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The man who listens to test card tunes by choice


By Nick Britten
Last Updated: 2:52am GMT 03/11/2006

Audio: Interview with test card collector Keith Hamer
In pictures: Test cards from the man who has collected thousands

As hobbies go, Keith Hamer is a master of his art. As an 11-year-old, he decided to find out what was broadcast on television in the gap between afternoon and evening programmes and settled down one day as the BBC went off air to see what happened next.

 
Test cards disappeared from British TV screens in 1983

When the test card appeared accompanied by its incidental music, Mr Hamer was seduced. He set up a tape recorder he had been given for his birthday and began recording the music — and didn't stop until the card was taken off air 20 years later.

As a result, he has 3,500 pieces of accompanying music and stills of every test card produced. His knowledge is so vast that the BBC consults him when making dramas set in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s, not just to get the right test card, but also the correct accompanying music.

He said: "They get loads of complaints if they get it wrong, so they come to me because they know I'll get it right."

Yesterday he admitted that he rarely listened to any other music because, he says, the test card tunes were so well produced. He said: "They had to make them tip-top or the BBC or whoever would not buy them. The arrangements and attention to detail are superb, a huge amount of work was put into them and therefore the music is of excellent quality, much better than the stuff you buy in shops today."

Yesterday the BBC marked 70 years since its first 405-line "high-definition" broadcast. Mr Hamer, 54, celebrated by devoting himself, as usual, to marvelling at the splendour of test cards A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H.

He said: "Because the BBC wasn't allowed to use any music made in the country for copyright reasons, they used to get the senior band leaders like Alan Ainsworth or Neil Richardson to go to Germany under an assumed name, record the music there and then come back again, allowing them to use it."

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Mr Hamer, from Mackworth, Derby, has the only copy of the song the BBC used to introduce itself to the nation in 1936 — Magic Rays of Light, by Adel Dixon.

He began listening to test card music in 1963. He said: "Back then the first programme was a news bulletin at 1.25 with Michael Aspel or Richard Baker. Then it was Watch With Mother at 1.30. After that the clock caption came on for a while. But I wondered what happened between then and programmes starting again in the evening.

"So I kept watching, and at 2 o'clock the test card came on. I thought the music was brilliant, so I got my tape-recorder out and started taping it.

"In those days all I could do was hold the microphone up to the loudspeaker on the TV, so I used to get all sorts of background noise.

"Later I could connect the tape-recorder to the TV, so the sound quality improved. And since then my collection has just grown and grown."

A retired BT engineer, Mr Hamer is so fond of all his test card tunes that he is unable to pick out any favourites, although he says he does particularly like a novelty piece of a dog barking set to music.

He said: "The music came from in-house LPs recorded by session musicians. They began in 1948 and featured all sorts of stuff — jazz, dance, light classical and some novelty sounds.

"A few years ago the LPs were all recalled by Broadcasting House and crushed because the copyright agreement with the publishers had run out.

"Fortunately, the BBC allowed me to go to some of its studios and pick out 300 or so of the records to add to the tapes I had recorded."

The BBC test card first appeared in 1947 — Test Card A was an austere black and white design with lines and a single circle.

The most famous was Test Card F, the girl and clown, which made its debut on BBC2 in 1967 and was eventually used in 30 countries. It was designed by George Hersee and featured his daughter, Carol, playing noughts and crosses on a blackboard with a glaring clown doll.

Mr Hamer's copy of the card is among his most treasured items, which also include an image of the BBC's long-time "spinning globe" symbol.

He recently lent the BBC some of his collection of interlude films – broadcast during a breakdown in service – for a documentary.

The cards vanished from the nation's screens in May 1983, and the music followed shortly after.

Mr Hamer, a bachelor, started a test card club a few years ago and accepts that whilst his collection is priceless, it is also worth nothing — because no one else wants it. "A millionaire couldn't buy what I've got, but then I don't know if anyone would want to."

He believes the person who has the least passion for test cards is Carol Hersee — the iconic test card girl for more than 15 years.

He said: "She hates being associated with the test card. I don't know why.

"She's in the Guinness Book of Records for appearing on TV for more hours than anyone else, but all she got paid at the time was £10."

nbritten@telegraph.co.uk

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