The Private Life of 2 - a History of the BBC 2 Ident Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Private Life of 2 - a History of the BBC 2 Ident

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Since its arrival on our screens in 1964, BBC 2 has produced some of the more 'arty' and in-depth documentaries on British television. This entry, however, is not about the programme content or, indeed, a history of BBC 2 itself. Instead, it is about the bits between programmes; a few seconds filled aurally with the voice of the person introducing the next programme and visually with an 'ident'. This is the story of those few seconds on the channel that has produced some of the more memorable idents in recent times.

To aid your mind's eye, there are links provided to RealPlayer videos of the idents. You may need to download RealPlayer to view these.

What is an 'Ident'?

Not really a testcard, but falling under the same umbrella, a television identification symbol, or 'ident', is the bit of video which tells you what channel you're on, played a few seconds before a programme commences. On BBC 1, initially just called BBC, this started out, among other things, as a revolving globe, reinforcing the global nature of the BBC, that if nation shall not speak unto nation for whatever reason, then at least it could broadcast unto nation. And if it shall be broadcast into those homes lucky enough to have a TV, then those households being broadcast into should know what channel is being broadcast unto them. Hence the existence of the 'ident', telling you which channel you're on before a programme starts.

Things got a bit more complicated with the birth of ITV when knowing which channel you were on became essential. Then, in 1964, the BBC was granted permission to have another channel.

Congratulations Auntie - it's a Baby Two!

Its remit was strict - to provide a wider range of programming for the viewers which was not covered by BBC or ITV at the time - in-depth documentaries, arts and educational subjects were the ones most favoured by the new controller of the freshly-born channel, a young David Attenborough1. So BBC became BBC 1 and BBC 2, logically, became BBC 2. Just as its remit was different to the other channels of the time, it had to present a different image in its idents, too.

Early Two

The very first ident that BBC 2 had was at first a card with horizontal, alternating black-and-white lines, with the number two dropping in from above and the slanted BBC logo meeting it from below. A functional ident - telling the viewer exactly where they were, but not really giving any hint to the programming which lay beyond.

Adding to the functional aspect of the ident, there was a different ident for each day - the '2' was in a box at the side, with the horizontal lines at the side. In between those lines was the day of the week, the intention being that this gave BBC 2 a different 'feel' every day. Different idents were also used for daytime and evening programming with the same intention.

Two in Colour

The birth of colour TV led not only to snooker commentators having an easier job on their hands, but a whole new BBC 2 ident in 1967. The numerical two remained, but it was drawn out in a vibrant blue from top to bottom, with the word 'colour' appearing when the two was fully drawn. Then the two would rotate to reveal other twos in the colours red, yellow and grey.

The ident was then revamped - with the two being static, cradling a dot in the crook of the '2'. This dot would change colour.

In the 70s, the BBC 2 ident became a bit more animated - alternating blue and white stripes came together to form the two.

Computer Two

Then came the '80s and the advances in computer graphics were enough to produce the BBC's first computer-generated ident. It was a two, sitting between a double orange line - but drawn from left to right.

Occasionally keeping two company on the ident board was the familiar numberless BBC clock and when Open University (OU for short) programmes were on, the OU logo. Daytime idents were still different to evening idents - in the day, BBC 2 had a much brighter ident: a nice orange background. As befits the evening, the two was placed against a black background for the evening schedule.

But in 1984, BBC 2 decided to move much more upmarket.

Two - the Wilderness Years

Gone was our numerical '2', and here was the word 'Two', lightly serifed, casting shadow and with some colour. It rose out of the white background, and didn't really change. In fact, this has been described by many as the least memorable of all the idents, simply because 'Two' didn't do very much. A survey at the time showed that most people associated BBC 2 with the tweed jackets and elbow patches of the OU education programmes, and rather than being quirky and alternative, BBC 2 was a bit boring. Something had to change.

Two - the Next Generation

In 1991 the word 'Two' was put to pasture and the return of '2' began, but not the old well-behaved two; this was more like a rebellious sprog of the original '2', a two of many materials, shapes and paints, brought in by the production company Lambie-Nairn, who would be two's guardian from 1991 to the present day. The initial set of idents was as follows:

  • Water - Where a sharply cut 2 is placed into lapping water at an angle of 45°.

