Profile piece from New Design 107
TV branding pioneer Graham McCallum was the subject of a recent retrospective exhibition at the Kemistry Gallery (a space which he set up to display the work of established and up-and-coming graphic designers). Now 70 years of age, McCallum began his design career at the BBC’s Creative Department in the mid 1960s and has since worked extensively in television design, branding and illustration.
The final scene of ‘Dish and Dishonesty’ from the third series of the celebrated BBC sitcom Blackadder sees Tony Robinson’s Baldrick floundering with a huge turnip jammed over his head. As the familiar theme tune begins, the live action image morphs into a woodcut style illustration and the end credits role in the style of a Regency era playbill. A sublime moment of television comedy and just one example of Graham McCallum’s design work for the small screen.
Within the BBC’s Creative Department Graham not only worked on title sequences for the Blackadder series, but also on graphics for a large number of programmes, illustrations for the much-loved children’s storytelling show Jackanory, and the first logos and idents for BBC2. After leaving the BBC at the end of the 1980s, McCallum found further success, emerging as a key figure in the development of graphic design and visual communication strategy for the broadcast industry.
Accepted by the BBC on the recommendation of his external college assessor HK Henrion (who designed the identity for Dutch airline KLM), McCallum worked initially under Bernard Lodge, the man behind the iconic title sequence for the original Doctor Who (those pulsing, almost-psychedelic swirls of light). “They put me in children’s programmes which was not necessarily where I wanted to be,” recalls McCallum. “But it was a foot in the door and I felt thrilled to be one jump from the heart of the business.”
McCallum really made his name in the Corporation through his work on Jane (1982), a BBC2 adaptation of a Daily Mirror comic strip, a show that combined animation and live action. “It was a breakthrough project for me although it is a series that is pretty much forgotten now,” he says. “It really pushed the technology of the day to the limits.”
The success of Jane led to further work for the BBC. McCallum recalls that working on Blackadder was a particular pleasure as his creative input was valued in the overall programme making process. “The producer John Lloyd was a fantastic man and very open to suggestions,” says Graham. “Ben Elton and Richard Curtis would write a script but that would only be the first element in a series of many, many changes. Everyone would sit around a table at Action rehearsal rooms, do a read through and people would make suggestions.”
He continues: “My role was doing the titles, end credits and any graphic props that were needed for the show. But it was very inclusive and anybody could chuck in an idea. I remember thinking up episode titles for Blackadder the Third (the takes on ‘Sense and Sensibility’ such as ‘Nob and Nobility’) and how those would translate into an opening sequence.”
As Blackadder left our screens, the eponymous protagonist going over-the-top at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth, so McCallum sought pastures new. Alongside Jon Blair (who created Spitting Image with Jon Lloyd) McCallum set up the design agency MKD in Soho. The agency was responsible for the European launch of The Discovery Channel. “At that time television was expanding; all the American channels started coming to Europe so the possibility of being a world channel really started,” says McCallum. “The Discovery Channel was the first big project I’d handled and it was interesting because it opened up a whole new market.”
McCallum founded Kemistry in 1997 and has continued to work on large television brand identity projects the world over. One key project was the redesign of CNN which McCallum argues changed the face of 24 hour news. “At that time 24 hour news was all based on the early technology, the Wall Street ticker, various streamers and so forth,” he explains. “We stopped all that to allow the viewer to concentrate on the news stories themselves and stripped it right back to something very simple. It was very influential.”
Other significant projects in the company’s portfolio include work for the national broadcasters of Norway (NRK) and the Netherlands. “Working on a national broadcaster involves a big learning process,” says McCallum. “You have to learn to get under the skin of the country. It’s a collaborative process.”
Kemistry is currently working on London Live, the Evening Standard backed channel especially for London, for which the agency has overseen brand identity and onscreen graphics. “This is probably some of our best work,” says McCallum. “It’s good to be working back in London – London its a very sophisticated market, there’s lots of agencies here and a more knowing audience so it’s highly competitive.”
The nature of television has changed a great deal since McCallum’s first involvement in the 1960s. Working on Jackanory, he recalls drawing illustrations then filming them on caption stands. Of course, the advent of digital changed everything and now new platforms are altering the way we interact with television. “Social networks, tablets and smartphones mean television is not passive anymore so the brand has taken on an extra importance,” comments McCallum. “People can come across a brand on an app button and that might be their point of entry to a TV channel. Onscreen has become broader too: you can’t just think how something will work on television, you need to think how it will work everywhere.”
Now 70, McCallum devotes more of his time to the Kemistry Gallery. “One of the things I love about the gallery is going back and rediscovering designers from the past,” he says. “I’m spreading the design word and presenting excellence and interesting ideas.” Fitting therefore that the gallery should have hosted a retrospective of McCallum’s own work at the end of 2013.