Time to wheel out that big TV with shutters on the front and endure a million tiresome ‘talking head’ clips of Peter Kay dribbling on about “when teacher said fingers on lips, what were that all about?”, as the Great Big Whistle-Stop Tour Of Stuff You Used To See On The BBC That Wasn’t Actually A Programme reaches the strange early-morning-and-mid-afternoon hinterland that played host to the BBC’s broadcasts for Schools And Colleges…!
No doubt you will all have your own favourite BBC Programme For Schools And Colleges, whether it’s Music Time, Scene, Maths In A Box or that one where Dave Benson Phillips was a sort of twenties private eye who looked for capital letters or something. This isn’t going to be about the programmes, however (or at least it won’t be until it inevitably turns into a load of surreal rambling about the programmes two thirds of the way through), but rather about what went on in between them. With schedule-adherence somewhat less pressing a concern in off-duty broadcasting hours, and indeed with hapless teachers requiring a couple of minutes to get their unruly charges sitting quietly and cross-legged on the floor, such programmes rarely ran to full length. And as any reminiscence-prone erstwhile schoolchild remembers, the resultant gaps in the schedule were duly occupied by a series of now-legendary continuity-derived countdown sequences.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really very much evidence out there of how they went about this countdown lark prior to the late sixties. All that’s really been uncovered to suggest how children may have spent their inter-educational-broadcast time back when Professor Quatermass was having beachfront punch-ups with the Birdseye Teddy Boys is what appears to be a ‘Telesnap’ taken in the days before John Cura realised that people didn’t actually want the off-screen image to contain the surrounding television set as well. Note also that it appears to be a ‘proper’ TV, not one of those shutter-fronted school-favoured efforts. It’s anyone’s guess as to what’s actually going on in the image itself, which seemingly depicts a blurrily-rendered ‘BBC Television For Schools’ next to what appears to be to be a partial closeup of a planet straight out of some Gerry Anderson closing credits. There was supposedly a BBC show called Space School around this time, though that may just have been Andrew Pixley playing a massive practical joke on us all. Well, for ‘all’, read ‘about three and a half people’.
There definitely was an animated countdown in existence by September 1960, though, as that was the date of the first appearance of the BBC Schools Pie Chart. Which was, well, a Pie Chart. That said BBC in the corner. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – its deceptive simplicity, this linking device would weather all of the turbulent sociocultural seismic shifts of the decade, seeing off the Profumo Affair, Swinging London and when The Rolling Stones refused to ‘revolve’ on Sunday Night At The London Palladium to last into the early seventies (though how it would have withstood The Sex Pistols calling Andrew Sachs a ‘wotter’ is another question).
And as bland as it may have looked, the Pie Chart still incorporated – not unlike, as we have already seen, various incarnations of The Test Card – those high-contrast stripe things which were prone to strobing wildly on old television sets, doubtless resulting in many a ‘bad trip’ for members of The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association. Upping the disorientation ante even further, the sequence came accompanied by upbeat yet clinical sounding steel band music from Leonard Salzedo – better known for penning the bastard scary introductory fanfare for the Open University (which we’ll be coming round to soon) - and gradually disappeared section by section in true ‘what’s Mr Chips doing?’ style to reveal…
…this clock, which busily counted down the remaining sixty seconds until the programme started, while looking for all the world like some sort of sinister Cold War version of the Play School clock busily counting down the remaining sixty seconds until some labcoated creaky sci-fi film experiment into something involving ‘the atom’ goes rocket-threateningly wrong. Yet another example of the clown-fixated complete obliviousness of those involved in child-orientated programming in the sixties to realise that what they’d knocked together might actually scare the living daylights out of younger viewers. On the other hand, it may just have been a cynical gambit to ensure that schoolroom viewers welcomed the tedious academic programming that followed with open arms. Either way, somewhere, Leonard Salzedo and his cadre of fanatics were consolidating their power.
