Last updated : 1st September 2005
The table below lists the details of the DVD box sets from Contender, firstly issued in 2002 and then again in 2005. The episodes are presented in production order. The 2002 issues contained a number of "extras" which were all dropped when the sets were re-issued in 2005.
The 2005 sets also auffers from poorly-designed menus. However on the whole they offer marginally-improved picture quality and are free of the playback problems that afflicted some of the 2002 disks.
Vintage viewing in the digital age
I thought it would be a useful exercise to clear up any confusion surrounding picture quality issues and just why the disks haven't met some people's expectations in this area...
Digital Versatile Disc has offered us a high-tech means of continuing to cherish vintage television programmes and films long after our old videocassettes have worn thin. But does the digital reproduction of the moving image always provide a superior viewing experience? It's a common (and, perhaps, understandable) mistake to assume so...
In 1982 the worldwide music industry and its consumers embarked on the most radical shake-up in eighty years: Compact Disc. The new media promised superior, non-diminishing sound quality, more accurate reproduction and increased capacity (early disks could contain up to 65 minutes of music) in an all-new digital carrier far more resilient to damage than archaic, analogue, flimsy bits of vinyl. The fact that all sound was encoded into a simple stream of "zeroes" and "ones" (the very definition of "digital") written and read by ultra-accurate laser technology eliminated the problems of varying tolerances and quality within vinyl disks and, indeed, the mechanical turntables used to "read" them.
Compact Disc was an almost-instant success, living up to most of its promises. New recordings from contemporary artists sounded far superior to the LP record versions (which, of course, record companies continued to issue). However when it came to issuing "back catalogue" material there were problems...
Many recordings produced prior to the 1980s did not encompass the full sound spectrum available. This was mainly due to the fact that the version that ended up on vinyl was often several "generations" away from the original "master" recording - a move necessitated largely due to the way individual music tracks had to be mixed on analogue tape. As we all know, if you perform a "tape-to-tape" copy of a video cassette, the result is not actually a copy at all(!) but a notably inferior reproduction... a degree of quality has been "lost amongst the wires" - such is the nature of transferring analogue signals.
To a large extent this didn't really matter before the 1980s as domestic hi-fi turntables, amplifiers and loudspeakers couldn't reproduce the full spectrum either. With compact disc and advances in amplifier and loudspeaker technology, however, the "holes" in such recordings were more obvious - often leading to complaints that CDs sounded "harsh" compared to the "warm" sound of analogue vinyl and turntables. The exacting nature of CD meant exposing the deficiencies in the original recordings. Record companies such as the revered classical label Deutsche Gramophon took these issues seriously and actually went back to the original master tapes, transferred them to digital audio tape and re-mixed from these in order to produce CD versions. Copying a digital tape to another digital tape (theoretically) results in no loss of quality.
The main point to be made of this is that far from making old recordings sound better, compact disc could make them seem worse!
And we are now starting to see the same problem with DVD...
Ironically the rise of the all-digital Compact Disc coincided with the home video boom - an analogue medium based on technology developed in the 1950s - and one which, like vinyl sound carriers, suffered the problems of rapid wear and tear. In fact videocassette is actually inferior to LP - its capabilities in the picture quality department are poor compared to the sonic accuracy of a good LP pressing coupled with a decent turntable. Television transmissions are made up of either 625 or 525 horizontal lines of "resolution" - yet standard videocassette technology is only capable visually rendering about 240 (or 400 if using Super-VHS). This often manifests itself as graininess or lack of sharpness in the picture.
The deficiencies of domestic video technology are compounded by the fact that many companies choose to issue material on cheap, low-quality cassette using high-speed duplicating machines. Indeed the tapes used for Contender's early Professionals releases were, shall we say, "disappointing".
Cassette quality aside, the technological shortcomings of the medium can "cover up" the fact that the quality of the film prints being used to produce them is often ropey. And, sadly, The Professionals is no exception...
