Rose-tinted Spectacles 

1 January 2005

A distorted testcard

Glenn Aylett conjures up largely fond memories of the television of thirty years ago – in between waiting two minutes for his Baird dual-standard television to warm up, dodging commercial breaks on Saturday mornings, listening to a dual broadcast on VHF, standing to attention for the National Anthem and then remembering to unplug his television in case the house catches fire (not easy after several pints of ale on a Saturday night).

A typical debate on broadcasting memories will inevitably bring up the subject of how much better television and radio were in the past, especially to people with good memories of the seventies, now hailed by some as the ‘Golden Age’ of television (and reviled by others). However, rather than concentrate on the actual programmes, which is not what Transdiffusion is about – “everything except the programmes” is our motto – this article concentrates on the lost world of national anthems, test cards, and the like, and such terms as ‘dual broadcasting’, ‘acquired programming’ and ‘VHF’ that were common parlance thirty years ago and which made broadcasting so much more fun than the multichannel digitized world in which we live today. (Mind you, viewers nowadays no longer have to worry about forgetting to unplug their set and waking up at 3am to find their living room ablaze because the valve TV had overheated.)

The National Anthem

Oh how much more patriotic television was 30 years ago, when BBC1 and many of the ITV companies ended the evening’s programming with God Save The Queen, some, like Southern, using a particularly strident version over Royal images until they lost their franchise in 1981. Republicans wishing to end their night’s viewing without the BBC1 globe rotating to the National Anthem, or the ultra-patriotic offerings of some ITV companies, could always move to the Granada region, which never played it, or watch BBC2.

While younger readers would probably consider it strange for a television company to end its night’s programming with a tune mostly associated now with Royal and sporting events, the main reason why the anthem was played at the end of the day’s programming was a continuation of the tradition in cinemas and theatres, where performances always ended with the National Anthem as a gesture of allegiance to Queen and country. State broadcasters in other countries replicated the tradition. Another reason it could have been played was to remind viewers it was bedtime, with work in the morning, as they sat half asleep in front of the television.

The advent of 24-hour TV saw the end of the National Anthem – and in most cases, closedowns altogether – although many ITV companies had already abandoned it in the seventies and early eighties, leaving BBC1 to battle on, defending the tradition of playing God Save The Queen until it went 24 hour on November 9th 1997. These days the only place where you can stand to this tune, should you want to, is at the end of the night’s programming on Radio 4 at 12.59, before the station hands over to BBC World Service.

Don’t Forget to Switch Off and Unplug Your Set…

Going back thirty years, and even well into the eighties on Border Television, this was the last announcement on the TV before closedown. It was usually followed by a blank screen and a high-pitched tone, to remind half-asleep viewers that their television had been left on. The main reason for this warning and the penetrating whistle afterwards was, evidently, the propensity of the valve televisions of the time to overheat and catch fire. Valve televisions (even if switched off but left plugged in, apparently) were not uncommon as a cause of house fires. Therefore, in the best traditions of public broadcasting, presenters of the seventies always gave this warning. The cooler (in temperature rather than style terms) and more reliable transistor sets began to replace valves from around 1972 and mercifully, modern televisions do not display such tendencies – so the warning, like the National Anthem at closedown and the closedown itself, has been discontinued.

Acquired programming

An alternative term for imports or, for the uncharitable, “American rubbish”. Unlike today, when imported programmes have virtually disappeared from BBC1 and ITV1, American imports always formed part of the lineup on the two main channels. Australian soaps, the bane of the unemployed, were mostly an eighties and nineties phenomenon, but these too seem to have largely vanished from daytime schedules. It appeared that the public had an appetite for everything that was considered exotic and American in the seventies, so anything that smacked of gas guzzling cars going fast, Texan billionaires and big budget science fiction always went down well with viewers wanting to escape the dull reality of a grey, seemingly declining Britain. On the other hand, since American programmes cost a fraction of home-made drama and could attract audiences of 15 million or more, they proved attractive to the perennially hard-up BBC of thirty years ago.

On BBC1 and ITV, American imports started to be phased out from peak time in the eighties. By the end of the decade, the move away from fantasy programming and lavish soaps was well under way, as US-originated content gravitated towards cult comedies and off-the-wall drama series like Twin Peaks. The fact that these could not guarantee big audiences saw American imports moved from the two main channels to BBC2 and, more so, to Channel 4, currently the main home of American imports at peak time on terrestrial television. Today ITV1 and BBC1, apart from films, show no American programming.

Test Card F

A variety of test cards have been broadcast over the decades since the dawn of television, but the best-known is surely Test Card F from the BBC. On the TV sets of the seventies, especially those tuned to BBC2, which remained off the air for most of the day, the colour photograph of the girl (Carole Hersee, daughter of the card’s creator George) playing noughts and crosses with a toy clown, surrounded by black and white bars, lines and other geometric elements, was one of the most recognised features.

