Torch and Go

For many years I had always imagined that the BBC Schools Piechart animation was used since the beginning of schools programmes on BBC Television. However, in actual fact there were two presentation “packages” in use before its introduction and I want to talk about the second of those.

For the first year of school broadcasts, the BBC had used a package that consisted of a torch symbol with a fanfare, at the end of which a particularly strong lamp was shone on the torch to make it flicker, followed by the in-vision announcer introducing the programme.

Here are some pictures, courtesy of the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

BBC Schools caption. The text "BBC TELEVISION FOR SCHOOLS" is shown on the right hand side of the image. The left hand side has a matt silver model of a torch with dull lighting.
BBC Schools torch model “dim”
BBC Schools caption. The text "BBC TELEVISION FOR SCHOOLS" is shown on the right hand side of the image. The left hand side has a matt silver model of a torch with very bright lighting.
BBC Schools torch model “illuminated”
A monochrome off-air screen shot of a 1957 female BBC in-vision announcer. She is a redhead with lacqured back-comed hair, wearing a dark cardigan, pearl earrings and a silk scarf around her neck. Over her left shoulder is a silver model of a flaming torch in Greek/Roman style, which was the logo of BBC Schools broadcasting at the time.
BBC Schools in-vision announcer on torch set

Independent Television in its first year of schools broadcasting, unlike the BBC, had adopted a much less personal approach in its schools presentation. It used a tuning signal followed by a one minute countdown clock1 preceding each programme and no announcements at all.

If you are unfamiliar with the ITV Schools sequence from the period, I recreated a version of this sequence in Widescreen in 2008, and here it is:

ITV Schools sequence, used from 1957-1968

This was a practical solution which allowed both schools presentation and programming to be networked from Associated-Rediffusion, with no problems of people’s usual regional in-vision announcers being usurped by unfamiliar faces from London.

The idea of a countdown clock was to allow one class to exit the television room and another to enter. Televisions were very expensive items of equipment, often relying on the fundraising activities of school parent-teacher associations to purchase, so schools would only have had one television set at most.

Televisions of the era also took quite some time to “warm up”, with the sound appearing first and the vision gradually fading up from black. The countdown and tuning signal gave pupils and teachers something to look at (and listen to) while their sets were warming up.

During the early ITV era, the BBC Television’s graphic design was being updated, partly in response to the competition it was receiving from ITV. Abram Games’ fascinating yet bonkers “Bat’s Wings” was eventually replaced with a map of the UK with Richard Levin’s iconic BBCtv symbol which had been gradually introduced since 1957. The map was to emphasise that it was not only ITV that offered the country a regional television service.

My recreation of the BBCtv map symbol, created for the BBC Four documentary Alchemists of Sound

Combining the two trends, and we come to the second year of broadcasting to schools and the BBC copying ITV practice. Before each schools programme a caption was shown giving the name of the next programme and its start time. Its design was shown below2.

White on black caption that says "BBCtv SCHOOLS Making Music follows at 11.25"
Recreation of a BBC Schools interval caption from the torch era. Many thanks to Jason Robertson (@grim_fandango) for sending me the source image.

Then, for a varying period immediately before the programme, a countdown was shown with a specially composed piece of music.

This countdown was quite different to other schools countdowns in one very notable way. You never saw the end of the countdown; it was replaced with a caption saying “BBCtv FOR SCHOOLS” before it finished.

Incidentally, if you want to know what the BBC (and ITV) were broadcasting to schools in 1958, you’re in luck as Ben Clarke has an excellent website, that will show you exactly.

I do not know who composed the piece of music3 that accompanied this countdown, but I was determined to make a version of it in MuseScore that I could add to a recreation of the graphics.

I set about recreating the score in MuseScore, a free and open source notation application, and then using MuseSounds in MuseScore to perform the score and export it as a FLAC file that I could use for creating a video for YouTube.

The first thing I had to do was work out the key signature and the time signature. I had two recordings, both of pretty poor quality, at different speeds and therefore at different pitches.

I plumped for making the piece in G major at 120 beats per minute in 2/4 time. This may be wrong, but it was my best guess4.

My next challenge was to work out how to notate the short trills that the clarinets perform at the beginning of the piece. Logically enough, in MuseScore there is a special ornament called “short trill” which was perfect for that.

Two staves scored for Clarinet in B♭. The score is in 2/4 time, and in A major. The notes at the beginning of four bars have a "short trill" symbol which loks like a horizontal zig-zag about the notes.
Clarinet short trills

One thing I did miss was more woodblocks; MuseSounds has a woodblock with two sounds, but I could have done with a third, higher sound for some points in the tune.

Due to poor quality of the original recording I had I thought that there was an English horn in the tune. However, as I went through the piece I worked out what I thought was an English horn was actually two oboes playing together in unison (hence the richer, English horn type of sound). I worked this out because later on they started playing in harmony, and also the melody goes outside of the range of notes an English horn can produce!

I also initially thought the piece had a single French Horn, but later on they also started to play in harmony with each other meaning there must have been two!

