Using DFT’s Scanity to restore classic BBC murder mystery Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

- Much loved Joan Hickson episodes restored from the original negatives for the first time by BBC Studios and Post Production Digital Media Services

BBC Studios and Post Production’s specialist Digital Media Services team has completed full restoration work on the classic British murder mystery series Miss Marple, bringing the picture quality up to date for 21st century audiences.

Based on the stories of Agatha Christie and starring Joan Hickson, the original BBC episodes have been remastered for BBC Worldwide’s upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release in North America. The new HD box set includes the first episode of the series The Body in the Library, first broadcast by the BBC 30 years ago, as well as Murder in the Vicarage, A Murder is Announced and The Moving Finger.

Colourist Jonathan Wood explains how the classic series has been given a new lease of life.

Detecting the best source

As with any full scale restoration, the starting point is to source the best quality original materials. For us this was the original A/B negative rolls.

Made in the 1980s and early 1990s, the BBC’s Miss Marple series was shot on 16mm film and then transferred to analogue tape for broadcast. Whilst digital master copies have been produced previously, these have been simply copies of the original tape with the same inherent deficiencies. This is the first time anyone has returned to the original A/B negative rolls to create a proper digital master. This gave us a huge increase in resolution as well as access to the full picture area, enabling us to dramatically improve the overall picture quality.

There were around four reels of original 16mm A/B negative rolls per episode, which were supplied by BBC Information & Archives along with the original prints and audio magnetic tracks. There is a mixture of 50 minute episodes, with some stories split across two or three instalments, and a few feature length stories over 110 minutes long.

Whilst in reasonable state, the original A/B negative rolls were far from perfect, with varying levels of surface dirt, emulsion digs, fine scratching and scuffing. The first step was to chemically and ultrasonically clean the 16mm negatives, before scanning them at 2K resolution using Digital Film Technology's film scanner Scanity, to create DPX files that we could work with.

When viewed at 2K, it was very clear the material would require considerable work to bring it up to the HD quality expected by 21st century audiences. As well as the dirt and scratches there was a noticeable amount of image instability and extremely high levels of grain in places.

Solving the picture quality problems

Once the scanned images were conformed to the print guide pictures, some automated processes were applied to help stabilise the images and reduce the amount of grain and tiny dirt marks on the negatives. The many other remaining defects were then dealt with by intensive manual digital clean-up work, where we painstakingly restored the images frame by frame. We also did extensive shot by shot grading and scene matching to ensure consistency throughout the episodes.

Illuminating the period detail

One of the biggest challenges with Miss Marple was maintaining an even quality and colour balance throughout the episodes, especially as the source material varied considerably in both exposure and grain levels. It was important that a neutral, yet high quality image with natural tones was retained, in keeping with the way that scenes were originally lit during initial recordings. There were severe levels of grain in many low-lit interior scenes, such as the living rooms in A Murder at the Vicarage, which had been deliberately lit with a warm light, which we retained in the grade to ensure the episodes had a cosy feel.

Through the grade we were also able to bring out a new level of clarity to the period elements, with richer colours for the clothes and interior styling, as well as the countryside, showcasing more than ever before the excellent production detail of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

New clarity for a classic BBC series

From the first note of the opening music and the title sequence drawings of countryside, murder and characters with moody stares, I was transported back thirty years ago to when this BBC adaptation of Miss Marple was first broadcast. It was a quality production then and still is, with a faithful period feel and an array of top class actors. The improved picture quality of these new HD remasters brings the drama, comedy and intrigue into even sharper focus, quite literally, for an enhanced viewing experience of this classic and much loved series.

Notes for editors

BBC Studios and Post Production Digital Media Services team:

Restoration Colourist / Digital Clean-up: Jonathan Wood

Scanning / Digital Clean-up / Conforming: Amanda Whitby and Sheona Henderson

About BBC Studios and Post Production

BBC Studios and Post Production is a commercial subsidiary of the BBC, providing world class studios, post production and digital media services. It works with media companies and broadcasters, making content for a variety of broadcasters - from Channel 4’s Winter Paralympics, ITV’s The Chase and Sky’s A League of Their Own, to BBC One’s EastEnders, Children in Need and Strictly Come Dancing.

Its award-winning specialist Digital Media Services provides high quality content ingest, restoration, enhancement, storage, hosting, archive and distribution services. It works with content owners like Imperial War Museums to conserve and maximise the value of their material. Restoration credits include Dr Who, The Queen’s Coronation and classic ITV dramas The Jewel in The Crown and The Professionals.

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