I’ll happily admit to being fascinated by things that other people wouldn’t think twice about. Subterranea, industrial architecture, TV incidental music, nuclear power stations. Something I’ve always loved is vintage TV clips, and particularly idents. As any fool knows, the best ever produced were BBC2 1990s idents. Funny, ambient, beautiful, clever and an instantly recognisable colour and sound palette.
I expect they worked well as branding exercise because they’re what I most associate with BBC2 – the best channel of the five I had regular access to in the 90s. This is strange, because BBC2 at the time was a hodge-podge of comedy, gardening, mainly duff sports, sci-fi, documentaries, news and old films. How you create a brand identity out of that lot I don’t know, but I suppose the brief was to create something irreverent, intelligent and recognisably different. In that, I have no doubt that it succeeded.
These particular idents – often back on television again during the afternoon on BBC2 – are so ingrained on me as I had dozens of video tapes in that decade with taped shows on. Red Dwarf, Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, This Life, Star Trek, repeats of Doctor Who – I probably still have them somewhere. Add in the first Channel 4 idents – and the myriad of associations I have with them, including many of the first televised breasts I ever saw – and you can see the impact Lambie-Nairn had on a generation of boob-tube watchers.
Little moments of old television like this are so powerful because they operate on an almost subliminal level of consciousness when you’re watching them – they’re not supposed to be especially noticeable, but you probably watched hundreds of hours of them if you were watching TV in the 90s.
When they disappear you don’t really notice, but when you see them again the recall is powerful, and with it the nostalgia of the era: where you were; who you were with; what TV shows were on at the time. It’s the same with certain smells, certain objects. As each year passes I find this sort of instant recall tinged with melancholy, multiplying the powerful effect they have.
What’s more, these BBC2 idents were on TV when I was coming of age – discovering new ideas, getting into films, watching documentaries, becoming aware of sex, drugs and a life beyond what I’d known up til then. BBC2 was a gentle, benign guide into that frightening, exhilarating world for me, so the effect of the idents is multiplied again.
On top of that the 90’s BBC2 idents are obviously utterly brilliant. There are certain others from 80s ITV brands that have a similar appeal to me, but these creations – by Martin Lambie-Nairn – are as good as they get. Beguiling, slightly esoteric, rather beautiful. Let’s not forget the subtle music beds that accompanied them either – probably the sort of thing I would have listened to after a very late night out in my early 20s. My favourites were always Copper Cutout, Powder, Steam and Neons.
A number of speciality idents appeared throughout the decade, never straying too far from an obvious brand ID, but all with enough wit and obvious skill to prevent the exercise simply becoming a smug in-joke. They were bolstered by the introduction of 2s with something of a character in 1997.
The classic 90s idents were retired in 2001 and while the current BBC2 lot aren’t a bad set there’ll never be another set like Lambie-Nairn’s first. The replacements – from 2001-2007 – were a little more self-consciously wacky, I thought, and imbued the BBC2 logo with a cutesie personality. They lacked the simple, enigmatic charm of the originals, to my mind.
By comparison we’ve recently had Channel 4’s baffling floating shapes, BBC1’s swimming hippos and infamous Bloody Big Balloon. All pretty duff, by my reckoning.
Idents then. Daft, discardable, distracting. But I challenge you to watch these and not get a little bit wistful. Clever little snapshots of the past, a different world.
• Predictably, the wonderful TV Ark has a feature on the BBC2 idents.
• You can watch loads of BBC2 idents from the last 20 years on the BBC