We look at what once went on in the supposedly dark hours of broadcasting.
Around my middle teens, I was in dire need of displacement activity. Anything to put off revising for exams in those early Summer months. What better than the television. Naturally, back then, there wasn’t 24 hour broadcasting, and there were no afternoon movies, soaps or reality encounter shows. But there were Trade Test Transmissions.
These were intended so that broadcasting engineers could tweak their systems when preparing, first, for UHF broadcasting, then for colour broadcasting. It also gave something for TV installers to set up customer’s TVs with. The films shown could be both boring or fascinating, and sometimes a combination of both. Some were versions of the sort of films I rather enjoyed viewing in the Geography class at school, with titles such as “Stainless Steel for Bechuanaland” or “Stevenage! Life in a New Town”. I’ve forgotten many of them, but naturally someone has helpfully compiled a full list on the web, and also put up a good few on YouTube. I’d particularly recommend “Coupe Des Alpes” – a documentary of the 1958 rally – and “Giuseppina” – a British stab at lightweight neo-realism, based around the life of a young girl at a rural Italian petrol station, possibly slightly twee in hindsight, but still evocative of a charmingly less homogenous World.
Because of the need to get good quality colour on TVs, these films were chosen for their high production values – of the two mentioned above, the latter was made by BP, the former by Shell. Together with other large companies such as ICI, they produced a good catalogue of films but, for me, towering above all these was The Shell History of Motor Racing. The series was made in the 1950s by Bill Mason, father of Pink Floyd drummer and arch car collector, Nick Mason.
My memory has tended to put this series in with all the other BBC test films but, in fact, episodes were actually shown on ITV on a sporadic basis as fill-ins, when for instance horse racing was cancelled due to rain. Of course, since most of the films consisted of archaic black and white archive footage, they would hardly have been ideal test-transmission material anyway.
To those who haven’t seen them, and assume that they were a period version of the sort of jaunty race series round-ups you get at the end of today’s annual Formula 1 coverage accompanied by some inspiring rock music, that was far from the case. These films were made when motor racing was still, and had always been, a highly dangerous sport with a significant mortality rate. There are six episodes – the links below may lead to some segmented episodes but you can find the remaining parts should you wish.
There was music, by Edward Williams, which aimed to recreate the mood of the relevant period. As the commentary, intoned naturally by a male voice in perfect BBCese, followed on from year to year, we would see grainy images of huge accidents, or the narrator’s report of yet another off-screen death, which gave a dour and almost resigned inevitability to it.
At least that was my memory of them. Until three or so years ago, I hadn’t seen any of the series for at least 40 years. Then, courtesy of very bad flu and YouTube, I spend a few days in bed and found that some episodes had obligingly been made available. They didn’t disappoint. The archive films that Bill Mason had found are excellent and were sympathetically treated, avoiding the un-natural looking speeding up you used to see when silent film was projected using the standard, faster sound film speed. Sound effects of engines and crowds had been added, quite simple and not always that authentic, but suitably effective. The sheer physicality involved in driving the cars is always apparent and, as the series reaches the 1930s, the episodes showing the silver Auto Unions and Mercedes are rightly titled ‘The Titans’. But what is most glaring to modern eyes is the general ramshackle intimacy of it all. Drivers in street clothes, with maybe a cloth helmet, get out of their cars and look at the camera whilst someone, or maybe the driver themselves, sloshes in petrol from a big can. Perhaps they have a quick smoke, or a swig from a bottle containing some unknown elixir, then they jump back in and race off. As the series moves from year to year, over the half-century that the films span, it’s almost as if they are all involved in an endless conflict, with that quick respite before they turn back to face the unknown.
Back then, for me it seemed to have something of the atmosphere of another documentary using old archive film, ‘The Great War’, a then ground-breaking 26 part documentary series that had recently been aired on the BBC. Of course, this is my reading of it, and doubtless it wasn’t the intention of the series. As a teenager I followed motor racing fervently through some of its most brutal years, until I more-or-less gave up after one death too many. Heroism is a difficult concept, and one that is often hijacked by the rest of us less heroic types for our own ends – I’d tend to define it as someone doing something altruistic that they really don’t want to do, but know that they must. As such, racing drivers, mountain climbers and the like, though often having other admirable characteristics, aren’t really heroes – they do it for themselves. But I wonder how many of those shown in Mason’s strangely, if not always intentionally, moving compilation ended up wishing they hadn’t.