Last updated: 30th December 2019.
Other than TV and radio tradesmen and engineers – and presentation enthusiasts – few members of the public will have known about, or paid much attention to, a short unbilled programme broadcast regularly by the BBC and ITA/IBA in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Service Information (BBC) and Engineering Announcements (ITA/IBA) were an opportunity for the trade to learn about the latest transmitter maintenance schedules and launch dates for new transmitter sites. The bulletins also occasionally provided details of technology innovations/developments pertinent to the television trade. The BBC also included details of Colour Trade Test Films airing that day.
The BBC bulletin was broadcast each weekday, from 23rd October 1967 until 23rd December 1982. Initially, it went out three times a day: at 10am, 11.30am and 2.30pm. In 1975, this changed to once a day, at 10.30am. Times sometimes varied, due to other programme commitments, such as live sport events.
The ITA/IBA equivalent – Engineering Announcements – was broadcast weekly, from 23rd November 1970 until 31st July 1990. Initially, the programme went out on Monday mornings on ITV at 9.45am. In September 1972, it was assigned a new slot of Tuesdays at 9.10am, where it remained until May 1983. The slight extension of TV-am’s slot (due to the automation of network switching) – to 9.25am – resulted in the programme moving home to Channel 4, where it aired at 9.15am and 12.15pm each Tuesday. When Channel 4’s programme schedule expanded, the bulletin was moved to 8.10am (early 1989) and then 5.45am (from April 1989).
The BBC’s Service Information was voiced by the duty BBC Two announcer. The announcer also controlled the visual output – usually a series of appropriate slides. Below, two of the more generic slides used. However, slides featuring channel frequency and polarisation details for specific transmitters were also common.
Bulletins were preceded by two minutes of a recoloured version of the BBC Two clock (minus the channel branding), accompanied by Walk & Talk, performed by the Syd Dale Orchestra. This pre-programme routine was updated at some point in the 1970s, to two minutes of a ‘Follows Shortly’ slide, to the sound of Swirly by Roger Limb.
Service Information updates were generally of short duration: a few minutes was fairly typical. The TV Room contributor Paul R. Jackson has supplied us with the announcer’s script for the 21st July 1980 edition:
From a pres perspective, there are a few points of interest here:
- Service Information seems to be classified under the title ‘BBC Trade Test Transmissions’.
- The pre-programme music is played off “cassette”. The continuity suites were fitted with cart and gram machines – but we weren’t aware of cassette facilities. The TV Room contributor Andrew Nairn provides a possible explanation: “I think the cartridge machines in the early 70s used what were described as ‘cassettes’ so I wonder if that’s where the word came from? The sound quality from cassettes wasn’t up to broadcast standard. Too much hiss in particular.”
- This was the only context in which the duty BBC TV announcer made time references in the 24-hour clock.
- “And now the colour test card and some music until the scheduled programme Play School at eleven.” BBC announcers often referred to the BBC’s modified version of the Philips PM5544 test card as the “colour test card”. Though it was also known internally as Test Card G.
- After Play School, we’re told that “test card and Ceefax pages will be shown until coverage of an extra programme…”. Two things here: it’s not the “colour test card” this time – so, presumably the slide-based Test Card F is the item in question. Why was ‘F’ not used prior to Play School? There’s also mention of Ceefax pages. The vagueness (no mention of a time) reinforces the idea that the transmission of teletext in-vision pages was quite ad hoc in 1980. Ceefax transmissions were not billed in Radio Times.
As a side note, it’s interesting to see mention of a Northern Ireland transmitter – Londonderry – in the scripts. In February 1971, five workmen were killed by an IRA bomb as their land rover drove up the mountain road to carry out repair work on the Brougher Mountain transmitter. Two of the five workmen were BBC engineers; the others were contract staff.
Following that incident, BBC Northern Ireland staff were reluctant to have engineering work publicised in advance. Transmitter maintenance work in Northern Ireland was generally not publicised on the Ceefax service. We have correspondence with the BBC’s engineering department from 10th July 1995 on this subject:
Thank you for your letter regarding transmitter information on Ceefax.
I regret that we do not provide this information for the transmitters in Northern Ireland. This is at the request of our transmitter maintenance staff in the province who are concerned about their personal safety. Some of them still remember the incident on the track to Brougher Mountain.
I recently asked for permission to treat Northern Ireland in the same way as the rest of the UK (in the light of the peace initiative), but I was told that there was no change yet in our staff’s attitude. I hope that, after a further few months of calm, they may change their mind.BBC Engineering Information
The programme shown on ITV, and later Channel 4, was produced by the ITA and later, IBA. It’s thought the bulletins were pre-recorded by the ITA/IBA. The means by which Engineering Announcements were put to air is unclear.
Although very few recordings of BBC Service Information appear to have survived, lots of editions of the IBA’s Engineering Announcements do still exist and are available to view online, via the YouTube channel, The IBA Archive. Lots of nostalgia available there. Here are just a few editions from that collection:
It’s unclear why the IBA version continued for seven-and-a-half years beyond its BBC equivalent. Where the BBC was concerned, all of the information carried on Service Information had been available on Ceefax for some years. Teletext sets were now widely available and certainly readily accessible by members of the trade. But, the same could be said for IBA – transmitter information was also available on Oracle (the then teletext service on ITV and Channel 4).
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the IBA was still in the process of building a new transmitter network for Channel 4? In fact, that work continued well beyond 1982. The IBA also tended to devote a good portion of Engineering Announcements airtime to discussing technical innovations – not something its BBC equivalent was known for.
PICTURED: BBC Service Information slide. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Treffynnon. COPYRIGHT: BBC.