Mark Lockwood, ex-VABC Creative Director, tells all about the design process of the Mercury Communications add-on special shape from the 1990s, which has appeared at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and many other UK hot air balloon festivals.
There are those of a certain tender age who will remember the days before the ubiquitous smart-5Gspeed-skype-time-insta-twit-book-whats-an-earbud-i-smug world we live in today. When you wanted to speak to someone back in the 80s and 90s you went to a good old fashioned phone box, inserted the Queen’s currency and often dialled on a Bakelite unit without buttons and conversed in plain spoken language without the use of emojis or acronyms. Clark Kent never had those problems! If you wanted to send them a hard copy, you wrote it down using a typewriter or a biro using onion skin copy sheets, stuck it in an envelope and posted it! The fastest form of electronic telecommunication was the Telex machine requiring you to type into a console the size of a church organ to produce a punch tape ribbon that you then fed into a reader and this then dispatched your missive on a green screen that looked like something from the deck of the original series of Star Trek.
On a diversionary note, that series led the way in Imagineering how we would converse introducing the flip open three beep communicator. Who didn’t at some point in the 90s have a Motorola Microtac phone, flip it open in public and say “Beam me up Scotty!”?
All this was to change with the introduction of the fax machine, the personal computer, email and the mobile phone: units the size and weight of two house bricks with a battery life in minutes and signal coverage that was as patchy as Dr. Who’s greatcoat. However once at home, the office or in a hotel in Los Angeles one could at last send images and documents over a telephone line without waiting for the postman to come a-knocking. All these faster modes of communication still relied on the monopolised landline telephone system fully in the hands of British Telecom, who were pretty much able to charge whatever they liked for their services leaving the consumer lighter in pocket and businesses paying vast invoices for the privilege of existing.
Enter stage left Mercury Communications.
Initially started in the 1980s as a consortium by US telecoms company Cable and Wireless, Barclays and British Petroleum under the guidance of ex-British Leyland supremo Sir Michael Edwards, in the early 1990s Cable and Wireless bought out their partners, sold a share to the parent company of Bell Canada and they entered the field of personal communications. The premise was that they bulk purchased BT phone line time at significantly reduced rates and then passed this discount on to the consumer. In order to take advantage this required a switch box attached to the main BT exchange and the addition of a magic ‘Blue Button’ to the telephone handset.
The be-suited, red framed glasses and braces wearing admen were called upon to explain this rather complex arrangement to Joe Public and some bright creative spark chose the hugely popular Harry Enfield character Mr Chumley-Warner, who extolled us to ‘Just press the blue Mercury button!’ in TV and print ads all over the country.
My BT landline rang one day in May 1993 and a nice man on the other end invited me to the delights of the City of London to discuss what, if anything, could be done to add to the extensive awareness campaign for Mercury without breaking the bank as they had already handed over almost all their marketing budget to the snippy snappy Gollum like fingers of the admen. Putting on my best (and only) ad-man suit with suitable brightly coloured tie, I duly rocked up at the very shiny brushed stainless steel and smoked glass headquarters of Cable and Wireless armed with reams of facts and figures and a slide projector. Yes, that’s how it was done in those days!
The value of a managed hot air balloon programme was taken on board very quickly and the limited budget hammered out however the problems they faced were that they needed to appeal to a wide range of users in the commercial and public sectors. They were in the process of introducing public phones, phone cards, residential and business services and they wanted the medium to deliver each and every one of these messages, which is a big ask from a fairly simple bag of hot air. I went away with head reeling and a king sized problem of how to solve the creative delivery of their wishes.
In time honoured tradition, the process started with a sketchbook and pencil and I immediately centred on the importance of the blue button, but how to express this? Every time I tried to design something with a finger or hand pressing the button, the image of a severed limb came onto the page and was discarded. Similarly, a flying phone, no matter how generic, did not convey all the individual messages in the brief and the drawing board was gone back to on numerous occasions. I am not sure exactly when the light bulb came on inside my head, however memory serves that it came late one night after copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes. The solution was simple: bury the offending severed end of the limb into the balloon envelope and link the dialling finger to the blue button with a short length of rope! As the balloon moved around, particularly on tether, the finger would seemingly be pressing on the iconic logo.
