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Last Updated: Friday, 29 February 2008, 15:52 GMT
Sign of the time
By Alan Connor
BBC News

The new BBC homepage
New homepage, old clock
Visitors to the redesigned BBC homepage this week have been treated to a fleeting Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes moment.

It's not the full Camberwick Green reverie, and no-one gets a kicking, but among all the customisation and widgetisation, there's something else that's new... but also dimly familiar.

Up there in the top right: it's the BBC One clock, 1980s vintage.

Let it catch your eye again and, if you're in your 20s or older, it can take you back to a time when television was different. For the benefit of younger readers, there was a time before the phenomenon of the "credits squeeze", where multiple upcoming shows are trailed as the current programme plays out - before even the innovation of talking over the credits. This was a time when one programme would end, and, as you breathed out, a polite voice might offer "and now, a choice of viewing" while the screen showed you a rotating globe or a gently ticking clock.

A polite guest

Of course, this was when that choice of viewing was one of two alternative channels and TV was probably the only audio-visual show in your home. Fewer channels meant less branding. BBC One's visual identity has always implied that it's the default channel, and there's a continuity from the early test signals through the clocks and globes to today's circles of penguins, ballerinas and hippos.

The BBC One clock/ BBC Heritage
It was a real clock
The Daily Telegraph wrote this week that "[e]very week, more people visit the BBC's website than have watched any single television programme in the past five years", which makes the homepage a neat fit for this symbol of universality.

There are those, though, who have pointed out that most screens large and small displaying the new homepage will already have a clock tucked away somewhere.

Given the proliferation of logos across the internet and the intensity of branding in other BBC services, you can see why this use of 66 pixels squared of real estate strikes some as a gaudy trinket. But it's also a reminder of how the web has changed. The launch version of the BBC News site had a row of three clocks, reminiscent of old-fashioned newsrooms and trading floors, reading "Good Morning Sacramento", "Good Evening Chongquing" etc.

However, as an article marking the site's 10th birthday recalled: "It was a charming illustration of the instantaneous global reach of the web. Unfortunately, in a world with Netscape Navigator and 14.4k dial-up modems, it was also the single biggest reason the website would not load. The clocks quickly found their way into the Trash."

In 2008 it's now a matter of some snazzy coding to replicate the retro clock, replete with the tremor on the second hand - which, as TV clock aficionados will tell you, was phased out in later versions on BBC One.

The Fluffy Two

And there are more fans of continuity design than one might think. The clock has been living on as a screensaver in offices across the land, and some people have already extracted just the clock from the new homepage and put it in new settings [see links on right].

BBC One and Two idents
The old one-two
Broadcasters find - sometimes to their surprise - that the furniture surrounding their programmes is dearer to the hearts of the audience than they might expect. The pips, Bubbles the Test Card clown, Sailing By and the Furry Two (originally known as "Fluffy Dog") are part of the quirky history of continuity design (in varying measures of branding, engineering and information) and fixtures in British homes.

While design has become smarter (the BBC's sloping lozenges logo was designed for use on outside broadcast vehicles, but was hard to implement on screen), it's hard to predict which idents will get the warmest welcomes - the Anglia horse being an example of serendipity: spotted as the company chairman strolled past a jeweller's window, it stayed on the screen for 30 years.

Though the 4ft silver model was given its P45 in 1987, joined by Bubbles in TV presentation's retirement home, they all live again in online video. As a trip to YouTube will confirm, the forgotten grammar of television - the style of old adverts or the voice of former continuity announcers - can be far more evocative of the past than the clip of Del Boy which might be 20 years old, but which you've probably seen in a clips show sometime in the last two days or so.

If, however, change floats your boat more than nostalgia, there's a treat for you, too: the magnetic weather icons are no longer on the homepage. The book's open on whether they'll return before or after Grange Hill is revived on TV.

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