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TV Test Card Music

Test Card C

Test card music has a following all of its own, rather like film and TV themes. Of course you may find it difficult to work up an enthusiasm for the test card music that is played (occasionally) on television today but in times gone by the music played was of a different calibre. Thirty years ago for instance ITV played popular and classical music from commercial albums, whilst the BBC played light music which was recorded specially for test card performance. Because the BBC's music was not for sale in the shops a cult following grew and enthusiasts now trade recordings (and reminiscences) keenly.

A specialist society, the Test Card Circle, has been formed to channel the interest in this subject and allied matters such as the films shown for trade test transmission purposes in the early days of colour TV in this country. They issue a regular magazine and also hold an annual weekend convention. There is also a Test Card Club, with its own magazine.

See also our list of test card music for sale.

The following article on this subject appeared in 405 Alive magazine

BBC TV TEST CARD MUSIC: A personal view in three parts
by Paul Sawtell A.M.B.I.I. M.P.A.

Part one – the fifties and early sixties.

I can honestly say that BBC Trade Test Transmissions have been the single most powerful influence on my life; it all started for me in 1962 when I was just three years old and used to watch the Schools programmes on BBC tv. When the programmes finished for the morning this funny black & white pattern appeared on the screen. It didn't move, but it sure made some lovely noises! I was immediately hooked on Test Card Music for life!

I should perhaps say at this stage why I am not including ITA test card music in these articles. As they used commercially available records it was quite possible to nip down to the local shop and buy them; not so in the case of the BBC tapes. These were compiled from ‘library’ music publishers. Library music in this context means music recorded outside the country in which it is to be broadcast and NOT available to the general public. Therefore the BBC music was otherwise unobtainable and to me therefore, very special. Almost every style of music imaginable (plus some unimaginable!) has been featured over the years, possibly the only exceptions are opera and contemporary classical – such as the music of Stockhausen. It has all had a great effect on my career to as a professional musician; the musical arrangements on the whole were absolutely first class and being exposed to this at an early age meant that time was not wasted on the more banal aspects of pop music. The music used in the early fifties actually came from 78 rpm records rather than tape compilations; although I was not around at the time due to an oversight on my parents' part I do have some recordings of these records as well as the ‘Programme as Broadcast’ lists from 1953 - 1957 which gives details of everything used at that time.

Most of the records were BBC library or ORIOLE discs and there was a considerable amount of Cuban influenced stuff, many tracks with vocals! Also featured were many fine classical works such as the Hungarian Dances by Brahms; Symphony no. 1 by Weber; La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart etc etc. In fact, the first actual tapes came into service in September 1955. Some of these ran for some forty minutes whereas others were only a little over a quarter of a hour. With the introduction of later tapes in January 1957 came the famous BBC signal (the musical notes B, B and C) every one, two, three or four tracks. In those days each tape began with the BBC signal followed by a 5 second pause before the music began.

Again, what made the trade test music so special was the tremendous variety of material used, from Beethoven's German Dances to Van Heusen's Darn That Dream to a little oddity called Scrub, Brothers, Scrub! A chap by the name of Ken Warner was responsible for that one; We even had a piece with dog barks in it in 1964/65! Called La Gavroche, I am at a loss to understand what the connection is between a Parisian Urchin and dogs barking! Maybe someone can help??

1963 was quite an important year as two tapes compiled for the national network were distributed to the BBC regional centres where they enjoyed a long period of usage for regional trade test transmissions up to 1971 when they were finally discontinued. These were really super tapes; one began with the Ray Jack Group playing Bugle Call Rag, also on this tape was Mack the Knife, 12th St. Rag, a jazz piano trio playing Clementine (Leo Chaulliac & Rhythm) and Fools Rush In. The other opened with four rather be-boppy numbers by Bobby Gutesha starting with the slightly dissonant Binokel. This tape featured one of the very few vocals since the tapes were brought into service with a number called Rio Cha Cha Cha. Again we had some lovely classical tapes as well as a good mixture of light and novelty numbers. Throughout the history of trade test tapes the compiler has always appeared to have a good sense of humour – apart from dogs barking there was a hilarious arrangement of the fifties hit When by the Kalin Twins. Add together a slightly out-of-tune violin, a wonky baritone sax and an outrageous sense of fun and you have a real treat. There were two other tracks on this same tape which sounded a bit like the Temperance Seven (I know it was not actually them) but sadly I do not have any information other than the possibility that the one piece is called Charleston Parisienne and that they arc BOTH a scream!

