Nowadays the morning television schedules for the UK terrestrial TV channels are awash with magazine style shows, and programmes about buying or selling houses or antiques, or at least that’s what it seems to be whenever I turn the TV on if I happen to be at home during a weekday.
Back in the 1980’s though, watching daytime TV outside of the summer holidays meant you might actually learn something useful, rather than the value of some old plate or a recipe for something you’ll never actually get round to making. Back then, daytime TV meant Programmes for Schools and Colleges.
ITV and BBC2 both showed a range of educational TV programmes for all ages, from simple English and Mathematics lessons for the primary schools right up to programmes detailing Science topics for secondary schools. One thing all these shows had in common was that before they started there was a countdown clock on screen. This was a series of dots or dashes marking out a clock face, which would disappear one by one until there were none left, and the next programme would start.
Obviously the idea of these programmes was for schools around the country to videotape them to show their pupils at a time suitable to the teachers. When you were at school you always knew you were going to be lucky enough to watch something when the schools big TV was wheeled into the classroom. Every school in the country must have been issued with one of these TV sets – a big wooden surrounded TV with two doors that closed in front of the screen, all sat upon a massive metal stand with castors on.
The funniest thing was that the teacher never knew how to operate the thing. The TV would be switched on and showing fuzz, the video player switched on and the tape inserted. Nothing happened. The teacher began to press every button on the TV, switching channels to reveal more static whilst the kids began to giggle. One kid would pipe up saying to press play on the video. The teacher would say something back like “I’ve pressed all the buttons“. All the kids could see that the video obviously wasn’t going because the counter wasn’t changing. More kids would try to help which just frustrated the teacher all the more, and the class was threatened that if they didn’t shut up they wouldn’t get to watch whatever it was. Eventually, usually after the one teacher in the school who obviously owned a video recorder was called for, the programme would start.
I remember everybody loved the suspense of the dots and dashes disappearing. Some kids would pretend to hold guns and make gun shot noises as if they were shooting all the dots away (even at secondary school). Usually it didn’t matter what programme you actually got to watch, because anything beat the normal schoolwork you would be doing otherwise. Some of the shows I remember were:
Experiment – In this show a man with a strange voice would narrate different scientific experiments. The people doing the experiment were normally dressed in white coats and didn’t say anything. It was a little eerie to watch, and was spoofed a few years ago by the BBC comedy show Look Around You.
Stop, Look and Listen – This started with a shot of a load of kids in a school playground if I remember, but each episode was about some kind of everyday experience, a bit like when we went through one of the windows in Play School.
Look And Read – There were several series of this, each portraying a different book. You’d watch a bit of the dramatised book, then there would be a break whilst a strange puppet with no legs called Wordy (he was covered in letters) would talk with some humans about what we’ve just watched. There were usually a couple of songs with animated videos to go with them to teach about something like “magic E”. No, nothing to do with illicit drugs, but a song telling you how “fir becomes fire with me, I’m magic magic E”. It would finish with a bit more of the story, first presented as some lines of text for you to read along with, leading into the film itself, which would then end on a cliffhanger ready for next week. The BBC sold copies of the story book to schools to accompany the series as well.
Picturebox – I remember this one starting with an ornate looking spinning box, with a strange haunting theme song that I found a little scary. A grey haired man would introduce a short film (I always hoped it would be a cartoon), and would return afterwards to discuss what you had just watched.