Fan-led preservation practices: remastering The Ricky Gervais Show

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

John Gilmore

I’m part of a small but enduring community of online weirdos centred around The Ricky Gervais Show, a comedy programme hosted by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and producer Karl Pilkington on and off between 20011 and 2010. My own engagement with the show began in around 2007, and it remains my longest-surviving fandom. The show is now mostly forgotten, but it was, for a time, the number one podcast in the world, the first podcast adapted to television, and one of podcasting’s first true global successes.

But before it was a podcast, from 2001 to 2005 The Ricky Gervais Show was a lightweight frothy entertainment show heard from 11am–1pm every Saturday on tinpot London radio station Xfm. Real heads consider this radio incarnation the show’s purest form, and the apotheosis of the trio’s humour. Long before Gervais became the world’s most tiresome boomer comic, writing 80 variations of the same “I identify as a chimpanzee” joke, he played against his own working class origins and skewered the banalities of British life in a way that was irreverent and — to use a term that at the time wasn’t necessarily code for racist — edgy. The comic sensibility and timing he shared with the unbelievably quick-witted Merchant, which would infuse all their collaborative projects, is present from the very beginning, and you can hear them improvise and develop embryonic versions of material they would later use in The Office‘s second series, Extras, and their stand-up sets. The real joy of the show, though, lies in hearing Gervais and Merchant discover, in real time, the true comedic genius occupying the third chair. Pilkington was originally brought on as an off-mic producer running the desk, but in short order Gervais and Merchant began integrating Pilkington into the show more and more as he shared his off-kilter views on the world and stories of his bizarre Manchester upbringing. (Some highlights: the horse in the house; Auntie Nora’s ripped tennis ball; “man-moths”. Many of these stories would be re-hashed, with diminishing returns, in the podcast.)

The very fact that the Xfm Ricky Gervais Show still exists in listenable form today is largely thanks to the efforts of the show’s fandom, which is, unbelievably, still active. The community is now most active on Discord and reddit, but before that it was a Facebook group, and in the glory days of Web 2.0 the community centred around a phpBB forum and wiki called, which was founded just as the podcast was taking off in 2006. (It is with some irony that throughout its life the show was called The Ricky Gervais Show, as it has always been acknowledged — even by the hosts themselves — that Pilkington was the real drawcard.) As fan communities, these forums are full of people who still listen to, discuss, and quote episodes of the show, now 20+ years after they were first broadcast. But as fans do, beyond passively consuming the object of their interest, they also actively contribute to the fandom and the maintenance of the community via their labour. In the RSK community, as it is sometimes known, fans have collected and collated media clippings and trivia about the show and the people in its orbit. They have painstakingly transcribed Gervais’s infamously punch-drunk gibberish. They have written fan fiction. But by far the community’s most lasting and impactful work has been in preserving and disseminating the show itself.

“Xfm 104.9. Five past one, of a Saturday…”

As a radio show broadcast live-to-air in the early 2000s, The Ricky Gervais Show was originally only intended to be heard by those in range of Xfm’s London broadcast area. Listeners from outside London, and those who missed it on its first broadcast, had no way of listening — even after the podcast version of the show became a massive hit. This is, of course, one of the defining features of broadcast radio, but it’s also one of its key weaknesses.2 Luckily, fans of the show — and two in particular, Richard Hare and Ian Pile — had recorded many of the show’s original broadcasts to cassette tape, and they took it upon themselves to digitise the tapes, edit out songs and ads, and upload the files online to share with the community.

The extant corpus of The Ricky Gervais Show consists of this haphazard collection of mp3s, combining the recordings of Hare and Pile with the so-called “Jezoc tapes”, and a few other bits and bobs, for a total of about 100 episodes. These files have been passed around successive file-sharing platforms as they have come and gone over the decades — first on LimeWire and Soulseek, then in MediaFire archives, and now on The Pirate Bay and other torrent websites. The files available in this collection are mostly in rough shape, reflective of the cirumstances in which they were recorded — straight off the radio onto cassette tape, hurriedly edited by amateurs and enthusiasts. In some files the audio is so hot as to be borderline unlistenable, with Gervais’ piercing squeal of a laugh threatening to blow out the listener’s ear drums, while in others Pilkington is practically inaudible. In addition to the poor audio quality, over the years unknown people have sloppily edited the files down even further from their original form, losing several minutes of audio from some versions of the collection. As a result, there is no definitive version of the files that do exist. The collection is also incomplete — the first episode in the mp3 collection was broadcast on November 10, 2001, but Gervais, Merchant, and Pilkington actually began their broadcasting stint months earlier. To date, no recordings of the earlier episodes have ever sufaced. Years after the community effort to distribute the show took off, Xfm made a cursory attempt to capitalise on their connection to RSK by posting clips online, and then by packaging up and selling “best of” collections through Audible. But, as highlight packages, they were obviously incomplete and modified from their original form. If it weren’t for the efforts of the Pilkipedia community to record the show — and the community’s continued interest in making the files available to successive generations of listeners — this huge collection of comedy would have been lost forever.

