Hello again. The blog’s been on a bit of a hiatus for a few weeks, lots of things have been happening that are too dull to tell you about but it’s meant that I’ve not been able to find any spare time. Normal service should now be resuming, along with yet another redesign. While I’ve been away, there has been a big story in the media world that I really feel the need to comment on.
No, instead, there was another bit of news during the last month that I’d like to write about. Following months of speculation, it was announced that the BBC is seeking to sell its iconic Television Centre and will vacate it by 2015.
It’ll already be a much more empty building by this time next year. BBC Sport, CBBC, Radio 5Live and Breakfast are moving to the new Media City complex in Salford, while BBC News is going to be based in the new state of the art newsroom below Broadcasting House. Other departments, such as presentation, previously based in the famous Broom Cupboard, moved out to the newer White City buildings long ago. But production still goes on at TVC, with quite a lot of it being for ITV and Channel Four, with independent production companies using the facilities for shows like TV Burp and 8 Out of 10 Cats. Studio 1, the enormous block with the words “BBC Television Centre” on the side, was once the biggest television studio in Europe and is still the home to the BBC’s big extravaganzas, from Strictly Come Dancing to election night coverage.
At the time I heard the news, I thought of writing about the way it’s been an enduring icon on our screens for decades, how from Record Breakers and Alexi Sayle’s Stuff to Live and Kicking and Red Nose Day, it’s been a constant landmark, the home of television. But then Charlie Brooker did it much better than I could. So, instead, I thought I’d write about the first time I visited Television Centre, in the late 1980s.
I was about six or seven years old. By that point, I already had a slightly unhealthy interest in TV, and my mum worked for someone whose son worked for the BBC and offered to show me around. We arrived at Wood Lane and the excitement began before we even got through the front gate. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones were filming a sketch by the front gate. I seem to remember being more interested in watching the camera, boom and light reflector in use than the sketch itself, but it heightened the sense that this was a special place where you could see anything around each corner.
We went inside, through what was then the reception and is now the stage door, with it’s mosaic patterns and bank of television screens, which at the time were showing the BBC’s two television channels (this was even before BBC World was born), pages from Ceefax and what appeared to be a direct feed from the weather studio, with one of the presenters, perhaps Ian McCaskill or John Kettley, preparing his forecast. We walked through the maze-like corridors of the building, at one point going through the basement, where engineers and VT editors were preparing tapes for transmission. We saw an episode of Fawlty Towers being rewound, which might not sound hugely entertaining now but at the time was apparently really funny, because of the high-pitched backwards audio. I also vaguely remember something about the news studios being guarded with only certain people (not us) being allowed near, presumably because it wouldn’t have been too long after the Nicholas Witchell had to sit on a lesbian during the Six O’Clock News.
One of the great things about Television Centre, to this day, is that each studio has a viewing gallery where you can look down to see what is happening below and watch the output on a screen. So, we went into the gallery above one studio and saw a singer (female, well-known, very MOR, can’t remember who though) recording a performance in a near-empty studio for an episode of The Two Ronnies. Then we went to another studio and saw Judith Hann rehearsing for that evening’s Tomorrow’s World, holding an apple in place of whatever invention it would be that she’d have in her hand on the live programme. Finally, we went to the gallery above Studio 1 and saw an episode of Blue Peter going out live. This time, we weren’t alone, as the families of some Cub Scouts appearing on the show were also there to watch. As the episode ended and the presenters went back to the dressing room, we had an extra treat – getting to go downstairs to the studio floor itself and walk through the set as it was being struck.
Since then, I’ve returned to Television Centre a few times and every single visit has felt magical. There really is something in the air there that I’ve not felt in any other studio I’ve visited, even places with as much history and heritage as Pinewood or the former LWT building on the South Bank. I know I’m being sentimental and I’m sure it’ll continue to be used for television production, but it feels like there’s a danger that the building is changed enough for it to lose it’s soul.