Infographics, Notebook

Letraset, cardboard and a blackboard easel: TV infographics 1980 style

Notebook: 9 October 2015 | INFOGRAPHICS


In the summer of 1980 I had a holiday job at BBC TV Department of Current Affairs in Lime Grove, West London where I helped out on the programmes Nationwide and Panorama and some of the simple information graphics that I created for Nationwide are pictured above. They were all created with coloured paper, a scalpel and a few sheets of Letraset – this was the days before computer aided design, and the introduction of Quantel Paintbox, which revolutionised the production of television graphics, was still a year away. Nationwide was a popular news and current affairs programme – same sort of format as the BBC Breakfast show of today, but it was broadcast between 6 and 7pm each weekday evening, running from 1969-1983. It was presented by Sue Lawley, Sue Cook, Hugh Scully and the infamous Frank Bough, amongst others.

The Nationwide editorial department was a large open-plan office above the TV studio a couple of floors down. Along one side of the office was a hatch and counter which opened on to a small studio where the designers would create the graphics. I seem to remember that it worked something like this:

The editors would plan their stories for the day. Often they would want an infographic to help illustrate a story. They would come to the hatch and chat through what they needed and their ‘graphic’ would be booked in and allocated to one of three designers/graphic artists who would then go off and spend an hour or so creating and assembling the infographic. So for instance, I produced the artwork shown top right to help support a story about rising unemployment. First I found a stock image of a crowd of people. This image was sent off to a guy who operated a big flat-bed, copy-camera and he supplied me with a couple of black and white prints (‘PMT’s) which I then covered in blue ‘Letrafilm‘ (sticky-backed coloured film produced by Letraset). The whole lot was mounted on board and the words were applied letter-by-letter with rub-down white Letraset. Once the graphic was complete and approved, the AFM (Assistant Floor Manager) would take it down to the TV studio and place it upon a stand which was literally a blackboard easel. When the show went live an hour or so later, they would simply point a camera at the infographic and then cut to that image when the moment arrived. Some of the more complicated infographics would have cardboard sliding parts that would help ‘animate’ the graphic – an assistant in the studio would move the animated part off-camera. It all sounds very primitive now and the days of using a paint diffuser (or maybe it was even a toothbrush) to create the ‘mountains’ on the map of the USA (bottom right) seem a long time ago…

The last task I was given at the Beeb before returning back to college, was to help design a logo for a new consumer affairs programme which was being introduced as part of Nationwide in a weekly slot. It was called Watchdog. Nationwide died a death in 1983 but Watchdog is still going strong.

For the oldies reading this, who remember Nationwide, here’s a link to the opening credits. Watch it with caution as you won’t be able to get the tune out of your head…