The Itter Broadcast Collection
An overview by Adrian Farmer, Trustee
of the Lyrita Recorded
The earliest surviving example in Richard Itter’s archive of home
recordings of BBC broadcasts is dated 27 May 1951 – a recital of operatic
arias by the soprano Sena Jurinac. He continued to make daily recordings up
to 1985, after which it lessened, eventually stopping completely in 1996.
Specifically, what we now call the ‘Itter Broadcast Collection’ contains
450 twelve-inch acetate discs, most of them cut on both sides, and 800 10½
inch reels of ¼ inch tape. Thankfully Richard left several handwritten
lists of the items recorded. The earliest of these is in a handsome
watermark bound volume, with its opening pages intact and still bearing
copperplate lists of receipts and purchases made in 1892 by his
grandfather’s Itter Brick Company.
Richard Itter with Sir Adrian Boult in 1968
The first few years of recordings are fully documented with a date,
time (down to the hour), BBC channel, repertoire and performers. The
transmitter was always the experimental FM unit at Wrotham from which
he could also pick up early stereo broadcasts from his home in Burnham.
Richard even kept clippings from the relevant Radio Times,
and in an emergency these now very fragile survivors can be useful.
From 1958 the lists were largely abandoned and thereafter recordings
are noted on the outside of tape boxes in pencil shorthand that has
faded over the years. There is a folder of papers, compiled some years
after the event, with spidery writing covered in corrections, excisions,
and cryptic commentary. After seven years work our spreadsheet of the
contents of this huge archive remains a work in progress, currently
running to 2,309 entries.
Initially it was perhaps a grown man’s luxury hobby. Richard was already an
amateur recording enthusiast, offering his services to local music
organisations. He had a disc cutting machine, and to this he added a tape
recorder almost as soon as they became generally available. He had a
serious, but not widely informed, interest in Classical music which would
famously give rise to Lyrita Recorded Edition in 1959.
As his Lyrita label grew Richard narrowed his interest in BBC broadcasts to
solely British music. But the repertoire from the earliest off-air
recordings is international, and ranges freely through important events;
symphonic premieres at the South Bank, major BBC studio projects, visiting
star soloists and conductors, UK Festivals, particularly Edinburgh, and the
Opera Houses, especially Glyndebourne – which he attended annually. We
never had a clear answer to the obvious question: did he ever listen to
these early recordings? But we guess probably not often. It seems that in
the beginning the ‘doing’ was the thing.
As far as we can tell virtually everything was actually recorded on tape.
The subsequent cutting of certain items to acetate discs was a method of
‘archiving’ that enabled him to erase and reuse his tapes. We came to this
conclusion after the initial transfer sessions when it was notable that
every movement was fitted carefully and completely onto discreet sides,
that there were no awkward breaks, and no missed first notes. This would be
something impossible to achieve so consistently when recording live onto
As I write this article we have just transferred the last of the acetate.
Our archivist Norman White, and his colleague Adrian Tuttenham, will not be
altogether sorry. The process has been rewarding but technically
challenging, requiring parallel tracking arms, wet pickups, reverse
turntables and modern software intervention to get the best out of each
disc. Something as simple as a persistent groove jump can take several
hours to capture. It was not that the discs were in bad condition, most of
them were unplayed, but they were all 60 years old, and variable enough to
require individual treatment.
Of course, with hindsight, we might wish Richard hadn’t used the disc
cutting machine at all, that he had bought more tape, and that the many
recordings not selected for disc archiving would still exist. When I look
at his pencilled catalogue, and the hundreds of recordings crossed through,
erased, I cannot suppress a sigh. But, from time-to-time we do find
treasure lurking quietly, unexpectedly, at the back end of a tape marked
for a destruction that never came.
The acetate process stopped in 1959, and thereafter the off-air archive
takes on a distinctly educational function. No longer just archiving for
fun, Richard was using the BBC as his primary discovery tool, listening for
the composers he liked, noting the performers that were associated with
those composers, and prompting him to seek out important gaps in the
catalogues of HMV and Decca. We find many examples of BBC broadcasts
leading directly to a commercial Lyrita recording very often with exactly
the same artists.
