Identity crisis 

24 May 2004

James Barrington is mourning the loss of his favourites from a very long distance away.

I have a problem. It has many names, but the main one is the simplest. The Australian climate.

The Australian climate (weather is too small a word for such a pernicious phenomena) is everywhere. Not just over the entire country, not just in my state. The Australian climate makes a point of being personal.

I have box files stored inside archive boxes stored inside metal filing cabinets. Yet still Australian humidity – and the bugs it attracts – has played havoc with all my material, dating back 35 years.

Back in Liverpool in the UK, at the age of 13, I would write to the graphics department of each ITV region and receive in the mail 10×8 inch captions saying “Thames Colour Production” or “Granada” or “LWT Colour Production”.

These pieces of artwork soon developed into a respectable collection, and Thames was the first to send me literally hundreds of 35mm slides of logos and programme line-ups and programming slides. The amount from all the regions was soon in the 1000s.

And then I left the UK for a warmer climate.

The slides were too many and our first Australian house was small with a tiny bedroom where my archives were held. I was 19 and thought ITV had gone for me so I wouldn’t need these slides anymore. I chose the 100 or so I felt ‘best’, put the rest in a bag and threw them on the tip.

A scant few years later, I revived my hobby and the loss of 800 slides was enough to make me cry. The printed captions had been easier to keep, but on opening them I discovered they had smeared, been marked or had been, literally, eaten by the local insect wildlife.

I have tried to restore the captions and even asked advice from Channel 4, who back in 1989 suggested I donate them to MOMI in London for conservation (this being long before Transdiffusion was reborn on the internet, or the closure of MOMI). The BBC captions, it turned out, were heartbreakingly rare.

Around 1993, someone at a British TV company sent me a video he called ‘The Identity Crisis’, with various ITV frontcaps and logos melded into a montage. The video also contained a Southern Independent Television opening sequence complete with a vintage film sequence, and a more modern – but still antique – Westward opening with a colour travelogue of the southwest.

My own collection had some similar survivors – BBC North West and its directional arrow, BBC South West with its map, plus BBC East and BBC Midlands, all long forgotten by the original broadcaster. But the local climate interfered again, and the first two captions bleached to white when exposed to the sun.

The BBC, it has to be said, were never very good at regional idents. Compared to ITV’s proud local branding, the captions were boring and stale with limited use: local news and late night regional specials.

But the BBC, after all, was a national network and regionalism came second to the centre. The national symbol – a spinning representation of the Earth – made clear that the BBC was a national institution. The globe provided a status symbol – for more than 3 decades – for the BBC, emphasising the ‘national’ part of their remit, yet still being a very simple concept.

ITV were the masters of regionalism, offering regional news, sport, weather and commercials and creating local celebrities. This was something the viewers loved – a local station, with an identity all of its own. An individual station with a national federation behind it.

Sometimes efforts would be made to bring ITV into line with the BBC, so that jingles and captions would gain ITV branding for a time – the 1970s being a good time for people singing ‘Christmas means ITV’.

But regionalism would still peep around the edges, with local commercials taking you away from London and local weather presenters unable to resist a mention of the station’s name in the regional forecast.

As a child, Monday nights on Granada were hell. “And Mother Makes Three” didn’t do anything for me at all, so playing with the knobs on the TV became attractive. A few turns and “Mother Makes” neatly became “Father Dear Father”. And just as neatly, I was suddenly in Wales, watching HTV and had a sudden use for that neglected “ITV-2” button on the set.

When the programme ended, the difference was more marked than just a change in programme. Local advertisements for products and services unknown just a railway ride away. And in-vision continuity, with presenters speaking two languages. Whilst Granada could be forgiven for not being bilingual – at least in UHF days! – the difference between in-vision all the time on HTV and Granada’s on-off love affair with the format (adopting it after everyone else just as it fell out of fashion, dropping it when it came back in fashion elsewhere, then reinstalling it when it was being junked on other stations and persisting with it for years after any other large company was still bothering) was startling.

As I boarded a plane in 1977, leaving for a warmer climate with a loving memory of my Granada, I didn’t realise that, before the next decade was out, ITV would have an identity crisis that still persists to this day.

The relaunch of ITV in 1989 saw the introduction of the first form of ‘dual branding’. The stylised letters ‘ITV’ became most prominent, with the ‘V’ holding a much-modified version of the local logo. This recognised the independence of each station, but made a nod towards the federal structure.

But you could call it ‘triple branding’, as some stations – notably and ironically Granada, the modern-day herald of ‘single branding’ – refused to use the new look at all.

Others took it but modified parts of the identity. Some embraced the logo but not the package that went with it, making their own symbol dominant over the network version. Thames combined the V with their skyline to create a symbol designed to work with either; Grampian took the opposite track and abandoned their own identity entirely, becoming merely a regional version of the new ITV, and remaining so long after every other company had dropped the new look – or been replaced by a new franchisee.

But that marked the start of the decline. Tyne Tees is the unfortunate example that springs to mind.

One symbol from start until colour. One symbol from colour until ITV89. And then a profusion of symbols, names and references just over a decade. Tyne Tees Television. ITV Tyne Tees. Tyne Tees Television. Channel Three North East. Tyne Tees ITV. Tyne Tees ITV1. ITV1.

During that time – an in a pattern that was repeated across the network – the station’s charm, its logo, name and celebrities, all drained out of the company until it was a shell of what went before. And then they came and removed the shell.

Today’s ITV1 is almost a national network. But it’s a dull, bland network. Uneventful presentation mixes with programming by numbers, and we are expected to warm to a desperately cheap ident or the occasional ‘celebrity’ we’ve never heard of smiling at us to make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The BBC is an actual national network, and performs the role well, especially in times of crisis – war, elections and state occasions being places where no-one considers any other option than watching BBC1, unless they have problems of their own. But regionalism on television (they’re masters on radio and online) is something of a blank area for the Corporation.

The experts in regional television were always the 15 individual stations that formed ITV. Where the remaining companies are compelled to stay regional (or do it for political reasons), their programming is of a higher quality and gets more viewer appreciation. Appreciative viewers will watch – and pay attention – to the adverts in a way that viewers watching mindless dross will not.

You may have thought that the programme makers and the rest of the executives on the network would have learnt from this example. They haven’t – and worst of all, one of the two major culprits is my dear old Granada, no longer mine and no longer interested in its roots.

Here in the warm Australian climate, my remaining captions and logos from the BBC and ITV continue to fade away every time I look at them. How ironic.

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Liverpool, Saturday 15 June 2024