Ken Houston: A lack of neon leaves Glasgow a little duller
THE Irn-Bru sign which once greeted the city’s travellers is gone, so here’s hoping Madrid’s bright icon can be saved, says Ken Houston
AN ICONIC neon sign extolling Spain’s national drink, temporarily taken down last year from its perch high above Madrid, may not return as originally anticipated, according to reports.
Promoting Tio Pepe sherry, the sign had lit up the night sky for 75 years on bustling Puerta del Sol, the capital city’s central square. But now the building on which it stood is undergoing renovations to become Spain’s flagship Apple store and reports the sign’s absence may be permanent have caused consternation among locals. Among them is a former mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, who helped save the structure from a cull of external neon three years ago, saying at the time: “The sign is to Madrid what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris”.
This statement will resonate in the West of Scotland where a similar fate befell an iconic neon symbol that many believed was to Glasgow what the Castle is to Edinburgh: the giant illuminated advertisement for Scotland’s other national drink, which dominated a key part of the city centre for more than four decades but which flickered and died following a complicated property dispute.
Erected in 1949, the massive structure advertised Barr’s Irn-Bru and depicted a popular character which at the time was used to market the beverage: an ebony-coloured boy called, “Ba-Bru”, who, stereotypically for the time, wore a turban and huge pair of earrings. With its sense of movement and various colours, the sign was a perfect example of the neon genre and, with its huge bulk, seemed more appropriate to Times Square in New York or Berlin’s Kurfustendamm than dear old Glasgow town.
The sign covered the side wall of a major office building, Caledonian Chambers, which was previously the headquarters of Scotland’s premier private railway company, The Caledonian, and constructed as part of the major extension of Central Station during the early 1900s.
With its elevated position on Union Street at the busy junction with Gordon and Renfield Streets, Ba-Bru’s smiling, winking face caught the eye of thousands of pedestrians, motorists and bus passengers who passed by, day and night. Aesthetically, it was particularly effective on rainy evenings, when the colours were reflected on the wet streets below.
Other companies also realised the significance of the location and Irn-Bru was complemented by neon advertising for other products, such as Bell’s whisky (“Afore ye go”), Guinness and Players cigarettes among others. It was the closest Glasgow ever came to boasting its own night-time version of Piccadilly Circus, a London icon with its neon signage as much as Big Ben, Tower Bridge and red Routemaster buses.
In the late 1970s, AG Barr presciently decided that Ba-Bru (along with his little Scottish friend, “Sandy”, who was also used for marketing purposes although not featured on the neon sign), had passed his sell-by date. Consequently, the original structure was replaced by one that was more in keeping with the age – ie, depicting a healthy athlete and containing a huge clock, which in a way was an even more effective advertising tool as the new version came to be relied upon by the thousands of commuters who headed for Central Station every weeknight to catch a train.
Sadly, shortly after the 40th anniversary of the original sign going up, its successor became the victim of a dispute between AG Barr and the company with leasing rights to the site. The maker of Irn-Bru was so wound up that it went to court over the matter, but the sign – clock and all – proved to be on borrowed time. An impasse could not be resolved and in 1991 the structure was taken down.
Around the same time, the neon advertising for other products in the vicinity started to dim as well and Glasgow at night eventually became as dark as, well, Edinburgh.
Some 12 years later the site came to life again after it was given over to one of those modern digital illuminated advertising “boxes” – in this case, officially called City Screen – which have the ability to offer exposure to myriad advertisers over a period of 24 hours.
The operator, the Glasgow-based Forrest Group, boasts that “with a range of over 600 metres the screen offers unrivalled impact, facing directly onto pedestrians and vehicles coming down Renfield Street, the busiest street in Scotland and the main one-way artery, taking people through the city”. True, but for purists and those with a sense of nostalgia the replacement is a poor substitute for the Irn-Bru structure – the present incumbent is not only smaller but also lacks the 1950s-style romance exuded by the neon original.
Just as the Tio Pepe sign in Madrid is now under threat, there seems little hope of large-scale neon lighting devoted to Irn-Bru – or any other product for that matter – reappearing on the night-time streets of central Glasgow. The conservation area status of the city centre has become a deterrent to the erection of such structures which, in contemporary local government thinking, add unnecessary “clutter” to major commercial thoroughfares.
The floodlighting of public and commercial buildings now seems the preferred option for city centre illumination, even though this has consequences for light pollution.
So, for all that Glasgow likes to promote itself as a 24-hour leisure destination, the heart of the city is a lot less colourful after dark than it was 40 years ago – when, ironically, the pubs stopped serving at 10pm, licensed restaurants were required to do the same at 11pm and, with the exception of private clubs, the only drinks legally available after that were non-alcoholic beverages like Barr’s Irn-Bru.
• Ken Houston is a freelance writer and commentator
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