  • Copper Cut-Out - A copper 2 showers sparks.

  • Paint - 2 gets viridian paint thrown over it.

  • Blade - A very sharply-cut 2 drops in from above to impale itself into a viridian table, the sharp 2 wobbling throughout the voiceover.

  • Neon - A 2-shaped box has 7 neon lights in it, which flash in different combinations.

  • Glass - A 2 of crystal reflects light from its cut.

  • Silk - A 2 is under some gently flapping viridian-coloured silk.

  • Shadow - A shadow of 2 as it rotates.

  • Paper Cut-Out - A cut out of 2 from a grey foreground reveals some blue and white clouds.

These idents made BBC 2's choice of programming subjects clear - quirky, off the wall, sometimes on the edge, arty and certainly a bit different to the more mainstream BBC 1, who was still sticking resolutely to its globe theme.

Due to the popularity of the new 2, more weird and wonderful idents were added. Here are just a few:

  • Steam - 2 gets dripped on, but is a little too hot to handle...

  • Diary - It seems that 2 is just pages from a book, blowing away in the breeze...

  • Optic - A 2 made up of glowing optic fibres sways gently.

  • Powder - 2 falls onto a white surface, only for it to land straight into a layer of powder paint, revealing viridian powder under the white.

  • Zapper - A bug zapper in the shape of 2 is the cause of one fly's explosive demise...

The Adventures of Little Two

The 2 ident then took on a personality of its own - cheeky, silly and vain. It took on many forms, far too numerous to mention here. The semi-recumbent posture of the BBC corporate logo also changed, standing bolt upright instead of leaning casually forward. It also gave Lambie-Nairn the chance to create 'animations', where 2 would be featured doing something interesting in between the trailers of programmes coming up.

Here are a few of the more memorable places that '2' has been:

  • Dog - A fluffy viridian 2 barks a bit before doing a somersault similar to those ubiquitous battery-operated toy dogs.

  • Car - A radio-controlled 2 shows no respect for its job to stay on screen as it drives up, down and off the screen, and back again, before pulling itself into reverse at high speed...

  • Duck - A yellow 2 pops its head up though bubble bath, or in the animation, 'Predator', 2 swims menacingly though the bubbles with only the crook of the 2 popping up, Jaws-style.

  • Paint Pot - 2 gets its revenge on the paint which splattered it in a previous ident by showering many tiny viridian 2s over a silver paint can.

  • Swan Going Home - A grey cygnet-like 2 and a couple of similar 2s swim squeaking past a genuinely confused swan, who shakes her head in disbelief at seeing the 2s.

  • Pounce - A squeaking piebald 2 jumps around to try and catch a spot on the ground.

  • Cuckoo Hooligan - A naughty cuckoo 2 leaps out of a clock, and tries to hit the cameraman.

  • TV Mirror - 2 sees itself on TV and becomes absolutely ecstatic.

  • Cliffhanger - 2 in a spot of bother on a mantelpiece - will 2 fall?

'2' the Programme Specific

With 2 being featured in many different ident styles, it then became easier to indicate types of programmes, for instance, natural history or comedy. With this also came the advent of feature nights - where certain nights broadcast a certain type of programme. For example, Sunday evening was Animal Zone and Monday night was comedy night. This meant that idents and animations had to be created especially for these features. Here are a few examples in each category:

Natural History Idents

  • Gorilla Shadow - 2's fallen over! But don't worry, there's a friendly gorilla to set you upright.

  • Gorilla Tantrum - 2's in the wrong place at the wrong time as a gorilla loses patience and takes it out on poor little 2.

  • Web - Not a web of the online sense, but a spider's web, which splits to show our 2...

  • Predator - A butterfly 2 is resting on a leaf...only it's not a leaf but an enormous Venus 2-trap, which snaps shut. After some time, as seen in the clip, this one wasn't just exclusive to natural history programmes and its use was extended to edgier programming or 'youth' programming.

Comedy Idents

  • Seeing Stars - 2 bounces around a colourful padded room, only to knock itself out on the camera lens and it sees stars.

  • Kebab - A meat 2 is roasted on a kebab spit. This one also preceded the now ubitquitous cookery programme.

  • Fridge - 2's eaten far too much! But it'll still drink that milk...and the bloated 2 becomes far too heavy for the fridge shelf, making it all fall down.