Part two – 1964 to 1972.

If you read my last article you will have followed the history of 78 rpm gramophone records through to the first tapes used with Test Card C.

Now we pick up the story from 1964. This was the year when BBC2 began – we all know that due to a technical cock-up their first programme was Play School, but who remembers the test card music? Well, I have to confess that we did not acquire a BBC2 set until 1968 so my collection of recordings does not feature any early BBC2 music. However I again have some Programme as Broadcast lists for early BBC2 so I do know what went on. If anyone has any records issued by the New York publishers SESAC between us we can put some old tapes together!

Again, all these tapes as well as the ones over on the newly-christened BBC1 were 30 minutes in duration but the opening BBC signal had been dropped. Probably some of the most famous test card music was used at this time: BBC1 had Cliff Hammer & his Golden Spinet playing Swinging Spinet, Playtime in Tokyo, Dancing Through the Night and Showtime; classical greats included an arrangement of Smetana's Slepika played by the Oslo Philharmonic and retitled The Merry Chicken Yard; BBC2 had two rather awfully played guitar tunes which caused me much amusement (still do in fact!). For those who collect titles, they were Mon Village, Mon Paris and Paris played by the Roby Davis Ensemble. On the more serious side also on BBC2 was Peter Hope's Ring of Kerry Suite; lovely light music of a type seldom heard in today's pop-crazy culture. It was also at this time an absolute classic of a tape had its first airing on BBC1 from the great veteran of contributors to test card tapes, the Frenchman Roger Roger. This started with Asia Minor and featured many splendid 20th century style classical compositions by the man himself. The tape was so good, after it had been discontinued the BBC decided to give it another run in 1971! The test card music saw the introduction of the colour service on BBC2 in 1967 and BBC1 in 1969 without so much as a murmur, and still going strong. To keep the test card company on BBC2 were items of Service Information, the fascinating Trade Test Colour Films and not forgetting the classic of all time, the Colour Receiver Installation Film! (I would dearly love a copy of this). These films were transmitted regularly by BBC tv from 1954 up to September 1973 and were supplied to the BBC by such organisations as Philips, BP, Shell, Shell International, the Gas Board, Ford, British Rail, British Steel, the New Zealand National Film Unit, ICI etc. etc.

I should give a mention to the part of Trade Test Transmissions which irritated many a potential collector of test card music recordings, the tone. This was in fact the most useful part from the engineer's point of view sound-wise although it did mean the tapes were very rarely played to the end. The tone would be transmitted for four minutes followed by one minute of silence every twenty five minutes whereas the trade tapes lasted for thirty minutes. You had to catch them in a really good mood if you wanted to record the tapes right to the end.

All went pretty much the same as it had since 1964 until Monday May 29th 1972 (BBC2) and Friday August 4th 1972 (BBC1). A change in tape speed at the BBC from 15 i.p.s. to 7.5 i.p.s. meant that 60 minute sequences could be compiled instead of the old 30 minute ones. Some tapes (notably the BBC2 ones) lasted for an average of 72 minutes, and one tape on BBC1 ran for 75 minutes! Along with this change was the sad loss of the BBC signal – it was almost as though the hallmark had been withdrawn. There were six new tapes on BBC2 in the May, and three on BBC1 in the August. All in one go! It was quite confusing at first especially as the tone was now being transmitted every fifteen minutes; it was very hard to work out where one tape ended and the next began. Still, all good stuff, plenty of variety!