Mark's original Mercury design drawings from 1993
Numerous initial designs came out, each one taking the concept further towards conclusion. The hands could be different on the three faces of the balloon; one to represent a businessman in suit and cuff-inked shirt, another a female hand, which raised all sorts of questions as to which colour her nail varnish should be and a generic one clutching a phone card. Again, this also meant that the three kinds of telephone could also be varied to show a business fax machine, a home style phone and one of their soon to released public payphones. The complexity and size of the extensions from a standard 90 envelope and the required position of such a large volume to be pressurised below the balloon equator also gave me a headache until Cameron Balloons came up with the suggestion of creating internal ‘jets’ that channelled the hotter air at the top of the envelope into the hands. These required a semi-circular hoop of ‘memory metal’ to be included at the top to hold the jets open during inflation and once the balloon was standing upright.
All these design changes and options had taken their time and we were fast approaching the desired summer season of events. We would miss the Southampton Balloon and Flower Festival in July but Cameron’s assured me they could deliver in time for the Bristol Balloon Fiesta at the beginning of August. Everything moved forward as time and schedules would allow. Retrieve vehicle and trailer were secured and full graphics applied. I had designed a sort of fragmented series of coloured triangles as the background to all the associated peripherals, including some very natty but incredibly complex and expensive crew suits, and everything was in place when we rolled into Bristol on our annual pilgrimage to the fiesta with a roadshow of balloons and airships. The weather that year had been kind on the Friday press launch, however Cameron’s were slightly late with the delivery of the much awaited envelope. Upon inflation late on the Friday evening in the now empty main arena, it soon became obvious that there was a problem with the hands and that they didn’t look quite like the design visual. In fact, they looked like they had been caught in some horrific industrial accident and a sense of disappointment from all concerned pervaded the air. It was quickly packed away and sent back to the factory. Being a silver tongued devil at times, I managed to smooth over the issue explaining that this was a one-off prototype and that there had never been anything of this complexity or detail built before and some alterations and tweaking were the norm in the process.
In the absence of any representation at all the major events that year or images of the actual balloon, Mercury produced a limited edition series of phonecards using my original design drawing. These were distributed as and where we could until such time as Cameron’s could rectify the balloon. I seem to recall it was not completed until October and we managed to get a decent weather window to take it out and fly it for photography then pack it away and wait until the 1994 season.
Flying High at Bristol Balloon Fiesta 1994 - Photo courtesy and copyright Ballooning Pictures UK
Again, memory fades however I believe we hit every single event we could in 1994 and 1995 and even took the balloon to the first French special shapes event in Tours and included a series of flights along the chateaux of the Loire as a bonus. One memorable flight from that event was the announcement at the pilot briefing that there was a 500ft ceiling restriction imposed by the local airport due to incoming traffic. As the wind direction was directly over the city centre, pilot Chris Monk asked the pertinent question to flight director Stella Roux-Devillias, as to the minimum height? Her response was “Please try to stay above ze chimney pots!” They didn’t!
In pure design terms, this is one of the many balloons that I have created that was the most satisfying visually and technically. I am delighted that it is preserved for posterity by the British Balloon Museum and Library.
BBM&L tethering Mercury on Saturday morning at Bristol Balloon Fiesta 2018 for the 40th anniversary
Thanks to Mark for writing this blog and we'd love to see any photos you might have of Mercury! Check out Mark's other special shape blogs on our website about the Bic Chick, Monster, Babybel and Action Man.
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11/2/2020 01:01:56 pm
What would it take to get the balloon potentially flyable again?
11/2/2020 02:41:12 pm
It's been de-registered and the BBM&L have no reason to get it airworthy again, but it probably wouldn't take much. Although those add-ons are pretty big, it looked good in 2018.
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