remonstrating with the snarky know-alls. Elsewhere in the same documentary they are hardly exactly backwards in coming forwards about their dislike for this misfiring doodle in the margin, and although a couple of not especially good clips are included, the complete pilot is conspicuous by its absence from a DVD otherwise bursting at the seams with extras. That’s because it was their own private attempt at trying something a bit different that was never intended for broadcast and made at a time – only just – when you weren’t expected to show your working by default.

Nowadays, of course, pilots are probably even made with some form of eventual commercial release in mind, and you’ll find them appended – usually in full – to the overwhelming majority of digitally-released television series, even if what didn’t go out is more less identical to what actually did. There was a time, though, when pilots for successful series were a cause of great fascination and mystery – in fact some, like The Young Ones and Fawlty Towers, essentially still are – and if a programme had a fan following, you can bet that a sizeable percentage of it spent a good deal of time speculating on what went on in that tryout instalment kept safely and securely behind archive doors.

It was due to a conversation about how we now took the idea of ‘pilots’ for granted that I ended up being commissioned to write this piece, taking a look at ten pilots of popular television series (including some surprisingly recent ones) that had caused me to spend way more time speculating than is probably really advisable. Until I finally got to see them…

Sometimes, you’ll hear about a forthcoming TV show called something like John Lloyd’s Newsround or World In Acton. Then when you finally see it, it’s called Have I Got News For You or In Bed With Medinner and is more or less a different programme. Other times, you’ll buy a DVD on the strength of an ‘unbroadcast pilot’, only to find out it’s basically the first episode with a different credit font. What, though, of the shows where the pilot almost got it right, but still had one or two details that caused last-minute backroom brow-furrowing? Here’s ten of the least seen, yet most interesting, tryouts for what eventually became hugely popular TV series…


The Black Adder - Pilot (BBC, 1983)

Wars Of The Roses-set throne-grabbing chicanery with a different Baldrick. Uses much the same script as the first episode proper, only without any of the lavish location filming, and comes across as an uneasy mish-mash of The Black Adder and Blackadder II. Evidence of this historical diversion is notoriously not recorded in any extant Encyclopaedia Blackaddica, reportedly due to an unspecified party blocking its use even in clip form.

Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out

Vic Reeves' Big Night Out - Pilot (Channel X/Channel 4), 1989.

Charmingly unpolished straight-up transfer of original stage show. Long list of very slightly different stuff includes location filming, starry ‘showbiz’ backdrop, early version of the ‘Let’s Have A Little Bit More’ song, and Luther Vandross trying to eat a slipper. Even more disorientating than the show itself, and about as far removed from Shooting Stars as you can get. Mysteriously absent from the ‘Complete Series’ DVD, along with about twelve million other things.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who - Pilot (BBC, 1963).

BBC entrust technically demanding new sci-fi show with ‘crotchety’ star to young and inexperienced producer and director. Pilot episode comes back with unlikeable characters, malfunctioning scenery, technobabble dialogue and frankly ridiculous bleeps and thunderclaps all over the theme tune. BBC roll eyes and order young and inexperienced producer and director to try again. Second time’s the charm. It’s thanks to this kind of forward thinking that we got the Voord.

The Day Today

The Day Today - Pilot (Talkback/BBC, 1993).

Shaky first attempt at making very visual TV show out of very non-visual radio show. Most of the characters and gags are just about there, but it looks and sounds like it was made for about seven pence, while Chris Morris looks about twelve. Most of it ended up reused in the series, with the notable (and puzzling) exception of multi-handed After Dark sendup ‘Debate 2000.’ See also the Brass Eye pilot, which despite being more whimsical than the eventual series was rejected by the BBC as ‘too savage.’

Not The Nine O’Clock News

Not The Nine O'Clock News - Pilot (BBC2, 1979).

Haphazardly unrecognisable jamboree of hastily jettisoned ideas that very nearly went out. The introductory gag about a ‘cheap tatty revue’ was worryingly accurate for this far-from-cutting-edge topical satire with a huge ensemble cast (boasting only Rowan Atkinson and Chris Langham from the show proper) and proto-Spitting Image puppets, which was scheduled but then pulled when someone called a general election and a rethink ensued. Good news for those who like actual cutting edge topical satire. And trucking.

Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers - Pilot (BBC, 1974).

Moderately different first attempt at A Touch Of Class. When it was originally taped, Polly was introduced as a philosophy student in a variant on the ‘flogging something to departing guest’ scene. Post-show humming and harring by Cleese and Booth led to them going back and reshooting a couple of scenes to make her into an art student. Would it still have become a comedy classic without this last-minute rethink? Erm, yes.

Spitting Image

Spitting Image - Pilot (Central, 1984).

Latex lampoonery with a very slight difference. The first couple of episodes, under the short-lived producership of Tony Hendra, were weird enough, but for the very first edition they went one weirder, and showed it to a studio audience. However, the audience didn’t laugh enough, doubtless due to Hendra-occasioned weirdness, so they dubbed on the taped reaction to rubber-faced ribaldry-toting warm-up man Phil Cool instead. And then took it off the broadcast version altogether.

Camberwick Green

Camberwick Green - Pilot (BBC, 1965).

Puppet-essaying test shoot later repurposed as the fully functional Peter Hazel The Postman episode. Which you’ve all probably seen dozens of times, but have you ever noticed the not-like-the-other-episodes giveaways like the scenery wilting in stop-motion under the studio lights, the context-free presence of a Wicker Man-esque ritualistic ‘Post Office Dance’, or – most disconcertingly – that the puppets all have mouths?? And not static mouths, either. Don’t have nightmares.

30 Rock

30 Rock - Pilot (NBC, 2006).

Dry-run shenanigans for series about dry-run shenanigans. Compared to the actual transmitted first episode, this one’s pretty much all there, except that they’re working on a show called Friday Night Bits with Jenna DeCarlo, and the Jenna DeCarlo in question is played by erstwhile Saturday Night Live Fey-pal Rachel Dratch. With almost postmodern irony, she ‘tested’ badly and was replaced for the series by Jane Krakowski as a differently-surnamed Jenna.


Heroes - Pilot (NBC, 2005).

Overlong rambling doodle-in-the-margin-heavy demo version of first episode proper. Matt and his different wife discover their friend is a radioactively-charged Islamic extremist sleeper agent, Isaac hacksaws his own hand off due to ‘heroin,’ and ‘Paul Sylar’ shows up at the end in a silly hat. Ruthless concept-editing resulted in the fantastic first season, but after that they just seemed to fling all the rough unworkable ideas in regardless.

Doctor Who - Pilot (BBC, 1963).

Buy A Book!

You can find an in-depth look at the making of the first episode of Camberwick Green – and how it only ended up being made in colour at the very last minute – along with more about the Doctor Who pilot in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

There’s more background on the strange story of the unbroadcast Not The Nine O’Clock News pilot in The Larks Ascending – a guide to comedy on BBC Radio 3.  The Larks Ascending is available in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here.

Further Reading

The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is a feature looking at how Jimi Hendrix might actually have been inspired to write The Wind Cries Mary by Camberwick Green; you can find it here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.