Hidden Programmes 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1672

Like many children of my generation, I was a regular viewer of ‘Play School’ on weekday mornings. As far as the Radio Times was concerned, BBC-2 would spring into life at 11am for 25 minutes, and then close down until the evening, the rest of the time being taken up with ‘trade test transmissions’.

However, I was quite a fan of the testcard and its music, so one morning, after Play School had ended at 11.25, I stayed watching.

As expected, I saw a BBC-2 closedown announcement over the clock, followed by a black screen. Nothing unusual there. What came next, however, was unexpected. A clock, in the usual BBC design (the early colour era one, in which the hour markers grew in thickness from 1 to 12 o’clock) but with the colour scheme reversed: dark on light instead of light on dark (chez Page was still black and white at the time). Underneath, instead of a simple BBC-2 logo, was a ‘BBCtv’ logo accompanied by the text: Service Information Follows At 11.30

This clock remained on screen for over two minutes, counting the seconds to 11.30 to the accompaniment of a very mysterious-sounding tune (which many years later I now know to be ‘Walk And Talk’ by Syd Dale), heightening the anticipation for a programme which wasn’t listed in any Radio Times or newspaper.

The appointed time came, and with it an on-screen image of a giant mast, over which the BBC-2 announcer read details of place names and comments that they might be ‘on reduced power’, or ‘liable to interruption’ (which I remember Dad translated for me as ‘it means it’s going to be switched off’). At the time, I didn’t fully understand what all this meant, but it sparked my curiosity: at the end, the announcer said that there would be ‘more service information at 2.30’.

And so, at around 2.25 I ensured that I was watching BBC-2: sure enough, the sequence continued as before. However, this time, instead of returning to a testcard, I was treated to a film – again, unlisted in Radio Times – about how ‘It’s The Tube That Makes The Colour’, with some very nice animation showing the combinations of red, green and blue light beams which make up the combinations of colour on screen.

Fascinated, I continued over the years to watch these hidden broadcasts at every opportunity (that’s what school holidays were for, wasn’t it?), gradually learning more about transmitter place names, especially when a new transmitter would be announced with a caption card giving the location of the transmitter, and UHF channel numbers for BBC-1 and BBC-2.

It was from these broadcasts that I learned how TV came from many different transmitters, something reinforced when the IBA introduced the ‘Transmitters In Service’ list during start-ups (and which would come in useful around 1975, when I received for my 11th birthday one of those portable TVs with a rotary tuning dial, marked in UHF channels). I never saw the ‘Tube’ film again, although I do remember a few other unannounced films, mostly of transport and scenery.

Naturally, I was curious as to whether ‘the other side’ did anything similar: one summer Tuesday morning, I was to find out. Instead of testcard or colour bars, a caption was on screen: ‘IBA Engineering Announcements commence at 9.15’ – accompanied, in line with what seemed to be ITV’s habit, by a piece of music far more dramatic than the one used by the BBC (I know now that this was Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado Overture’).

Instead of the BBC’s daily broadcasts of 2 minutes or so, this was a full 10-minute programme, opening and closing with shots of the IBA building at Crawley Court, and differing from the BBC in that actual coverage maps of new transmitters were shown.

This was particularly fascinating in that I realised that this was a programme actually made by the IBA, existing independently of the ITV companies – emphasised by the fact that the all-important ITV start-up followed this broadcast rather than preceding it.

I must also mention one magnificent afternoon around Easter 1978, when at around 3.30pm on BBC-2, the colour bars which had been showing disappeared to be replaced by a view of a room with lots of wires around, occasionally focusing on testcards propped up on music type stands. The BBC were actually testing a camera live on screen!

Of course, as time went on and broadcasting hours increased, the opportunities to catch these hidden programmes decreased, eventually disappearing completely: transmitter information is now distributed over teletext, there being no place in the broadcast schedule for anything to be hidden anymore.

However, these broadcasts still hold a place in our memories as a reflection of a time when Television was something mysterious and exciting, reliant on technology and effort, not taken for granted as it so often is now.

You Say

5 responses to this article

John Bain 7 March 2014 at 10:19 pm

Sorry to criticise your excellent article – but the “dramatic music” used before Engineering Announcements was NOT Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado Overture’ – you may have thought that’s what it was (or maybe someone told you that’s what it was) but iI can assure you – it wasn’t . The fact that it was an Overture for a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta is correct , but it was NOT from The Mikado – it was The Yeomen of the Guard Overture by Sullivan (Gilbert wrote the lyrics and Sullivan wrote the music)

Tony Lyons 22 March 2014 at 9:59 pm

When the ITA Engineering Annoncements began in October 1970, They started at 09:30 and ran for aprox 15 – 20 mins. The opening music used at the time was the opening bars of Rossini’s Overture La Scala Di Setta,from the album Famous Popular Overtures, Sir Malcolm Sargent/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra HMV SXLP 2034. The closing music was Smetana’s Overture The Bartered Bride from the same album.These pieces were used untill June 1971. From June 1971, the ITA displayed a caption from around 09:15 advising the start time if the announcements was at 09:30. The music used had changed to Sullivan’s The Gondolieres overture which was started half way through followed by the Yeoman of the Guard overture. An annoucement was made followed by part of the Mikado overture. The closing music was the finale of the Mikado overture. The Album used was Gilbert and Sullivan Overtures, HMV SXLP 20003, Sir Malcolm Sargent/ Pro Arte Orchestra. In 1972, the hours of Tv broadcasting were relaxed and the IBA Engineering announcements started at 09:10. During this time the opening and closing music remained the same untill 1983. From 1983 the Yeoman of the Guard Overture was played but a different version from the above. This was followed by a jazzy electronic start up piece which was also played at the end.The start up and end to the announcements remained the same untill the IBA announcents finnished for the last time in 1991.

Alan Keeling 6 July 2016 at 3:50 pm

Lovely article, Neil. In the days of 405 line trade tests, if one of the local BBC or ITA transmitters went on to reduced power, the “Reduced Power” legend would be identified on Test Card C (later D) on both channels.

Robert Clark 21 April 2017 at 8:04 pm

Can I also add that, in 1983, when Engineering announcements went over to Channel four, they had the same time, 09:15 and 12:15. It’s worth mentioning that in 1987, to test Nicam stereo, Engineering announcements was broadcast in Nicam, from Crystal Palace and Emley Moor. The feed to the latter wasn’t 100% however, and there was occasional hissing early on.

antster1983 23 July 2017 at 12:59 pm

The “jazzy electronic start up piece” was “Current Affairs” by Francis Monkman, from the 1979 album “Futurama”, Bruton BRL 04.

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