Old Grey Whistle Test – a visual evolution!


01 The nights are drawing in, so get your lab coats on, grab a stiff drink and wallow in this deepest of dives – a micro-investigation of the visual elements of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (BBC2, 1971 – 87).  It’s almost 80 tweets – sorry, but I’ve just got a lot to say!

02 The series rightly put sound at the forefront, but there are notable examples of lighting, set design, graphic design, and directorial touches.  An uninterrupted 16 year provides opportunities to obsessively study evolving visual styles and tastes.  Let’s geek out. 

03 I’m sure a quick trip to other websites will remind us of its genesis in 1971.  A heady brew of Attenborough, Ayres, Appleton, Late Night Line-Up, Disco 2 all contribute to this rather wonderful, and much imitated (or parodied) slice of late night music.

04 In fact, the parodies and homages run deep, from RWT, to Jazz Club.  From the Arctic Monkeys, to Moloko.  And it wouldn’t have been this way without a distinctive visual style…on an initial budget of £500 per show.

05 Let’s start with a celebrated example – the title sequence.  Wiki states that early episodes opened with a painted green naked woman, dancing to Santana.  I’ve seen no evidence of this.  The earliest show to survive in full is the 7/12/71, which uses the ‘Starkicker’ titles.

06 Producer Michael Appleton – “I asked a guy called Roger Ferrin at BBC graphics for something, and he gave me something totally different, which was much better than what I asked for. That’s why he’s a graphic artist and I wasn’t.”  

07 The titles are shot on 16mm Eastman Colour film, and animated using a rostrum camera. Back-lit ‘fogged’ Kodaliths are used, presumably to create a hazy effect.  A standard green plastic Jakar articulated figure template is created and placed over the film.

08 Pin pricks are made onto the film around the edges of the template, altering the pose on each sheet. A pin register over a bench film lightbox, is used to keep everything in place. 

09 Simple pin pricks create the universe, and a star filter is used for the travelling star that was ‘kicked’. No opticals are required, as the whole sequence is shot in camera.

10 The title caption uses the font ITC Busorama Standard Bold, with a few subtle modifications. Designed by Tom Carnase & Herb Lubalin, Busorama started life with an ad for a bus company, and was part of the first typeface release package from ITC in 1970.

11 Typically the lack of time and budget is key.  The whole process takes almost three weeks, from concept to completion, at a cost of roughly £250 (roughly equivalent to £3,600 in today’s money).  

12 Ferrin – “Spontaneity became the key note and perhaps that’s why it survived so long.  The imagery was strong, basic and strident, leaving doors open for the onlookers’ interpretation.  As we all know, it is more rewarding solving a clue than completing the crossword.”

13 Famously the show starts life in the tiny ‘Pres B’ studio (think Points of View, Barry Norman’s Film programme).  The limited space results in a fairly straightforward top-down lighting setup for many of the acts, with the back of the studio illuminated in a variety of colours.

14 Occasionally, the lighting echoes the performances, from the intimacy of Curtis Mayfield and his band, to the intensity of Humble Pie.  However, there is only so much that can be done in a space designed for nothing more than 3-4 people having a chat.

15 A 10m x 7m studio means that the resulting camera shots and vision mixing are largely limited to stationary zooms into the performers. Tracking shots are rare.  There are occasional moments of electronic effects (think John Martyn) but largely the feel is ‘back to basics’.  

16 Furniture for the first series is scarce – often whatever wooden high stool happens to be laying around. Richard Williams mixes standing up interviews when facing mad, bad Jerry Lee Lewis, or sitting down to give Ornette Coleman a more civilised VIP treatment.  

17 Bob Harris takes the helm from series 2, preferring the office chair to the high stool. Series 4 (1974-75) sees new visual touches, from crude Starkicker ‘gels’ on the studio lights, some of which are stacked in an economic metal grid frame, only serving to make the studio even smaller.  

18 It’s March 1975, and it is time to bid a fond farewell to ‘Pres B’ as the BBC upgrades the show to larger studios within Television Centre, and increasingly around the regions.  More space means that a set design will be accomodated. 

19 The first appearance of the large circular Starkicker set dressing appears around this time.  This example is from December 1974, alongside an embryonic case-sensitive banner displaying the OGWT title.

