I was of course sad to see the programmes marking the closure of BBC Television Centre last night. The shows themselves were worthwhile – a well-chosen booking of Madness, a band who played all the big music shows made in the studios over the years, and who retain their popular appeal, plus a retrospective hosted by Michael Grade. But it was very odd that the latter programme allowed so many celebs, in among their reminiscences, to make a range of ill-informed and often rather stupid arguments against the closure of TVC.
Of course, it’s sad to see it go. Indeed, it’s hard to get one’s head around the idea of the BBC selling Television Centre: to many, including me, it long seemed that TVC was the BBC. For people of my age, the association was forged on Blue Peter, Going Live and Record Breakers, and of course in the Broom Cupboard. And there’s no end of broadcasting history stretching even further back. Even as it was winding down, I still felt it was a modestly important moment in my life when I first stepped into it in 2008 – albeit that was as an audience member, and that meeting to discuss making my brilliant idea for a programme will probably now happen somewhere else…
But the rag-bag of arguments put forward on BBC4 last night against its closure prompted me to think about TVC in the context of the BBC and television production more broadly. Seen in this light it’s clear that, however sad it might be, continuing with TVC in its present form simply couldn’t be sustained.
The “television factory” was always there to do a job
Ultimately, TVC is there to do a job, just like any other TV facility. That’s why it was built, and indeed that’s what it will continue to be used for. The vague arguments against closing it seemed to be:
- it has heritage and should therefore be kept going; well, the first part is true, and the listing of the building guarantees its continued existence, so the UK’s heritage systems have worked
- it’s a good building to make television programmes; not really true any more, as we’ll see
- BBC television production somehow needs to be all in one place; except it never has been, ever…
It’s important to understand that television production was designed into the very structure of TVC: it was thoroughly purpose-built. Unfortunately, that television production process was the process of the 1950s, when virtually all TV shows were made in the same way: either broadcast live or recorded as-live, in a multi-camera studio using video cameras after a period of rehearsal. Comedy, drama, light entertainment, cookery shows, you name it – it was all made in basically the same way.
Hardly any TV is made like that now: some sitcoms, panel shows, gameshows, magazine programming and a few other odds and ends. But significantly, drama had moved away from multi-camera setups mostly by the end of the 1980s (and entirely when The House of Elliot ended in 1994) and away from live broadcasting long before that – bar soaps, which TVC did not host anyway. Sitcoms have partly moved away from the setup as well, and those that stick with the traditional format can often only do so in a slightly ‘meta’ way (Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys – the latter not made in TVC, I know), with straight multi-camera sitcoms often derided as somehow unworthy (see My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and others). The growth of independent TV production also hastened the move away from multi-camera production in the big traditional facilities. When Penelope Keith observed on BBC4 that Sport and Children’s had new homes but asked, “Where does what happened here go?” the answer is that what happened at TVC in terms of drama and comedy doesn’t happen like that any more anyway.
So for decades production at TVC has been somewhat in decline. In recent years it has reportedly become a bit of a ghost town, its work supplemented by hiring out its studios for independent network shows: famously on the day of the London bombings in 2005, Mock the Week and 8 out of 10 Cats were both due to record but only enough comedians for one show could make it to TVC – the panels were combined, the C4 show got made, and that week went un-mocked.
TV anoraks like me will have read many accounts from people involved in the technical side of TV production of just how difficult it is to make TV in a facility with 1950s methods hard-wired into it, and modern technology bodged into the old framework. It’s not for nothing that it is being closed for a thorough refurbishment before being reopened as a production facility in a couple of years’ time.
Into the modern world, out of west London
TV is made using modern technology, and technology changes. As an industry TV is grappling with the consequences of that (and this is not the place to get into debates about whether existing “channels” will become “content providers” with release dates rather than schedules), but in terms of production facilities there is a clear trend: older 1950s, 60s and 70s facilities are being shut down, and new ones built – indeed, TVC did well to hang on as long as it did. Pebble Mill in Birmingham ad New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester (no end of BBC buildings seem to have been called New Broadcasting House at some point in their lives…) are now closed and demolished. In the independent sector, Granada’s Quay Street studio complex has shut, YTV in Leeds has closed in its old form though like TVC seems to be getting a new lease of life as an HD facility, and so on.
