It’s that girl again
1 Mar 2007 0 comments. tbs.pm/2140
Alan Keeling remembers the birth of an iconic image.
In the autumn of 1964, it was my first term at senior school. I was eleven, and had been reading and hearing for months that the second BBC television network – which had started in London earlier in the year – was going to commence test transmissions on 625 lines from our local Sutton Coldfield transmitter, using the ‘new’ UHF band. These transmissions duly started on the first Monday in October, and on that particular afternoon on my way home from school I decided to get off the bus prematurely where there was a row of shops which included a British Relay TV rental store with sets in the window.
It may be hard now to understand why the spread of Britain’s third TV network was generating such excitement, but the end of the two channel duopoly was then regarded as a major watershed in broadcasting history.
As a schoolboy enthusiast of all things in the broadcasting world, I was rather curious as to what type of test card the planned new service would radiate: and, sure enough, when I reached the shop window, there on one of the screens was the familiar Test Card ‘C’ in an unfamiliar disguise. It was appearing without the customary letter ‘C’ identifying caption and had a line of black capital letters replacing the bottom grid beneath the circle. This read ‘BBC2 625 LINES’. The arrowheads within the border of the card were larger and the frequencies of the gratings within the circle were strangely annotated in small black type.
Apart from the graphics I was also curious as to what form of music accompanied the card at the time but had to research ‘in shop’ as we had not yet had our set converted to 625 UHF transmission. A mixture of Jazz and Light Classics made an interesting contrast to the mood music and big bands of the BBC1 tests over on 405 lines.
Odd things happened in the early weeks of BBC 2 tests. On one occasion, when I looked in the shop window, I noticed that the set was indeed tuned to the ‘new’ Channel 40 but the transmitted image appeared to be one of the old deleted test pictures from some years earlier, with the ‘BBC Test Transmission’ caption in black and featuring an image of Nelson’s Column.
On another occasion there was a rather incongruous picture of a model in Eskimo furs, carrying a small log. This was replaced by a curious vertical step wedge which I later discovered to be colour bars. It seemed that the transmitter at Sutton Coldfield had been fed an excerpt of the experimental colour tests taking place that autumn from the London transmitter at Crystal Palace. This was two and a half years before the ‘proper’ provision of an official colour service and the broadcast was being used to test competing systems of encoding colour signals for transmission.
As Christmas approached our 19″ Baird set was converted at last. I monitored the trade test transmissions, appreciated the pleasing music and even liked to view the new BBC2 clock with its novel Roman numerals, never previously a feature of British ‘on screen’ timepieces.
With our rented set now converted to receive 625 line output on UHF. I was able to tune in to the BBC 2 trade test transmissions regularly and enjoy the refreshingly different musical fare that accompanied them.
It was two and a half years after the new monochrome 625 line transmissions began, and school was due to break up for the 1967 summer holidays. As usual I got off the bus several stops early and went over to the TV rental shop to glance at the sets in the window – by now a fairly regular pilgrimage at the local shrine for colour sets – but instead of the usual BBC2 Test Card ‘C’ there was to be seen on two of the live receivers an astonishing new test card which seemed to have been specially designed for colour. It featured with a little girl, a blackboard and a stuffed doll, all pictured in the centre circle.
It was the first time I had seen a small picture contained within a larger test card and the idea of mixing actuality with test gratings seemed revolutionary. I stared transfixed for two minutes before going home to study it further on our home set, even though it did not look quite so attractive in black and white.
The following morning was mercifully a Saturday and at 9 am, I switched on to find that the monochrome test card ‘C’ was back. This was only for an hour however. It was replaced by the brand new card with the still strange and sensational picture. This was annotated Test Card ‘F’. I had no idea at the time that this strange little girl and her doll would grow into one of the most famous British visual images of the late twentieth century. The phrase ‘birth of a national icon’ would have been lost on me at the time but that is without doubt what it was.
During the July-August holidays of 1967, I monitored BBC2 trade test transmissions pretty well continuously and a variety of new imagery was observed. There were still the traditional slides though now without captions, including a vase of flowers, a lady with a colourful bonnet, an old man repairing a clock and the full range of colour bars. Then to happy surprise there appeared occasional short colour features from the film units of companies like Shell, BP and Philips. We were still watching in black and white at home but the sense of excitement was not dimmed. Other than schools programmes and occasional outside broadcasts, there was little daytime television on weekdays at that time.
Apart from the BBC lunchtime news and short topical programmes on ATV Midlands like ‘Lunch Box’, weekday programming had for some years commenced only in late afternoon or early evening. The colour test films that now appeared and reappeared gave us the first faint hint of what it might be like for the television to offer a service during the daylight hours! Television had for so long been an ‘evening medium’ that it seemed strange to have something other than Test Card during the daytime.
Most interesting of all there was an oft-repeated animated film about tuning a colour receiver. In this context ‘oft repeated’ meant several times a week, and indeed at one point several times a day. It was curious to watch these films at home in monochrome, as well as the occasional clandestine silent viewing in colour while stood at the shop window. I was often to be found in store just when the dealer demonstrated the methods and extolled the virtues of having colour TV, to a suitably hushed, reverent and impressed crowd!
It is hard to imagine what an astonishing, if expensive, novelty colour television was when it first arrived. Growth and purchase of sets was a slow but steady business, and it was not until 1977 that the number of colour television licences exceeded those in force for black and white.
Thus many of the early seventies’ colour programmes were watched on monochrome sets by the majority of viewers. The history books often imply – and so wrongly – that everyone rushed out and converted to colour the moment transmissions started.
The girl on the test card stayed with us for almost 40 years, and became one of the most iconic images of the British twentieth century. Adopted by both BBC and the ITA, she was almost unavoidable in the years that endless testcards and music filled the daytime hours.
I saw her during her first week of service all those years ago. By now she is a middle-aged woman with adult children of her own. Almost as familiar as the Monarch on the bank notes, she remains frozen in time and always representing, to many of my age group, the long-awaited arrival of colour television and the imagined triumph of progress and modernity over a supposedly staid and monochrome world.