During Richard’s life these archive tapes were sent to Abbey Road for
transfer. But since the archive has been housed at Wyastone Leys, and a
dedicated transfer suite established there, we have had about four big tape
transfer sessions in each year, of about 10 days each, when Mike Clements
and I will work on tapes that we hope will contain the listed items. It is
impossible to say if we will ever transfer the entire collection. Choices
have to be made about the commercial worth of any eventual CD release. Up
to now we have concentrated on transferring the earlier recordings - up to
1970 - since they have acquired the most ‘historic’ value, and are less
likely to have been preserved in the BBC’s archive or captured by other
But we are all too aware that unless we at least audition every tape we
can’t be sure what we might have missed. Unfortunately this is not so
simple: these tapes are also more than 50 years old and were stored in a
series of big cupboards in a summerhouse extension in Richard’s house. The
environment was not dreadful, but it was generally a bit damp, too cold in
winter, too hot in summer, and with no air circulation at all. The varied
effect of the ageing process can lead to tape shedding, mould growth, and a
sticky residue that has to be cured by baking. It never takes less than 30
minutes, and sometimes several hours, work on each tape before Mike can
produce a sound. Initially we thought it would work best to spool through
each tape and find the particular piece marked for transfer. But we soon
learnt that there could be even more interesting material present that was
not indicated in the catalogue, or on the tape box. Now we transfer the
tape whole and do the extraction later.
Each session brings moments of elation and despondency. The piece you want
is there, but the first two bars are missing, or the BBC announcements have
been chopped off so that you can’t be absolutely certain who is performing.
Sometimes the signal simply drops out for 10 seconds – particularly if
Richard was recording a stereo rather than a mono broadcast - or the
cross-talk from an earlier programme has not been completely erased, and
keeps breaking through. But sometimes ‘THERE IT IS’, the Premiere of that
Concerto that we didn’t find on tape 595, is here, spliced onto the end of
This example from a recent session is typical: there are five tapes spread
non-sequentially across the archive and referenced in the catalogue with
the single entry ‘Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage’, no date, no performers.
The first tape launched into Act 3, Janet Baker unmistakable as Sosostris,
so Del Mar in a studio recording from 1965. Very exciting. However, the
next tape marked ‘Act 1 & 2’, was an immediate disappointment, as we
heard the announcer say ‘And here comes Bernard Haitink to conduct this
performance live from the Royal Opera’, skip to 1996. In trepidation,
hoping for the best we tried the next … this time it is Scottish Opera,
Pryce-Jones, 1988. The fourth tape had no Tippett at all, but a very nice
performance of Bantock’s Pagan Symphony, BBC Philharmonic/Downes (1984),
and, a completely unexpected performance of Kenneth Leighton’s 2nd Piano Concerto, composer at the piano (1965). And the 5 th tape, fingers crossed for Del Mar 1965, but no, more Haitink.
It is possible, likely even, that the missing parts of the 1965 performance
will be there somewhere …
We have so far released some 40 titles from this collection and the current
year should see another 10 added. It would be impossible to claim that this
is an entirely commercial activity. Only a few releases will ever pay for
themselves, since the costs of release, the licence from the BBC, and
required payments to the Musicians Union, are considerable. But then again
Richard wanted it to happen, pushed for it in fact. As he left the Lyrita
Recorded Edition Trust sufficiently well endowed to enable his wish to
become real we, as Trustee, are more than happy to preserve lives
performances and repertoire that might otherwise exist only in books.
Prior to his death Richard Itter worked closely with Adrian Farmer and
his colleague Antony Smith, the Directors of Nimbus, to modernise the
Lyrita Trust, and to carry out its objectives which continue to be the
recording of British Music.
This article first appeared in Beckus Issue 120
Spring 2021 - The Quarterly magazine of the