Just as many of us like to adorn our homes at this time of year with festive decorations and lights; we’ve also come to expect our TV channels to get into the spirit too by adding a touch of wintry wonderland magic into the mix.
A selection of BBC Christmas idents from 1999-2009
Christmas idents – the colourful animations in the junctions between programmes - have become as much a staple part of the BBC’s festive output as the Doctor Who Christmas special, the Queen’s speech and the double issue Radio Times.
But just why do we have idents in the first place? TV and radio broadcasters have to identify the station or channel currently on air. You might think that as most television sets come with an EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) these days on-air idents are redundant. But with the perplexing multitude of channels and stations available in todays’ digital world, it’s reassuring to have that regular anchor confirming what it is we’re actually tuning in to.
The radio equivalent of an ident is a jingle – a few seconds’ worth of catchy ditty identifying the station and reflecting the style of the show or presenter currently on air.
On TV there have been a variety of ident symbols since the infamous ‘bat wings’ first floated onto our screens in 1953.
BBC One Wales Christmas clock ident, 1986
The perfect places for idents are the junctions between programmes where, being television, something must be shown whilst the channel director announces what channel we’re watching and informs of us what’s coming up next for our delight.
The BBC’s Nations and Regions channels played branded versions of these corporate idents, so you knew you were watching BBC One Wales for example rather than say BBC One West.
Up until 1985 these animated images came from mechanical devices and, amazingly, were usually screened live rather than played back from tape. So if it broke down, we saw it break down. How many schoolboys must have wished for a cuss word from the announcer live on air as the famous BBC Wales spinning crystal broke free from its home-made looking support and shattered into a million pieces in front of our very eyes?
BBC Cymru Wales ident crystal, 1968
Or maybe someone would forget to turn the thing on – this actually happened once on BBC Wales and the channel director announced “You're watching BBC Wales... and in a moment I'll prove it to you" as he hastily powered up the mechanical ident. His quick thinking actions under pressure saved the day, but also earned him a word in his ear from the boss.
Many mechanical idents involved a potter’s wheel idea; something revolving to show animation. A globe fitted the bill perfectly; planet Earth revolving (somewhat faster than actual speed) while a ghostly elongated version of it rolled by in perfect sync behind it. The effect was ingeniously achieved by the use of an illuminated globe rotating in front of a curved mirror.
BBC Wales ident globe, from 1969
If you look closely you’ll notice that there are quite a few extra Pacific islands than there should be – a result of the hand-painted globe’s matt black coating flaking off over the years.
Christmas creativity would shine through during the festive holiday period and the globe would give way to skaters, robins and even a Christmas pudding!
BBC Christmas pudding TV ident, 1977
Many of today’s idents take the form of fully self-contained trails previewing a selection of Christmas programmes coming up, but the fondly-remembered days of the marvellous mechanical wonders of the early animations have earned their place in the history of pioneering television.