I really loved the xylophone in the piece as I love having a chance to used tuned percussion. I also got to use slides on the xylophone and it was interesting how effective there were.

A staff with three bars of a Xylophone score. The score is in G major and some semi quavers are joined with a line at a 45 degree angle. This is a slide symbol, which means the beater is slid over the keys of the xylophone between the two notes.
Xylophone slides

The string section is represented by a cello playing pizzicato, and it sounds really lovely. It would have been tempting to put a double bass on instead, but the cello gives it just the right feel and stops the sound becoming too heavy.

Overall, I am pretty happy with my transcription but one thing I should do is to move the barlines at the end (by having one longer or shorter bar) so that the downbeat comes at the beginning of each measure. Luckily, for the purposes of exporting audio, this is not critical. You couldn’t give my score “as-is” to an ensemble though!

Once I had transcribed the tune, the next thing I wanted to do was to recreate the visuals that went with it. I started out by drawing the clock, torch and caption in Inkscape. This is my standard method; I then export an SVG file that I can import into Blender for further work.

The image shows a screen shot of Inkscape. In the Inkscape drawing window is a black background, with a border of a light grey at the top and light grey at the bottom oval in the centre. In the centre of the oval is a white circle with a grey border, creating an "eye" shape. Overlaid on the large oval are four white arrows pointing north, south east and west. In the centre of the image is a torch outlined in rainbow colours. Above the torch is overlaid the text "FOR SCHOOLS BBCtv" in a bold sans serif font. The BBCtv is the BBCtv logo rather than plain text.
Torch, clock and caption drawn in Inkscape

Before I drew the torch in Inkscape, I actually drew a sketch on paper, which is something I do sometimes to help me understand the shapes involved.

A page from my notepad with notes and drawings that I made in pencil whilst creating the torch sequence. It includes a large pencil drawing of a torch in the centre.
I write notes and draw sketches constantly while I work on recreations

The hardest thing I had to do in Blender was model the flames on the torch. I converted the SVG Curves of each flame that I had imported from Inkscape into Mesh objects. Then I did a grid fill on the Mesh objects and subdivided the edges so I got an edge in the centre of each flame that I could raise creating the relief effect. There is a much quicker and easier way to do this which I have forgotten but I was happy with the end result.

A screen shot of the 3D modelling sofware Blender, shown whilst modelling the torch logo of BBCtv Schools broadcasting. The torch is a relief model in a matt grey material, in a Greco-Roman style.
Modelling the flames in Blender

In Blender I had to create three animations: the animation of the clock (a mechanical model which was white against a black background).

Secondly, the BBCtv FOR SCHOOLS caption (yes, this did have to be animated and exported as video even though it is a static caption because of the interlace twitter I place on the camera to stop the image looking “dead”5).

And, thirdly, the torch background itself, over which the other two animations could be overlayed using a luminance key (again, this was filmed using a camera that bounced up and down very slightly to simulate interlace twitter).

Once I had the three animations, I compiled them and the audio into the finished sequence using the free and open source video editing program Kdenlive. I have been using Kdenlive for many, many years and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A screenshot of the free and open source offline video editing programme Kdenlive with the BBC Schools Torch project being edited in it.
Sequence being edited in Kdenlive

Here’s the finished result:

Finished recreated BBC Schools Torch countdown sequence

Overall I am very happy with the finished result and it was very satisfying to see it all come together.

I’d like to thank Rory Clark for supplying the source materials that allowed me to recreate the music and graphics for this sequence. As is so often the case with things I do, it would have been totally impossible without his help. Any comments or corrections concerning this article are very welcome.

  1. Richard G. Elen has identified all of the ITV Schools interval music from the era apart from the small-orchestra transcription of Arne’s G minor Sonata for Harpsichord used as the “clock piece”. ↩︎
  2. The source image for this caption was spotted in a old photograph of a broadcast gallery by Jason Robertson. It was on a tiny monitor in a corner of the image and therefore I had to reproduce it in Inkscape to include here. ↩︎
  3. My guess would be this is another composition by Lionel Salter, but if you know who composed it I would be delighted to hear from you. ↩︎
  4. 120 beats per minute in 2/4 time means each bar takes one second, which seemed a pretty logical way of scoring a countdown clock to me. ↩︎
  5. For recreating material that was supposed to originate on video I work at 50fps these days. Interlacing gets harder and harder to deal with in software (and platforms such as YouTube), so to get a video look I simply use 50fps with simulated “interlace twitter” on the camera in Blender. ↩︎



, ,



5 responses to “Torch and Go”

  1. Con Logue avatar
    Con Logue

    Superb work as ever David.

    1. Dave avatar

      Many thanks Con! I’m so glad you liked it.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Mulder avatar

    Hi Dave,

    Nice to see one of your old Flash animations on BBC Breakfast this morning, as BBC Schools programmes are 100 years old this month!


    1. Dave avatar

      Hi Al!

      Many thanks for letting me know, as I completely missed this. Lovely to know that my old Flash animations are still doing the rounds.

      I hope you are well, it is really lovely to hear from you after so long.

      All the best, Dave

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.