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The BBC test card: inside a cult YouTube obsession

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Among YouTube’s endless rabbit hole of niche communities and strange obsessions is an oddity that stems from a piece of mainstream nostalgia: the BBC’s long-running use of test cards.

In the world of television broadcasting, a test card is a geometric visual that’s used to adjust monitor settings and video equipment. For most of television's history, test cards were a staple of TV programming around the world. Even in the US, some local networks used them for years, and some stations, including the BBC, still keep them around for internal use today.

In the US, before the advent of cable TV and the industry’s eventual shift to 24-hour broadcasting, it was customary for television stations to "sign off" each night, leading to a period of "dead air" between midnight and dawn. Many stations would simply feature white noise during this time, while others played stock music over test cards, like this one from a Maine station in the early '80s.

American test card designs weren’t standardized, and differed from station to station. But in Britain, many TV networks — including the BBC and ITV — used all the same test cards and the same stock music from the 1940s onward. They also aired the cards not just after hours but at routine points throughout the day to fill in their programming gaps.

These test cards were brightly colored, vector-like images designed by BBC engineer George Hersee. Here’s what one looked like around 1960:

YouTube


The most famous test card Hersee designed, Test Card F, featured a picture of Hersee’s daughter Carole Hersee, and has become an iconic image, often imitated and parodied.

YouTube


All the test cards were accompanied by a soundtrack of jaunty tunes, recorded by in-house musicians and session bands. The cards’ music — whole albums’ worth of original content — wasn’t available on commercial radio, so if you really, really liked it, your only chance to hear it was to tune in to the test cards at intervals throughout the day.

To many, these test cards are merely intriguing relics of a bygone past. But some fans have a lingering soft spot for the cards and the music that accompanied them — and that has led to a thriving cult community around the cards on YouTube, coming together to circulate both the original test card designs and their perennially popular soundtracks.

Nostalgia for the test cards’ music is a catalyst for their ongoing popularity

YouTube is full of tributes to the BBC test cards and the music that played over them. A simple search for "BBC test card" yields hundreds of uploads featuring music that originally aired with the cards throughout the decades.

Here’s a playlist for one of the network’s album-length cadres of test card stock music from 1987, titled "Heaven Makes You Happy," accompanying Card F:


Jump back a few years to 1979, and the BBC’s musical aesthetic is completely different — even though the test card image remains the same:


There are also several examples of people making their own test card designs based off the BBC originals and overlaying them (or the original cards) with new stock music. This remix of the old Test Card F with new music has attracted 88,000 views since it was uploaded six years ago.

A genuine love for the BBC’s choice of stock music is key to the cards’ popularity. The comments for a highly enjoyable funk soundtrack called "Positron," for example, are replete with memories of childhoods spent listening to the test card music for long stretches of time.

"Back in the mid-1980s I sometimes used to sit and watch the test card just to listen to these," wrote one commenter. "The moment I hear a few bars I instantly remember sitting by my portable television, doing homework or messing around on my ZX81," wrote another. "I'd rather have a testcard and some music was on television all day rather than the rubbish they broadcast now."

Meanwhile, one user who uploaded a test card with new music while decrying "that awful shite that they usually play" had to disable the video’s comments due to outcry and vitriol from offended fans.

A small number of keenly absorbed fans fuels the test cards' popularity

There’s also a real element of collector’s zealotry involved, at least for the people who go searching for test card music. Some YouTube users post videos of the test cards that they have recorded directly from their TVs. Others are commenters who trade information and inquiries — as well as some very strong opinions — about the cards and their soundtracks.

For example, when one user selected Test Card G instead of the ubiquitous Test Card F to accompany his upload of "Bread-Guitar Man," a popular BBC test card track from the '70s, one commenter declared it "utter tosh" that he didn’t use Test Card F.

Meanwhile, other commenters offered an astonishing amount of collective trivial knowledge about which pop music tracks were featured on this particular stock music mix. Some recalled hearing the theme from the James Bond movie Live and Let Die; music by the Monkees, Cat Stevens, and Elton John; and a "very haunting version of ‘Michelle’ by the Golden Dream Orchestra."

"[You s]hould also mention that the tape (Baby I'm a Want You) was designed for use in the regions, but due to various issues it was also used nationally from 09/11/1979 to late 1983 on BBC 2," wrote one commenter, ceefaxfreak09. A YouTube user since 2009, ceefaxfreak09 has liked only two videos in seven years; one of them is the aforementioned "Heaven Makes You Happy" soundtrack. It’s as if nostalgia for this singular moment in time culled ceefaxfreak09 from the ether for the sole purpose of straightening out the internet’s test card history.

But it seems lots of test card fans are just as serious about preserving the "integrity" of the cards’ legacy. When one enterprising fan mixed and matched original stock music of his own making with old test cards, he reportedly received so many complaints from people looking for the authentic music that YouTube shut down the account.

YouTube user magicgeezer has spent the past six years uploading test cards and other BBC nostalgia footage onto the site; his titles clearly delineate when something is authentic and when something is "mock." And the comments below each posting are rife with fans perpetually asking for more music. One example:

Any upload any more trade test music of 1970s and 1980s such as: Soul Coaxing BBC2 Test Card complete recreation, Serenade for Conniff BBC1 Test Card complete The Green of the Summer BBC1 Test Card Complete La Retour De Borsalino BBC2 Test Card Complete all enclosed complete cue sheets of the listings of the tracks songs please many thanks

Test card aficionados have figured out which songs accompanied which cards through a combination of the BBC’s record-keeping and years of collective detective work on the part of fans — like the two men who spent years carefully compiling recordings of every card and song used between 1959 and 1977.

There’s even a special club for those who thirst after the original soundtracks: Devotees formed the Test Card Circle in 1989, and the club has existed online since 2000, where its website has attracted a respectable average of 20,000 visitors a year ever since.

The Test Card Circle maintains a directory of several CD collections of the authentic BBC soundtracks, compiled independently by a variety of organizations and record labels for fans. It also releases a members-only print magazine and maintains a truly impressive archive of information about the cards online, all with a Brutalist aesthetic that seems to perfectly match that of the cards themselves.

Love for the cards is rooted in the naughty thrill of playing hooky

The Test Card Circle’s website points us toward the reason the internet’s collective memory of the test cards and their soundtracks is so strong and so weirdly specific:

The test card was transmitted by television companies at times when viewers weren't supposed to be watching. So it was a bonus to be able to 'listen in' to a wide variety of orchestral and instrumental tunes at times when most people thought there was nothing on. (And in the sixties and seventies there were long periods during the day when no programmes were shown - BBC 2 for example would often close down at 11.25am and not re-open until 7.30pm) ... These tunes would be recorded on half hour or hour long compilations, so would always appear in the same order. On BBC 1 and BBC 2 at any time there was a maximum of seven tapes on the go, each remaining in service for on average eighteen months.

Repetition contributes to the strength of memory, and the test cards were often on at the same time each day, with the songs always airing in the same order. Plus, people’s collective memory of watching them seems to be associated with the same gentle thrill of a snow day or a sick day: You were up too late or home when you generally weren’t supposed to be.

In other words, when people hear, say, this breezy '60s test card soundtrack, it reminds them of the past and makes them feel like they’re playing hooky from their responsibilities.

All in all, it’s not a bad way to waste your time on the internet — by remembering how you used to waste your time on the telly.

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