Stop Getting 'Clown' Wrong!

Early in 1967, BBC Engineer George Hersee unwittingly created a modern design icon. Back in the days when anyone who owned a television would have owned an analogue set that relied on a cathode ray tube, and would only have been able to choose from a handful of channels that conveniently shut down both overnight and for the majority of the daytime anyway, the Test Cards that showed up for half an hour or so at the start and close of broadcasting hours were not only a common sight but also served a crucial technical purpose. Carefully designed with appropriate geometrically precise uses of shapes and shades, not only did they give the ‘backroom boys’ at the television stations themselves an opportunity to check that everything was working correctly ahead of the actual programmes going out, they also allowed the owners of television shops to ensure that their display models were giving the best possible output, and served a similar purpose for television engineers called out to attend to sets that had gone ‘on the blink’.

With colour test transmissions due to begin imminently, Hersee – a BBC engineer since the late forties – had been charged with producing a new card that could be used for testing colour equipment. His innovation was to fill the central circle with a colourful photographic image in lieu of yet more gradations; after considering and rejecting prototypes using a fashion model, on the grounds that the Test Card was expected to have a long shelf life in the way that fashions do not, he opted instead for a photograph of his eight year old daughter Carole, dressed in a red top and hairband and a tartan skirt, and locked in the middle of a game of noughts and crosses on a blackboard against her home-made toy clown Bubbles. Not only did Test Card F become convenient and universally-deployed visual shorthand both for technical issues and for ‘television’ in general, it also struck terror into several generations of uncomprehending youngsters unnerved by the fixed grins of the unmoving duo - who, as everyone knew, might suddenly move at any minute - while jaunty non-copyright big band music played underneath.

Needless to say, Test Card F also became a widely-adopted and much-loved target for parody. And almost every single one of those parodies fell down on one small but crucial detail - none of them could ever quite get the Clown right. Take, for example, the noughts and crosses enthusiasts' appearance in legendary BBC time travel drama Life On Mars, spooking the adult Sam Tyler with memories of their spooking the young Sam Tyler whilst viewers laboured under the misapprehension that there might actually be a proper ending to all of this after all. As you can see, Bubbles had clearly spent the intervening years taking full advantage of every fast food restaurant offer shoved through his door, having already inexplicably expanded by one foot in size.

Well, you could be forgiven for thinking, that's quite a recent example, and maybe they were largely working from memory. After all, it isn't even on that much these days, is it? True, but if anything, contemporaneous parodies of Test Card F were even further wide of the 'nought'. For example...

1989, and Spitting Image decides for no readily obvious reason to run a sketch about 'Clown' going on strike because he is a football hooligan and being replaced by Nicholas Witchell or something. Quite how this gave a show renowned for its cruelly latex lampooningly accurate attention to facial and physical detail license to depict him as having a huge spherical head and disproportionately frame-hogging body will have to remain a mystery. Still, in fairness, this was around the time that Spitting Image was getting a bit experimental and trying their hand at other animation styles and indeed featuring human actors, the very first of whom was one Nick Hancock. Who at that point was arguably best known for this bit of prop-based mayhem...

Hancock And Mullarkey's celebrated 'TV Themes' routine saw them rapidly change into costumes and throw around props while a medley of small-screen signature tunes played behind them, from cardboard flames with dancing on a chair to sausage-on-a-fork-and-shooting-up shenanigans. It was an extremely funny piece that never failed to have studio audiences in worryingly excessive hysterics, and right in the middle they threw in a quick Test Card F gag, which scored high marks by featuring a suitably schmaltzy reading of All My Loving. Examine it too closely, though, and you can't help but notice that Nick Hancock has simply reached for the nearest 'clown' wig and is shamelessly relying on a quick spot of cognitive association from the LWT-bound shriekers. Nice how accurately Neil Mullarkey has captured the 'Girl's tie as well. But what if Ben Kingsley, Test Card F Parody Union is behind door?

The normally devastatingly spot-on children's sketch show that was more adult than most adult sketch shows End Of Part One lowers its batting average here a bit by not even bothering to mock up a vague approximation of Bubbles, opting instead for a nondescript doll attached to some balloons that must have made it pretty hard to get a game of noughts and crosses underway. No wonder Fred Harris looks alarmed.

And finally for now, here's an early nineties advert for Granada Television Rentals, which not only gets the launch date of Test Card F wildly wrong but also goes to the vast and thoroughly salary-justifying expense of replacing the clown with a teddy bear. Because they are exactly the same thing, aren't they? Anyway, we're now returning you to the proper Test Card and some music, but if you know of any other examples boasting similarly high levels of devotion to accuracy, do get in touch. You may even want to tell me on Twitter that The Boosh dressed up as 'Girl' and 'Clown' once. I was not aware of that!!4

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find more about Test Card F, Radio Times and other items of old-skool BBC iconography - not all of it entirely respectful - in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.

Looks Unfamiliar #7: Ben Baker - Just A Bit Massively Stereotypical

Looks Unfamiliar 7 - Ben Baker

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim for a second time is writer, broadcaster and quizmaster Ben Baker, who shares his not-widely-shared memories of Children's ITV magazine show Toksvig, the Whizzkids' Guide book series, sophisticated yet not exactly enlightened board game Mysteries Of Old Peking short-lived pop-punk sensations Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi, drug-fuelled post-Tarantino shock-comedy Go, and the entirely sensible hobby of making your own TV listings magazines. Along the way we'll be taking some advice from a Charcoal Jeremy Beadle, finding out why Ben had to hide his secret drawings of the Yorkshire TV logo, why Sandi Toksvig was at risk of exploding at any moment, and revealing which Shane Meadows film is not as good as a hat.


