Global Flight: The BBC Balloon, 20 Years On

❉ The story of the BBC One balloon ident that was used from October 1997 – April  2002. 

A Marconi Type A microphone from the early 1930s showing, what was the first BBC logo – later seen on the 1985 BBC One globe.

During the mid ’90s, the BBC were in the process of overhauling their corporate image. The then-current BBC One globe was coming up for five years old and was due for the usual twice a decade-or-so update. What was to come to the screens of British views was the biggest departure for the BBC One ident since the globe first appeared in 1963…

From Noddys to COWs

BBC One had used a spinning globe as their ident since 1963. For the first few years various designs were used, but they were simple affairs, with no moving elements other than globe itself spinning as the announcer talked about the upcoming programme, or that which viewers could look forward too later that day.

By the late 1960s, with the advent of colour television reaching BBC One, the globe became a little more sophisticated. The famous image of a world model spinning in front of a concave mirror hit the screens. This was to last, with modifications to the colour scheme and the BBC One logo in 1974 and 1981, until the mid 1980s.

Above: One of many Monty Python’s Flying Circus hijacks of the early 1970s variant of the BBC One mirror globe that was used, with modification, until February 1985, as designed by Murray Andrew.

Despite a dalliance with the idea of a computer-generated ident for BBC One as far back as early 1974, it took until 1983 for the BBC to finally undertake a project to design and execute the first CGI globe which was unveiled in February 1985.

The 1991 BBC One globe was a swirling pattern affair that had been created using computer generated graphic packages.

The globe as it appeared from 16th Feb 1991 to 4th Oct 1997, as designed by Daniel Barber.

By the mid 1990s, a new way had to be found of presenting BBC One to the nation, a mammoth task for the flagship channel of the world’s most prolific broadcaster – this was not a task to be undertaken without great care. As then-current Head of Television Design Group, Clifford Hatts, had said in July 1974, “The changing of a channel symbol is a crucial event and not one to be undertaken without more than usual thought and careful preparatory work”.

The suggestion was a hot-air balloon, predominantly red with the continents picked out in orange, finished with clouds overlaid on the globe in white. The BBC were not sure at first, feeling the land masses should be green with the seas blue, but the initial concept won out when it became clear that the red/orange combination would be far more striking when set against the blue skies and lush green flora of the UK’s countryside and cities.

The BBC logo was also being brought into a state fit for the new millennium, an evolution on that which had gone before. The squares or lozenge logo used for the BBC had first appeared in the late 1950s and had been tweaked a number of times over the ensuing decades.

The new logo again introduced a fresh take on the established design; the boxes became square, which made the logo’s use on computers much easier on the eye than the previous slanting boxes, as it required less anti-aliasing. Also the Washington typeface was changed to Gill Sans – which had been designed by Eric Gill, for Monotype back in 1928.

Gill had a strong connection with the BBC going back to the 1930s, when he had created statues for the newly built Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London. The carvings of Prospero and Ariel, from Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest, are still there to this day.

Filming The Balloon

Production of the physical balloon was completed by Bristol based Cameron Balloons Ltd, with the balloon registered as “G-IBBC”. The top half of the balloon representing the northern hemisphere, is made of nylon, with the bottom, southern hemisphere made from nomex so that it wouldn’t burn.

All 3km of fabric was stitched together with 24km of thread, and was in total, when inflated, 18m in diameter. This works out on a scale of 1:700,000 to the real thing. It took burners throwing out a total equivalent of 3m domestic cookers to get the balloon on flight.

The balloon made its maiden flight at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, piloted by James Mossman, who also went on to fly the craft during the seven weeks of BBC filming that took place to create the ident films.

The balloon at the London Docklands, in preparation for filming.

The balloon was then filmed in-flight over copious locations across the all four UK nations, from the busy cityscape of Cardiff, to the relative serenity of the Eilean Donan. Lambie-Nairn’s Jason Keeley oversaw the project, with the images were captured on Super 16 film, using Arriflex Cameras.

With an on screen launch on Saturday 4th October 1997, over forty variant short films of the balloon had been prepared for broadcast, accompanied by a number of differing musical arrangements composed by Phil Sawyer.

In 2000, a number of new idents were added. Themed as the lifestyle idents, these included the balloon in flight over a busy market place and a bungee jumper, himself in flight from the basket of the balloon.

Final Flight

The Balloon in flight over Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, Scotland, by Kyle of Lochalsh.

In January 2001, Lorraine Heggessey,  the new controller of BBC1, cast doubt on its future. As part of a wide-reaching review of the channel’s ‘look and feel’ she was unsure whether the balloon ident was still relevant. Heggessey sought the advice of the BBC’s in-house marketing department, commenting in 2002, “The balloon to me feels very slow. It goes across this majestic landscape but doesn’t feel in touch with the viewers.”

Thus, the balloon’s days were numbered. In the early morning of Friday 29th March 2002, the balloon appeared as the BBC One ident for the last time. The next morning we saw the new films, part of the ‘Rhythm and Movement’ concept that was to be in use until 2006.

Capoeira, the first of the ‘Rhythm & Movement’ idents to be used. Friday 29th March 2002.


As October 2017 saw the twentieth anniversary of the BBC One Balloon hitting the screens, it’s interesting to look back at it’s place in television presentation history. From the early 1990s onwards, the television stations around the UK were moving away from having indents simply featuring sophisticated computer generated graphics, to having live-action films featuring people – the early idents from Carlton in 1992 are a case in point.

Carlton’s early 1990’s “live action” idents.

The idea of a hot air balloon was a work of genius; a simple yet highly effective way to update an old idea, which in turn gave myriad new options to the BBC presentation team. The idents had proved popular with the public at large, no doubt due to the many familiar locations featured in the short films, coupled with the British affection for hot air balloons. In 2000 the listings magazine Radio Times carried a double page spread showing various shots of the balloon in flight coupled with an interview from a number of people involved with the concept and execution.

The balloon was nod to the old with an embrace of the modern. In the multi-channel environment of the late 1990s the balloon stood out from the crowd. While other channels were keen to show intros with quick cuts and swirling logos, BBC One opted for something calm, not fast. This gave BBC One its own distinctive and welcoming feel. It is still fondly remembered to this day.

As its creator, designer Martin Lambie-Nairn, said in 2002, “It shows you can grab people’s attention by being silent, just as you can by shouting at them.” – something that is perhaps missing from today’s somewhat frenetic televisual presentation.

❉ What are your favourite BBC idents? Why not tell us in the comments below, on the We Are Cult Facebook page or over on our Twitter feed? For more hardcore BBC ident action, check out Sam Michael‘s article on BBC One Christmas Idents Through The Years!

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