20 The banner will evolve during 1975, including white and yellow banners, before settling on the familiar typeface, which would be used until mid-1982.  

21 Bigger studios and set elements allow background and foreground to combine, creating interesting shots, often involving the starkicker.  Tracking shots are also commonplace, including those ‘round the stage’ shots which inevitably end up behind the drum riser.  

22 And there are forays to the BBC Television Theatre (now the Shepherds Bush Empire).  Acts play in front of an audience, and cameras have space to roam.  Early concerts feature a cyclorama, but it doesn’t take long for someone to remember the true OGWT aesthetic.  

23. September 1978 sees a number of changes.  Not only does Annie Nightingale take over as main presenter, but the set now boasts two stages, with ‘Stage A’ and ‘Stage B’ identifiers at the front of the stage.  This uses Stencil Std Bold font, designed by Gerry Powell in 1938.

24 A small modification is made to the end of the opening tiles. Whereas the OGWT title originally appeared dot by dot, now it is revealed by an advancing cluster of stars, with a final star ‘bursting’ and disappearing into the distance. 

25 And the title itself is modified, with changes to the ‘E’ and ‘R’, moving from yellow to white, and in uppercase.  Remember, these are the details you have signed up for!  

26 Punk and what came after, has a lasting impact on OGWT, with the introduction of Annie Nightingale, and a more playful tone.  The lighting too, seems to become more creative and atmospheric, with more emphasis on backlights, both as set design and lighting effect.  

27 Other early 1980’s examples where the lighting is key to the performance include; John Cooper Clarke’s foray into Beasley Street, and Bauhaus, with Peter ‘the Maxell man’ Murphy adopting striking poses.  

28 Captions continue to use a standard BBC sans serif font, and ITC Busorama, used in the title sequence.  These are usually seen in the end of year compilations.  

29 It is worth noting that OGWT uses less electronic effects than TOTP’s liberal use of colour synthesizer.  However, exceptions include; ‘Careering’ by Public Image Limited, and ‘Frame by Frame’ by King Crimson, the effects complementing the intensity of their arrangements.

30 It’s 1981, and a studio audience is added.  BBC policy is eventually changed so that those who actually apply to be in the OGWT audience are selected, as opposed to members of the public who are secretly hoping to watch ‘Call my Bluff’ or similar. 

31 In mid 1982, Annie Nightingale departs, and so does the banner with the words ‘OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST’.  Perhaps with the arrival of Channel 4 and ‘The Tube’, Whistle Test is becoming more self-conscious about its Old Grey title?  

32 The Autumn 1982 series also dispenses with the little set in the corner of the studio, plastered with the concert posters of the time (introduced in 1975).

33 Where presenter links or introductions were delivered standing up in front of the acts, there is now Mark Ellen and David Hepworth sitting in front of the two stages.  (Usually in Pieff ‘Eleganza’ chairs).  The ‘Stage A’ and ‘Stage B’ banners also disappear.

34 For the start of the April 1983 series, Roger Ferrin is commissioned to revamp his legendary title sequence, updating it for the 1980’s.  Retaining the use of stop motion animation, Ferrin retains the Starkicker motif.  

35 The sequence integrates a model landscape filmed using a rostrum camera, with animated effects, and probable use of slit-scan.  The effect is distinctly 1980’s, drawing from the booming computer games scene.  

36 This is enhanced by an ‘electro’ version of the ‘Stone Fox Chase’ theme, with noises familiar to those who play arcade games of the time.  The Starkicker does somersaults and fires laser beams.  Pac-Man Fever, indeed.

37 As he did in 1971, Roger Ferrin uses a contemporary font to display the series title, in this case ‘Isonorm’, created in 1980 by the International Standards Organization (ISO). 

38 This short lived title sequence is new, but the 1983 series is the final run with the bare-walled studio and ‘Starkicker’ set design.  It really is the end of an era.

39 This series also appears to move out of Riverside and Shepperton, and back to Television Centre, using the bigger studios, allowing for the audience seating to be retained.  However, big changes are around the corner.  

40 These changes were shared with the viewers at the end of 1983, during the Pick of the Year.  The theme tune is to be no more, as are the words ‘Old Grey’.  Typically the news is shared in a wonderful, ironic, OGWT setting – a dingy BBC production office.

