Thursday, 17 November 2011

Covering Campus Completely...

I don't often do "here's what I've been doing this week" blogs but thought I'd do one about this weekend as it ties in with one of the first ones I wrote back in April.  Inspired by a nostalgic perhaps-not-entirely-sober Facebook status update a few weeks ago Tom, Kate and I decided to make our more-or-less annual trip back to York last weekend.  I admit it doesn't normally take much to send us on the two hour trip up the east coast mainline but for some reason we were really in the mood for a trip north.  East Coast trains were even running a £25 flat fare first class offer - what more encouragement did we need? 
Living it up, student-style (not)
It ended up being quite a different trip to most of our other ones too.  In response to a random tweet from me musing that it was probably ten years since I'd first visited YSTV (on a University of York open day in October 2001) I'd been told I was welcome to pop back in at some point, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do so.  The three of us have been back there a number of times since we graduated (doing the big events for a couple of years, bowing out after the YSTV 40 broadcast), but after all of our friends and friends-of-friends graduated we've not been back to the station at all.  So it was really rather lovely to go back inside the place again.  It holds so many happy memories, especially so in light of Kate and I getting engaged.  We owe a big thank you to Mike and Sam for showing us round, telling us about how the place works now and generally putting up with us in the station and afterwards in Langwith Bar - sorry, The Courtyard (old habits die hard).  YSTV is in good hands!
We're back!

It's really interesting to see what's changed and what hasn't.  Technology is the major thing.  When I arrived it was taking us 15 minutes to render a caption on YSTV's (admittedly ageing) Mac.  Now we can record and edit HD video on our iPhones.  Suddenly everyone is a TV producer - and not only that but there's a Film and TV department on the new campus.  Thankfully so far the effect on YSTV seems to be positive - when it was announced during my time we'd fearer it would result in us losing members and ultimately the studio.  However your eyes are naturally drawn to the things that haven't changed at all.  Although a few of our old sets have been junked recently the "coffee bar" is still going strong nearly nine years on, and Kate might just have got a little bit excited at finding a surviving splash of YSTV Week purple on the back of one board.  They have done some quite impressive work with their sets recently too.  Our early days of "dreaded black drape" seem light years away.
"So when's my next Eurovision live link?"

After we'd all had a couple of drinks we wandered up towards URY and (again thanks to Mike and Sam) ended up being shown around by a couple of current members there.  The changes there are even more dramatic than over the other side of the lake at YSTV.  Earlier this year Studio 1 and 2 were completely refitted for the first time since 1997 and now look completely and totally different from our time there.  Gone are the CDs and Mini Discs - it's all hard drives and touch screens now.  I honestly would not have a clue where to start.  However - it still smells EXACTLY the same.  Yep that's right - the smell instantly took me back to walking through the doors nearly nine years ago for my first show and feeling more than a bit nervous!
The all-new URY Studio 1

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I hadn't returned to URY since I left in 2005 so it was really nice to be back - thanks to the current members who gave us a quick tour and let us have a play with the new kit.  I spent more hours than I care to remember in that orange studio (which is no longer orange, fact fans), often at the crack of dawn with only my own voice for company.  After writing earlier this year about how it was a shame I had completely left that part of my uni life behind, it's funny that in the past six weeks I've met up with a load of fellow ex-URYers (and had such a good time that I couldn't remember getting home) and revisited the studio itself.
Is this one SBN?

So what else is new?

