BBC Television presentation had an inordinate amount of care put into it in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That may not seem surprising to people today, in an era when BBC Television presentation has a similar amount of effort put into it and has done for decades. However, there was a time between the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s when the BBC’s presentation was shabby, cheap and ugly.
I grew up during this dark era of BBC Television Presentation. It was the era of the revolting Futura BBC1 logo which coexisted with the gaudy neon BBC1 logo designed by Alan Jeapes, punctuated by rare appearances of Richard Levin’s definitive BBC1 logo. So, on an average day, there were three completely different BBC1 logos existing in parallel.
This sort of mess would be unthinkable today. And, on the rare occassions I saw archive clips of presentation, it was clear that things used to be better. Much better.
An example of the care that the BBC used to put into their presentation were their packages for schools television.
I’ll talk about the original package for BBC Schools television later. It dated from 1957 and was based around a torch symbol, a clock countdown and in-vision presentation.
The subject of the rest of this post is going to be the second package from the early 1960s when the torch was retired in favour of a pie chart.
I first saw some tantalising stills of the pie chart in an article on the site “The Historical Television Website” in the dial-up internet days of 1998. At the time there was a mystery as to whether the pie chart segments disappeared revealing a clock or whether the pie chart cut to a mechanical clock with a second hand. And it wasn’t at all clear whether the pie-chart continued to be broadcast after BBC1 switched to colour in 1969.
Eventually, thanks to Transdiffusion, these mysteries were cleared up and, thanks to some very kind friends, I managed to see both versions of the sequence.
Here’s my recreation of the first version from the early 1960s:
Here’s a recreation I did of the second version from the late 1960s:
In this post I’ll be looking at the original version of the sequence, dating from the early 1960s. I may return to the second one later.
In this sequence, made using cel animation techniques, shot with a rostrum camera and broadcast on 16mm film, a static piechart is shown for 90 seconds with a musical accompaniment. Then, with the introduction of the double bass into the music, for the last 60 seconds of the sequence a 6° segment of the pie chart disappears for each second revealing a black and white clock face.
Another interesting thing about the sequence is that at the 90 second mark the castellations bordering the piechart and the BBCtv logo slowly disappear.
The music was composed by Lionel Salter, who was working as Head of Opera and Head of Music Production for the BBC at the time. I first got a copy of this music from Kim Plowright and James Goss, when I was working on some Macromedia Flash animations of old BBC television presentation for the BBC Cult website. Interestingly, it had been misfiled in the BBC’s presentation archive as being by “Lionel Slater”.
I adored the piece, but there was a problem. You couldn’t hear the whole of the tune on the surviving recording as the announcer talked over some of it—a usual practice in schools presentation in the 1960s.
I always wanted to hear the whole tune without the announcement about polling day, so I thought I’d have to do it myself.
I thought that MuseSounds’ wonderfully realistic library of orchestral sounds would make it quite straightforward to transcribe the tune and get a version without an announcement.
And, in theory, this should have been a straightfoward job, as the tune is in C major (perfect for a pianist), in 4/4 time and only had six parts. However, looking at Lionel Salter’s CV1 should have told me he was a maestro, and transcribing anything he wrote would be no simple task.
I used to finish work each day, and then spend the remainder of my evening managing to transcribe four or five measures at most. This went on for quite some time!
Things got a lot easier once I’d actually put the bar lines in the correct place; even that wasn’t completely straightforward in this composition, as Salter often staggered phrases by one, two or three beats. It was only when the double bass turned up I was able to nail the thing down!
Every instrument in the score has something interesting to do. Even when the flute and oboe double, the melody and harmony swaps between them. The bassoon and clarinet are often doing something completely different. And I love the fact that it’s a viola (my favourite instrument), not a cello, that gets the string part.
I also like the varying rhythms used by the different parts, which means the lack of percussion is not noticed. For a piece that was intended be played at least half a dozen times a day, perhaps the key feature of the piece is you never tire of listening to it.
I really can’t fail to be impressed by the fact that this piece was commissioned by the BBC for children. It’s an easy piece to listen to but it’s not an easy piece. It has melody, counterpoint, harmonies, different rhythms, a complicated structure. Yet the BBC thought, rightly as it turned out, that children would love it.
I eventually managed to transcribe the whole score, and the feeling of achievement was wonderful. Here’s the finished score being played in MuseScore:
I was delighted with MuseScore; it performed beautifully throughout and didn’t give me a single problem. I was also extremely impressed with MuseSounds. The only bit that doesn’t sound quite right is the solo viola at the beginning, and that section would be a big ask of any audio library.
This isn’t a perfect transcription; you’d need Gavin Sutherland for that. However, it’s the best I can do with my cloth ears and lack of musical training (well, apart from reading Cecil Forsyth’s book Orchestration from time to time).
However, I enjoy listening to it and I learnt an enormous amount from it.
- If you search YouTube for Lionel Salter, you will find hundreds of videos of people from all over the world playing pieces he composed for the The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. ↩︎