Apart from telling viewers that there was nothing on the BBC, and providing them with a ‘queasy listening’ soundtrack that would not have sounded out of place in a lift [How dare you say that about quality British production music! -Ed], the real reason for the test card was for television engineers, dealers and manufacturers to test picture quality and set up television sets, as television technology of the colour variety was about as reliable as the British cars of the time. Other test cards that occasionally appeared were the IBA coloured lines variety – even more boring in black and white and often accompanied by classical music on Sunday mornings before Morning Worship (which was about as much fun as it sounds) – and Test Card G, a kind of Liquorice Allsorts look-alike test card based on a Philips design much used by the television trade.

The test card, too, became a victim of the move to 24-hour television. Test Card F disappeared altogether from BBC Television in January 1998, when BBC2 went 24-hour. However, the memories live on and F was exported to 30 other countries, a true symbol of success.

Party Political Broadcasts

The words “There now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the … party” tended to fill apolitical viewers with dread in the seventies, especially at election time, when there was no escape from ten minutes of political haranguing and not very funny jokes at the other party’s expense on all three channels at 9pm.

It would appear that broadcasters tended to regard whatever a Prime Minister or opposition leader had to say with the same level of deference as the Queen, whose Christmas Day speech was also broadcast simultaneously on all three networks until 1977. Apart from enduring Thatch on all three stations at once, viewers could also be treated to such joys as Corin Redgrave vowing to destroy capitalism for the Workers Revolutionary Party and the National Front’s commentary on the decline of Britain as a superpower. Escape was impossible – but bear in mind that Britain was a far more politicised society in the seventies than it is today, with 75 per cent of voters exercising their right to vote compared with 60 per cent now, and whatever the politicians had to say about reversing Britain’s decline, halting strikes and reducing inflation would likely be watched with interest by many.

Nowadays, of course, in these less-politicised times, broadcasters schedule PPBs at different times and they are mostly five minutes, as opposed to ten minutes, long. Viewers wishing to duck out of these political slanging matches altogether can always switch over to Channel Five or satellite channels, which regard PPBs as being as important to their scheduling as a Mass in Latin.

VHF – Very High Frequency

Thirty years ago, rather like buying petrol in gallons, everyone referred to the interference-free, stereo-capable band on their radios as ‘VHF’. Radios from a Germanic background like Grundigs also had the VHF band, technically ‘VHF Band II’, marked as ‘U’, or ‘UKW’, for UltraKurtzWelle (‘ultra-short waves’), which added a little bit of variety (and still does today). However, the mighty United States had always used the term ‘FM’ – for the frequency modulation technique generally used by stations in this band – and radio manufacturers in the late seventies, as well as abandoning the largely British practice of marking medium- and short-wave radios in wavelengths (metres) rather than frequencies (kiloHertz/MegaHertz), moved to marking the 88-108 MHz band ‘FM’ instead of ‘VHF’.

By the mid-eighties ‘VHF’ had virtually disappeared, the BBC using the term ‘VHF/FM’ for a few years before ‘FM’ became the norm circa 1987, and the former is never heard now. Mind you, I suppose ‘Jazz FM’ does sound a little bit snappier and less stiff than ‘Jazz VHF’. In addition, ‘medium wave’ seems to have fallen into disuse as well, as the term ‘AM’, another Americanism – this time referring to Amplitude Modulation, the mode used on this band – seems to be used rather more. Damn Yanks.

At the same time, television broadcasting in the UK moved away from 405-line VHF Band I (BBC) and Band III (ITV) to UHF 625-line, and ultimately to colour. Band III most recently became re-allocated for DAB Digital Radio.

Dual broadcasting

Familiar to Radio 1 and 2 listeners in the seventies, and of considerable aggravation to Radio 1 listeners, when the stations shared programming to save energy and costs in the fuel-deprived seventies (though another argument that could be used was the BBC regarded Radio 1 as an irritation forced on it when the pirates closed down in 1967).

While Radio 2 listeners had to take such un-Radio 2 shows as the Top 20, the David Hamilton afternoon show, and Junior Choice, it was Radio 1’s pop loving audience that bore the brunt of this forced marriage, having to endure football matches, Listen to the Band, Friday Night is Music Night and other antediluvian fare on a supposed pop station until John Peel returned at 10pm. How Radio Luxembourg, and the new generation of ILR stations on VHF in stereo, must have relished 7pm of an evening as pop fans switched off en masse at the prospect of Charlie Chester introducing the Grimethorpe Colliery Band on crackly 247m MW and turned to “Fab 208” or the far better sound of Capital Radio in stereo VHF. Fortunately this awful arrangement finally came to an end in January 1979 when Radios 1 and 2 stopped sharing programmes.

