In the Concrete Doughnut

I hadn’t previous envisaged that my first ever visit to Television Centre would involve me having to re-clothe myself, but I found myself having to reinstate my belt round my waist just inside the main gate. Last night I went to see a recording for the next series of That Mitchell and Webb Look: now, if you’ve been to a TV recording like this before this will all be old hat, but as it’s the first time I’ve done it, I’m going to write a blog post.

In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to attend a studio recording: twice before I have been too far back in the queue and turned away, despite having tickets. Now, this is fair enough: it’s made explicitly clear that they give out more tickets than they have spaces for, and for good reason – the idea is, after all, to be sure of getting a sufficient audience, and the entertainment experience of the evening is a secondary consideration…

…And boy, does it show! Audiences are treated as little more than laughter cattle: the whole thing is so shambolically organised that the only experience I can call on to liken it to is flying out of Heathrow Airport. It’s that bad.

Firstly, the queue system is a farce. There are usually multiple programmes being recorded, and the queues are formed on the pavement outside TVC. Now, that’s fair enough: maybe there is no other space on which to do it. But are there signs to say which queue is which, or any staff around? Nope, or at least not for a long time. Eventually some staff appear and go along the queue checking people are in the right one, but not very efficiently: they do two passes, and still find people on the second pass who have not been caught by the first. Now, the BBC has been recording programmes with audiences in this location for years: why can’t they get simple things like organising queues right? It’s not as if there is a shortage of staff: once you get inside, there’s no end of people marshalling you about. Queues can be organised successfully – Wimbledon only runs for two weeks of the year, but it’s absolutely peasy, with plenty of people on-hand to direct you to the right place.

Then there is security. Now, it’s fair enough that there are scanners, but do they have to be so sensitive that you need to take your belt off? And why can’t there be signs warning people of this in advance? There are stewards milling around occasionally and haphazardly mentioning it, but many people miss the instruction and it slows the process down. After the scanner, there is also no real room for putting your stuff back in your pockets and re-robing yourself as necessary – hence I had the slightly odd experience with my belt. Again, there’s not really any excuse for this: I’ve been in four different national and supra-national Parliament buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice and to numerous party conferences, all requiring scanner-level security, and all managing it better than the BBC.

So, once inside (having resisted the temptation to take a photo of the TARDIS prop outside the entrance, mainly because my phone was still in my bag) we ended up in a lobby area with a food counter and a BBC shop. The food counter had two people serving, to cater for the audience of three different shows. It was a long time before we got food (and some amazingly expensive red wine), but as studio admission was due to start in twenty minutes, we reckoned we had time to polish it off. We reckoned wrong: audiences started to be called almost instantly, with instructions over the PA to form queues in a space that had no obvious location for queue-forming, among all the tables and chairs. So we had to join the queue, wolf our food and neck the wine.

I’m aware this has been a big whinge so far, and also that it’s fashionable to bash the BBC at the moment: rest assured all that stops here. For, while I was pretty seething by the time I got to my seat in Studio 8, from that point on it was all rather enjoyable.

The first and most pleasant surprise was the warm-up act: “Is that Lucy Porter??” I asked – the answer was yes, it was! Lucy Porter doesn’t have what you’d call gag-based comedy, but she’s an utterly lovely presence, and runs an extremely funny line in banter – she’s a stand-up I had hoped to see at some point, so that was a rather lovely bonus!

The sketches that the BBC milked our laughter for came as a mixture of live action in the three separate sets that were up in the studio (two directly in front of the audience, one behind those and visible via screens) and pre-recorded items on screens. The studio sketches were mostly at the whimsical end of Mitchell and Webb’s output, but some of the pre-recorded ones were among their most satirical and scathing: I was particularly delighted to see religion, homeopathy, The Apprentice and vegetarianism getting particularly well-judged kickings. The other great highlight among these was an excellent James Bond spoof.

The live sketches were much as I suppose I had expected: each was recorded twice with occasional pick-ups (though generally the first take seemed better to me!). The final set, after a second costume-change into the mis-matched office-sharing characters went quite badly, however: Robert Webb in particular became prone to fluffing his lines, and technical problems led to several lengthy breaks in recording (one extended further, from what I could hear, by David Mitchell needing to go to the toilet). With two sketches completed, Webb eventually exploded and went, “oh shit! I keep screwing this up!” Everyone laughed, but after a moment it looked like he was genuinely annoyed at how things were going. Following some conferring with the floor manager, they announced they were calling it a day, and presumably returning to the office sketches later.

Overall it was an enjoyable evening, and all the sketches were to a very high standard – remarkable considering how much material Mitchell and Webb have produced over the last couple of years – and maybe even a step up from the second series. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished episodes on screen. As for attending future recordings, I’ve not been totally put off but the BBC really have no excuse for their shabby organisation.

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3 comments

  1. Ah – thanks for the correction! I had taken it to be scripted at first, but there seemed to be a lot of Serious-Faced conferring immediately afterwards, which threw me (and my brother thought the same – much to my relief when I asked him just now to see if it was just me going mad).

  2. Hi John, Thanks for the review which I thought was very fair. Just one thing – “oh, I keep screwing this up” was the scripted punchline to the end of that sketch. I’m a bit mortified to think that the audience assumed it was just me going nuts, although it’s completely understandable in retrospect given my fluff-rate towards the end. Oh dear. Glad you basically like the rest of it though. Cheers.

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