Sunday, 4 November 2012

Trendy enough to make your teeth peel

It's 30 years ago, 2 November 1982: the first night of Channel 4. The controller, Jeremy Isaacs, has decided that the first night on the new channel will not depart from the regular schedule. So, at 4.45pm, the first programme begins without any fanfare: a man in a demure blue suit and pale blue tie, looking rather uneasy, introduces a new quiz show with the words ‘as the countdown to the start of a brand new channel ends, a brand new Countdown begins’. He explains the rules of the game and makes the first of what will be many endearingly feeble jokes over the coming years: ‘It’s what the post office have been doing for years – they get a lot of letters, then decide what to do with them.’ At 5.15 comes Preview Four, with Olgar Hubicka and Paul Coia giving a taster of forthcoming programmes on the new channel. They are, writes Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian, ‘trendy enough to make your teeth peel, sitting on white furniture and drinking iced white wine I shouldn’t wonder’.  

The actor's union, Equity, have decided to black Channel 4 adverts after a dispute with advertising agencies over pay rates in the commercials. Only commercials with no actors in them can be broadcast – so there are lots of cheerful businessmen plugging Vauxhall dealerships or timeshares in Spain. Public information films about how to proceed at level crossings and how to look after your purse are, wrote Julian Barnes in the Observer, ‘repeated with boot-through-screen frequency’.

There is a strange filler inbetween the programmes: flying, coloured blocks arranging themselves into the shape of a 4, to a Brian Eno-like, four-note tune that can be played in any style, depending on what programme it is introducing. Channel identifications were not new: they had been used since the birth of ITV in 1955, but they tended to be brash fanfares similar to those used by Hollywood studios at the start of films – like the famously naff revolving knight on Anglia TV.

Channel 4’s flying bricks were the moment when these primitive idents were replaced by a more subtle concern with an ambient ‘brand identity’. They were devised by a designer called Martin Lambie-Nairn who went on to create the even more influential idents for BBC2 which reimagined the number 2 as a fluffy, somersaulting toy or a plane gliding across a wooden floor. They were widely credited with helping the channel shake off its forbiddingly highbrow image.

Soon all the channels were using idents. BBC1 had Haka-dancing rugby players and acrobats suspended from ceilings; Channel 4 had skyscrapers and pylons magically aligning to form the number 4; ITV1 had, for more obscure reasons, people hugging trees and examining their beer bellies. The Zen-like calm of the ident is a creative response to channel multiplication and the power of the remote control. The hope is that people will tire of this dizzying choice and simply stick with one channel, with its familiar filmic language. Some people complain about how much money they cost, particularly to BBC licence-payers. But the best ones, like those hippos swimming in a circle, are like understated poems in vision and sound – a tiny antidote to the brash, exhibitionist programmes they increasingly introduce.

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