The Epilogue

Rather like the national anthem, the late PIF and warnings to unplug the television, the Epilogue was a familiar feature at closedown on many ITV stations. This five-minute slot had a religious bias, with a lay preacher or non-denominational minister giving the tired a religious or moral story before bedtime, presumably to stop viewers having nightmares or developing carnal desires in the night as the stories had a strong moral tone.

Occasionally, Epilogues would wander into other territories, however. Tyne Tees, in the last years of the Epilogue, introduced short Northumberland folk stories, and on one occasion allowed a man to sing an obscure folk song and then play the Northumberland bagpipes at high volume which would surely have given viewers nightmares, but would presumably have satisfied moralists, who would have been glad at the way the noise would have ruined any attempt at lovemaking on the sofa. Sadly, like start-up and closedown sequences, the Epilogue vanished when ITV moved over to 24-hour broadcasting in 1988.

The IBA – Independent Broadcasting Authority

Somewhat similar to Ofcom today, but with far more powers, the IBA was the watchdog for ITV and Independent (commercial) Local Radio, making sure ITV standards were maintained, and able to intervene on programming matters. It was the IBA that told Lew Grade to stop making The Golden Shot as it had been on for too long; it also ordered the number of episodes of Crossroads to be cut in 1979. (Somehow I very much doubt Ofcom would order ITV1 to cut down on the number of Coronation Street episodes.) Apart from being a pain in the neck to Lew Grade, the IBA was also responsible for engineering information broadcasts, awarding franchises, maintaining transmitters and producing Television and Radio, the annual handbook on independent broadcasting.

Sadly, like a few other institutions in the eighties, the IBA fell foul of Margaret Thatcher – in this case, over the Death on the Rock documentary – and was abolished in 1990, to be replaced by the vastly inferior Independent Television Commission, which had far fewer powers and which in turn was replaced by Ofcom in 2003. Commercial television has never been the same since the IBA was abolished.

The British television industry

Thirty years ago, most households, as they would have owned a British car, would also have owned a British television. The industry was dominated by companies like Thorn EMI (manufacturer of Ferguson, Ultra, Marconiphone, DER and Baird televisions); Philips (also owner of Pye and Ekco); Rank (Bush and Murphy); GEC and Decca. However, also like the British car industry of the time, consumers were finding the products of Japan – such as the legendary Sony Trinitron – and Germany to be far more reliable, often cheaper, and with sharper picture quality. I can recall an advert for Sony which showed a horse race with the jockeys and horses coming out of the side of the television to emphasise how lifelike the picture was on a Sony. Consumers fed up with fuzzy pictures and burning Bushes (Bush televisions of the time had a reputation for catching fire and were regarded as the televisual equivalent of an Austin Allegro), began to hot foot it to the nearest Sony Centre.

Again as with the car industry, the effects on the British television industry was grave, although the rental market and the Ferguson TX, a worthy competitor to a Sony, kept Thorn EMI, the biggest manfacturer, in the black. In the space of ten years, Rank closed down all their British factories and moved to the Far East; Pye closed their massive works in Lowestoft and shifted production to Singapore; GEC withdrew from television production; and the Baird plant closed in Bradford with the loss of 3,000 jobs. By the end of the eighties, almost all the traditional British manufacturers had either closed down or moved production abroad. Ironically, as the British firms moved out, Japanese manufacturers like Sony, JVC and Hitachi, aided by government grants, set up plants in South Wales, while the former Bush factory in Plymouth gained a new lease of life under Toshiba.

Saturday PIF (Public Information Film) time

Public information films dominated Saturday morning scheduling in the seventies and early eighties on ITV. In between the anarchy and mayhem of Tiswas, rather like a stern headmaster halting the school dance, someone at the IBA must have decided that showing children falling off the roofs of moving trains, being run over by cars and the Grim Reaper warning people about the dangers of water was an antidote to the mayhem at ATV Centre. Perhaps there was little to advertise at 11.00 on Saturday morning, but I can remember in 1977 entire commercial breaks in Tiswas on Border being filled with these joyless – and very disturbing to a nine year old – PIFs. One that would spook me even now was a clock that counted down the last seconds of a girl’s life before she was hit by an Austin 1800: I think it involved her mother sewing as well. For three years, knowing what horrors awaited in the commercial breaks, I would always switch over to BBC1.

Mercifully, and probably due to government cutbacks in the eighties, PIFs became rare sights on Saturday mornings as the eighties progressed. PIFs have seen a minor revival in recent years, although most of them seem to concern smoking and drinking rather than the horrors that appeared in the seventies. Mind you, it used to make me mad that the funnier PIFs like Reginald Molehusband used to be shown in World of Sport.

You Say

1 response to this article

Caz harris 14 February 2015 at 2:21 pm

I would love to see the old TVs advert with the little horse riders – it used to fascinate me as a child but I’ve never been able to find it :-(

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