The original pilot episode, set in 1948, involved former bank manager and Home Guard Captain George Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) deciding to renovate a decrepit seaside pier in the fictional town of Frambourne-on-Sea, only to find when applying for a bank loan that the manager of the local branch is his former chief cashier and Home Guard Sergeant Arthur Wilson (John Le Mesurier).
The pilot, recorded in 1981, was never transmitted and the master recording was apparently wiped, but co-writer Snoad kept a copy which he later returned to the BBC, and a short excerpt was played on a documentary entitled Radio's Lost Property on November 1, 2003. It is clear from this that the programme was not suitable for broadcast because Lowe, who was unwell at the time, slurs his lines so badly he sounds as if he is drunk.
Lowe died some months later, but his widow had enjoyed the show and persuaded the writers to start again with a new cast. The new version involved former ARP warden Bert Hodges (Bill Pertwee), the former nemesis of Mainwaring's Home Guard unit, approaching "stupid boy" and former Home Guard Private Frank Pike (Ian Lavender) with a proposal to renovate the pier at Frambourne. In order to finance this plan Pike has to approach bank manager Wilson (Le Mesurier), who just happens to be his "uncle" (actually a friend of his mother's), for a loan. Wilson suspects the only reason Hodges approached Pike was to get to him. Nevertheless, Pike and Wilson put aside their wartime quarrel with Hodges - more or less - and the renovation begins.
The series was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on November 13, 1983 and ran for 13 episodes. It was subsequently repeated on BBC Radio 2, but an apparent mixup between different BBC departments resulted in most of the original masters being wiped.
It is probably fair to say that the series was not a high-water mark (to use a suitably maritime expression) in BBC comedy, but nevertheless it did feature some of John Le Mesurier's last performances, and many listeners were shocked to discover that the BBC was still wiping material as late as the 1980s.
In recent years the BBC's Treasure Hunt has unearthed off-air recordings of a great many shows that would otherwise have been lost, including It Sticks Out Half a Mile, and the digital radio archive channel BBC 7 has recently broadcast the recovered copies of the series. Many of these are of extremely poor quality, and at least one radio collector has come forward with better quality versions of some episodes.
More on TV versions of series to follow