Stop Getting 'Clown' Wrong!

Early in 1967, BBC Engineer George Hersee unwittingly created a modern design icon. Back in the days when anyone who owned a television would have owned an analogue set that relied on a cathode ray tube, and would only have been able to choose from a handful of channels that conveniently shut down both overnight and for the majority of the daytime anyway, the Test Cards that showed up for half an hour or so at the start and close of broadcasting hours were not only a common sight but also served a crucial technical purpose. Carefully designed with appropriate geometrically precise uses of shapes and shades, not only did they give the ‘backroom boys’ at the television stations themselves an opportunity to check that everything was working correctly ahead of the actual programmes going out, they also allowed the owners of television shops to ensure that their display models were giving the best possible output, and served a similar purpose for television engineers called out to attend to sets that had gone ‘on the blink’.

With colour test transmissions due to begin imminently, Hersee – a BBC engineer since the late forties – had been charged with producing a new card that could be used for testing colour equipment. His innovation was to fill the central circle with a colourful photographic image in lieu of yet more gradations; after considering and rejecting prototypes using a fashion model, on the grounds that the Test Card was expected to have a long shelf life in the way that fashions do not, he opted instead for a photograph of his eight year old daughter Carole, dressed in a red top and hairband and a tartan skirt, and locked in the middle of a game of noughts and crosses on a blackboard against her home-made toy clown Bubbles. Not only did Test Card F become convenient and universally-deployed visual shorthand both for technical issues and for ‘television’ in general, it also struck terror into several generations of uncomprehending youngsters unnerved by the fixed grins of the unmoving duo - who, as everyone knew, might suddenly move at any minute - while jaunty non-copyright big band music played underneath.

Needless to say, Test Card F also became a widely-adopted and much-loved target for parody. And almost every single one of those parodies fell down on one small but crucial detail - none of them could ever quite get the Clown right. Take, for example, the noughts and crosses enthusiasts' appearance in legendary BBC time travel drama Life On Mars, spooking the adult Sam Tyler with memories of their spooking the young Sam Tyler whilst viewers laboured under the misapprehension that there might actually be a proper ending to all of this after all. As you can see, Bubbles had clearly spent the intervening years taking full advantage of every fast food restaurant offer shoved through his door, having already inexplicably expanded by one foot in size.

Well, you could be forgiven for thinking, that's quite a recent example, and maybe they were largely working from memory. After all, it isn't even on that much these days, is it? True, but if anything, contemporaneous parodies of Test Card F were even further wide of the 'nought'. For example...

1989, and Spitting Image decides for no readily obvious reason to run a sketch about 'Clown' going on strike because he is a football hooligan and being replaced by Nicholas Witchell or something. Quite how this gave a show renowned for its cruelly latex lampooningly accurate attention to facial and physical detail license to depict him as having a huge spherical head and disproportionately frame-hogging body will have to remain a mystery. Still, in fairness, this was around the time that Spitting Image was getting a bit experimental and trying their hand at other animation styles and indeed featuring human actors, the very first of whom was one Nick Hancock. Who at that point was arguably best known for this bit of prop-based mayhem...

Hancock And Mullarkey's celebrated 'TV Themes' routine saw them rapidly change into costumes and throw around props while a medley of small-screen signature tunes played behind them, from cardboard flames with dancing on a chair to sausage-on-a-fork-and-shooting-up shenanigans. It was an extremely funny piece that never failed to have studio audiences in worryingly excessive hysterics, and right in the middle they threw in a quick Test Card F gag, which scored high marks by featuring a suitably schmaltzy reading of All My Loving. Examine it too closely, though, and you can't help but notice that Nick Hancock has simply reached for the nearest 'clown' wig and is shamelessly relying on a quick spot of cognitive association from the LWT-bound shriekers. Nice how accurately Neil Mullarkey has captured the 'Girl's tie as well. But what if Ben Kingsley, Test Card F Parody Union is behind door?

The normally devastatingly spot-on children's sketch show that was more adult than most adult sketch shows End Of Part One lowers its batting average here a bit by not even bothering to mock up a vague approximation of Bubbles, opting instead for a nondescript doll attached to some balloons that must have made it pretty hard to get a game of noughts and crosses underway. No wonder Fred Harris looks alarmed.

And finally for now, here's an early nineties advert for Granada Television Rentals, which not only gets the launch date of Test Card F wildly wrong but also goes to the vast and thoroughly salary-justifying expense of replacing the clown with a teddy bear. Because they are exactly the same thing, aren't they? Anyway, we're now returning you to the proper Test Card and some music, but if you know of any other examples boasting similarly high levels of devotion to accuracy, do get in touch. You may even want to tell me on Twitter that The Boosh dressed up as 'Girl' and 'Clown' once. I was not aware of that!!4

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.