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.
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:
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.
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.
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, broadcastforschools.co.uk 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the finished result:
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.
- 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”. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