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Bringing back the Fifties: A tale of discovery and reconstruction
by Andy Emmerson

Ask any musically-inclined person who was lucky enough to watch television in the early 1950s which programme stands out in their memory; the chances are it will be the daily Demonstration Film. That's because this programme played day in, day out every weekday at 10AM and with this kind of regularity, it's inevitable that it would get under your skin.

But this article is not just another nostalgia trip; it's a tale of discovery and hope in the face of the unassailable which may even inspire others to follow in our footsteps. It also demonstrates how with the goodwill of kind people, especially RFS members, almost anything is possible.

Back to the Demonstration Film (or Dem Film as it was called by BBC insiders). In the early 1950s television was still a pleasure for the very few and both the BBC and the set manufacturers were desperate to extend its appeal to a wider audience. It was all very well to display shiny new sets in dealers' show-windows but without daytime programmes, television would not have much of an impact. There was no budget to transmit 'real programmes' all day but a compromise technique already introduced before the war was to transmit a 'demonstration film' every weekday morning showing highlights of what you would see if you had television in your home. The value of this film was enhanced by interspersing 15-minute segments of the test card (Test Card C for the technically inclined), which would allow technicians repairing sets or setting them up in viewers' homes to tune them in to optimum standard. And because 15 minutes of test card alone would be boring, the BBC had the thoughtfulness to choose some music to accompany the pattern.

As it turned out, after four or five years (or perhaps much sooner!), the same pieces of music repeated would also become boring but the very repetition actually ingrained them in viewers' minds, which is why people now recall these pieces so nostalgically. Accordingly we (a number of fellow enthusiasts and myself) determined to see it once more. The quest started in 1991 and we still haven't succeeded completely but as far as the music is concerned, we are at last there.

So it came to pass that the suggestion was made to get hold of the Dem Film on video. You can't just ask the BBC for a copy; they don't sell programmes to the public just like that. But if you can supply a fairly cogent reason their special liaison unit will often sell you a copy 'at BBC cost'. This expression means they will have the tape prepared by an external facilities house (they cannot waste licence-payers' facilities and money on people's personal whims) and you will pay the BBC cost, that is what the job costs the BBC, without additional profit. Using professional facilities is not cheap of course; you can expect to pay several hundred pounds for a lengthy programme.

In this case, we had some enthusiasts who were prepared to share the cost of regaining sight of the Dem Film after all these years but it was not to be as simple as this. Despite extensive searches in the BBC Film & Video Library and letters to regional film archives around the country, nobody was able to discover a complete print of the film. At this point it's worth noting that film may survive as negatives, master positives or as a transmission print.

Two people who worked at Alexandra Palace at the time recall exactly how the film was made up; first Jim Pople who was then a film operator at AP, now living in retirement in Olney.

"I worked on the 'Dem. Film' Job 200 for those who used it for a multitude of petty cash vouchers. It consisted of a reel of archive or new transmitter building interspersed with one reel (1000ft of 35mm) of our old friend Test Card C. It was always being re-cut and updated as new transmitters opened up," he recalls.

The actual film played out each day would have been the transmission print but the BBC no longer have this in their archives; all they possess is the master from which some of the inserts but most of these are missing their brief introduction by Sylvia Peters and some of them are mute - their sound track is missing.

Arthur Dungate, a telecine operator at AP, elaborates: "The demfilm was made up for each transmission print. When we got a new print, the fades in and out of Test Card C were on separate short lengths of film and had to be cut onto the fronts and the ends of the reels. Thus it is most likely that Sylvia Peters' introductions were also separate and have been subsequently lost. Without seeing the film for many years, I can still hear her in my mind saying 'And now, for any engineer who may wish to test or adjust a receiver, here once again is Test Card C' and she said it grandly as if for a royal occasion!".

Video tape copies of the remaining fragments were in fact acquired but they are not enough to reconstruct the Dem Film in any way. Fortunately the film's predecessor, Television is Here Again (made in 1946) does exist in its entirety, but this film had no musical element.