In the 2010s, as many forums did, Pilkipedia fell victim to the emergence of the walled-garden approach to internet community. The forum was gradually abandoned by users in favour of Facebook groups, while the burden of maintaining and keeping the forum spam-free became too great for admins, and the site went offline for an extended period. But the RSK community did not entirely disband, and it has recently begun congregating on Discord — thanks to Facebook and reddit becoming generally toxic shit-piles. While this situation poses its own problems (Discord is itself a walled garden, invisible to Google searches and impossible for the Wayback Machine to archive, not to mention overly complex and hostile to new users), for the time being it has led to a significant revivification of the community’s preservation efforts. As I write this, a user going by the name of Rhondson is close to finishing a complete audio remaster of the Xfm Ricky Gervais Show. He has consolidated all known surviving recordings of the show from various sources, saved the versions that avoided being subjected to unexplained edits, picked the best sounding version, and is normalising and levelling the audio to be consistent across the series. He has posted draft versions of the files as he’s gone along, and the improvement is astounding. Meanwhile, fans have been scouring the Wayback Machine and archives of newspapers and the Radio Times to piece together the show’s broadcast history, which is mostly lost to time. For example, the date of the first Xfm broadcast has been triangulated as occurring in either August or September of 2001, with September 1, 2001 being the current front-runner. (Surely the episode broadcast on September 15, 2001, would be interesting from a historical perspective.)

The state of the community’s knowledge of 2001. (Image by Mark177)

This is the sort of archival research and preservation work you hear about when a new version of Metropolis has been discovered at a garage sale. But it’s not being done by boffins in white coats with information science degrees, it’s being done by a bunch of volunteers on a Discord server amidst an endless stream of memes about Stephen Merchant’s eyes. This would, of course, all be so much easier if someone involved at Xfm in the early 2000s had written a book (or even a social media post) about their experiences. But absent that, it’s up to the fans to put it together themselves — and to patiently wait in hope that one day the unreleased episodes will turn up somewhere.

Piracy is necessary for the continued survival of our culture

Fan-led preservation is so important, and remains one of the best and most reliable ways our cultural history is preserved when rights holders and capitalists fail — which is often.

We have long been promised a utopian digital future where the world’s content would be at our fingertips, unlimited and on-demand. Instead, we have fractured silos of content due to byzentine rights agreements, completed films being shelved for financial reasons (or removed from streaming services to avoid paying residuals), and content that depicts problematic characters being removed or edited without warning (even if those problematic characters are satirical). Even physical media releases are not immune to this, as fans of MTV shows like The State, Beavis & Butthead and Daria are well aware (and outside of MTV there was Ed, and WKRP in Cincinnati, and The Wonder Years, and…). Licensing issues meant that DVD versions of those popular shows had almost all of their original music removed and replaced with generic approximations, completely butchering what fans enjoyed about the show in the first place. Beavis & Butthead is a particularly interesting case, as the show originally contained sequences in which the titular characters channel-surfed and “watched” music videos on MTV, commenting over the top in a manner not dissimilar to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Official releases of the show had all of these music video sequences cut out, leaving only the comparatively less interesting narrative storylines. The fan-created “King Turd Edition” collects the original versions of the show, taken from the best available source — which, unfortunately, is often a VHS recording of the original television broadcast — and restores the show to its original glory. Likewise, the Daria Restoration Project took video from the series’ official DVD releases and re-inserted songs that had been taken out, sourced either from the original broadcast version or (if there was no dialogue layered on top) by manually inserting the song.

With no financial incentive, Xfm/Radio X/Global Radio have no reason to make The Ricky Gervais Show available to the public. It is effectively orphaned media, and is in real danger of being lost forever once the rumoured DAT backups of the show held in long-term storage deteriorate (if indeed they even exist to begin with). Whatever you think of Ricky Gervais’s embarrassing recent slide into reactionary politics, this would be a genuine loss for comedy history. It goes without saying, of course, that preserving the show is technically illegal, as the community has no right to distribute these copyright works on the internet. But this is a case where the free market has failed in its stated purpose, exposing the limitations of our current copyright regime. Copyright laws were originally written to preserve the artist’s ability to control the distribution and monetisation of their own work. Copyright was supposed to encourage the spread of culture and art by increasing the artist’s ability to profit from their labour, which benefits the public by providing us a panoply of artistic works to consume and enjoy. But we now live in a neoliberal dystopia where gargantuan media conglomerates slurp up intellectual property and sit on it like a dragon hoarding treasure, with no intention to ever let it see the light of day.

What are we to do in such a situation, when a rights holder has made clear their intention not to exploit their exclusive right to capitalise a copyright work? Should there be a carve-out in copyright law to allow the preservation and distribution of these effectively orphaned works? There are countless historically significant radio programmes, television shows, and other media that cannot be enjoyed by modern audiences, because no one can profit from them. Surely the preservation of our cultural history cannot depend on its profitability. (I was so pleased to read Senses of Cinema‘s excellent recent issue on cinema and piracy, which dealt with the issue with considerable nuance.) Of course, I don’t expect anyone will ever be prosecuted for saving episodes of The Ricky Gervais Show on an external hard drive, or making it available on a new torrent tracker, but there must be more we can do to encourage the preservation and release of important works of our cultural history. If the rights holder is unwilling to do it, then it falls on the community.


  1. There was an earlier incarnation of The Ricky Gervais Show that went to air on Xfm in 1998, featuring Gervais and Merchant but no Pilkington. There is debate in the fandom about where this series sits in the show’s canon, leading to its unofficial designation as “Series 0”.
  2. “Ephemerality has been a major problem across radio’s more than a century long history: as a live broadcast medium, much radio programming was never recorded.” — Andrew J. Bottomley, “Podcast Archeology: Researching Proto-Podcasts and Early Born-Digital Audio Formats” in J.W. Morris & E. Hoyt (eds), Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 29–50.