Test Card F

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BBC Test Card F as seen on BBC1 from 17 February 1991 to 4 October 1997.

Test Card F is a test card that was created by the BBC and used on television in the United Kingdom and in countries elsewhere in the world for more than four decades. Like other test cards, it was usually shown while no programmes were being broadcast. It was the first to be transmitted in colour in the UK and the first to feature a person, and has become an iconic British image regularly subject to parody.

The central image on the card shows Carole Hersee playing noughts and crosses with a clown doll, Bubbles the Clown, surrounded by various greyscales and colour test signals used to assess the quality of the transmitted picture. It was first broadcast on 2 July 1967 (the day after the first colour pictures appeared to the public on television) on BBC2.

The card was developed by a BBC engineer, George Hersee (1924–2001), father of the girl in the central image. It was frequently broadcast during daytime downtime on BBC Television until 29 April 1983 and was still seen before the start of programmes until BBC1 began to broadcast 24 hours a day in November 1997, and on BBC2 until its downtime was replaced entirely by Pages from Ceefax in 1998, after which it was only seen during engineering work, and was last seen in this role in 1999. The card was also seen on ITV in the 1970s, occasionally used in conjunction with Test Card G.

In the digital age, Test Card F and its variants are very infrequently broadcast, as downtime in schedules has largely become a thing of the past. Several variations of TCF have been screened, among them Test Card J (digitally enhanced), Test Card W (widescreen) and its high definition variant, which is sometimes erroneously referred to as Test Card X.

Up until the UK's digital switchover, the testcard made an appearance during the annual RBS (rebroadcast standby)[1] Test Transmissions and, until 2013, during the BBC HD preview loop, which used Test Card W.

Technical information[edit]

Virtually all the designs and patterns on the card have some significance. Along the top (see above) are 95% saturation colour-bars in descending order of luminancewhite, yellow, cyan, green, magenta, red, blue and black. There are triangles on each of the four sides of the card to check for correct overscanning of the picture. Standard greyscale and frequency response tests are found on the left and right respectively of the central picture. On the updated version known as Test Card J (including widescreen and HD versions), the X on the noughts-and-crosses board is an indicator for aligning the centre of the screen.

The blocks of colour on the sides would cause the picture to tear horizontally if the sync circuits were not adjusted properly. The closely spaced lines in various parts of the screen allowed focus to be checked from centre to edge; mistuning would also blur the lines. All parts of the greyscale would not be distinct if contrast and brightness (both internal preset settings and user adjustments) were not set correctly. The black bar on a white background revealed ringing and signal reflections. The castellations along the top and bottom also revealed possible setup problems.

In the centre image, a child was depicted so that wrong skin colour would be obvious and not subject to changing make-up fashions. The juxtaposed garish colours of the clown were such that a common transmission error called chrominance/luminance delay inequality would make the clown's yellow buttons turn white. Use of centre images in test cards were however not a new idea; RTF and ORTF in France used the Marly Horses as the central motif of its monochrome 819-line test card which was used on TF1 between 1953 and 1983,[2] and the first French colour test card featuring a centre image of colourful roses was used on France 2 from 1967 until sometime around the mid-1970s.[3] SVT in Sweden was also later inspired by Test Card F to develop its own colour test card, based on its earlier monochrome test cards, with a girl holding a doll in the centre image.[4]

Modern circuitry using large-scale integration is much less susceptible to most of these problems. Some of them are also associated with cathode ray tubes; liquid crystal displays (LCDs), that are not scanned at high speed, also help. The test card was a vital tool in its day, but has become far less important.

The name of the broadcasting channel usually appeared in the space underneath the letter F—a serif F denoting an original optical version of the test card.

Originally, Test Card F was a photographic slide made up of two transparencies in perfect registration—one containing the colour information and the other the monochrome background. The card was converted to electronic form in 1984 when electronic storage became possible.

Audio accompaniment[edit]

A sound of some kind is usually transmitted in the background. It is sometimes music, usually a composition commissioned by the station itself or "royalty-free" stock music. Composers whose music has been used include Roger Roger, Johnny Pearson, Neil Richardson, Frank Chacksfield, Syd Dale, John Cameron, Brian Bennett, Keith Mansfield, and Alan Hawkshaw.

However, during more recent years in which the Test Card is only played during engineering tests on the BBC, it is more common to hear a steady tone of various pitches accompanied by a female talking clock. Test Card music had ceased to be frequently heard in the 1980s (though it continued to be played over Pages from Ceefax until the termination of that service on 22 October 2012).

Bubbles the Clown[edit]

Original transparency of the central image created for Test Card F.

