Jason Robertson looks at the unique presentation of schools programmes
Back in the earlier days of television schools programming, schools and colleges had only one set, kept in The TV Room. TV Rooms across the country were strange, dark temples where classes of schoolchildren would leave their usual classroom once a week to sit cross-legged in front of the television, an exciting change from the style of teaching they were used to.
Whilst the previous occupants of the TV Room were led out, back to the reality of classroom, and the next class led in, a static caption was shown along with some music. There were, and are, never advertisements in between schools programmes - this would be seen as vulgar, selling to children whilst they were supposed to be learning.
Before the programme started, there were unusual clock-like shapes on the screen, disappearing slowly, bit by bit, until they were no more. And when they were gone, the programme began.
The unusual clock-like shapes were the much-loved schools indicator clocks, provided by the television companies to give the teacher supervising the class time to calm the excited children down to a state where they could take in the knowledge to follow. After all, there was no rewinding the tape to review what was just seen, as programmes were watched off-air - schools didn't have video recorders.
Information about the earliest of schools clocks and presentation is sparse; if you can help with information about the 60s please get in touch with me! Thus the commentary here up until 1974 may not be correct, but is accurate as far as is known.
The earliest schools clock was, it is thought, that of Independent Television. No images or film are thought to exist, but it was similar to the first colour clock described later.
The BBC began broadcasting schools programmes in 1960, three years after Independent Television. Their schools clock was based on the 'BBC Schools Pie Chart.'
The Pie Chart was a two-minute sequence; it remained static for sixty seconds, and for the remaining minute the segments of the Pie Chart disappeared second-by-second (starting from the top and disappearing clockwise) revealing a clock face, similar to the one below but without a finger.
The later version of the sequence had the Pie Chart static for a minute, and then it would cut to the clock below. The finger would then make a complete rotation for the next minute.
It is thought that the Pie Chart ran from the inception of BBC Schools' programmes in 1960 until 1974, with no colour version being made.
With the introduction of colour in 1969, Independent Television used what might have been the same mechanical model used earlier, but with a new typeface for any accompanying text and with colour added electronically.
A variety of wordings were used underneath the clock, the above is an example.
The graduations on the clock were covered by a constantly rotating piece of card, obscuring the graduations clockwise from the top of the clock.
There was also a filmed version, which had a different design for the clock circumference. Instead of the graduations on the clock disappearing smoothly, the filmed version's graduations disappeared immediately, as though it was created by animation techniques - one second of the film was exposed, a second removed from the clock, another second exposed etc.
It seems that this was used when ITV companies opted out from the network to show their own schools programme, often regional in nature, or a network programme that was displaced by the showing of a regional programme earlier.
Autumn term 1974 saw the introduction of a marvellously ingenious device - not a clock as such, but still a way of telling when the programme was going to start â the BBC Schools Diamond. The model consisted of a base, a moving belt and a mirror, and the result was a captivating kaleidoscopic display.
Different colour schemes and captions were used with the Diamond, reflecting the captions and colours used on the BBC1 globes.
It was replaced in the late 70s, perhaps because an exact measure of time left was difficult to decide from it. However, one can suppose that the fascinating display helped the teacher calm down the students more than a simple clock could!
The Diamond's workings are too complex to describe here, but are documented elsewhere.
In 1978, ITV revamped its clock, keeping the same basic style (clock with captions in the centre of the clock and beneath).
This clock may well have been the same mechanical clock as before but with different graphics. Notice that the programme name is now underneath the clock, whilst the ITV identification is in the centre, a reversal of the previous clock's arrangement. The programme title was simply a piece of card dropped into view, making it easy to change.
It was about the time when this clock was introduced that ITV used different music to accompany the clock for each school term, as compared to when schools programmes first started when the same music was used for literally years. This clock remained in service until the end of the summer term 1987.
At some point in the late 70s, BBC1 changed their clock to the BBC Schools Dots.
