Television Centre

The Closure of BBC Television Centre

TVC and snow

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

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

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.

Things I’ll miss about West London

When I first moved to London at the very end of 2004, work took me to its West – first of all Ealing, later Chiswick. Next week I’m moving to Crouch End in North London, which might be every bit as distressingly middle class as Chiswick, but feels a bit less suburban than the leafy West. I’m not sure if I’ve come to know West London especialy well; the list of what I’ll miss about it turns out to be a slightly odd read…

Shepherd’s Bush
Although where I live at the moment is in many ways remote from central London, it’s very well connected: you can get to most places from it pretty straightforwardly, even if it takes a long time. It’s only a short bus ride away from Shepherd’s Bush, however, which means that gigs at the Empire and recordings at BBC Television Centre have been within pleasingly easy reach (in fairness, the Hammersmith Apollo is convenient too, but I think I’ve only been about twice).

wltuc_door_goodWest London Trades Unions Club I may well come back here fairly regularly, as I only visit it once a month anyway, for the Off The Page writing group. The building itself has a rather nice bar downstairs, with internet access and real ale, and although the toilets have seen better days it’s overall a rather nice facility. There are newspaper clippings on the walls of the building’s opening by Ken Livingstone in his GLC days, upstairs in the theatre space.

Turnham Green The Green itself is famously (ish) nearer to Chiswick Park Tube station than Turnham Green itself, and the open space and church make it arguably the nicest stretch of the Chiswick High Road, although it contains undoubtedly its least interesting selection of shops. That said, they do include one of the post-Fopp record stores than have sprung up using the old racks and so on from the branch of Fopp that used to serve the area… but curiously not actually in the same building.

London Overground My closest station isn’t on the Tube at all, but is South Acton, now part of the Overground network – specifically, on the North London line that arcs from Richmond, up through Camden and into Stratford. Typically, the improvements to the network are coming on-stream just as I move away from it, with some rather snazzy new trains replacing the creaking old units I’ve been crammed into for the last few years. Crouch Hill station is in fact on a different part of the Overground network, but with even less frequent services, apparently, and no new trains (yet). Still on a transport tip, the London Transport Museum Depot is the only tourist attraction in walking distance of where I currently live.

The Swan A gastropub, but a nice one. Closest thing I’ve had to a local.

Heathrow Airport? When I lived in Ealing, the flightpath was neatly positioned to give me enough noise to drown out the telly at some points. From my front room now, I can see the planes go past at some times of day, but not particularly hear them. I still get caught out by A380s – I always think they’re flying really low, but in fact they’re just really big. Despite over four years working next to the airport, that’s about as far as my aircraft recognition skills have got.

The Cunnington Street Mosaic The whole of the back of this house is decorated in a garish mosaic, as is the owners’ pick-up truck. Click through to the Flickr page for a fuller explanation, but I must have walked past it several hundred times and still missed a lot of the details on this section on the back wall in particular.

It’s a short list, and perhaps an unkind one. There are lots of other notable things about this part of London, but they are ones I’ve never had much involvement with. Ealing film studios (I’ve walked past them), Kew Bridge Steam Museum (never did visit it), Brentford football club (went to a gig in their bar once). Eden Studios was just round the corner from my current flat – I must remember to try and find its exact location before I move… The BBC’s Windmill Road storage facility was located just round the corner from where I used to live in South Ealing, but I don’t think I ever saw it – it must be situated back from the road, or just inconspicuously signposted (indeed, West London is littered with BBC heritage, including TVC, the formerly BBC-owned Ealing studios, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, formerly the BBC Television Theatre, the “Acton Hilton” rehearsal rooms…). I’m sure there’s more to list… but I won’t.

That about wraps it up for West London, I think. I can’t claim any special kinship of sense of belonging to the area… But I’ve got used to it and come to feel comfortable round here, which is something. Confusingly, several of the bus routes through Crouch End have the prefix “W”, which I’m sure will remind me of West London post codes for years to come.

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.

Farewell to the Concrete Doughnut?

Far sadder than Ming Campbell’s departure, though perhaps no less inevitable, is the report that the BBC is planning to sell Television Centre, whereupon it will no doubt be knocked down and replaced with housing.

As a child raised on Going Live and Blue Peter, I find this extremely sad to contemplate: it’s an iconic building and really ought to be listed. But all the old BBC facilities are going the same way: Pebble Mill has been replaced by the Mailbox in Birmingham, and New Broadcasting House in Manchester – the third and probably least marvellous in the BBC’s trinity of English Concrete Monstrosities – is due to be knocked down when the new facility in Salford is ready. Big new BBC buildings have also been opened in Cardiff and Glasgow recently, and no doubt elsewhere too.

The move to Manchester is no doubt partly responsible, but only partly. The main problem is that television programmes are no longer made like they were in the 1960s when TVC was built. Digital editing has rendered the traditional “multi camera” format for drama obsolete, while high quality lightweight cameras make recording large amounts of a programme on location viable now in a way that it never used to be – hence the Monty Python “this room is surrounded by film!” sketch.

Indeed, it goes deeper still: TVC’s set-up used to be, as I understand it, that programmes would be shot in a studio, but actually recorded to videotape, or to film, in a separate suite in the basement. It seems weird now, but that and many other facets of its original design (albeit often now amended) have left TVC looking hopelessly out of date, and being used for fewer and fewer productions. It now seems to be more economical simply to rent out studio facilities as required, and shift the permanent things like news out to other BBC buildings.

Of course, the BBC has always had multiple studio facilities in London: Lime Grove was closed amid some fanfare in the early ’90s and the Corporation used to own Ealing film studios. Even so, a BBC without TVC is an idea that will take a heck of a lot of getting used to. I really must try and get in there for a look round before the bulldozers move in…