Inevitably video entertainment had to catch up with CD. In the mid-1980s a new standard called Laser Disk ("LD") appeared and was based on the same technological concept used in CDs . LD had the shiny silver appearance of a CD but was about the size of an LP: clearly the fact that the disc had to store picture data as well as sound required a physical make-up far bigger than CD. Although building up a notable following in the USA and Japan, LD was a flop in just about every other area of the world. The new technology of the disks and players was expensive to manufacture - and therefore to buy. We had a "Catch 22" situation of studios being reticent to release titles on LD when there were so few buyers - and potential buyers reticent to commit to the format when there were so few titles!
Although technology advanced further throughout the 1990s, it became cheaper to mass-produce as manufacturing methodologies became more efficient. In 1996 Laser Disk was to be reborn but its capabilities would be extended to store different types of digital data (particularly in the light of computer software commonly being presented on CD as opposed to old-fashioned floppy disks). The new media was named "Digital Versatile Disk". Interestingly DVDs were merely the same physical size as CDs. A method of data compression (known as "MPEG" - Motion Picture Experts Group) had been invented which allowed visual and sonic information to be stored in a much smaller physical area than on Laser Disk... albeit with a very slight loss of quality.
"Garbage In - Garbage Out!"
Modern movies shot on 70mm film look superb when transferred to DVD. This is partly because modern film stock is of inherently higher quality than that used twenty years ago. TV shows tend to be shot on digital videotape and/or high-quality 16mm film and similarly produce excellent results on DVD.
However like CD and old music recordings, there are quality issues surrounding "vintage" film stock - and, in fact, there is an additional problem. Old film chemically degenerates while it is stored away in the vaults, leading to "colour drain". Even in tightly controlled atmospheric and thermal conditions, some degradation occurs. More problems can occur when a film print is removed from the vault in order to be used for television transmission or video release. When I examined some prints of Professionals episodes a few years back, they had picked up a high level of scratches and dirt from careless handling. Natural degradation had also led to colours looking pale or "washed out". Contender's video and DVD release of 'Everest Was Also Conquered' illustrates the amount of abuse the prints have suffered. If you dig out a scratchy, discoloured film print and issue it on DVD, it will look sharper than the videocassette version but it's still going to look scratchy and discoloured! There's a saying in the computer industry: "Garbage In - Garbage Out!". Now with videocassette you often don't realise just how bad the print is because the inherent quality deficiencies in the medium itself tend to cover up a lot of the print's problems. But the far higher "definition" of DVD means that every flaw - big or small - seems to jumps out from the screen!
And this is the crux of the problem that faces video companies who wish to issue old television favourites on DVD. With a few exceptions (such as Sir Lew Grade's ITC who produced classics such as The Saint, The Prisoner and the myriad Gerry Anderson shows), the British TV industry has a poor track record in the care and preservation of vintage material. And, sadly, The Professionals has suffered more negligence than most.
However there is a solution: as with issuing old audio recordings on to CD, one can return to the original "source" material and reconstitue it. In the case of television shows like The Professionals that were shot on film, this means creating a new print (usually a digital videotape one rather than a traditional film print) from the film negatives. These are stored in special vaults and are NEVER opened up to allow handling or removal except under very special circumstances. Although negatives degenerate in a similar fashion to film prints, their decay is far slower due to the fact that once placed in their special containers, they are never again exposed to the air. Although colour fading can occur, the presence of scratches and dirt should be minimal.
However in practice it is better to use what is known as an "inter-postive". This is an intermediary step between the original negative and the final film print. The advantage of using the inter-positive is that it contains none of the joining tape (a bit like Sellotape!) that is used on negatives when they are spliced together by the programme editor. Twenty-five year old negatives can be rather fragile around the joins and are quite likely to break apart on being fed through viewing equipment. LIke negs, inter-positives are also carefully stored and remain "sacrosanct".
In 1993 the then-owners of The Avengers TV series, Lumiere Pictures, decided to create new prints of the Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson episodes as their existing prints had had a lot of use over the years and were beginning to look very grubby and washed-out. Lumiere therefore turned to the inter-positives ("IPs") for each episode. Unsurprisingly natural decay had led to some loss of colour and a marginal amount of other damage. The IPs were fed through a carefully prepared viewer and the output transferred to digital tape. Now that a non-decaying digital source was available, Lumiere were free to apply lots of new computerised techniques to restore the colour and fix other glitches. The end result was astounding when compared to the existing prints. These new digital "remasters" are what all broadcasters and video/DVD companies should be using when they wish to issue The Avengers.