Two Inspirational

Little 2 also inspired a team from the BBC programme 'Robot Wars' to make a fearsome little 2, complete with a rather vicious circular saw. This was certainly not a 2 that you'd like to meet down a dark alley...

Two '..... night'

BBC 2 also hosted special nights, in celebration of something special. For instance, there was Star Trek night, Monty Python night and Red Dwarf night, to name but three. All had special idents to go with the special feature. Here are a few examples:

  • Star Trek - 2 is beamed up to a galaxy far, far away.

  • Doctor Who - Run for your lives! 2's a Dalek, complete with deadly sink plunger!

  • Red Dwarf - This was in fact five idents, each with its own story, much like a certain coffee advert:

    • Ident 1 - a viridian 2 catches the eye of a lustful scutter, which is fast on the pull - 2 stretches to see and then hops playfully away. The scutter follows...

    • Ident 2 - It seems that the scutter plucked up enough courage to ask 2 out to the movies and both are in the cinema, sharing a soft drink noisily, causing another in the cinema to tell the courting couple to quieten down...

    • Ident 3 - It's their third date and it seems that the fire of desire calls far louder than that of ident duty, and 2 and scutter rush off screen faster than the camera can pan. There's sounds of some unzipping and the camera eventually pans over to 2's discarded clothes, and scutter's discarded metal parts...

    • Ident 4 - Both 2 and scutter decided to make a go of it, and here, they're married, with another scutter reading them their vows. Then scutter and 2 share a passionate kiss under the arches. Hankies at the ready!

    • Ident 5 - 2's pregnant, but she's nearly due - cue the camera panning round to the nervous but expectant scutter. A few popping sounds later and congratulations! Two baby 2s and two baby scutters. The proud parents look on...

Today's Two

The advent of digital television and the progression of a TV with hundreds of channels prompted a change in BBC identing. In November 2001, 2 became a little robot 2, with arms that popped out from its sides when needed. In order for continuity, the background was shades of yellow, with a pale 2 buzzing about the place. 2 had grown up a bit, and although 2 liked to have a bit of acrobatic fun on occasions, nowadays, 2 likes order, won't stand for misplaced icons or dirt on the camera lens, and really hates being dripped on. Here are the current idents (at the time of writing) featuring the new 2.

  • Bounce - 2 has fun on the new background by bouncing around on it.

  • Fish - 2 takes a dip and scares some fish.

  • Drip - 2 is minding its own business, when a drip lands plumb on its head - cue a confused and startled 2...

  • Logo - Why can't anyone put anything the right way round? The BBC 2 logo isn't facing the right way and 2 puts it right.

  • Invisible Walls - 2 goes off screen only to appear from behind a wall not previously seen...

  • Formation - 2 jumps onto a see-saw to launch another 2 onto a pyramid of 2s balancing on a ball.

  • Remote - 2 finds a remote controller from a radio-controlled car and decides to push it about a bit, only to find that 2 itself is controlled on the same frequency...

  • Paintbrush - 2 gets in touch with its more artistic side by painting on the camera lens...

  • Drum - 2 likes reggae so much that it bounces about on a drumskin in time to the music.

  • Dirt - Does 2 have to do everything around BBC Television Centre? There's a speck of dirt on the camera lens, and 2 cleans up.

  • Domino - 2 has got some other 2s all lined up and ready to fall - so it blows the whistle indicating that the first 2 in line should fall. And it does, but the wrong way. Cue an exasperated 2, berating its fellow 2 on why it shouldn't have done that...

Two Infinity, and Beyond!

And for the time being, so ends the story of ident 2 - from humbly static beginnings to exasperated robot, BBC 2 has played host to some of the most identifiable idents in British TV. But where next for 2? Only one thing is certain, 2 will return, if only to wipe the dirt from the camera lens.

Further Watching

  • TV Home - View lots of idents not only from BBC 2, but BBC One, ITV and other British television channels.

  • The TV Room - View the history of idents on British and Irish networks here.

  • TV-Ark - An online museum of idents on British TV from the birth of television to the present day.

1The man who not only quite literally created the BBC 2 that we see today, but also a gold-standard natural history programme presenter of series such as Blue Planet and more recently, The Life of Mammals, and brother of acclaimed actor and director, Richard Attenborough.

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