6 U.K. Television Quirks Only Brits Will Know

The Test Card F girl Carole and her clown Bubbles.

The Test Card F girl Carole and her clown Bubbles.

There are certain things about British television only Brits can appreciate…

Carole Hersee & Bubbles the Clown
This image, without doubt, is the most bone-chillingly scary thing ever to be broadcast by the BBC. A young girl, who looks like something out of The Shining, is playing noughts and crosses with her limbless clown. It’s terrifying beyond words.

Test Card F, to give it its formal name, was first broadcast on July 2, 1967, the day after color pictures first appeared on British television. It was designed by BBC engineer George Hersee as a way to test if television sets were receiving the correct picture—a useful tool indeed for stores that sold color TVs. Hersee had originally used his daughter, Carole, in a dummy run, but BBC execs liked it so much they decided to keep it. Carole has since racked up over 70,000 hours of screen time—equivalent to eight continuous years—more than anybody else in the history of television.

It was only when I got a little older that I began to find the image so haunting. It was the clown mostly. He would come into my bedroom at night and hobble on his stumps towards me.  Then, using his massive mouth, he would drag me from bed and force me to play noughts and crosses with him until normal programming resumed.

Sign Zone
You always knew you’d stayed up too late if you were still awake when the BBC’s Sign Zone came on. It aired during the graveyard slot of 3am – 6am.  Makes perfect sense, only if you believe all deaf people suffer from insomnia.

Compared to the U.S., the pace of British television is so slow, it’s glacial. News in America, for example, is comparatively on speed: cue dramatic music and impossibly beautiful newscaster: “Rain in Los Angeles … the President records debut single … and a homeowner in Des Moines eats his own house.”  Whereas U.K. news might go something more like this:  “Good evening. Welcome to the BBC News at six o’clock.  The headlines this evening: [BONG of Big Ben] The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was admitted to hospital today after falling off his bike whilst taking a selfie…” The slow pace of British television is also noticeable on other programming such as dramas and game shows. Noel Edmonds, for example, will happily chat to a Deal or No Deal contestant for ten minutes about the time they found a fossil on the beach at Bexhill-on-Sea.

Teletext was the 1980s’ answer to the Internet. You could get live sports scores, book cheap last-minute holidays and play marvelous games like Bamboozle! The only problem was when it didn’t work properly. I once spent a Saturday afternoon astonished that all games in the football league had resulted in 0-0 draws. It was only when I watched Match of the Day later that evening I realized Teletext must’ve been experiencing technical difficulties. 

The BBC sent the first test transmissions of Teletext in 1973, and it was launched formally in 1976, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that most households had television sets with the decoders necessary to access it. Scholars of such things often regard the system as the birth of the information revolution (see, I told you it was the 1980s’ answer to the internet). Teletext was brought to the U.S. in the late 1970s, but there was little interest in the system and it never caught on.

teletext RIP

Continuity announcers
In between shows on British television you might hear a voiceover saying something like: “In an hour on BBC1 a new David Attenborough series studies the mating rituals of the Peruvian goose elephant. But first, here’s a very slow period drama with some actors you may remember from when you were dead…”

Small prizes
With the notable exceptions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Bullseye, a now defunct show that gave away speedboats to people who lived in inner-city council estates, British game shows give away prizes so small they’re barely worth getting out of bed for. Jackpots on daily British quiz shows like Pointless, for example, are rarely over a few thousand quid. This simply would not do in America. If we compare jackpots on, say, Deal or No Deal, a show both the U.S. and the U.K. have produced indigenously, we’ll note that American contestants can go home with a rather magnificent one million dollars! Brits, on the other hand, can only max out at £250,000.

And while we’re talking about Deal or No Deal (apologies for thrice using DoND as an example, but there really is no better way to illustrate the cultural differences between Britain and America than by viewing both countries’ adaptation of this particular show), it’s worth having a quick look at the people standing behind the moneyboxes. In the U.S., female models with million dollar smiles and Barbie-like figures reveal what’s in their box (oh err). Whereas in the U.K., other hopeful contestants, regular Joes like you and me, man the boxes. Put bluntly, America would sooner look at good-looking people than ugly ones. Or as Ohio-Iceman76 so elegantly put it on one forum discussing the matter, “british shows suk, i hate lookin at ugly people lol.”

What’s your favorite British television quirk?  Tell us in the comments below:

See more:
British vs. American Ads: Which TV Commercials Make You Blush?
11 TV Shows That Explain American Culture (for a British Expat)
What British Actors Should Know Before Moving to Hollywood

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Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
View all posts by Jon Langford.
  • frozen01

    Very funny article!
    I’m confused, though, why only Brits would know “continuity announcers”. I don’t watch much network TV anymore (I catch up later on Hulu), but I distinctly remember future TV shows (especially the news) being announced during the break between shows, in almost the exact same manner as described here.

  • expatmum

    Gah – I never noticed how creepy the clown was until now. I’m hoping it’s too far in the past to give me nightmares!
    I really miss in-depth news pieces, although the UK is probably moving towards sound-bite journalism too. It’s very irritating to hear a couple of lines about an international story (in particular) which isn’t expanded on. I tend to seek out BBC World news so that I can get more of an understanding of issues.

    • gn

      PBS NewsHour churns out worthy discussions of important national and international issues. It keeps them around on the internet for anyone to view (take note, BBC!) and, wonderfully, puts the transcript there too (really useful if you’re searching for examples of US pronunciations of particular words!). Here’s a random example.

  • Paul Oscroft

    The test card girl was so terrifying and so scarred a nation’s psyche that she featured as a ‘nightmare’ character in the fantastic TV show Life on Mars – coming to life and talking out of the screen to the show’s hero

  • Sean

    Open University was always a surreal experience

  • Agatha

    Blankety Blank was hilarious, they were so cheap, giving a prize of a Blankety Blank cheque (great to be able to spell it the correct way) book and pen

  • Ellen Yarbrough

    I was horrified to find out that the creepy test pattern Sam always saw on Life on Mars was a real thing. You never know how weird life can be ’til a little time passes. So are things we think are normal now going to wind up being really out there? Makes ya think don’ it.

  • Allison

    The Deal or No Deal comparison is actually a good one. I’ve watched more of both the British and American versions than I care to admit, but I’m an American that actually prefers the British DoND. They’re completely different and Noel Edmonds is bonkers, which is a stark contrast to Howie Mandel’s coolness. Then again, I’m fascinated by the fact that Noel Edmonds has managed to be on television for over 30 years. (Thank you, Britain for not exporting him.)

  • guest

    Noughts and crosses is tic-tac-toe! THANK YOU. That has been bugging me for years, and I always forget to ask one of my british friends… I’m happy now.

  • http://www.tellybritain.eu/ Willain John

    Its a wonderful article. Yeah there are so much slowness has been seen in most of the British television shows than American television.