Along with his Test Card F co-star Carole Hersee, Bubbles has appeared for an estimated total of 70,000 hours[5] on television, equivalent to nearly eight whole years, which is more than any living person other than Carole (who still owns Bubbles).[6]


Bubbles's original body colour was blue and white, but the BBC engineers decided that green was also needed within the scene[7] as the other two television primary colours, red and blue, were already shown. A green wrap was made to cover his body and this can be seen in Test Card J and Test Card W, along with more of his body shown in the photograph[8] — revealing the fact that he is actually holding a piece of chalk, which was not previously visible.

However, the shade of green material chosen was too subtle for the engineers' liking and so Bubbles' body colour in Test Card F was retouched (this can be seen from the edges of his image) to make it more saturated and also to give it a higher luminance value on screen.[7]

Overseas usage[edit]

Test Card F was also used in approximately 30 countries outside the UK. Notable overseas users included:

Variants and updated versions[edit]

Test Card J [edit]

Test Card J is an updated version of Test Card F, and first appeared in November 1999. It includes the following changes relative to its predecessor:

  • A newly added green square at the top of the screen is used to facilitate easier observation of chrominance to luminance delay.
  • The negative black squares in the left hand step pattern should flash on and off at 1 Hz. This is to aid in the detection of frozen digital links.
  • The central image is based on the same source photograph, but with some minor adjustments:
    • It has been rescanned from the original transparency for improved colour accuracy.
    • The image has been re-aligned within Test Card J such that the cross on the noughts and crosses board is at the exact centre of the screen, as some believe was originally intended.
    • It is less tightly cropped, resulting in more edge detail from the original photograph being visible.[8]

Test Card W [edit]

Test Card W is an updated 16:9 (1.78:1) widescreen version of Test Card F. It first appeared in November 1999 alongside Test Card J, with which it bears some similarities.

The colour-bars on the top and right of the image are the full 100 percent saturation version, unlike Test Cards F and J which use the 95 percent type. Extra mirrored arrow-heads on the central axis at the sides mark the positions of the middle 4:3 and 14:9 sections of the image.

On Freeview in the United Kingdom, Test Card W can be viewed at any time on most Freeview boxes.[19]

BBC HD channel variant ("Test Card X") [edit]

A 1080 line variant of Test Card W (sometimes referred to unofficially[20] as Test Card X) was used on the now-defunct BBC HD channel. It could be viewed every two hours as part of the BBC HD preview slot. When viewed, it was enhanced with 5.1 surround sound tests. A BLITS tone is played alongside, which plays test tones at different frequencies from each of the different surround sound speakers, with markers (such as L, R, C, LFE, Ls, Rs) appearing inside some of the grey boxes of the testcard.[21] BBC HD closed in March 2013; therefore Test Card X is no longer broadcast.

The test card displayed every morning at 7:00 on BBC 2.

BBC Two variant (2016)[edit]

The latest (2016) iteration of the widescreen testcard can be seen briefly each morning at 7:00 on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. At the centre bottom of the test card is an animated grey bar with graduations corresponding to 1/12 of a second. The animation is accompanied by a 'pip' that occurs when the animated bar reaches the centre mark (indicated by a 0), which together can be used to determine whether the digital audio and video signals are synchronised.

Recent years[edit]

Since the late 1990s, Bubbles has only very rarely appeared on television as Test Card F has been discontinued, and Test Cards J and W are very seldom shown due to the advent of digital television and 24-hour programming.[8]

From May 1983 Test Card F was seen far less due to Ceefax pages being shown during all daytime intervals and by the late 1980s Test Card F was only seen for a few minutes early in the morning as all the remaining gaps in the day's programming were filled with programmes. 1992 was the last year that Test Card F was seen daily with music; 1995 was the last year it was seen with music, although it was seen until 1999 with just tone output; Ceefax was broadcast either with tone or music. However, since the closure of Ceefax, the shutdown of analogue television transmissions, and the imposition budgetary constraints, a new revision of the testcard can be seen daily on BBC Two and BBC Two HD at the end of the "This is BBC Two" transmission. Each morning, as the segment concludes, the testcard is broadcast for approximately one minute.

For the fortieth anniversary of Test Card F, there was some renewed interest in Bubbles in the media; in a 2007 interview, Hersee mentioned that she took Bubbles into school with her to prove to her headmaster that she really was the girl in the picture.[22]

The BBC website previously featured Bubbles next to a blackboard with "404" inscribed on it when a user visited a page that did not exist;[23] however, some time between July 2017 and May 2020, this was replaced with an image of two "clangers" (animated puppets) from the BBC television show Clangers.[24] Similarly, in 2015 the BBC website's "500" Internal Error page featured a cross-eyed Bubbles appearing in front of a blackboard with a background of fire;[25] however, this has since been replaced with the same error message seen on the 404 page.