41 When ‘Whistle Test’ returns a couple of weeks later in January 1984, it is all new, with static and in-yer-face logo, and wait for it, a fully realised set design!  Mark Ellen – “We’ve had the decorators in.”

42 The live feel is lost.  The studio audience of the last three years is gone, and the new ‘Whistle Test’ is filmed during the day, edited in the early evening, and shown later the same Friday night – as the clock nears midnight.

43 Covering the studio walls, is a massive cyclorama, with a contemporary printed design.  The influence is tricky to pin down, but abstract art from Warhol, to Neo-expressionism springs to mind. For the first time, ‘Whistle Test’ is fully referencing design styles of the time. 

44 The contrasting background impacts on the lighting direction, which fully concentrates on both background and foreground elements in a different way to the empty, dusty studios of old.  

45 The other set element is an ‘office’ for the presenters to do their links, and interview guests.  Pieff ‘Eleganza’ kick stools replace the swivel chairs of old.  Magazines are strewn across the high table.  BBC monitors create a distinctly BBC ‘hi-tech’ feel.  

46 The other main decorations are pastel blue Venetian blinds, a popular interior design addition of the time.  This would be an element that would evolve over the next few years of the series.  

47 The early 1984 series is an interesting, transitional series, with Radio 1 producer Trevor Dann, moving to television, and bringing many new visual touches.  It’s the first sign that ‘Whistle Test’ is evolving in light of the success of ‘The Tube’ (Channel 4, 1982 – 87).

48 Arguably the biggest change of all happens just over half a year later, with the 1984-85 series.  Firstly, BBC graphic designer Martin Foster is selected to redesign the title sequence.  

49 The sequence melds all kinds of contemporary references; holograms, blinds, rayburns, video-art.  It’s a very stylish and punchy affair, perhaps reflecting the evolution/MTVcation of the music industry.  

50 The logo is a mix of typefaces from the timeless ‘Futura’ family, designed by Paul Renner and released in 1927.  The ‘Whistle’ is a Future medium condensed or semi bold. 

51 The final introduction for all its contemporary references, also retains elements of old, such as a reimaged figure, albeit no longer kicking stars, lighting effects, and what some consider to be an updated ‘Stone Fox Chase’ by keyboardist Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics man).  

52 Stewart – “I was given no brief and there was no collaboration with the designer of the title sequence,  though I would have happily written to picture if that had been the job. I think Trevor (Dann) just told me how long it needed to be and left me to my own devices.” 

53 “It was spontaneous piece of composition with nothing planned in advance: I programmed a drum track with a similar swing feel to the original theme (not a conscious decision, it just came out that way)” 

54 “I improvised a bass line using a slap bass keyboard sound. It didn’t take long 🙂 Later someone told me Andy Kershaw absolutely hated it, which I thought was funny.”

55 Captions change from the sans-serif font used on and off for years, to a new modern typeface with additional horizontal lines underneath, perhaps reflecting the blinds featured in the title sequence and set design.  

56 The ‘office’ seen in the early 1984 series, morphes into ‘The Comfy Area’, a highly stylised mix of postmodernism and the art deco revival of the era.  It’s perfect for the series, maintaining the laid back presenting style.

57 The first iteration of this space (for the 84 – 85 series) is a darker, greyer affair with a ‘newsdesk’ and chrome and leather armchairs and sofas.  

58 Decorative prints, photography, and table lamps all compete with each other.  “Garcon” the waiter c1983 is a key addition.  A fibreglass resin by the mannequin designer Lindsey B Balkweill, three different sizes were made – the tallest was over 6ft.  

59 The performance spaces are also overhauled, moving towards a back-to-basics black space with white railings.  This alongside rows of lights in the background, mimic a concert setting.  

60 The 1984-85 series is screened in an early evening slot on BBC2, suggesting a very real evolution in both style and content.  Ellen and Hepworth were joined by Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner and Ro Newton.

61 The series initially performs well, but when there is constant tinkering with a visual identity, it suggests a show in trouble.  In the case of Whistle Test, scheduling is the issue.  In 1985 it is placed against Eastenders, then in 1986 it is moved to 6pm.  Audiences drop.

