Saturday 29 May 2021

A Curious BBC Engineering Test from 1987

Neil Miles is a man who, much like myself, enjoys delving through piles of old videotapes in search of long forgotten footage. And his excellent YouTube channel recently delivered an intriguing slice of late night television in the form of a BBC engineering test from 1987.

Airing several minutes after BBC2 had closed down for the evening, this engineering test was clearly meant as an in-house test rather than an entertaining spectacle. But it's such an unusual broadcast that it can't help but be an entertaining spectacle. If, for whatever reason you were still up during the wee hours, stumbling across this scrambled footage would have been a disarming experience. It looks like TV, but it's not exactly TV as we know it. So, what was it?

Unfortunately, the specifics of these engineering tests aren't documented particularly well in the public domain. However, it's believed that these scrambled tests were early steps in developing encrypted programming to air on BBC2. Initially, starting in 1988, British Medical Television would provide programming that would air early in the morning on BBC2. These programmes were encrypted, but would be unscrambled and 'downloaded' to subscribers' video recorders. A few years later, in 1992, this service would be expanded into BBC Select which also offered specialised programming for teachers, legal professionals and businesses.

Whereas BBC Select was encrypted with the VideoCrypt technology - which rendered the images completely scrambled - the earlier engineering tests provided an image which was fuzzy, yet recognisable and most likely used the Discret11 system. And this allows us to vaguely make out the footage being employed in the test. A nature documentary, a 1970s BBC ident, Pan's People, athletics and some form of period drama all feature and indicate that the BBC were curious as to what exactly their proposed encryption system could deal with.

Ultimately, entertainment was off the cards as the service was reserved purely for programming related to professional trades. And, indeed, the service was far from successful with BBC Select closing down after three years in 1995. But these engineering tests are valuable and curious insights into the mindset of the BBC in the late 1980s. Clearly, a subscription based model appealed to the executives at Television Centre and hints at the kind of future they were planning for their platform. It didn't quite work out but, by 1997, 24-hour broadcasting had arrived on both BBC1 and 2, so the small hours were finally filled.

Bonus Reading: A few years ago, I found a similarly bizarre piece of footage which appears to be some form of engineering test and you can read more about it - and watch it - here.


  1. super interesting and a bit scary - thanks for posting

  2. Jonathan Hayward31 May 2021 at 04:40

    Remember these curious hybrids myself; even Showaddywaddy, presumably performing on Top Of The Pops, turned up on a few occasions, as did a brief extract from the film "Sweet Charity", starring Shirley MacLaine.