As DVD has started to take off, large companies such as Carlton and the Pearson Group have seen the advantage in using these digital "clean-up" techniques on their vintage material. Cult classics such as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), UFO and Space:1999 have undergone amazing transformations. All 52 episodes of The Sweeney were remastered for DVD release in 2003.
So how about doing the same for The Professionals? There are two problems here: firstly the process of remastering from a negative or inter-postive is a lengthy and costly one which neither Contender nor Mark 1 have the funds to do. One might think London Weekend Television would be only too pleased to help out - after all, they are still exporting the show to overseas broadcasters. Well this is where we hit our second problem...
The negatives and inter-positives for all 57 episodes of The Professionals have been LOST!
Should they ever turn up, we may see some proper remastering done at last!
However that doesn't mean that nothing has been done to clean up the ropey old LWT prints (which are actually in better condition than Mark 1's versions). In 1995 Granada Television (who had recently acquired LWT) formed a subsidiary company, British Independent Television Enterprises ("BRITE") whose main purpose was to transfer old television programmes to digital tape, which was becoming the preferred medium by broadcasters. I believe some shows were actually remastered from their original negatives (or inter-positives) but as these were missing for The Professionals, BRITE's only available course of action was to do what they could with LWT's transmission prints. I understand some restorative work was carried out and hence the reason why the episodes we see on video/DVD and the Granada Plus channel look reasonably OK. But BRITE do not appear to have done any colour correction processing.
You will have all noticed that Contender's packaging of The Professionals DVDs proudly proclaims "Digitally Remastered". Well this isn't quite true as, strictly speaking, only negatives or inter-positives can be used to make up a true new master.
In 2005 Contender re-issued the entire series and it quickly became clear that BRITE must have had a second stab at restoration work. This time around there were repairs to some episodes - most notably 'The Madness of Mickey Hamilton' for which the earlier BRITE print had manifested notable "grain", an overly red colour balance and a livid green scar (where the cellulose on the original LWT film print had clearly decomposed completely) for a few moments halfway through the episode. Overall colour balance and fleshtones were better presented, too.
I hope that I have clearly explained the issues surrounding the state of the available material for The Professionals. While teh series is crying out for a proper remastering treatment, the existing are at least acceptable.
There's been an interesting diversion of opinion regarding the first DVD set....
Most fans - particularly in the US - have expressed their delight at just how good the picture quality is (bearing in mind the poor LWT prints they have been sourced from). However for reasons unclear Contender elected to take the opening to 'Everest was Also Conquered' from Mark 1's dire copy (as, indeed, they did on the video release) and this certainly shows on DVD!
Other reviewers have been far more scathing. On-line magazine DVD Scan has this to say: "There is no gray scale that would deserve the use of the word, as the black tones are nonexistent just as well as the bright whites. Everything in-between is an equal mess of incorrect colors, poor density, analogue artifacts from the tape such as noise, significant imbalances in both contrast and brightness and a poor exposure. Grain is therefore needlessly high, and fades to black amount to bluish, reddish or greenish mush. Only the final episode ['Rogue'] is a welcome exception, but not a great one."
The sound quality has been commented on by a couple of fans. Caroline Barker noted the odd silences in the music&effects track for 'Old Dog With New Tricks'. This problem was, in fact, present on Contender's video release but largely covered up by VHS' relatively poor audio reproduction. It is NOT a fault with Contender's preparation of the episode but actually on the BRITE tape they were supplied with: essentially the use of noise reduction techniques have been so liberal on this episode, it has eliminate legitimate sound!
My own view on the first set is that with the exception of 'Everest was Also Conquered', picture quality is surprisingly good. Sound quality is variable but mostly perfectly acceptable. But I'm very disappointed that Contender didn't spend a little time and effort in restoring the correct title sequences.
Finally just a quick word regarding the Australian DVD release from Reel Entertainment. The picture quality is simply APPALLING! Reel have clearly used a very badly abused print and done nothing to tidy it up. Avoid at all costs!