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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Test card special

Former BBC engineer George Hersee died last week aged 76. Though not a programme maker, Mr Hersee created one of TV's most enduring images - Test Card F, writes Ryan Dilley.

The never-ending game. The poker-faced, Alice-banded girl locked in eternal combat with the gurning stuffed clown.

Russians watching the Apollo moon landing
"Five quid on the clown"
It's reminiscent of the feudal knight taking on Death at chess in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal ... only with noughts and crosses, in colour, after the pubs shut.

This tale of chalk, sweat and leers will be familiar to any Briton who has ever switched on a TV.

Test Card F - an eye-baffling arrangement of lines and coloured bars with the photo of Carole Hersee mid-game at its centre - has graced British TV screens since 1967.

The BBC card has clocked up a serious chunk of airtime. Transmitted when TV stations closed down for the night and during the working day when no programmes were broadcast, Test Card F has been shown for an estimated 70,000 hours.

F for ever

Even the longest running TV soap operas can only boast a fraction of this airtime.

That dear old F has lasted for 34 years is somewhat surprising. The preceding five test cards displayed all the staying power of a Spinal Tap drummer.

TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse
Test Card F, one of TV's innocent pleasures
Malcolm O'Neil, of fan club The Test Card Circle, says F has become a British icon to rival the double-decker London bus and red telephone box.

Not bad for something intended to check the synchronisation, saturation, linearity and convergence of your TV picture.

Prior to the advent of the colour signal, professionals installing TV sets happily made do with coolly scientific test cards for fine-tuning reception.

Old grey TV test

Colour TV presented new problems. It was deemed necessary to include a picture of a person on the new test card so adjustments could be made for flesh tones.

BBC engineer George Hersee dashed off some snapshots of his daughters, Carole and Gillian, for a mock-up of Test Card F, not thinking either of the girls would actually make it to the screen.

A man sporting 1970s fashions
"No flares?!? I'll show them!"
But replacing the girls with an adult model was deemed too risky. The fickleness of grown-up fashions could mean costly updating if, God forbid, flares and caftans were ever consigned to the back of the wardrobe.

So back into the photographer's studio went Carole. The result was the now famous noughts and crosses picture.

Charming though they are, the props surrounding Carole - the stuffed toy and blackboard - serve a purpose.

Central issue

The chalk cross was cunningly located to help engineers centre your TV picture. Mr Hersee once admitted the BBC considered using an Asian model with a bindi forehead marking to fulfil this role.

However, the white cross on its black background proved more versatile. With colour images made up of overlapping red, green and blue, poor "convergence" of these shows up as "colour fringing" on the cross.

Even the somewhat unsettling clown has a technical purpose. Colour TVs filter red, green and blue signals from the black and white ones and decode them separately.

Children watch Andy Pandy
"It's a chrominance delay error, look at the buttons"
This process causes the colours to be delayed. If black and white aren't properly held back too your TV suffers a dreaded chrominance/luminance delay error.

If that is the case, the yellow of the clown's buttons jumps to the right, leaving the buttons themselves plain white.

Test Card F has travelled around the world - with some foreign broadcasters choosing to replace Carole with a local child.

Carole Hersee, now a grown-up mother of two, has long wished her youthful image would vanish from British screens too. The photo earned her a mere 100 (about 0.01p per hour of transmission) and the scorn of her schoolmates.

Cross girl

"I became fed up hearing about it. It should have gone years ago."

Though Test Card F has been adapted for use in the digital, widescreen age, it is slowly disappearing from our screens thanks to our evolving 24-hour culture and the video recorder.

Scott Chisholm
"Uh-oh, the screen's gone blue. Get the test card!"
With BBC One and Two running programmes through the night, the test card has been squeezed from schedules. It is now only used as an emergency stopgap.

"The BBC is in the business of broadcasting programmes not the test card," says a long-serving corporation engineer.

Acerbic TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith is not so sure Test Card F's passing is a sign of progress. He says the quality of some of today's TV offerings "frequently make me long for its return".


Share your memories of the Test Card:
The very first colour picture I saw on a TV was in the summer of 1967. I was walking past a TV rental shop and I did a double take when I saw the F test card. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
John Hughes, UK

As a child I remember waking early on a Sunday morning and staring at it for what seemed like forever, waiting for the kids TV to start.
Jenny, Chicago

Does anyone remember the TV test films broadcast weekday afternoons long before "proper" daytime television. Many were supplied by companies and covered subjects such as the workings of the internal combustion engine and a tour of the Philips laboratories in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Where did they go? They were very impressive to a six year old!
Karen Woods, Britain

I too have fond & enduring memories of Test Card F - has anyone thought of creating a PC wallpaper from it? If so where can I find it?
Dave, UK

I have many fond memories of Test Card F. None more so than on the numerous occasions when I've woken up on the sofa at 4am, surrounded by beer cans, bottles of vodka, and remnants of kebab, to find the smiling face of Carole Hersee and her chum mid-way through a game of noughts and crosses. It's a British institution.
Paul Limburn, England

I grew up with Test Card F - I have lived in Mozambique for 4 years now, and seeing that image today has given me a warm, comforting feeling - a true sense of home and happy times.
Nicky Benn, Mozambique

My sister, who is now 27, has an irrational fear of the Test Card, particularly the clown. She used to have nightmares when she was very young that the clown would jump out of the television and kill her. Even now, if she sees the picture on the screen (this includes the opening credits of It's Only T.V. But I Like It), she asks me to change channels. I wonder if anyone else has this Test Card-phobia?
Andrew Thornton, United Kingdom

Did the girl or the puppet win?
Andrew Massey, England

I well remember Test Card F being broadcast in New Zealand for decades, especially prior to 24-hour TV.
Matthew Fisher, England

Dave, (And anyone else who is interested!), You can download the testcard wallpaper here: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/retro/bbc/classic/index.shtml [see Internet Links].
Mike Dolan, Scotland

Now I'm being driven to distraction wondering what on earth Test Cards A-E looked like! Surely, there is the makings of a best-selling coffee-table book here?
Steve Richards, London

Test Card F is a superb peice of engineering. As a TV engineer it only took one glance of the Test Card or listen to a snippet of the familiar test card music to localise and clear many a fault. I hope the BBC will run a programme paying tribute to George Hersee or perhaps have a Test Card F day.
Simon Hockenhull, UK

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