School Daze 

1 September 2001

In writing about schools programmes, my memories of what I watched are always rather influenced by circumstances. I was often unwell, so watched as many of them at home as I did in school, but I learned more at home – no distractions, no coughing, no teacher telling us to be quiet.

And in the sixties and early seventies, it was all that was on during the day other than the Test Card or colour bars so possessed not a little novelty value.

Often, the schedule started with little preamble “Follows Shortly” – usually the harbinger of things to come, sometimes with a time, and there was always music. Often the music led to some kind of countdown clock, which in the case of the BBC was the famed “Pie Chart”, and, for ITV, the clock with disappearing markers.

I tried to work out what had happened to the markers – were they little lights? Funnily, I loved one piece of music in particular as a child, and I had forgotten what it was until I heard it again a while ago – Thomas Arne’s “Finale To A Dance Suite”.

There seemed to be anonymity about ITV Schools programmes, in that I wondered why Granada didn’t announce them, or why there were no advertisements in between. I didn’t know about the ITCA Code of Advertising, or the Television Act, but there was a quiet BBC-like atmosphere, especially in the early days.

This was the public service face of the ITA, no doubt, with authority and solemnity, networked from London by Rediffusion, and later by ATV from the midlands. The old monochrome caption is still etched in my memory, along with the colour lightspots one. There was some confusion at one time, voiced by Pat Hawker on IBA’s Engineering Announcements back in 1972, that TV engineers were using the schools captions as testcards to adjust sets when benchtesting.

He stated that it was for schools to adjust brightness, contrast and colour for their sets so that the picture could be viewed properly – engineers must make no adjustments when the schools caption is on, as it might not be central when it goes out!

But why was there no continuity, except for the occasional “teachers’ material is available from…” taped announcement? My guess is probably that the programmes were meant to be selectively watched, in isolation from each other (and, much later on, recorded for viewing over and over), and continuity would have been unnecessary.

It was because I watched them in the way that one would look at an evening’s television, by viewing one programme, making a cup of tea, and then watching another programme. The closedown was brief – I remembered only a small announcement, with either the ident or clock, and then after a short time, the Test Card and music. From what Transdiffusion has in the archive, it would appear that all of the regions had a short perfunctory close, before short periods of the testcard and music.

The BBC approach was similar, but I used to love the Pie Chart, because there was more going on with it. In my infant school, one of the kids in my class used to try and draw on the pie chart on the screen, because he thought it was “borin’ “.

We sometimes used to count down the seconds with the teacher, who used visual things like this to help us learn. I don’t recall the opening sequence, or closedown, unfortunately, but I learned to love the Schools Diamond – a “Noddy” visual effect that the BBC could be truly proud of, and which was almost mystical. We used to say, in my comprehensive school, that there was probably a subliminal message being sent, but I don’t remember any strange urges.

What of the programmes? Transdiffusion’s remit is usually not to mention programmes, but I hope that you’ll crave my indulgence if I mention a few. “Finding Out” (Rediffusion/Thames) was a favourite, they always seemed to show how something was made, like ice cream, which was my favourite example. This was obviously a very popular and frequently repeated programme, and editions from 1971 were still being shown in 1985.

“How We Used To Live” (Yorkshire) predated most of the “living-in-the-past” programmes we see now, and whole series were given over to the Victorian era, or to the 1940s. My understanding of social history became far better when studying the era in a dramatic context.

“Watch” (BBC) seemed to be similar to “Finding Out”, and was entertaining in a way that drew one in. The presenters were always pretty too.

I don’t remember what series this film was in, but “A Year’s Journey” (BBC) once covered the opening of the second Mersey Tunnel, Kingsway, in June 1971, and was fascinating from an engineering point of view as well as a historical one.

“Going To Work” (BBC) was of course to do with careers, and covered a wide range of types of work. “Treffpunkt Deutschland” (BBC) was a series about Germany, in German, and I picked up the language merely from watching it.

Finally, who can forget “Scene” (BBC) which was always the “hippest” of schools programmes – I watched the play “Zigger Zagger” in one, and Sweet were in a programme in 1974 which featured them singing “The Six Teens”.

Schools’ programming has probably had the most age-diverse audience of all television, despite the narrow band for which the programmes were intended, and over a long period of time. Many repeats, if one was to calculate viewing figures, probably had as many viewers as major soaps, but over many years.

Some of the programmes have become well loved but unfortunately will never be repeated now, which is a shame.

But for those of you reading this, whether you are merely young, or young at heart – watch some schools TV soon, maybe tomorrow, and you will be probably find your own favourites. But no Pie Chart or ITV Schools clock. What a shame.

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