In the previous instalment of our history of the visual codswallop that appeared on the BBC whenever there weren’t any actual programmes on, we went through the A to F of BBC Test Cards, charting their development from the early assemblages of lines and grey to the eventual hi-tech assemblages of, um, lines and colour. What isn’t very well known, however, is that the BBC were real technical pioneers in the field of weird tuning signals that nobody ever actually seemed to use for any practical reason, and their groundbreaking display-calibrating designs were widely copied across the globe, whether by legitimate means or in ‘bootleg’ form. What’s more, most of these not-very-well-disguised copies were amusingly ridiculous, and in this second part of the feature, we’ll be taking a look at… well, it’s not really some of the ‘best’, at least not in a literal sense. But y’know.
Whether the hilarious spoof central image features a blackboard-defacing Roger Mellie out of Viz or Noel Bloody Fielding dressed as the clown *lol* *lol* etc, you’ve probably all seen some sort of variation on Test Card F, and that’s just the homegrown parody stuff. As we’ll be coming back to in a bit, Test Card F seems to have been and indeed seems to continue to be the ‘go-to’ design of choice for any international broadcaster wanting to fashion their own Test Card without really putting any effort into it. But were there ever any similar variations on those illustrious forebears that preceded Test Card F? Well, if there were, then they’re clearly lost to the mists of time, and sadly there’s scant evidence out there of how exactly the Belgians might have put their own slant on those terminally uninteresting arrangements of ‘lines’ and ‘grey’. The nearest that’s turned up is this ITV-sponsored variant on Test Card D, which isn’t really any different to the original Test Card D, and isn’t exactly what you could call ‘international’ either. So, off to a good start, there. Oh well, keep reading, it does get more interesting…
Just as the BBC used to sell Play School to overseas broadcasters in ‘kit’ form, so that they could repurpose props, scripts and bloodthirsty cockatiels as they saw fit and re-dye Humpty in a ‘poison’ colour scheme and what have you, it seems that they also flogged Test Card F abroad in a similar fashion, allowing our international compatriots the opportunity to enjoy a less terrifying variation on the tried and tested ‘Girl’ and ‘Clown’ motif. Here’s how Swedish broadcaster Sveriges TV - later responsible for controversial Channel 4-screened magisterial knicker-collecting teen comedy drama Xerxes - reinterpreted the all-too-familiar image, incorporating a girl who appears to have stolen the top half of her wig from Ken Korda and the bottom half from Pat Sharp, and what was clearly a discarded Hamble from their own concurrent Play School purchase.
BSB, the ill-fated Murdoch-enraging attempt at establishing a UK satellite TV service with something that was actually worth watching on it (oh, and I Love Keith Allen), tried its hardest to lure in the overnight floating voters with a rotating lineup of Test Card F emulators featuring what can only be described as Sky Magazine’s idea of ‘sexy’ females (though the ‘magician’ one would have got it). This proved as much of a resounding success as you’re imagining, and in its own small way, contributed to the channel being agressively subsumed by the Murdoch empire and the earliest known TV appearances by Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci and Stewart Lee being wiped not long after and most likely lost forever. Cheers, ‘Rupert’.
Meanwhile, here’s a more tranquil and spiritually resonant take on the much-emulated template from MBC, the short-lived early nineties Arabic cable television service that only seemed to be on the air at a million o’clock in the morning, and even then only seemed to show programmes that were all made in the same room (though someone did come down the chimney on one once). As a consequence, all that most viewers ever saw of it was this abstract riffing on Test Card F with a candle in the middle, which impressively flickered throughout. Wonder if the card was just propped up in the corner of ‘the room’?
Hang on a minute… Parky? What’s he doing here?! Don’t start adjusting your set just yet – unfortunately, despite extensive research, it’s proved impossible to locate a copy of the demented Test Card F reworking utilised by Paramount Comedy, which – seeing as how they were less concerned with contemplative meditation than they were with Bill Cosby putting all of the plates in the dish washer so that they can be of washed up for the lunch – employed a central image of a giant chicken standing astride a busy ‘freeway’ in a not entirely obvious on first glance reference to the old gag about the chicken crossing the road, with the added mind-frazzling interactive element of the car lights flashing independently and horns sounding at random, Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.
…and to compensate for its absence, here’s the thinly-disguised reworking of Test Card F employed by the station that Paramount Comedy was to all intents and purposes the spiritual (and indeed bandwidth-positioned) heir to - The Comedy Channel. In another audience-fleeing-from-approaching-train ‘moving pictures’ gambit, this utilised a central image of some live action goldfish swimming around a deep sea diver figure from one of those Fisher-Price Adventure People playsets. Quite what relation it bore to ‘comedy’ is a matter of some bafflement; presumably it was some kind of poorly-aimed attempt at evoking Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, but in all honesty they’d have been better off opting for Phil Cool doing something ‘rubber-faced’. In live action.
Although Test Card F, as you can clearly see from the examples above and indeed the millions upon millions of unfunny parodies with Lisa Rogers or someone in the middle, has pretty much become the single visual definition of the Test Card in the eyes of general public - and therefore the one that international broadcasters are most likely to reach for when fashioning their own obviously-sourced counterpart - its little-seen electronically-generated successor Test Card G did in fact inspire one or two cunning variants of its own. Take, for example, this Danish effort for DR1, a station devoted exclusively to showing repeats of William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who. Including all the missing ones. Free Delegates For All!
…and that’s about it for now, at least in terms of amusing Test Card variations that could actually legitimately be described as ’amusing’ without directly contravening the Trade (Test Transmissions) Descriptions Act. We’ll be back soon with some pages from Ceefax, but in the meantime, here’s a selection of pages from Ceef… erm… why not treat yourself to an official Televisions Namnden Countdown Clock? Just give it a try and you’ll agree zagreb evrem zlotyk diev!