Looks Unfamiliar is hosted by Podnose.

Support Looks Unfamiliar by buying one of Tim's books! Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. And there's several other books to choose from here...

BEEB's Greatest Hits

Launched by BBC Records And Tapes in 1974, the Beeb imprint was intended as a more focused and coherent outlet for some of the more commercially viable material from BBC shows, particularly session tracks from Radio 1 and Radio 2 broadcasts. It was hoped that the sub-label would be able to make better use of the talents of the more able and chart-savvy in-house composers and technical staff, but unfortunately, while this did result in some strong releases, they found themselves hampered by the parent label’s lack of experience and apparently interest in properly promoting their output. The singles released by Beeb enjoyed much greater success in Europe, where they were licensed to proper record labels and a series of successful ‘hits’ compilations followed, but none of them ever even came close to charting in the UK. While perhaps not as esoteric or evocative a collection of releases as the RESL series, the Beeb singles often had even more unusual and interesting stories behind them, and here are a couple of the most unusual and interesting.

BEEB001 Roll Over Beethoven/Say Mama/Be Bop A Lula - Gene Vincent (September 1974)

The Beeb series of singles began with this offering from veteran rock’n’roller Gene Vincent; in 1971, Vincent had been in the UK to promote his latest album The Day The World Turned Blue, and was determined to pursue his chances of a comeback with an energy quite at odds with his failing health. One of his final recordings was a strong session of rock’n’roll standards for Radio 1’s Johnny Walker Show – recorded only days before his death – from which this release was eventually drawn in response to public demand.

BEEB009 Duck'n'Roll/Sammy's Cha Cha - Sammy Duck (July 1975)

This unusual novelty single, featuring a pair of rock’n’roll numbers performed in an actionable approximation of Donald Duck’s voice, had been a sizeable hit in Europe earlier in 1975. Following airplay on a number of radio shows, notably Radio 1’s Junior Choice, it was licensed for UK release by Beeb, but perhaps deservedly failed to chart.

BEEB010 On The Move/Easy To Love You - The Dooleys (September 1975)

Broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday afternoons between 1975 and 1976 in a bid to promote adult literacy, the award-winning On The Move was a series of short comedy vignettes written by Barry Took and featuring Bob Hoskins as a delivery driver who had difficulty with reading and writing. Composed by prolific session musician Alan Hawkshaw, the catchy upbeat theme song was performed by The Dooleys, an unusually credible family rock band who, though virtually forgotten now, were top ten regulars in the late seventies. Despite its obscure origins, this remains one of the best loved BBC themes of all time, and in retrospect it is staggering that this was not a big a hit as the rest of The Dooleys’ output. On The Move was later included on REB236 Angels And 15 Other Original BBC-TV Themes.

BEEB019 Come Together/Dear Prudence – Graffiti (December 1976)

Graffiti were essentially a vehicle for up and coming singer-songwriter Phil Bates, and these two highly individual takes on Beatles numbers were released by Beeb in anticipation of a mooted BBC2 series in which the manufactured band would take part in a mixture of comedy, music and documentary segments, effectively a reworking of The Monkees for progressive rock fans. However, presumably due in no small part to this single’s lack of success, and more than likely to the emergence of several similar shows on the BBC, the planned series was ultimately shelved before production commenced.

BEEB021 Ten Years After/All Time Needletime Loser - Radio Active (September 1977)

Written and recorded by a band of BBC studio staff – including Radio 1 producers Malcolm Brown on guitar, BBC Records And Tapes' Mike Harding on keyboards, Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on bass, and Radio 1’s assistant controller Bryant Marriott on drums – this quirky pop-rock number was put together as a celebration of ten years of Radio 1 and released to tie in with the anniversary. Although the nominal a-side would ultimately attract little attention, the b-side proved far more popular; thrown together quickly and intended as a parody of punk rock, it amusingly ended up appealing to genuine fans of the movement, including John Peel who gave it a considerable amount of airtime on his Radio 1 show. Needless to say this single is now in high demand amongst those who grew up listening to Peel’s show.

BEEB026 New Wave Band/Theme From The Film Of The Same Name - Jock Swon And The Metres (November 1978)

In the Autumn of 1978, the BBC changed the frequencies of its four national radio stations in order to give them a greater national reach; while the more highbrow end of the audience were advised of this by a startling chorale from The King’s Singers (released by EMI as Some Enchanted Wavelengths), Radio 1 sought to announce the change with a topically punningly-entitled number pseudonymously provided by Glam Rock rock’n’roll revivalists Showaddywaddy with the ‘assistance’ of some of the station’s wackier DJs. It is not unreasonable to suggest that it might have left some listeners wanting to get the wrong frequency on purpose.

BEEB027 Blake's 7 Disco/Disco Jimmy – Federation (March 1979)

Terry Nation's much-loved 'space opera' has latterly acquired an unfair reputation as a poor relation of Doctor Who, although admittedly it was hardly helped by ridiculous ventures such as this; a weak attempt at producing a danceable version of the theme music in an equally weak attempt to cash in on the chart success of Mankind’s disco version of the Doctor Who theme. The unrelated b-side defies description. A measure of its ‘quality’ is that despite not being easy to find, the single is hardly sought after even by Blake’s 7’s intensely devoted fans.

Top of The Box - The Story Behind Every BBC Records And Tapes Single, which covers all of the Beeb releases and more, is available in paperback here, or from the Kindle Store here.