These hour long tapes will be discussed in the final and third part, covering 1973-1983 when trade test transmissions were officially discontinued.

Part three – 1973 to 1983.

In the last article we arrived at the stage where a reduction in tape speed at the BBC from 15 i.p.s. to 7.5 i.p.s. enabled them to compile 60 minute (plus) sequences as opposed to the old 30 minute ones; another change was the disappearance of the BBC signal (the musical notes B, B and C, and finally the tone (1kHz on BBC1, 400Hz on BBC2) was transmitted every 15 minutes instead of every 25.

Although it was sad to see the end of the half-hour tapes as the format had stood the test of time, the new tapes were certainly very varied and exciting. All of a sudden there was a new system to get the hang of, and loads of lovely new recordings to make. Superb selections from great shows such as Showboat, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! were on offer on BBC2 while on BBC1 there were some Offenbach compositions as well as the usual mixture of lighter music. September 1973 saw the end of the Trade Test Colour Films on BBC2 having been transmitted regularly since 1954. It was decided that as there were colour programmes shown throughout the day on one or other channel the time available for transmission of the test card had been reduced. So, it was agreed with the TV trade that the available time on BBC2 would now be filled with the test card and service information announcements. These would now be at 4.30 PM instead of 2.30, but would remain at 10.00 am and 11.30 am.

Around this time, they were becoming less regimental about tone transmissions – the ‘every fifteen minutes’ routine soon gave way to every 25 again, then every 55. January 1975 saw severe reductions in the BBC2 trade test schedule – apparently due to Auntie's diminishing reserves (and the need to conserve fuel) the BBC2 network would now be off the air from 9.00am until 10.20 followed by test card at 10.30 until 2.5 minutes before Play School at 11.00. The test card would then be shown (usually with tone, no music) until 11.30. The network would then close again, until 15.50 followed by the test card at 16.00 until the start of scheduled programmes. The only exception to this was if there was a break of less than two hours between programmes during the day (often this would happen during live coverage of political party conferences, educational programmes etc.) when the test card and music would be transmitted. The other exception was Saturdays when they would transmit test card and music & programmes throughout the day.

As if all this was not enough, in November 1975 after a period of ten months without any new tapes, someone had the bright idea of making the test card sound like nearly every other musical medium by putting together tapes of pop vocals! Fortunately this trend did not last very long! I say ‘fortunately’ because I believe those who like pop music are very well catered for; the test card music was always something a little different and I could not see why it should suddenly have to be ‘brought into line’ with Radio One!

All these vocals were ‘cover versions’; that is to say they were recorded by session singers based on the original records. As I said in the first article, the BBC test card music must NOT be available to the public on commercial records. However there was a later vocal tape containing songs by Bread, Paul McCartney, Helen Reddy etc.; anyone possessing the original commercial records would swear blind that they were identical to the tracks used on the test card! Well, yes they were and no they weren't.

Actually these were what we call ‘out-takes’. That is to say that where a recording session takes place outside the UK many ‘takes’ of a song will be done before the producer is entirely happy with one of them. That ‘take’ goes on the commercial record and is sold to the public. However, by special agreement, the other ‘takes’ not used can be transmitted by the BBC as ‘library’ music; it fulfils the basic qualifications as the recording took place abroad and that tape is not issued to the public!

1976 saw the first fully classical tape on BBC2; whereas BBC1 had had several such tapes this was the first on BBC2 not to contain any ‘light’ pieces. In fact there were some tracks played by the woodwind section of the Norwegian Broadcasting Orchestra, which had featured on a BBC1 tape in May 1975. This tape did not last too long, however, possibly because there was only one word to describe it – BORING! Although the music itself was good and the playing superb, it was a full hour of exactly the same thing! Rather like today's Ceefax tapes.

