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Back to the Fifties
by Doug Bond

The title of this article is taken from that of a 60-minute cassette which I made some time ago, featuring 78 rpm discs of 1954 vintage. Those records were some of the first Test Card music to which I ever listened, and were commercially available. But more about those presently. Firstly, a little background to the story.

1953 saw the coronation of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, and in order that people who lived in North East England could watch the ceremony, the BBC brought forward its plans for the opening of the Pontop Pike transmitter. so that transmissions began toward the end of May. My parents decided that television was going to be ‘a good thing’, and so a 14" model was installed in our house in West Benwell. (I was just approaching my 13th birthday at the end of June). I was immediately enraptured by the concept of television broadcasting, and from time to time, I used to switch on during non-scheduled transmission time just to see what was happening. At most times the answer was ‘nothing’ apart from a snowstorm! One never-to-be-forgotten morning, however, there was what I remember describing to my mother as ‘a pretty pattern with a horrible noise’. This was later to be identified as Test Card ‘C’ and tone. Obviously, for the first few months of transmission, Pontop Pike must have radiated this locally, for it was some months later before I discovered the delights of the original Demonstration Film.

This film was shown daily (except Sundays) between 10.00 and 12.00, and consisted of an introduction to the television service with Sylvia Peters (10.00 - 10.15). Test Card ‘C’ and music (10.15 - 10.30), a guide to Children's Television, by Jennifer Gay (‘one of the Children's Hour announcers’) (10.30 - 10.43), Test Card ‘C’ and music (10.43 - 10.58), an item about the first continental exchange of programmes between Britain and France in 1950 (10.58 - 11.13), Test Card ‘C’ and music (11.13 - 11.28), the story of the spread of the television service across England, Wales and Scotland (11.28 - 11.40), Test Card ‘C’ and music (11.40 - 11.55), and the motor car interference suppressor film (11.55 - 12.00). This sequence never varied, nor did the Test Card ‘C’, music, and it was my understanding at the time that the music was, in fact, on the sound track of the film. I seem to recall that for the first few months, the transmitters closed down at 12.00 and did not re-open until 15.00, when there was Test Card ‘C’ and tone until 15.08, followed by blank screen and silence until 15.10, tuning captions until 15.15, then programmes until 16.15. The only time this varied was during the week before Christmas, when the Test Card and tone were broadcast between 14.00 and 15.08. When programmes finished at 16.15 there was blank screen and silence until 16.18, and then Test Card ‘C’ and, usually, music until 16.53. The next seven minutes followed the same sequence as 15.08 - 15.15. Children's Television began at 1700 and following this, the transmitters closed down until 15 minutes before the start of evening programmes, when the 15.00 - 15.15 sequence was adopted. Occasionally, during the 16.18 - 16.53 slot, the tone replaced music. and from time to time Test Card ‘C’ was replaced by a broad black cross on a white ground. Although I used to listen to the music during this transmission, it must not have made much of an impression upon me, as I made no attempt to ascertain the details. I do remember, however that some of the tracks were called Frenesi, Spanish Serenade, and Winter Sunshine, and I think that they were all instrumental.

Then in 1954 came the breakthrough with, as far as I was concerned, the first change of music. There was a two-hour sequence of discs 60 minutes of classical music on BBC and other non-commercial labels; and 60 minutes of dance music on commercially-available records (Paxton, Oriole and Harmonic). These were used during the 16.18 - 16.53 slot, and also in the newly-introduced (I think) 12.00 - 13.00 broadcast. I would estimate that between June and November 1954 (when all of the Oriole discs were withdrawn) the dance music selection was used for 75 per cent of the time. Although the two sequences were never mixed, there was no standard playing order, the sequence being varied with each transmission, with one notable exception. When the dance music was used, Buck Dance by the David Carroll Orchestra was, on 99 per cent of occasions the last record to be played in each transmission. Those of you who remember it will know why. It is also the last track on my Back To The Fifties cassette.

I think that the thing which attracted me to these so much was that they included vocals, and I suspect that this led to their early withdrawal. After that it was to be many years before vocals were to be heard again during Test Transmissions. Having obtained a copy of the play list from the BBC, I began to gradually purchase all of the Oriole, Paxton and Harmonic records. I am pleased to say that after 35 years I still have all of them, with the exception of Harmonic CBL37 (I'm so lonesome tonight/Square Four) which has somehow gone missing over the years.

From December 1954 until May 1955 the transmissions continued on the previous pattern using the classical music and Paxton/Harmonic discs only.

My second change of music came in May 1955, when a shorter list of records, again a mixture of classical and dance music was introduced, but this time all BBC discs. These included a Mozart Cassation in B, Arthur Benjamin's Red River Jig, Envy, The Moon Was Yellow, In All The Country Round, Under Paris Skies and many more. At one time I had detailed lists of all of these, and indeed, of later transmissions also, and I now curse my lack of perspicacity in not filing these lists permanently. In those days, the BBC were more than willing to supply these play lists, but around 1964 they began to adopt a less than helpful attitude to inquiries concerning test transmission music. I regret to say that this unhelpful attitude persists some 25 years later.

It must have been when the IBA broadcasts began that the pattern of BBC test transmissions changed substantially. Out went the revamped Demonstration Film, and in came Test Card and music (twenty minutes of music followed by two minutes of tone) between 10.00 and 13.00. There was also a short period when vision consisted of 15 minutes of Test Card alternating with 15 minutes of a still photograph endorsed ‘BBC Trade Test Transmission’. The IBA also adopted a similar format, although in the Tyne Tees TV area, there was no identification on the still picture.

These then are my earliest recollections of trade test transmissions. If my memory has proved faulty, I am sure that some of you out there will be able to put me right.

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