The Fifty Fourth Annual Academy Salute To Twenty Eight Million Years Of The BBC Part 1: The Test Card

BBC Test Card F

The BBC have never been that good at celebrating their own legacy, have they? Well, they’re fine at actually spotting the odd opportunity for a bit of well-deserved self-congratulatory hoo-hah, but the problem is that said well-deserved self-congratulatory hoo-hah rarely involves anything more substantial than a weird animated fanfare thingy where nobody’s sure what it’s actually supposed to represent, a load of bombastic clips from The News and Our Friends In The North, and Russell Howard vigorously confirming that Bagpuss was shown on at least one occasion.

But what of the harshly-designed bits of cardboard ephemera that used to plug transmission gaps – whether planned or accidental – in the days before credit-squeezing and that sort of house thing with fairy lights on it? Well, there are absolutely tons of sites out there where people catalogue this stuff in great detail before ranting on and on about the ‘politically correct brigade : (‘, but if you’d rather have the story of the BBC told in spurious non-linear lack of detail through the medium of some visual garbage that had little or nothing to do with any of the actual programmes, then stick around as we proudly present the first in an occasional series of celebrations of globes, continuity slides, weather reports and other onscreen codswallop, in The Fifty Fourth Annual Academy Salute To Twenty Eight Million Years Of The BBCPart 1: The Test Card!

BBC Test Card A

Test Card A was – as you probably won’t be even remotely surprised to hear – the very first BBC Test Card, introduced in the late forties, and as you can see it was a rather dreary affair calling to mind a dull prototype of one of those Binatone ‘TV Tennis’ games. Though it was nice of them to include some forward-thinking hints on potential stage positioning for five-man hip hop collectives. Hmmmm… grey-on-grey collections of blocks and lines are hardly exactly going to make for a particularly amusing nor indeed particularly easy to write article, are they? Should have thought this through a bit better. Oh well, onwards and upwards…


Hang on a minute… Parky? What’s he doing here?! Don’t start adjusting your set just yet – as there is no known copy of Test Card B in existence, and nobody really knows for certain what it looked like beyond “it had some grey and there were lines on it”, Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.

BBC Test Card C

With alarming haste, Test Card C made its Test Card B-replacing debut in 1948, and indeed made something of a prehistoric laughing stock of the two earlier attempts at Tuning Signal provision with its snazzy grid-like backdrop, controversial ‘diagonal’ stance, and infinite permutations of shades of grey, like when John Major took acid on Spitting Image. So successful was this new approach, in fact, that it remained the Test Card of choice for a whopping sixteen years. Which is all very well and good, but it still provides no great leaps forward in terms of having something to actually write about. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere about being first on the grid… no, there isn’t, is there?

BBC Test Card D

With a higher definition television service on the horizon, Test Card D finally usurped the tyrannical regime of Test Card C in 1964. Though that said it wasn’t really all that different from its immediate predecessor, the only significant alterations being the more nattily-arranged grading blocks, and a proto-’THIS IS MY ISLAND JACOB’ conflict between the forces of dark and light crowbarred onto either side of the card. Wikipedia suggests that Test Card D was also available in a rare ‘Reduced Power’ variant, though frankly there’s a distinct whiff of Reduced Citation about that ‘fact’. Meanwhile, you’re probably noticing a familiar layout starting to take shape by now. If you ignore Parky, that is.

BBC Test Card E

When the hapless BBC broadcast engineers devised a more technically intricate version of Test Card D late in 1964, for use on new BBC2-compatible 625-line television sets, little did they know that they were about to become caught up in a tidal wave of controversy that made The Singing Detective look like a particularly sedate edition of Five To Eleven. But within hours of Test Card E‘s first appearance, complaints had started to pour in from television retailers whose employees had stared at it for too long and gone into a Pokemon-style trance. Fearing a mass outbreak of Scanners-esque exploding heads in local branches of DER, the BBC quickly withdrew the hazardous card, and parachuted in a modified version of Test Card C as a replacement. While this did mean that Test Card C would enjoy a further three years in the limelight, poor old Test Card E was never to be seen on television again. Meanwhile, the only controversy around here is that it’s really, really difficult to be either informative or entertaining about this endless procession of dull monochromatic maths book diagram-like things (and yes, that does include Parky), and it’s more than possible that this article will end up finishing way befo… hang on, what’s this??