Well out of the ‘vocal’ trend came a superb selection of tapes on both BBC1 and BBC2 in 1977. A beautiful mixture of classical and light, again with the odd ‘novelty’ number thrown in for good measure. 1981 saw a lovely tape appear on BBC1 much of which were repeats from the ‘good old days’ of the 30 minute tapes. These were played by the Savoy and Siegfried Merath orchestra and it was 60 minutes of sheer delight – light music of a type seldom heard nowadays.

Television Presentation were always on the ball in those days, and when this country declared war over the Falklands, it was considered inappropriate to have ‘jazzy Latin-American’ music over the test card. So, the brief to International Recordings (the revamped Foreign Recordings Unit at the BBC responsible for collecting and compiling test card tapes along with many other duties) was to supply two tapes which were ‘sombre, but not too funeralistic’. As it turned out the war was soon over, but the two tapes continued well into 1984.

March 1983 was as far as I am concerned, the end of the story; after transmitting a test card regularly since 1947 the BBC suddenly decided that on no account should a television set be set up on a test card. So, the first day of BBC1's Breakfast Time was also the first day without Trade Test Transmissions. Ceefax pages were destined to rule instead. I think I could almost have coped with this if the music had not been toned down to sheer mediocrity. Apart from the occasional interesting tape the Ceefax scene has been a musical graveyard. In fact I am told that the BBC hardly ever compile a tape themselves these days but leave it up to the music publishers to do it for them!

So in conclusion, I believe the BBC test card has provided an invaluable platform for the work of many musicians, work which we would probably never have heard due to it not being commercial enough for general release. Tremendous variety of material; special tapes (two for Valentine's Day 1981; Christmas tapes since 1976; Falklands war tapes!) all superbly played and arranged. If someone asked me to provide a commercially available record which would sound like test card music, I just wouldn't know where to start....

The author would be very happy to hear from anyone who shares an interest in this subject, also from anyone who would like to swap info, recordings etc. Write to Paul Sawtell, 20 Seymour Road, Stourbridge, West Midlands, DY9 8TB.


TEST CARDS, quarterly subscription magazine from HS Publications, 7 Epping Close, Derby, DE3 4HR.

THE TEST CARD CIRCLE, regular newsletter of The Test Card Circle (see below).


TEST CARD CIRCLE, 20 Seymour Road, Wollescote, Stourbridge, DY9 8TB (see notice below).

TEST CARD CLUB, HS Publications, 7 Epping Close, Derby, DE3 4HR.


This society was founded in 1989 with fewer than twenty members. Since then it has grown in membership to almost one hundred, and has certainly grown in stature. The various broadcasting authorities acknowledge the wealth of information and expertise possessed by the membership, and regularly refer inquiries direct to the society.

All aspects of television trade test transmissions are included within the interests of The Circle: Test Cards and patterns, accompanying music, slides and still pictures, Service Information bulletins, Trade Test Colour Films, and, of course, the dear old BBC Demonstration Film.

A quarterly 48-page magazine is issued which contains lively and interesting articles on all of these topics. Each Spring, a convention is held in the little market town of Leominster, where members can meet for a delightful weekend of wonderful music and pictures, good companionship, and pure nostalgia. It is also a great deal of fun. There are usually guest presenters at the convention, and in 1994 these were Andrew Emmerson, of 405 Alive, and broadcaster Tony Currie, formerly of Scottish Television and Radio Clyde. We also had the honour of the opening announcement being specially recorded for us on video by Sylvia Peters, Sylvia, and BBC continuity announcer David Allen also recorded in-depth interviews for us on video.

Previous guests have included Steve Ostler, John Ross-Barnard and David Allan. John and David were the two men responsible for compiling all of the BBC trade tests tapes used between 1959 and 1977, and we were delighted when they accepted Honorary Life Membership of The Circle two years ago. We were also highly honoured when Roger Roger, the French musician and composer, whose music has been used during BBC trade tests since the mid fifties, agreed to become Patron of The Test Card Circle in 1992.

If you are interested in this fascinating subject, write to 20 Seymour Road, Wollescote, Stourbridge, DY9 8TB with a stamped self addressed envelope.

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