Sunday 23 June 2013

There's nothing on telly

Like most kids my age I wouldn't have missed Scooby Doo for the world. But a couple of times a week - during what, in the 1970s, was called Childrens Hour - I would sit my portable cassette recorder on a stool next to the TV speaker and record the incidental music being played on BBC2. It wound up my sister - who, rather more conventionally for an eight year old, wanted to watch Black Beauty on ITV - but no one seemed worried about my sanity.

This might need a little more explanation in 2013. In the mid-seventies, there were still only three TV channels and very few programmes, even given this limited choice, during the day. For long periods there was nothing on the screen but trade test transmissions, largely there to enable TV shops to get the best possible picture on their display sets. These transmissions were made up of the testcard, with its instrumental soundtrack, and the occasional test film - like The Home Made Car, a 1963 Academy Award-nominated short which was shown no less than 182 times between 1962 and 1973. During the school holidays, or on Saturday mornings before your parents were up, there was little else for bored kids to do but watch the testcard and transmitter information - the music and the images became as embedded in the minds of a generation as The Monkees and the Robinson Crusoe theme.

I ended up with a collection of C60s containing things like (though I had no idea what they were at the time) Norrie Paramor's version of the Theme from MASH and Andre Brasseur's The Kid, probably the only record played both on the testcard and at Wigan Casino. The liberal use of European synth instrumentals, vocalese jazz, even bits of Bach, informed my tastes - the testcard may not have primed me for punk, but I really understood where the Pale Fountains and Portishead were coming from. Come the nineties and the lounge music boom, I was fairly sure I wasn't the only kid who'd been watching the testcard.

The most iconic image, introduced in 1967 with the advent of colour TV,  was called Test Card F. Its designer was a BBC engineer called George Hersee and, for a dummy run, he had included a picture of his eight year old daughter, Carole, at the centre of it. The BBC decided that replacing Carole's picture with an adult model was too risky - they needed something timeless, and 1967 fashions weren't exactly built to last. So Carole went into a photographer's studio: the result was the familiar image of a girl with an Alice band, playing noughts and crosses with a rather terrifying toy clown, surrounded by mysterious test graphics. Miss Hersee was unsurprisingly teased at school and, to her discomfort, the image was used on a daily basis until 1998. Now living in the New Forest with two daughters, she can claim to have had more screen time - around 70,000 hours - than anyone else in British TV history.

As a child the image seemed incredibly important. For girls, the Mona Lisa-like image of Carole Hersee was a role model - I know a DJ in Wales who dressed like her as a child, even carrying a cuddly clown around; someone else I know thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world (no, it wasn't me). Later on in life, the image of Carole Hersee became more associated with waking up on the settee at three in the morning with the telly still on and empty beer cans on the floor. Her face never changed; the game of noughts and crosses never ended. It was once compared to a Home Counties version of The Seventh Seal.

But it was the testcard music that hooked me. The BBC regularly received letters from the public asking where they could buy the music; the short answer was, they couldn't. The man tasked with choosing the testcard music in the seventies was John Ross-Barnard, who worked in the BBC's Foreign Recordings Department: "People wrote in - can I have a copy? But it wasn't ours. It came from music libraries, and a huge exchange of material between European broadcasters. The public would receive a photocopied letter saying the music wasn't for sale. It was an embarrassment, in a way."

As is often the case, the BBC hasn't kept an archive of Ross-Barnard's tapes, but a group of enthusiasts called The Testcard Circle have spent years piecing them back together and occasionally issuing them on CD. They meet in Leominster every year and swap tapes and obscure scraps of information - Ceefax music from the eighties and nineties, apparently, is creeping up in popularity among younger members. People may have thought testcard music died out years ago, but it only went in October 2012 with the demise of Ceefax. What will replace Ceefax after the digital switchover, and how will the BBC fill those empty hours created by cutbacks? It's obvious, says Flannery: "They'll have to bring back the testcard."


  1. A great post - as good as Proust's madeleines, or your money back.

    This is my memory of the BBC2 trade test transmission films:

    As far as BBC1 goes, I don't think it was 'Children's Hour' by the early 1970s. I watched the first Scooby Doo episodes and the schedule was around 90 minutes long, starting around 4.20. I seem to remember something along the lines of Scooby Doo, Jackanory, Blue Peter/Ask Aspel and the Magic Roundabout, followed by Richard Baker reading the BBC1 News, then Nationwide.

    I'm really glad that there were only three channels, as I was frequently forced out of my comfort zone to watch completely inappropriate programmes.

    If I hadn't been forced to watch 'Out of Town' with Jack Hargreaves, I would have never known the true meaning of boredom.

  2. It was the Channel 4 testcard for me all the way, which might be a generational thing - Channel 4 never got stated until about 4:30pm in its earliest days, so it was easy to be exposed to this stuff. It took me years and years to find out that the utterly bizarre piece of effects-laden reggae "Fool In Love" was by Bob Morgan, and longer still to track down a copy of the KPM album from which it stemmed (something like five flaming years to find an affordable one). But it's wonderful:

    They used to play bits of jazz funk like "Soapy Crow" by the Frode Thingnaes Quintet as well, disco, early synth stuff - it was like some off-the-wall, peculiarly varied radio station.

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