A plan to erect a giant Hollywood-style sign on Dundee Law in 1996 sparked as much drama as a Tinseltown screenwriter could imagine.
A media consultancy’s £5,000 bid to proclaim the relaunch of the City of Discovery campaign quickly became a horror story.
Church entered the row and described the sign as “aesthetically abhorrent”, while many other townspeople argued it was simply a waste of money.
A good ding-dong ensued before engineering difficulties and the need for archaeological digs were blamed on the decision to drop the proposal.
Survivors from the City of Discovery campaign team got a glimpse of what could have happened when a giant Beanotown sign popped up on Dundee Law.
What better excuse, then, to take a look back at the events that unfolded in July 1996 when plans were laid for the “temporary advertising logo”.
What was the proposal?
The city was no stranger to a Hollywood proposal.
Actor Paul Hogan was tipped to build on the success of the Crocodile Dundee films before fading into obscurity after a series of box office flops.
This time the project hinted at in July 1996 would have seen the words “Dundee City of Discovery” written in large letters on the south face of Dundee Law.
The main letters were probably between 20 and 25 feet high and would have been white.
The planning application was submitted by the Dundee Partnership, which involved the City Council, Scottish Enterprise Tayside and Scottish Homes.
It was hoped that the sign would encourage foreign investment, create more jobs and make Dundonians more aware of the educational institutions that existed in their town.
Councilors were due to vote on the plan on August 26, but would things go that far?
Lord Provost Mervyn Rolfe said the panel was “a bit of fun”, while Chief Administrative Officer Kate Maclean said the panel would raise awareness about the relaunch of the City of Discovery campaign in a way that could never have been done otherwise.
“I think it’s a great idea and it will definitely create a debate in the city,” she said.
She was right.
The Reverend Harry Gibson, the minister for the High Kirk on the slopes of Dundee Law, was outspoken and called the sign “aesthetically abhorrent”.
He said the first time he saw an artist’s impression, he thought it was “a bit of the craziness of Midsummer’s Day.”
“However, when I realized this was a serious attempt to publicize the value of the city, I felt I had to voice my displeasure,” Reverend Gibson said.
“What’s good for Hollywood isn’t necessarily good for Dundee.
“The sign may not be as bad as the artist’s impression, but even at that it seems to lack imagination.
“There are a lot of young artists in Dundee who I think could produce something distinctive for the city of Dundee.”
Councilor Ian Borthwick broke it down further.
“Dundee is not Tinseltown,” he said.
“I don’t think we should look to Hollywood for cultural inspiration.
“The Law is Dundee’s war memorial and everything done there must be done with taste and care.
“I think it’s important to popularize the site but don’t trivialize it.”
He recalled that when a bid had been made a few years earlier to erect a huge billboard atop Cox’s Stack in Lochee, the plan had been rejected as the tower was believed to be a memorial to jute workers.
He believed that this argument was still valid.
“We have to keep the dignity of the site,” he said.
“We have to listen to people before we continue.”
The public expressed their feelings
The Evening Telegraph conducted vox-pop where supporters described it as “catchy” and “very good value” while critics called it “vulgar” and “out of place”.
A hotline was set up by local newspapers as the debate raged!
Courier readers voted six to one against the proposed sign out of a total of 730 appeals while Tele received 444 appeals with just 110 in favour.
Some of the letters the two newspapers have received certainly pack a punch!
Joyce Lindsay of Newport-on-Tay said her initial reaction on seeing the front-page photo of the proposed Hollywood-style panel “was one of dismay and horror”.
‘Dundee has one of the most beautiful settings any city could ever hope to have, but one that has unfortunately been steadily eroded by ugly and overgrown high-rise buildings marring its skyline and now this!
“A new target for the vandals and graffiti brigade if I ever saw one.
“This new monstrosity can certainly be a landmark, easily seen and talked about, but what will those remarks be?
“In my opinion, not too complimentary.”
The last word would go to Allan Petrie of Dundee.
“The proposed Dundee law panel isn’t the only thing to have come from Hollywood to the city. The council has been run by cowboys for years.
Things moved forward when a giant letter H was positioned on Dundee Law as a test with confirmation the sign would be erected in early September if approved.
But how long would he stay there?
Councilor John Corrigan suggested vandals would tear it down in 10 minutes.
Ian Black of Beattie Media, who was promoting the campaign, and on whose behalf the planning application was filed with the city council, suggested that the final content and scale of the sign would depend on the report of a engineer on its visibility.
On the issue of security, Mr Black said measures to protect the sign while it was on the law had already been discussed.
Once the sign had completed its 28-day stay on the law, it would be removed and stored for future use.
He said: “We always knew it would be a controversial idea and overall I think most people in Dundee wouldn’t be unhappy to see registration for the law for a month despite what the some newspaper polls might indicate otherwise.
“We have many more ideas up our sleeves to get people talking about Dundee in a positive way and we look forward to unveiling them in the months to come.”
Support from the business community
The City Center Action Group, which had many shops and traders among its members, and Chamber of Commerce Director Harry Terrell believed it would successfully generate positive publicity that exceeded its cost.
The man who forever changed Glasgow’s image with his ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign has also backed Dundee’s proposal.
Former Lord Provost Michael Kelly said there was no reason for the sign to be seen by anyone as anything other than an attempt to give the town a new image.
The Evening Telegraph eventually expressed its own view and described the law sign as a mere gimmick and argued that it was better to get the priorities right.
It read: ‘Dundee has so much to congratulate…but there are black spots that have been crying out for ages…the toiletless, shabby Seagate bus station; CCTV cameras; the bridge to Discovery Point, to name a few.
“Our letters page today has an illustration of a mess in the churches of the city (not the immediate fault of the council, but of the litter thugs).
“You could argue that the rapid cleanup of such damage would do more for Dundee’s image than a sign on the law.
“Unfortunately the columns of correspondence contain many complaints from Dundonians of horrors left unattended throughout the city.
“Yeah, get our house in order, get the basics in order, and maybe consider some interesting stunts. It’s a question of priority. »
Hollywood or nothing?
The Dundee Partnership finally abandoned its plans just three weeks before the sign’s planning application was presented to the City Council.
It was blamed on the engineering difficulties associated with erecting the sign on a steep 30 degree slope which were compounded by advice from Historic Scotland.
The agency said preliminary excavations should be carried out to ensure there were no archaeological remains that could be disturbed by the panel’s foundations.
Beattie Communications said the need for the exploratory digs cast doubt on what engineers would be able to achieve to ensure a safe support structure, prompting the decision to withdraw the formal planning application.
The Courier asked its readers to come up with their own ideas for promoting the city following the withdrawal of the controversial planning application.
There was no shortage of suggestions for the most appropriate display of Dundonian pride.
These included everything from steamboats cruising the Tay to sponsorship of a promotional hot air balloon!
But our inclination to Hollywood stardom remains on the cutting room floor.
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Venice of the North? When plans for a link to the Dundee Canal hit the buffers
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[The bid to put Hollywood-style sign on Dundee Law]