The UK’s third ever TV channel, the first in Europe to regularly transmit in colour, and the first in Britain to adopt a computer-generated channel identification; BBC Two has been making TV history ever since its launch in 1964. As the station celebrates half a century, The Drum looks back at some of the best idents from its 50-year history and catches up with Celia Chapman, senior client director of Lambie-Nairn and producer of the legendary ‘2’ symbols.
Back in 1991 when the iconic BBC Two idents hit the screen, nothing like them had ever been seen before. Traditionally channels had identified themselves in many different ways – remember the Anglia Heraldic Knight, said to have been bought by the chairman on a whim (he saw the Victorian horse racing trophy in a posh west end jewellers when driving down Bond Street)? His purchase found purpose on that wobbly turntable – why didn't someone fix that?
The 90s saw most channels following the groundbreaking style of the Channel 4 identity, launched some nine years earlier. Computer generated logos proliferated before the introduction of that simple Gill Sans numeral.
At the time BBC Two was airing some of the nation’s favourite programmes, but the audience didn’t credit it with delivering the likes of The Young Ones. Research showed that the channel was seen as a very worthy service, thanks to all that Open University stuff through the night. But, disastrously, it was also seen as dull.
Controller Alan Yentob recognised that the existing identity was singularly unmemorable and commissioned Lambie-Nairn to come up with something new, different and memorable.
That’s where that ‘2’ came in. Why was it chosen over all other ‘2’s? Because it was distinctive, it had sharp edges and a lot of surface area. This provided space for things to happen to it, and things did happen to it – it had paint thrown at it, it was dropped into paint powder, it was made from copper, paper, neon, and glass. It had fireworks attached to it, and it even become a performing dog.
At launch there were 10 idents designed to do a generic job – it was only later that the idents developed and evolved to become able to address specific audiences (BBC Two Fly Zapper for the Friday Late Night Comedy Zone) or specific programmes (BBC Two Remote Control Car for Top Gear).
So how were those mini masterpieces achieved? All the early idents were shot live action with models and rigs. Yards of silk, gallons of paint and acres of wobbly boards were needed. Some of the rigs didn’t quite deliver – it was some time before a model maker realised that the best way to get the paint to hit the two consistently was to put it on its side and drop paint from a great height – obvious, isn’t it?
Six months after launch, research showed that viewers’ opinions had changed; gone were words like ‘worthy’ and ‘dull’, and in came ‘sophisticated’, ‘witty’, ‘amusing’ and ‘engaging’, and all without a change of programming. So did Yentob think the brief had been fulfilled? He was heard to say that the ‘2’s contract was one that he would be renewing – and that’s exactly what happened. The ‘2’ is one of the channel’s longest serving stars.
The ‘2’ as a personality retired in 2007, but even now the channel identity still uses that fat, sharp-edged little numeral.
This article first appeared in The Drum's 16 April issue. You can buy a copy here.