Monday, December 2, 2013

The BBC Television Symbol, 1953

Sixty years ago tonight, on December 2, 1953, if you were living in Great Britain and was among the few who had a television set you would probably turn it on to find a stark new symbol on the only television channel available to you. What was then known as the "BBC Television Service" had adopted Britain's, if now the world's, first moving television symbol which was shown in the spaces between programmes. Officially called the "Television Symbol", it has been nick-named the "bat's wings" for its appearance.

To create this symbol, the BBC had contracted Abram Games, one of the great poster artists of the time. He is probably best remembered for his work in poster design before, during and after World War II. One project that stands out was created for the 1951 Festival of Britain, a large national exhibition. Games had won a contest to create the emblem for the exhibition, against stiff competition from other contemporary masters like Milner Gray and F.H.K. Henrion. Games' experience and success from this project probably didn't hurt his chances in landing the BBC job.

Festival of Britain, 1951 - "prestige" poster for UK use 

Festival of Britain poster, uploaded to Flickr by Mikey.

Games took his time developing a new symbol that had to both communicate what television was and work on screen. The many circles and arches in the final design were influenced by the limitations of the low resolution television system used in Britain at the time which meant that fine straight lines wouldn't be rendered properly. The symbol had to move, and Games worked with modelmaker J F Johnson to create an actual working model.

In the final design, a set of rings in the middle were constantly turning and bursts of light occasionally streaming across the wings, as seen in the video above. The symbol was occasionally accompanied by improvised harp music by Sidonie Goossens. Something resembling a full corporate identity system was developed around the symbol with a matching clock, test cards and other elements using a simplified version of the symbol.

Two years after the introduction of the symbol, the BBC Television Service was facing competition from the new commercial TV network that had started in London and was about to spread to the rest of the country. Compared to the more modern symbols used by these companies, the Television Symbol feels a bit stuffy and authoritarian. Towards the end of the 50s, a more contemporary corporate style was introduced that included early versions of the BBC blocks logo. The moving symbol was eventually replaced by a static map of Britain.

For more on this project, I recommend an article from television history site Transdiffusion.

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