In Pictures: Behind The Piccadilly Circus Signs

By Londonist Last edited 36 months ago
In Pictures: Behind The Piccadilly Circus Signs
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Up close and personal with the Samsung sign
Up close and personal with the Samsung sign
Looking towards Regent Street
Looking towards Regent Street
Golden Arches!
Golden Arches!
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LED displays tend not to work too well up close...
LED displays tend not to work too well up close...
The old caretaker's cabin, sadly no longer inhabited
The old caretaker's cabin, sadly no longer inhabited
Gazing down on Eros
Gazing down on Eros
Smart-looking controls. No idea whatsoever what they mean.
Smart-looking controls. No idea whatsoever what they mean.
A climb up Escher-like steps to the roof
A climb up Escher-like steps to the roof
Behind the McDonald's sign
Behind the McDonald's sign
... they may, however, make you want to hallucinate
... they may, however, make you want to hallucinate
Close up of Eros
Close up of Eros
One of the sign modules carries a plaque to Albert Oaten, a bit of a celeb in the world of electronic signs.
One of the sign modules carries a plaque to Albert Oaten, a bit of a celeb in the world of electronic signs.
Despite all the high-tech, the in-house entertainment relies on a battered old tape player.
Despite all the high-tech, the in-house entertainment relies on a battered old tape player.
A pigeon's eye view of the pavement.
A pigeon's eye view of the pavement.
The dizzying drop down to the pavement from balcony level.
The dizzying drop down to the pavement from balcony level.
Three lions, as you've never seen them before.
Three lions, as you've never seen them before.
Even Dick van Dyke never made it up here.
Even Dick van Dyke never made it up here.
And here's how to interact with the sign.
And here's how to interact with the sign.
The McDonald's sign throws up a range of images for passers-by to pose in front of. Here's the traditional London bowler hat.
The McDonald's sign throws up a range of images for passers-by to pose in front of. Here's the traditional London bowler hat.

They're gazed upon by millions of eyeballs every day, but what goes on behind the scenes at the Piccadilly Circus signs? We were curious, so when McDonalds invited us to come and take a look at their new sign and go on a tour, we didn't hesitate to say yes.

The new sign is a playful thing. Pictures of hats, thought bubbles and football trophies appear on the display, encouraging pavement-dwellers to pose in front of it for pictures. Look, here's someone doing it. And another. Whatever you think about McDonald's food, you've got to admit that's a pretty creative bit of advertising.

Our tour began round the back of the building, entering through an unmarked door on Denman Street. After ascending several flights of stairs, we found ourselves directly behind the sign. It's an almost deafening experience. These screens generate plenty of heat, and absorb more from their large south-facing surfaces, so a powerful cooling system of fans is required. Even so, the state-of-the-art display modules can cope with a background temperature of up to 50 degrees Centigrade. The modules are controlled via a small white box, not dissimilar to a refrigerator. However, the animations are not hard-wired and can be altered and (mischievous hackers look away now) reprogrammed externally.

We next descended a tightly packed ladder onto a hidden balcony beneath the McDonald's sign. Here we got a privileged view of the Circus, with streams of commuters crossing the street and gaggles of tourists gazing up at the signs and, unwittingly, at us, and a close-up look at the screens. There's a surprising lack of bird poo up here: the heat from the displays and ample netting scare off the birds.

After taking in the eye candy, we made a brief pit-stop in the old caretaker's cabin, before climbing a flight of stairs up to the very roof tops to look down on London. And from there, we'll let the images do the talking.

Words and pictures by Matt Brown and Dean Nicholas.

Last Updated 23 August 2015