BBC Test Card F

As any BBC4 documentary producer will tell you at the drop of a hat and with Interstellar Overdrive playing in the background, change was in the air in 1967. For starters, the BBC needed a colour test card, and so transmission engineer George Hersee casually snapped his daughter Carole playing noughts and crosses with a toy clown called Bubbles to use as a hue-correcting central image for the brand spanking new Test Card F. In the process, he accidentally created an image that would become ‘iconic’ in the eyes of lazy journalists, and a blight of happy television-obsessed childhoods for an entire generation.

Shorn of context, technical background or even the knowledge that this Test Card was practically Rubber Soul in comparison to the grey dreariness that had preceded it, hapless youngsters waiting for television to ‘start’ in the seventies and eighties simply saw it for what it was – a weirdly anachronistically-dressed girl with an enigmatically sinister smile locked in an unending Seventh Seal-esque battle of wits (and chalk) with a gaudy assemblage of primary colours that comfortably walked away with the title of Television’s Second Scariest Clown, surrounded by lots of harsh-looking lines. They never moved, never spoke, just sat there looking straight at you but also straight through you, while tuneless big band music called something like ‘Hawaiian Hideaway’ blared away in the background. It seemed almost to have been designed by committee to frighten children out of their wits, and there are some who claim not to be able to look at it even now. If you are one of those people, then please accept all due apologies, though in fairness you did click on a link to a page about Test Cards, so what were you expecting? A photo of Parky?

In mitigation, Test Card F has left us with a surprisingly diverse popular cultural legacy, all the way from acting as shorthand for ‘telly’ on comedy sketch shows to inspiring Jimi Hendrix to write The Wind Cries Mary (or did it?) to giving blog owners something ‘hilarious’ to post when they’re taking a short break (and yes, before anyone pipes up in the comments box, Noel Bloody Fielding dressed up as the clown lol lol lol etc), but that was scant consolation to any bejeezus-depleted youngsters who grew up in constant fear of being unexpectedly confronted with it when turning the TV on too ‘early’. And, sometimes, there was literally no avoiding it…

Granada Test Card F

Yes, that really does say ‘Granada’. It seems that our favourite fear-causers were not merely content with their hold over an unwary BBC audience, and opted to implement a ‘no escape’ policy and expand their sinister reach through taking the ITV regions by force. Like some crazy ‘Dark Future’ McFadden & Whitehead, there Ain’t No Stoppin’ Them Now…

Behind The Scenes at BBC Test Card F

…and in celebration of two years of terrifying rampage, here they are posing for the press in 1969, having finally infiltrated the Thames TV building. Rumours that Michael Mackenzie immediately fled Teddington Lock shouting ‘AIEEEEEEEEEEEE’ cannot be confirmed.

BBC Test Card F at Christmas

What made Test Card F even more spooked-child-unfriendly still was that it was a prime target for ‘backroom boys’ japesmithery, with the broadcast engineers developing a pronounced fondness for making some sort of hilarious visual alteration at the merest hint of a seasonal or anniversary-related excuse. Hilarious for them, maybe, but not so much for the poor viewers, who were already freaked out enough by Test Card F as it stood without the introduction of disconcerting ‘differences’. Take, for example, this particular wheeze that was pulled one Christmas Day in the late seventies, in which 'Girl' is disconcertingly conspicuous by her absence. She’s making a list, she’s checking it twice…

BBC Test Card G

Amen & Hallelujah! Nobody seems to know for sure when it first made an appearance (‘late seventies’ is about as specific as it gets, apparently), but Test Card G - the BBC’s first ever electronically-generated Test Card - dispensed with all of that photographic weirdness in favour of some electronically-generated coloured blocks, allowing even the most ‘Girl’-wary of youngsters to join in the inter-transmission fun and more or less bringing matters full circle. Sort of. Anyway, at this point the need for a Test Card began diminishing by the year, what with the introduction of Breakfast Time and Daytime On BBC1 and News 24 and The Imaginatively Titled Punt And Dennis Show and what have you, and from here onwards it’s pretty much just borderline-ironic reconfigurations of Test Card F all the way. But what influence – if any – did the BBC’s pioneering work in the field of bits of card with lines on them have on the global broadcast industry? Stay tuned…

BBC Test Card: Flesh Tone Reference

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find more about Test Card F, Radio Times and other items of old-skool BBC iconography - not all of it entirely respectful - in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.