The Eighty Sixth Annual Academy Salute To Forty Three Million Years Of The BBC Part 2: The Test Card Goes Global

In the previous instalment of our history of the bits and pieces that appeared on the BBC whenever there weren’t any actual programmes on, we went through the A to F of BBC Test Cards, charting their development from the early assemblages of lines and grey to the eventual hi-tech assemblages of, um, lines and colour.

What isn’t very well known, however, is that the BBC were genuine technical pioneers in the field of weird tuning signals that nobody ever actually seemed to use for any practical reason, and their groundbreaking display-calibrating designs were widely copied across the globe, whether by legitimate means or in ‘bootleg’ form. What’s more, most of these not-very-well-disguised copies were amusingly ridiculous, and in this second part of the series, we’ll be taking a look at… well, it’s not really some of the ‘best’, at least not in a literal sense. But y’know.

But before we go any further... while Test Card F quickly became the 'go-to' design of choice for for any international broadcaster wanting to fashion their own Test Card without really putting any effort into it, were there ever any similar variations on the five BBC Test Cards that came before it? Well, if there were, then sadly they’ve clearly been lost to the mists of time, and there’s scant evidence of how the Belgians might have reinterpreted those terminally uninteresting collections of ‘lines’ and ‘grey’. The nearest that’s turned up is this ITV-sponsored variant on Test Card D, which isn’t really any different to the original Test Card D, and come to think of it isn’t exactly what you could call ‘international’ either. So, off to a good start, there.

Just as the BBC used to sell Play School to overseas broadcasters in ‘kit’ form, so that they could repurpose props, scripts and bloodthirsty cockatiels as they saw fit, and re-dye Humpty in a ‘poison’ colour scheme and what have you, they also flogged Test Card F abroad in a similar fashion, allowing younger viewers in other nations to enjoy a less terrifying variation on the tried and tested ‘Girl’ and ‘Clown’ motif. Here’s how Swedish broadcaster Sveriges TV reinterpreted the all-too-familiar image, employing the services of a girl who appears to have stolen the top half of her wig from Ken Korda and the bottom half from Pat Sharp, and what was clearly a discarded Hamble from their own concurrent Play School purchase.

BSB, the ill-fated Murdoch-enraging attempt at establishing a UK satellite TV service with something that was actually worth watching on it (oh, and I Love Keith Allen), tried its hardest to lure in the overnight floating voters with a rotating lineup of Test Card F emulants featuring what can only be described as Sky Magazine’s idea of ‘sexy’ females (the 'magician' one was nice, though). This proved as much of a resounding success as you’re expecting, and in its own small way, probably even contributed to the channel being agressively subsumed by the Murdoch empire and the earliest known TV appearances by Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci and Stewart Lee being wiped not long after and most likely lost forever. Although on the other hand, this did also mean that I Love Keith Allen was wiped not long after and most likely lost forever, so swings and roundabouts really.

Meanwhile, here’s a more tranquil and spiritually resonant take on the template from MBC, a short-lived early nineties Arabic cable television service that only ever seemed to be broadcasting at a million o’clock in the morning, and even then only appeared to show programmes that were all made in the same room (though someone did come down the chimney on one once). As a consequence, all that most viewers ever saw of it was this abstract riffing on Test Card F with a candle in the middle, which impressively flickered throughout. Wonder if the card was just propped up in the corner of ‘the room’?

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 a copy of the demented Test Card F reworking utilised by Paramount Comedy, which – seeing as how they were less concerned with contemplative meditation than they were with Bill Cosby putting all of the plates in the dish washer so that they can be of washed up for the lunch – employed a central image of a giant chicken standing astride a busy ‘freeway’ in a not-entirely-obvious-on-first-glance reference to the old gag about the chicken crossing the road, with the added mind-frazzling interactive element of the car lights flashing independently and horns sounding at random, Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.

Paramount Comedy's one-time rival The Comedy Channel went one better and used a central image of some live action goldfish swimming around a deep sea diver figure from one of those Fisher-Price Adventure People playsets. Quite what relation it bore to ‘comedy’ is a matter of some debate; presumably it was some kind of poorly-aimed attempt at evoking Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, but in all honesty they’d have been better off opting for Phil Cool doing something ‘rubber-faced’. In live action.

Test Card F, as you can clearly see from the many examples above, and indeed the millions upon millions of unfunny parodies with Lisa Rogers or someone in the middle, is pretty much the long and short of how a 'Test Card' looks in the eyes of the general public. Even so, there were a couple of attempts at repurposing Test Card G for international audiences, such as this Danish effort for DR1, a station devoted exclusively to showing repeats of William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who. Including all of the missing ones. Stitch that, 'Phil'!

…and that’s about it for now, at least in terms of amusing Test Card variations. We’ll be back soon with some pages from Ceefax, but in the meantime, here’s a selection of pages from Ceef… erm… why not treat yourself to an official Televisions Namnden Countdown Clock? Just give it a try and you’ll agree zagreb evrem zlotyk diev!

Hang on, what's this...?

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.