What about the music accompanying the sequences of Test Card C? Slides of this test card are available and finding the music ought to be easy. Ought to be. But how do you find the running order of old BBC programmes? That's easy too - in theory. You contact the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham (BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading, Berks., RG4 8TZ. Telephone 0118-947 2742) and make an appointment. The place is open by appointment from 09.45-13.00 and 14.00-17.15 Tuesday to Friday and two weeks' notice is required. Nowadays there is a charge (not exactly insubstantial) to use their facilities and a letter of introduction may be necessary; when we started this research the rules were less strict.

In the event, Tony Clayden and I made our visits and were afforded every facility we needed, and we were soon able to discover detailed records which we could transcribe or photocopy. The records we used are known as P as Bs or 'Programme as Broadcast' records. For every radio and television programme a listing was made at the time giving the programme's timing and content. Musical items are listed, even down to where a character whistles a few bars from a melody. Amazing!

Enthused, we left with comprehensive lists of every record title and number used in this programme

The Demonstration Film was first shown on 15th May 1950 (edition no. 100), running for two hours. It was a pot-pourri of elements from pre-war television highlights, post-war achievements and, as mentioned, these musical interludes accompanying the test card. The final version, Demonstration Film No. 106, was last shown on Wednesday 21st September 1956.

Taking a typical sequence, the music used in 1952 was:

Reels 3/4

Reels 7/8

Reels 11/12

Reels 14/15

None of these pieces were special BBC recordings so we breathed a sigh of relief; getting hold of commercial records should be child's play. All except the Danceland records were EMI discs; that made it easy. In fact it wasn't easy. You can buy, at a cost, tape recordings of most EMI records from the EMI Archive (EMI Music Archive, 1-3 Uxbridge Road, Hayes, Middx., UB4 0SY. Telephone 020-8561 8722). The Music Archive has copies of most EMI Group records issued since 1898, with charges at that time of £30 per track or £100 per LP for cassette copies; lately they seem to prefer to deal with commercial customers only. In this case they were unable to assist with the tracks we required but two other enthusiasts, Alan Heinecke in Australia and Bill Knight in Bristol were able to come up with the goodies ' well done both of you!

The Danceland records were a tougher catch, however. They were non-royalty discs produced for use in Mecca ballrooms; in other words they could be played over and over again without royalties accruing to the copyright owner. According to a feature article in Journal Into Melody (Robert Farnon Society) some while back, the playing was dire and the tunes awful but that's beside the point - how could we find them? The Mecca organisation was acquired by Rank Leisure in 1990 but no-one there could help. I was referred to an ex-chairman of Mecca but this lead fizzled out too. Eventually appeals in record publications left, right and centre brought a response from Graham Davies, who is a keen collector of ballroom dancing records. He didn't rate these Danceland discs highly but was good enough to make a copy on tape. At last we had all the music even if we didn't have answers to all the questions!

It was unclear why the BBC had used these obscure Danceland recordings; they were not in the same league as the EMI discs but Arthur Dungate seems to have the answer. He writes: "Some of this accompanying music on the optical soundtrack had been recorded on 78rpm discs with the label of Danceland, played by Stuart Crombie and his band; Crombie was also the Sound Editor for Television Newsreel. These recordings were never properly copyrighted and their details were kept rather 'hush hush' for some time, and thereafter the BBC Gramophone Library kept the 78rpm discs locked away so they wouldn't 'escape'."

There the matter rested; we didn't have enough material to reconstruct the film but over five years we had done a lot of detective work and had a lot of fun in the process. Then in the last month two 15-minute sections of the transmission print turned up in a private collection. Still no titles but we're getting closer. They say travelling hopefully is better than arriving but we may yet arrive with a complete reconstruction of the film, and when we do there will be some rejoicing! Well, it keeps us off the streets...

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