In popular culture[edit]

Variations and parodies of Test Card F are common in British broadcasting, Internet sites and games. Some prominent examples include:

  • In the 1970s ITV satirical series, End of Part One, there is an audition for a new test card 'girl'.
  • The BBC's 1989 documentary for the Arena series, "Slim Gaillard's Civilization", begins by showing Slim Gaillard watching the original Test Card F. The documentary concludes with Slim Gaillard entering the screen and playing noughts and crosses with Carol.
  • A BBC2 bumper shown from 1992 to 1993 showed a girl acting as Carole Hersee replacing Bubbles The Clown with a logo "2" made of strings next to the blackboard.
  • An updated version of Test Card F has appeared on Sky HD, with television presenter Myleene Klass playing the role of Carole Hersee. Klass steps out of the frame and gives viewers a ten-minute guide to high-definition television.
  • The sketch comedy programme That Mitchell and Webb Look featured a recurring sketch of a quiz show being broadcast by the British Emergency Broadcasting System in a post-apocalyptic setting, with a parody of Test Card F.
  • The TV series Life on Mars features a Test Card Girl based on Test Card F, who teases and torments the lead character, Sam Tyler.[26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mad Radio DXer (9 January 2008). "BBC 1 RBS Tests 2008" – via YouTube.
  2. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20160304051933/http://www.pembers.freeserve.co.uk/Test-Cards/Non-UK.html#France
  3. ^ https://www.vivelapub.fr/retrospective-la-mire-tv/
  4. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20160304051933/http://www.pembers.freeserve.co.uk/Test-Cards/Non-UK.html#Sweden
  5. ^ "Test card special". BBC News. 19 April 2001. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  6. ^ Deacon, Michael (25 May 2007). "Talking about the Test Card". The Telegraph. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  7. ^ a b Grant, Dave. "Test Card 'F'". The Test Card Gallery. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  8. ^ a b c Meldrum, Darren. "BBC Test Cards". MHP The Test Card Gallery. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  9. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20160304051933/http://www.pembers.freeserve.co.uk/Test-Cards/Non-UK.html#Generic
  10. ^ https://danskradio.dk/tv.html
  11. ^ a b c "Non-UK Television Test Cards, Tuning Signals, Clocks and Idents". Archived from the original on 2019-06-07.
  12. ^ https://testcards.retropia.co.uk/post/122749885310/nrk-norsk-rikskringkasting-test-card-f-1974
  13. ^ http://hub.tv-ark.org.uk/images/testcards/images/43_testcards/tcf_farg_tv_sweden-01.jpg
  14. ^ https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/colour-tv-part-2
  15. ^ http://www.meldrum.co.uk/mhp/testcard/around_world.html
  16. ^ https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/highlight?page=50moments
  17. ^ http://testcards.retropia.co.uk/post/144643283352/nzbc
  18. ^ http://www.oocities.org/wenlockb/icdx/outandabout11.html
  19. ^ "Hidden testcard on topup box". Digital Spy. 2008-01-13. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  20. ^ Quested, Andy. "A Christmas Present from the HD Channel!". BBC Internet blog. Retrieved 2013-12-21. The test card seems to have been given the name "Test Card X" but not by us, it is in fact a modified high definition version of test card W
  21. ^ Quested, Andy. "A Christmas Present from the HD Channel!". BBC Internet blog. Retrieved 2011-12-14.
  22. ^ Personal Column: Test-card special The Independent.
  23. ^ "Error 404 : Not Found". bbc.co.uk. BBC. 18 June 2016. Retrieved 29 May 2020.[dead link]
  24. ^ "Error 404: Not Found". bbc.co.uk. BBC. 29 May 2020. Retrieved 29 May 2020.[dead link]
  25. ^ Gadd, Sophie (14 March 2015). "BBC website down: Incredibly creepy clown in error message is freaking people out". mirror.co.uk. The Mirror. Retrieved 29 May 2020.
  26. ^ "Life on Mars questions". BBC Drama. Retrieved 24 July 2020.
  27. ^ Griffiths, Nick (1 April 2007). "Did you spot the clues?". The Radio Times. Archived from the original on 21 November 2008. Retrieved 24 July 2020.
  28. ^ Radiohead (2020). "Blips". Radiohead Public Library. XL Recordings. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  29. ^ "Madness - Waiting For The Ghost Train". YouTube. 24 November 2008. Retrieved 5 July 2020.
  30. ^ "Hallelujah Money (feat. Benjamin Clementine) - Gorillaz", Youtube, UPROXX, 2017-01-19, retrieved 2017-01-19

External links[edit]

BBC links[edit]