The best of British angst

Behind the rebranding of BBC1 and British Airways lies a teenage identity crisis.

Josie Appleton

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BBC1 recently replaced the revolving globe that used to appear between programmes with a series of multicultural ‘idents’ that ‘explore the universal theme of rhythm, dance and movement through different activities, moods and world cultures’.

Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1, said that these new idents reflect the channel’s desire to appeal to everybody: ‘Whatever your age, wherever you live and whoever you are, rhythm and movement are common to everyone. BBC1 should have that same universal appeal.’ (1)

So we see Brazilian dancers on a London rooftop, hip-hop dancers in wheelchairs on a basketball court, Welsh rugby players doing the Maori Haka, ballerinas dancing by the Cornish coast, women dancing at a music festival in Hertfordshire, tap dancers at a power station in Kent, a couple doing salsa, and acrobats performing against the roof of the Royal Horticultural Halls in Victoria.

All very pretty. But how can these idents be more ‘universal’ than the globe?

We all move (although not all of us dance); but we all live on the same planet, too. Yet the globe is apparently too distant from people’s lives – BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey said that it was not in touch with viewers. By contrast, said controller of BBC TV marketing Jane Scott, the new idents are ‘contemporary and immediate, beautiful and energetic and will hopefully make viewers feel that the channel is much more in tune with their lives’ (2).

A single, abstract symbol is seen as distant from people’s lives – whereas symbols (plural) of ‘the stuff of life’, of activity in its vibrancy and immediacy, are seen as ways of connecting with everybody.

But of course these symbols of the stuff of life don’t really represent anybody’s life. It is not as if many people perform the Haka or dance to hip-hop in wheelchairs – not as if people see it, and say, ‘That’s me’. Instead, BBC1 is picking snapshots that look as different and diverse as possible, in an effort to demonstrate that it can relate to anybody. Rather than making a concerted attempt to connect with particular communities, BBC1 intends us to view these idents as a self-conscious display of its open-mindedness.

British Airways (BA) went through a similar image transformation back in 1997, when it replaced the Union Jack design on its tailfins with art works commissioned from around the world (it later abandoned this experiment). The new fins contained ‘Nbebele mural in flat panels of bright colours and dynamic geometric patterns normally seen on the houses of the Nbebele tribe of Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa’, ‘a Scottish tartan called Mountain of Birds from traditional weaver Peter MacDonald adopting ancient Highland techniques, patterns and colours’, and ‘a Bauhaus-inspired geometric ceramic panel from [a] German artist’ (3).

All of these works of art would have had a certain value in their place. Perhaps the German artist had produced a particularly fine interpretation of the Bauhaus school – perhaps not. The point is that British Airways couldn’t care less either way. BA sent its agents to the Kalahari desert, Old Cairo, and the forests on Vancouver Island’s west coast, not because it was interested what it would find there, but because it wanted a pick’n’mix selection that it could pin to its tailfins to show how multicultural it was. According to an article in British Airways News, the aim was to portray BA as ‘confident, open, friendly, modern and cosmopolitan’ (4).

These advertising campaigns remind me of my attitude as a teenager on a gap year: I went around South America picking up bits of ethno-tat, not because I liked it particularly, but because it would make me look cosmopolitan when I returned. I wasn’t interested in the rugs or wooden sculptures themselves – they were tokens of my experience. (Now that Andean hats have become a mainstream fashion accessory in the UK you can get the same effect without travelling beyond the high street.)

But that was just me being a teenager. The fact that national institutions are behaving in a similar way is cause for concern. Even the British Post Office shares this identity crisis, changing its name to Consignia, then back again (for a while, it was introduced as ‘Consignia, formerly known as the Post Office’, recalling ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’). Why can’t Britain’s national institutions stick to a symbol, and have done with it?

Despite these institutions’ concerns with their logos being out of touch, this rebranding angst has less to do with the views of BBC1 viewers or British Airways travellers than with the insecurities of the institutions themselves. They don’t know who they are any more. The ethos of public service broadcasting is practically dead, with the BBC chasing viewing figures as much as the rest of the channels. And British Airways no longer sees itself as representing Britain to the world. All they know is that they are not what they were – not the stuffy BBC, of Queen’s English and tradition; not British Airways, proud ambassador for the Union Jack.

Unsure about their identity in today’s world, national institutions and corporations grab at symbols of diversity. Rather than represent an ethos, they say they are open to every ethos. British Airways News claimed that the research team that went around the world looking for their new tailfins ‘started with a blank canvas’ – British Airways was the blank canvas, its tailfins empty, and they went looking for things to splatter on them.

Like BBC1’s idents, these images had to be rich, bright colours – symbols of vibrancy, movement and life. A BBC press release described its ‘onscreen look’ as ‘new, energetic and vibrant’ (5). ‘I am interesting, I am full of life’, shout our national tailfins and idents. But they shout too loud – the overplayed vibrancy just looks clichéd, and manic.

And, as we all know from our experience at parties, anybody who goes on about how interesting and full of life they are just attests to their inner vacuity.

Read on:

TV UK, 28 March
, by Dolan Cummings

(1) BBC press release, 26 March 2002

(2) BBC press release, 26 March 2002

(3) Art and British Airways

(4) Art and British Airways

(5) BBC press release, 26 March 2002

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