Arena (1979)

Concept and creative process

'Arena' began in 1975 and is still on air, a multi award-winning documentary series that has been voted one of the top 50 most influential programmes in the history of television. Alan Yentob became Series Producer in 1978 and the programme was relaunched the following year as ‘Arena’, with its iconic ‘message in a bottle’ title sequence. The idea for the title sequence came from Nigel Finch, one of the programme’s directors, almost as a throwaway thought at the end of a brainstorming about new titles in late 1978. The appropriateness of the message in a bottle for the 'Arena' strand was a Eureka moment for the production, whose enthusiastic support ensured that the idea became a reality. 

Glenn Carwithen was the graphic designer allocated to the programme at the time and as part of the production team he met with Nigel Finch and lighting cameraman Mike Southon to evolve the idea. He developed and produced the bottle and designed and constructed the style of the type for the Arena logo in its new garish neon pink incarnation. He had the lettering cut out of a type of Perspex that allowed light to travel through its depth and emit a brilliant fluorescent light. This when filmed looked like neon, without the hazards of using real neon in water. The oversized bottle was vacuum formed by a company at Shepperton Studios. It was sliced open to allow the lettering to be fixed to a black 2D bottle shape and inserted inside it, along with the electrical connections for backlighting the lettering. The depth of the lettering (20 or 30 mm thick) dictated the necessity for it to be square on to camera for legibility; additionally, the transmission of light through the Perspex was at its optimum when viewed head on. The BBC Special Effects department designed a track system to make the bottle drift across the water towards camera at the perfect angle to capture the optimum effect. The softness of the neon look was achieved by using a filter and gauze on the camera lens.

The bottle was filmed in a studio in a large tank of water lined with black plastic, against a backdrop of the night sky and moon. Sea mist was generated as an effect and moon light was reflected in the water. The bottle containing the neon 'Arena' logo appeared floating on the surface and was guided by the special effects rig to its full screen close-up position. ‘Arena’ Series Editor Anthony Wall had the idea of using Brian Eno’s mesmeric ‘Another Green World’ to accompany the visuals, which was an inspired choice.