In the BBC specifically, there is of course a big of a shift out of London. The debate about whether it was right to shift entire departments north is for another day, but the BBC has always had strong regional centres and what’s happening now can be seen as boosting them: the facilities in Salford, Cardiff and Pacific Quay in Glasgow may be new, but there are long traditions of programme-making in those parts of the country; indeed, I was just as excited to do work experience a decade ago in New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester as I later was to visit TVC – it’s where they made The 8:15 from Manchester! So BBC Television has always (well, ever since broadcasting was established across the whole of the UK) been about more than London.
Within London however, the BBC is undertaking a shift away from many of its old sites, and largely out of west London. But it’s important to remember that the BBC hasn’t always inhabited the west London locations it’s now associated with. North London used to be BBC territory far more than the west, although studios were dotted around everywhere: there was Alexandra Palace (in use for news until 1969, well after the opening of TVC, and the Open Univerity until the early 80s), Lime Grove (in use until 1991), Riverside Studios (in use until the early 1970s); plus central London for radio. Camden Palace, now Koko, was the BBC’s Radio Theatre from 1945 to 1972, succeeded by the Golders Green Hippodrome (used for television in the late 60s while the Shepherd’s Bush theatre was refurbished).
The move to west London happened in earnest post-war, and with the sale of TVC has now been largely undone. This is the culmination of developments arising from the technological shifts that moved TV production away from multi-camera by the 1990s. In the early 90s the BBC dispensed of its Television Theatre (which reverted to its previous identity, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire) and its Film Studios (again known as Ealing Studios and still a production facility) – the old divide between multi-camera video and single-camera filmed material having declined in importance. The BBC’s purpose-built rehearsal facility in Acton, the “Acton Hilton”, has been demolished, after being relegated to storage use for many years (the move away from as-live multi-camera production also meant a move away from extensive rehearsal periods). Its archive on Windmill Road in Brentford was closed in 2011, albeit replaced by a purpose-built facility still out west in Uxbridge. Even the larger White City production and office complex is being wound down. Also, albeit not in west London, the World Service has moved out of Bush House.
So the sale of TVC is part of a much bigger shift, from London to the regions and from older facilities – however steeped in broadcasting history – to newer ones purpose-built for current production techniques. No doubt in thirty to fifty years’ time, these facilities will be looking out of date and debate will rage about their future.
The BBC’s flaghips, past present and future
For all that it had to be done, the sale of TVC does mean the BBC has vacated its flagship location. But the BBC has had more than one flagship location in the past: Broadcasting House and Alexandra Palace have also had that honour. The former is now the undisputed flagship once more – albeit that its new u-shaped architectural signature feature has initially become known as the place where BBC executives stand to resign – and nobody is making the case that the BBC should return to Alexandra Palace. TVC will also move to the status of historic location, like Ally Pally; MediaCityUK may well become the place where childhood memories of broadcasting are forged, with Blue Peter and other shows based there.
As for the future of TVC itself, its studios will mostly be refurbished as a modern facility, and then hired out to production companies including the BBC, which is leasing three of them and basing some of its office staff there too. In short, it won’t be too different, in its use as a production facility, from now. Space that is currently surplus to need will also get a use, with a heritage centre of some sort opening. From the way Danny Baker was going on last night you’d think the whole thing was being demolished and replaced with flats – although some of the newer buildings may not survive, the core of the facility has an assured future. One sad thing is that TC8, the studio long favoured for larger comedy and light entertainment shows, is probably not going to survive on account of its location away from the main block of studios.
Overall, it’s probably the right outcome for the place. Imagine if the BBC had just kept it going for its own sake, with huge amounts of it empty and unused, ever-less appropriate for the needs of modern TV production – sooner or later, it would have become a scandal and embarrassment, no doubt with Tory MPs queueing up to demand the disposal and demolition of the outdated white elephant. There’s a case for saying the BBC has been (perhaps unusually) clear-sighted in avoiding backing itself into that particular corner.
I last walked out of TVC into a snowy night in 2009 after a recording of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. That evening, Lauren Laverne and a camera crew were wandering around filming for a documentary celebrating a show then entering its eighth series; predictably, BBC4’s celebrations completely overlooked this particular long-running BBC comedy success. While it was right to celebrate the end of an era at TVC, and the programmes were overall enjoyable, nostalgia-fests of that sort seldom tell the entire story.
Note: I’m no BBC historian so sections of the above may include factual errors; polite corrections will be welcomed.