Although black and white television largely disappeared with Patrick Troughton spinning away into a black void shouting “stop, you’re making me giddy”, Schools (And Colleges) television was way down the budgetary chain, and as a result had to continue making and broadcasting programmes in monochrome for some time. Even when colour did start to enliven Words And Pictures and its ilk, there wasn’t enough available spare cash to replace the Pie Chart sequence, and it was September 1973 (or 1974, depending on which website you’re looking at) before a fully chrominant replacement came along. And as this possibly-Pertwee-titles-inspired gap-filling continuity slide suggests, it was well worth the wait…
The BBC Schools Diamond, a marvel of then-modern animation technology (it would take too long to explain but it involved motion-controlled plastic stencils, electronic camera recolouring trickery, and, erm, a mirror) was, possibly unintentionally, the ultimate visual evocation of the meeting point between early seventies fashion and late sixties psychedelia, and as if to underline this (MUSICOLOGISTS WITH A TENDENCY TO TAKE THINGS TOO LITERALLY – PLEASE DO NOT WRITE IN) came accompanied by two minutes’ worth of sub-Soft Machine prog jazz, which you can hear in full here (or here if you’d prefer it in glorious cwilliams1976-o-vision). Or at least it did if you were watching programmes for secondary schools; those aimed at primary age viewers had to make do with some baffling over-nostalgised sub-Music And Movement woodwind and percussion nothingness, which you can hear in full here (or here if you’d prefer a babbling Brazilian bloke to anything by cwilliams1976). Anyway, regardless of musical accompaniment, the Diamond would continallty pulsate outwards, before eventually dissolving into a psychedelic shower of smaller diamonds and then disappearing completely. The version shown above depicts the Diamond in its original colour scheme, a subtle blend of black and Sam Tyler Blue.
Hang on a minute… Parky? What’s he doing here?! Don’t start adjusting your set just yet – unfortunately, despite extensive research, it’s proved impossible to locate that continuity slide for lord knows which programme that had two unidentified cartoon birds in hats on it, which was going to be used to illustrate how the occasionally-glimpsed continuity slides for Schools And Colleges programmes always seemed to employ imagery that had nothing remotely obvious to do with the actual programme, so Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.
Here’s another good example, though - the one that was used for Look And Read. You know, Look And Read. The one with Wordy, Magic Pencil, lavish filmed serials like The Boy From Space, and indeed an abundance of arresting and distinctive visual iconography to choose from. So how did they elect to represent it? With a discoloured old-skool ‘radio’ concentric circles thingymajig mounted behind one of those oil lamp effects they used to slap on top of TV performances by Jefferson Airplane to make them just that little bit more ‘far out’. And this wasn’t the most puzzling example by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re straying a little too far into the extremely weird world of continuity slides, which really does deserve a seperate entry of its own. Time, then, to move on with the actual continuity countdown hoo-hah, and it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for…
Yes, it’s the celebrated BBC Schools ‘Dots’, which blinked offscreen as the seconds ticked away and tedious classroom jokers pretended to be ‘shooting’ them right through from 1977 to 1983. Of course, if said jokers had been looking for a real laugh, then if they’d stopped their antics for a second they might have noticed that the ‘Schools And Colleges’ bit used to rotate, but would occasionally break down mid-rotation and remain stuck in a skewed position for days on end, but that was probably on too dadaist a frequency for them to interpret. The ‘dots’ would generally be accompanied by a selection of soft-rock classics, showcasing the likes of Wings, The Bee Gees and Cat Stevens’ Remember The Days Of The Old Nationwide Theme, though surely the oddest – and yet also strangely the most widely remembered – was Bart, an hilariously badly-named FM Radio-friendly guitar instrumental by obscure Creedence Clearwater Revival offshoot post-proggers Ruby. Sadly, not even Wikipedia at its most Citation Needing gives any indication of what the band might have felt about being more well-known amongst Brit schoolchildren than American muso ‘heads’.
…and, sadly, that’s your lot. 1983 saw the introduction of both more accurately-lengthed shows and a run of the mill continuity gambit based on a cleaning-up-the-morning-after-a-house-party-yellow variant of the standard issue ‘==2==’, which it’s doubtful anyone even remembers at all, let alone remembers with fond bewilderment. However, we’re not quite done with the world of BBC-sponsored education yet, nor indeed with continuity slides… but coming up next, in a later on while, la-OW… join us again next time for the final instalment, when we’ll be looking at some of the weirdest ways of plugging programmes ever. Quite possibly incorporating no Michael Parkinson whatsoever.