FROM THE ARCHIVE OF: The TV Room
This week marks the 50th anniversary of an intriguing footnote in television history. Trade test colour films were broadcast for the last time on 24th August 1973.
They were screened by the BBC occasionally from the mid-50s during experiments in colour broadcasting but took on a different importance in the late-60s and early 70s.
Several films were screened each day on BBC Two during the regular trade test transmission.
The aim was simple – provide a high quality moving colour image to help TV dealers demonstrate and sell sets.
Between 1967 – when the films started to be shown regularly each day – and 1969, BBC Two was the only channel in colour and colour sets were an expensive novelty.
The need for the trade to have moving colour pictures was obvious. With colour sets so rare, relatively few potential customers would actually have had the chance to see colour programmes in the evening.
Even after 1969, when the two main channels began colour broadcasting, there were few regular colour programmes during the day. Most schools programmes were in black and white for a few more years.
But the deregulation of broadcasting hours in 1972 spelt the end for the films.
ITV had a full afternoon schedule with everything, apart from a few films or old repeats, in colour. BBC One usually found ways to fill afternoon gaps.
Meanwhile more and more schools programmes were being broadcast in colour.
Colour programmes, frankly, would help sell more sets than the trade test films which had outlived their purpose.
So, as the explanation went, the need for high quality moving images during trade tests was reduced and the extra time was given over to the test card. By then the test card was only being seen sporadically in most ITV regions and was filling less time than before on BBC One.
So what of the films? A few had genuine merit. The Home Made Car, for instance, had won awards and been shown before as a scheduled programme in the evening.
Some though, while professionally made and visually interesting, seem like nothing more than extended adverts for oil companies and others who financed their original production.
It’s interesting that the BBC could broadcast them – despite what would seem to be the risk of an editorial conflict of interest. Did the fact that they were not billed in Radio Times and were only shown for a technical purpose mean that these considerations did not apply or were ignored?
You might have expected the BBC to instead have made a colour version of the Demonstration Film from TV’s early days featuring clips from outstanding programmes.
It would be intriguing to know if this was ever considered and ruled out. I’m sure clips of good programmes might have attracted more interest – reminding black and white viewers what colour added to their favourites.
Of course, this sort of sequence would almost have been a precursor of BBC Two’s modern loop in the early hours.
Still, there’s something about the trade test films which speaks of a pioneering time in British television. Britain had Europe’s first colour TV service and got all the major channels into colour relatively quickly.
Maybe this is why the BBC Two arts programme The Late Show included clips of one film when it marked 20 years of colour TV on the big channels in 1989.
At a time with little official daytime TV, there would be those who chanced upon the films and found they enjoyed them – even though they did not exist to entertain or inform.
And it’s worth remembering too that the BBC Two announcers played a part in the transmission of these films, with much of the trade test sequence coming straight through the announcer’s desk. Sometimes they could speak with a degree of informality which may have been frowned upon in the evening.
PICTURED: colour trade test film - Millbank Films for ICI. COPYRIGHT: ICI/Millbank.