Children’s air 

1 March 2006

Younger television viewers of the early 1950s had their very own startup

Plans to bring back television had been put into action in October 1945, just after the end of the war, and by early 1946 reinstallation of equipment and re-commissioning of the studios at Alexandra Palace was virtually complete. The station resumed regular broadcasts in June 1946.

Test Card C, 4:3, early 1950s

Test Card C, without a broadcaster designation (there was only one!), preceded startups in the early to mid 1950s. Test Card C was introduced in 1948, when British TV had a 5:4 aspect ratio (which is a whole other story), but from 3 April 1950 the BBC was broadcasting a 4:3 version as shown here.
Recreation by Dave Jeffery.

High on the list of BBC priorities was extending the range of the Television Service. Alexandra Palace had a nominal range of about 40 miles from London, although under exceptional conditions it could be received much further away – on one occasion before the war, BBC broadcasts had been received in New York – but post-war plans included building additional transmitters to serve different parts of the country. Although post-war Britain was essentially broke, it was felt that industry would be stimulated by demand for sets – sets which could also be converted for other markets (notably the USA) and thus bring in much-wanted foreign currency.

Britain’s first post-war transmitter was installed at Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, in 1949. With its superior power (100kW ERP) and antenna height, it served a significant part of the Midlands. By the time it was superseded in 1981, it had become the oldest working television transmitter in the world. In 1951, the two transmitters were joined by a third: a further 100kW transmitter on a 750ft mast at Holme Moss, nine miles southwest of Huddersfield, serving the North of England. January 18, 1951, saw the publication of the report of the 1949 Broadcasting Committee, which noted that a new clause in the BBC’s Charter should, according to The Times, “make it the duty of the corporation to develop and extend the service to all regions of the United Kingdom”.

The expanding transmitter network was reflected in the way the BBC Television Service started its day. By 1951, apart from various trade test transmissions, it was common for television to broadcast a newsreel at 11am, then go off the air until the afternoon, returning at 3pm with a programme such as ‘Designed for Women’ during the week or sport on Saturday. The main evening broadcast began at 8pm. A typical start-up of the time included a tuning signal – with a grey background and wavy greyscale lines, plus a clock in the centre – during which viewers heard either Eric Coates’s The March For Television, specially composed for the Television Service’s re-opening in 1946, or Jack Byfield’s National Airs, a medley of folk tunes from the constituent countries of the United Kingdom.

An animation was used from time to time, accompanied by an excerpt from The March for Television, which originally showed two transmitters, recognisable as Alexandra Palace (by the shape of its distinctive ‘turnstile’ antennae) and Sutton Coldfield. After the commissioning of Holme Moss this was replaced with a version showing three radiating masts. Another animation of the period, in a similar style, possibly used in a mid-50s documentary about Alexandra Palace, showed the radiating AP mast as years rotated underneath.

Every day except Sunday, the BBC Television Service came on the air at 5pm for children’s programming, listed as ‘For the Children’, after which it went off the air for the so-called ‘Toddler’s Truce’ during which mothers could put their children to bed before evening programmes began. ‘For the Children’ had originated as a ten-minute slot in 1937, expanding to twenty minutes on Sundays after the war. By the early 50s it was essentially a daily slot consisting of varied programmes, such as Muffin the Mule, which had started in August 1947. There were some differences, without an apparent pattern: we see ‘For the Family’ listed for 5.10pm on a Saturday from time to time, and ‘For Older Children’ at 5pm one Thursday, for example. A mid-afternoon spin-off, initially titled ‘For the Very Young’ and running at 3.45pm, showed episodes of Andy Pandy and later developed, in 1953, into ‘Watch with Mother’, the television equivalent of radio’s ‘Listen with Mother’, with a different series every day.

Fred Hartley

Cigarette-card portrait of composer Fred Hartley, courtesy of

Each day’s 5pm children’s broadcasts were preceded by a special start-up, again featuring the ‘wavy lines’ tuning signal and clock, but with different, also specially composed, music. The music used was essentially a children’s equivalent of National Airs, consisting as it did of a four-minute medley of nursery rhymes and children’s songs. Entitled The Scherzetto for Children, the piece was composed by Fred Hartley (1905-80), and played by Eric Robinson and the Television Orchestra. It was first broadcast on May 21, 1951. A prolific composer and arranger, as well as being a conductor, pianist and regular broadcaster, Hartley joined the BBC as an accompanist, having made his first broadcast as a solo pianist in 1925, before founding his famous Novelty Quintet in 1931. In 1946 he had become the BBC’s Head of Light Music.

At the completion of the piece, at one minute to five, the image crossfaded from the tuning signal to the BBC Crest, effectively the BBC Television Service logo of the time until it was replaced by Abram Games’s rotating eye symbol in late 1953. This was shown for a full minute: whether it was accompanied by music or out-of-vision announcements – or nothing at all – is not currently clear.

BBC Crest

The BBC Crest, used as the Television Service logo until late 1953

The start-up sequence was completed by a remarkable piece of animation lasting a further 60 seconds, that served as the introduction to the day’s children’s programming segment. The Crest crossfaded to an image of a dark sky with clouds and prominent stars – including seven in approximately the same position as those on the Crest. To the sound of muted, tinkly music, the stars flashed, flickered and moved until arranging themselves near the top of the screen, to glow simultaneously and reveal the words ‘CHILDREN’S TELEVISION’.

As the music continued, the scene faded, leaving the words, to reveal the image of a circle of linked girls and boys dancing, the curve of the Earth behind them and clouds above, around the Roman-numeralled clock face of a sundial. The face was illuminated by a spotlight from the heavens, and the sundial’s gnomon was a tubular transmitting mast like that at Sutton Coldfield. The mast stood in front of the ‘XII’ on the clockface, while its shadow was directed towards ‘V’, almost subconsciously indicating five o’clock.

Pulling back, the scene expanded to show a wider view of the heavens, and at a change in the music, concentric rings of radiation were seen to emerge from the top of the mast, behind the lettering.

The words then finally faded away and a few moments later the scene crossfaded to that of three transmitting masts – Alexandra Palace in the foreground, Sutton Coldfield to the left and Holme Moss above and to the right, radiating concentric rings before a fade to black, in the style of the familar ‘three transmitters’ animation.

It is the earlier part of the animation that is most interesting. The figures dancing around the maypole/mast/gnomon with the spotlight falling upon the clock face have an almost pre-war feeling, and there is even a sense of the sinister about it, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of German political art of the thirties.

Watch the end sequence

Thanks to Rob Rusbridge of for permission to use the picture of Fred Hartley, and special thanks to Alan Keeling for providing information and sources used in this article.

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1 response to this article

robert little 1 October 2013 at 12:49 am

many thanks to Transdiffusion and Richard G Elen

for this site.It’s brought back many memories of

over 60 years ago daily staring at that clock and

hearing the music on a 14 inch GEC tv.I often wondered who composed it and if it was available,I

can still remember the tunes clearly although I was only 8 or 9 at the time thanks again.

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