62 It’s a pity, as the music is still really good.  And the presentation is still evolving.  Handheld camera shots are commonplace in the mid 1980’s with camera operators frequently seen on stage, trying to blend into the surroundings, often wearing brightly coloured clothing. 

63 The big change in 1985-86 is a new performance space set design, with a ‘Whistle Test’ Venetian blind framed by a marbled postmodernist column design reminiscent of many PoMo architecture and interior designs of the time.

64 This is also reflected in modifications to ‘The Comfy Area’, a brighter, more marbled affair, but still retaining a very postmodern sensibility, akin to the interior of TV-AM headquarters in Camden!

65 Since the ‘relaunch’, Whistle Test is using graphics like it never has before.  Video reviews, top 40 singles and Top 30 album chart rundown make an appearance, using a mix of artwork (at the bottom) and electronic captions (at the top).  

66 There are further modifications to the 1986 series, with a more condensed typeface for the graphics and, more ominously, tinkering with the perfectly good title sequence.  

67 1987 arrives, and the final winter series from Jan – March, some of which is ‘on the road’ (AKA lack of studio space in London).  The budget is reduced.  ‘The Comfy Area’ now consists of a couple of sofas, a table and a TV monitor.  The marbled backdrop is gone.

68 The logo is a ‘scripted’ typeface, lending itself more to advertising than music.  It’s framed in a circular mesh design – charitably it might be a nod to vinyl.

69 Captions incorporate the new logo, yet use the similar typeface as the old one.  A flashing ‘cursor’ suggests a ‘hi-tech’ feel.   These are curious decisions, considering the title sequence is still the same, and the postmodernist set design behind the artists is still there.  

70 Railings frame a new stage design, with steps leading up to the main rostrum.  Rows of lights continue to serve as part set design, part lighting effect.  Considering the strong visual aesthetic of the previous few years, it is neither one thing, nor another.  

71 The final regular show airs on 25th March 1987, with a taste of the new – Wet Wet Wet.  Occasional special editions follow.  The news of its cancellation surprises few. and a final hurrah is broadcast in the last hours of 1987, with Bob Harris returning to say farewell. 

72 When OGWT returns – for one night only – in 2018, it is satisfying to see the ultimate nostalgic nod, an empty studio at Television Centre (the biggest in fact, TC1) the banners, and coloured gels everywhere.  It’s an aesthetic all of its own.  

73  Looking back I always enjoyed OGWT’s earnestness, not to mention its eclecticism. Visually speaking it was a rickety old show, but it always let the music do the talking.   It’s remarkable that OGWT survived 16 years.  

74 Budgets had an effect on the visual feel, especially in the frugal early years in Pres B.  Yet it offered an intimacy that appealed to many.  The bare TV studio was a look all itself, and its later ‘PoMo’ design elements were interesting, even if it didn’t really matter.   

75 The real crime was its scheduling.  Bounced around late at night for years, it was when it shifted to a mid evening slot, that it started to struggle.  People made unfair comparisons with The Tube, but that was altogether a different show.  

76 OGWT’s natural home was late at night, and while its move to mid-evening was a well intentioned ‘refresh’, ordered by BBC2 controller Graham McDonald in fact it turned the show into something else entirely – something which it wasn’t.  Perhaps a completely new series could have competed with The Tube instead?

77 I enjoyed the last years, and the music featured remained challenging and interesting.  However the 80’s saw seismic shifts in television production, and the music industry.  These all had an impact on ‘Whistle Test’.  Eventually, video killed this particular star (kicker).  

78 As a postscript, Bill Withers died in April 2020.  On the same day Mike Appleton, OGWT producer/editor, from start to finish, also passed away.  Without Appleton’s protection of the archive from the hands of the BBC, we wouldn’t have enjoyed Withers’ performance.  

79 Kudos to so many.  Notables include, Clayton Hickman – the typeface guru, Dave Stewart who kindly shared some thoughts, the late ‘OGWTArchive’ on Twitter. Quotes from Ferrin via Merritt, D (1987) Television Graphics – Wiley and Sons, tvpopdiaries, Graham Hammond from OGWT appreciation f/b group.  

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