60 years since 'bat's wings' became first BBC TV symbol

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Media captionSixty years of BBC One idents

Sixty years ago today the BBC unveiled its first "television symbol" - a moving logo to identify a TV channel - nowadays known as an "ident".

The new medium of television, the BBC decided, needed a new way to identify itself to viewers.

As television grew more polished, it needed something more exciting than a random selection of testcards in between the programmes.

The device known popularly as "the bat's wings" (or, in some hostile newspapers, simply as "the thing") was the solution it came up with.

In 1953 the art of branding was still pretty rudimentary.

The people who knew most about it were the men (and a few women) who designed advertising posters.

So when the BBC invited its own artists and others to come up with ideas, it is not surprising that the man who won the commission was one of the greatest poster artists of the 20th Century, Abram Games.

Image caption Abram Games was a well-known poster artist
Image caption Games produced designs for numerous companies and the government
Image caption He made advertisements for airlines and railway companies
Image caption Games produced posters for the government during World War Two
Image caption His striking images made him one of the greatest poster artists of the 20th Century
Image caption Games designed the logo for the 1951 Festival of Britain

Games had produced advertising posters for oil companies and building societies, and propaganda and recruitment posters for the government during World War Two.

He was to go on to create striking and often rather surreal advertisements for railway companies, airlines like BOAC and BEA, breweries, newspapers and the Metropolitan Police.

Later he branched out into product design, creating the famous glass Cona coffee percolator.

But in 1951 - the year he won the BBC commission - he was best known as the designer of the logo for the Festival of Britain, the six-month celebration which introduced a country still recovering from years of wartime shortages and austerity to a world of ultra-modern architecture and design.

Games's logo for the festival cleverly married tradition (Britannia's head in profile), sharp modern lines (the four points of the compass) and celebration (a swag of bunting).

Image caption Games sketched ideas for the TV ident on a piece of newspaper

It took him two years to develop the BBC symbol.

It might have helped if he had owned a television - but he did not.

His daughter Naomi showed me his working drawings and sketches, some no more than doodles on bits of newspaper.

She says his best ideas came to him on public transport.

"Buses were great to work on because nobody bothered him; there were no phones, no children; he could concentrate on a bus.

"So he used to scribble on anything that was available, a newspaper, scraps of paper that were in his pocket, and then he'd get into the studio, get onto his tall stool at his desk, lay out a sheet in front of him and begin, and he sometimes did hundreds and hundreds of these sheets of layout paper before he actually resolved his design."

Image caption Games's model survived just long enough to be filmed before apparently breaking down

What he eventually came up with was a model, made of piano wire and brass and strobing lights, which survived in working order just long enough to be filmed, before reputedly breaking down irrecoverably.

According to Games's account book, the BBC paid him 200 guineas, plus 70 guineas for an on-screen clock and 15 guineas "retainer".

Image caption The BBC called its new symbol - widely known as "the bat's wings" - an "abstract pattern"

It looked, frankly, a bit bizarre.

Games himself admitted it was rather frightening.

'Menace, darkness, Germans'

The BBC issued an official description: "The abstract pattern consists of two intersecting eyes which scan the globe from north to south and east to west, symbolising vision and the power of vision.

"Flashes of lightning on either side represent electrical forces and the whole form takes the shape of wings which suggest the creative possibilities of television broadcasting."

Naomi Games showed me her father's cuttings book, in which the newspapers' reaction to the symbol's unveiling is recorded. Most didn't like it.

One man wrote to the News Chronicle with an impressive list of the images conjured up by the symbol: "Menace, darkness, Germans, spiked helmet, bird of prey, baleful eye, cage, torture, bandaged head, nets, whips, thongs, aerial bombs, attacks, pincer movements and Fascist flashes."

Image caption Games's poster for the ATS was banned by the military

Games was used to controversy. Among his wartime work had been a recruitment poster for the ATS, the women's auxiliary territorial service.

It was, his daughter says, highly successful at attracting young women into the service.

But after five weeks it was banned. The military brass decided the model was far too attractive, and wearing too much lipstick.

Naomi Games says her father was mischievous.

"He enjoyed any kind of reaction. My father always believed a good design always gets noticed, and it doesn't matter whether it's liked or not.

"As long as it's noticed and commented upon it's done its job.

"That was true with his posters and with the television symbol, and I think he was very amused by the public reaction."

Globe in shoebox

Games's BBC "bat's wings" lasted for eight years.

They were replaced in due course by another model, this time of a globe, the on-air device which was to symbolise BBC TV and later BBC One for the next four decades.

The BBC still has some of the electro-mechanical models, surprisingly small, which linked programmes in the 1970s and 80s, and I was allowed to take them out of their display case.

There is a 1970s vintage BBC Two logo made of a series of spinning discs with painted edges. When the discs come to a halt the edges spell out a figure "2".

And there's a BBC One ident just larger than a shoebox containing a globe in front of a curved mirror. As the globe turns, its distorted reflection also turns behind it.

In their heyday the models lived in a cupboard at Television Centre along with a dozen other clocks and fault captions and a camera known as NODD, which stood for Nexus Orthicon Display Device, apparently.

In due course computer graphics replaced models.

The first computer-generated BBC One ident was called COW, another BBC acronym: this one stood for Computer Originated World.

Image caption Martin Lambie-Nairn's consultancy came up with various BBC TV idents

In 1991 Abram Games's best-known successor, Martin Lambie-Nairn, took charge of the BBC's on-screen "look".

His design consultancy had created the original Channel 4 animated logo in 1982.

At the BBC they produced an elegant series of idents for BBC Two.

The most famous is probably the one showing a waterfall of blue paint splashing horizontally across the screen to hit a metallic "2" - and a later series in which the figure becomes a tiny animated robot.

Image caption The balloon ident was used by BBC One from 1997-2001

For BBC One, Lambie-Nairn created first a more sophisticated virtual globe, and then perhaps the most attractive and successful BBC One idents ever, showing an orange and red hot air balloon painted to look like a globe floating over towns and landscapes the length of Britain.

When a new channel controller arrived in 2001, professing to hate the balloon, Lambie-Nairn produced a new set of idents featuring red-clad dancers.

Lambie-Nairn is an admirer of Abram Games. He calls him brilliant.

Of the modern craft of the television ident, he says: "We're in the business of setting channels apart from each other.

No competitors

"All branding is about setting yourself apart and trying to be clear to your audience or customers that you stand for this set of values.

"With the BBC One balloon it's not obviously about a set of values, but it's just a really classy piece of work which is about the love of our own country... and that can't be bad, can it?"

Abram Games, of course, was not in the business of setting the BBC apart from its competitors, because it did not have any. There was only one channel.

And as to the "values" his symbol embodied: the BBC at the time clearly hoped it represented vision and the creative possibilities of television.

But viewers, to judge from that letter to the News Chronicle, thought it represented something altogether more negative and sinister.

The "bat's wings", you feel, would not have passed muster today.

All images are copyright The Games Estate, used with kind permission. The Television Symbol is copyright BBC.

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