This machine had the advantage of it being easier to gauge the time remaining than with the Diamond. Every three seconds, a dot, painted white, would rotate around on its axis (which was at about 10-20 degrees clockwise from the vertical) to reveal the back of the dot, painted black. As the background was also black, it would be seen to have disappeared. Colour was added electronically.
Initially, the central legend 'Schools and Colleges' rotated behind a mask, cut out of the background, of the same text. As the letters were made from components at 90 degrees to each other, like a digital LCD display, this produced an odd pattern when rotated, with different parts of the letters being visible depending on what rotation angle the central legend was at.
The rotating centre didn't last, and remained static later on. Rumour has it that the mechanism controlling the rotating centre broken, and was never fixed.
When the BBC1 globe changed its typeface in the early 80s from the blocky Futura Bold to the custom 'double-lined' typeface, the Dots followed suit.
Another typeface change, and addition of a circle around the text, occurred with the 'Schools and Colleges' text in the centre of the mechanical clock later on, which continued into the era of the computer-generated Dots clock.
The computer-generated clock looked the same as the mechanical one, except the dots faded to black (the background colour was still blue) instead of spinning out of sight.
When schools programmes moved to BBC2 with the introduction of BBC1's new daytime schedule, the Dots were never seen again. The only difference between the usual BBC2 symbol of the time and the symbol used for schools presentation was that the background colour (which was black on the usual symbol) started with white at the top, faded to orange and then the black at the bottom of the screen. Viewers were told via the Daytime On 2 (as the schools programmes strand was called) Ceefax pages that a caption would appear with the name of the programme and 'Follows Shortly', accompanied by music. Then, we were told, the BBC2 symbol would appear ten seconds before the programme started, an announcement would made and the programme would start.
Presumably, this wasn't seen to be sufficient, as later on a small, computer-generated digital countdown clock counted down from ten to zero in the top-right of the picture whilst the symbol was on-screen. This clock continued to be used into the era of the coloured 'TWO' symbol on a white background.
The digital clock was discontinued eventually, and schools presentation used the same symbols as used for other BBC2 programmes, and this is where our story of BBC Schools' countdown clocks sadly comes to an end.
Over on ITV, they weren't finished with countdown clocks. Of course, by the time the next countdown clock was introduced, many schools had a video recorder, negating the need for a countdown for those schools, although when fast-winding through a videotape it gives the teacher plenty of time to press the 'play' button!
ITV introduced a daytime service during term-time in 1987. This launched well after BBC1's daytime service, but ITV had to fulfil their schools programming obligations. The IBA allowed schools programmes to move to Channel Four and S4C, whose transmissions now covered enough of the country to not put anyone to a disadvantage. The fourth channels had hitherto been broadcasting the test card, ETP-1, until programming began later in the day. ITV still had to make the programmes, and as far as is known, network and present them on the fourth channels.
This move necessitated the creation of new schools presentation, which had to show that the viewer was watching Channel Four or S4C but that the programmes were made by ITV.
A computer-generated, animated interlude replaced the static slides that were shown on ITV, and the clock received a computer makeover too.
There was another clock for S4C, identical but for the ITV symbol being replaced with 'S4C'. A suite of two pieces of music, The Journey and Just A Minute, was used to accompany the new graphics, the same music being used until the presentation changed again in 1992.
S4C developed its own clock, themed around its dragon logo.
This charming computer animation featured red spheres bouncing in from the side of the screen, taking up their positions one at a time on the clock face, which rotated to allow the next sphere to take its place. In the background, cogs turned (perhaps harking back to the origins of the countdown clock, the mechanical model) and a dragon was formed at the end of the animation.
Schools countdown clocks became less of a feature in the 1990s, and as such aren't mentioned here. They were a device created out of a specific need, that of enabling teachers to get pupils in and out of the TV Room and to settle them down - but now all schools have video recorders that record the programmes off-air and play them when convenient. Rarely do classes watch live television now.
It is therefore odd that they live on, albeit in an inconspicuous way. In 2003 Channel Four and S4C still have special presentation before schools programmes, perhaps to differentiate schools programmes from the usual schedule. And Channel Four still has a digital countdown on its schools presentation...