Guilty Pleasures of the Test Card 

31 December 2006

Looking back to the days of fiddling with the television controls while adults were not watching….

BBC version of Test Card C

The first BBC-branded version of test Card C, from 1958.
Recreations by Dave Jeffery.

For many post war children in the fifties and sixties, the first introduction to the ‘processes’ of television output was long hours watching daytime test transmissions during the school holidays. It was a time when adults were not in the room, and control of what was watched was in the hands of children themselves for the first time.

Most adults would not have fully approved of this Byzantine piece of time-wasting and it was an adventure to sneak illicitly into the front room and switch on the television at a time of day of which, one knew, parents would not approve.

In the days before the invention of remote control handsets, television viewing was a family affair, with the knobs and buttons on the set firmly in adult control – even for children’s programming. It is ironic therefore that on these holiday occasions when the commanding heights of the television controls were captured by child viewers, there was actually little or nothing to be seen on screen. Or was there?

It was not until late 1972 that full daytime television programming was authorised, and – except for schools programmes and occasional outside broadcasts – most weekday transmissions did not begin until almost five o’clock in the afternoon.

The middle-aged baby boomers of today are the only remaining group with memories of those long, deliciously boring holiday afternoons in the sixties when they, along with perhaps a million other children, stretched out on the living room carpet and stared upwards in an almost trance-like state, while the test card beamed out – and its musical accompaniment boomed out – from a wooden-boxed monochrome television set.

Test Card music is a well-researched genre today: but what about the vision side of the output?

In the fifties, the BBC started to include short periods of captioned pictorial scenes during their morning test transmissions to allow the national chains of television showrooms and small dealers alike to demonstrate picture quality to customers.

It was usual practice that when BBC showed test pictures, the ITA would radiate a test card and vice versa. This was by prior arrangement between the competing television authorities. These choices were radiated at quarter-hour intervals to enable engineers to access a test card for maintenance purposes whenever needed.

The BBC pictures included scenes of rooftops with hills in the background: Paignton Harbour; Brixham Harbour; Nelson’s Column; St.Martin’s in the Fields; Newquay Beach; Loch Lomond; Westminster Abbey and even Shepherd’s Bush Park with the BBC Television Centre in the background. They all bore white or black captions, depending on background, saying “BBC TV Test Transmission”.

The ITA would radiate their first scene at 1030am after a full half hour of Test Card ‘C’*. The pictures varied from region to region, each a famous local scene such as London’s Tower Bridge; Glasgow University; Ludlow Castle; Clifton Suspension Bridge; Corfe Castle; a ford in Hampshire and numerous local landmarks.

I remember once during my childhood seeing Test Card C in a different guise. A rather a grainy image of it appeared on our old fourteen inch screen. Instead of the usual BBC initials at the bottom of it there was ‘ITA’ and just underneath the circle a transmitter name of Lichfield.


The reason for this surprise was that when we lived in Wales, my father accidentally tuned our old set to the distant signals from ATV and ABC, who were then jointly operating the ITA’s Midland station.

When we moved back to Birmingham I, like I suspect many children of the time, discovered that by fiddling with the tuning controls we could also receive fainter images from the distant Granada/ABC northern ITA station at Winter Hill and the Anglia region transmitter in the East of England. As well as unusual transmitter names on the test cards, they radiated their own local daytime test pictures featuring further regional landmarks.

My favourite test pictures from the Lichfield transmitter in my own region were the viaduct over a reservoir in Derby and the River Trent in Stafford. By today’s standards these may seem simple pleasures for a child but at the time television was still a source of some wonder and not something to be taken for granted.

As Test Card ‘D’ replaced Test Card ‘C’ on both channels in April 1964, the scenic pictures were withdrawn. The need had apparently ceased and Test Card ‘D’ alone was enough for the dealers to demonstrate and sell or rent the still relentlessly monochrome sets.


Test Card D as radiated by Westward Television

The design aesthetic of Test Card ‘D’ (not a phrase I knew then!) seemed to be rather cold and clinical in comparison to the familiar and indeed familial warmth of Test Card ‘C’ and my fevered monitoring of daytime tests slowly began to diminish. The BBC TV ‘Bat’s Wings’ symbol and the early ITV station logos are all very well but for me Test Card ‘C’ will always be the ultimate nostalgic symbol of the fifties and early sixties.

* Test Card ‘C’ was radiated regularly by the BBC Television Service from 1948 to 1964 and by the ITA transmitters from 1958 to 1964, though it had been used on an occasional basis by the ITA in 1956. Test Card ‘D’ was in use from 1964 to 1969, and the more familiar Test Card ‘F’ (with girl and mascot) appeared on BBC2 in 1967.

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