Central Hall goes "undercover"
  • Goodricke Bar/McQ's is a completely gutted concrete shell.  That weird wooden building next to YUSU is gone and apparently the whole area is being re-jigged to provide a more impressive "campus south" entrance.  But most importantly - the bar has moved to a new location: a Starbucks/cafe-style area in the Roger Kirk Centre called...The Studio.  Which is a bit of an insult to good old Pauline.
  • Central Hall is completely covered in white plastic...something to do with asbestos apparently.  The plan is to take advantage of this for projections should it still be there come Woodstock!  My theory is that once uncovered it will finally be an actual spaceship, just to satisfy the campus humourists who have claimed this since the year dot.
  • Campus is covered in brand new widescreen plasma TVs.  The YSTV network up to date?  Nope, that's now history after the uni finally bulldozed all the old Rediffusion network.  It's YUSU's own initiative, and all they seem to show is a single static caption advertising the union's activities.  Now, Inform used to get criticised but congrats to YUSU for putting these all over the place, not screening any YSTV on them at all, and being even less use than ours were.  Trebles all round.
  • Heslington East, erm, exists.  It seems to have taken Halfax's role of the place you could quite easily go your entire degree without visiting.
  • The Courtyard is rather good, in fact it's rather bizarre to see Langwith Bar so busy, or in fact any campus bar so busy at the weekend.  But as expected it does seem to have had a detrimental effect on the other bars around campus.  JJ's is long gone and B Henry's is said to be pretty much out of us as a regular bar.    
  • York's nightlife is much changed.  The change in licensing laws has meant that now anywhere can stay open late, install a dancefloor the size of a beermat and pretend to be a club.  Two of YUSU's official student nights are in "pretend" clubs - Vodka Revolution and Salvation (the old Nexus on the row of hell that is Rougier Street).  Meanwhile of the old "big four" (well, the only four), Ikon and Diva closed in our final year; Toffs became Tru and then was sold on becoming Tokyo on which the verdict is still out; Ziggy's is apparently only called Ziggy's on Wednesday's student night and hosts all kinds of dubious fare the rest of the week; and Gallery is faced with closure as Luminar are in financial trouble. 
The sad state of Goodricke Bar

All in all we had a great afternoon hurtling down memory lane.  Then it was off to Toto's, an old favourite, with Rick and Sarah, another two old favourites, followed by Henry J Bean's, whose DJ once uttered the immortal words "big shout out to YTSTV" a few years back.  I used to find that place really expensive - funnily enough after six years in London it's a bit of a bargain now!

Finally as inevitable as day turning to night was the Sunday morning 9.30am hungover check-out from Alcuin.  We always stay on campus as, apart from being nice to go back, the prices are unlikely to be beaten anywhere else in York on a Saturday night (around £40 for a single, £70 for a double and 10% off if you manage to use the elusive alumni discount which never seems applicable when you're there).  However the sting in the tail is the stupidly early 9.30am checkout which, as far as we can gather, is so one poor cleaner can work their way around the entire block in time for check-in at 2pm.  

Since most of our friends left York we've settled into a pattern of going back about once a year, which is more than most but we do have a real soft spot for the place, and especially YSTV.  It gave me friends for life, a career and the best bit of all...who I'm sure you already know about.  Next year will be ten (TEN!) years since we started there so surely is reason enough for another (perhaps slightly longer) return!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"This is the BBC Television Service"

Those words will be instantly recognisable to anyone from my age up to around 40 as the start of the title sequence of Going Live! (don't forget the exclamation mark - very important).  Those black-and-white clips of men in white coats waving their hands about and turning knobs form some of my earliest TV memories, but it was only many years later I discovered that it was footage of the very first television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace.  Last weekend Kate and I visited the very studios where it all began as part of the 75th anniversary of those first broadcasts.

I've always had a soft spot for Ally Pally.  I love the way it towers over north London, the way you see it from the train when heading north and the fact it seems to keep catching fire or being threatened with closure only to survive (in fact the pub at the side of the palace was until recently called "The Phoenix").  One of my first visits to London - for some MHP drinks - was at the palace, coinciding with the traditional Guy Fawkes Night firework display (we'd been due to to the same thing the previous year but after Miss World was moved to Ally Pally at short notice we went to a Wetherspoons in Wood Green instead.  And there are few more depressing phrases than "Wetherspoons in Wood Green").  Three years later and Kate and I were back at the fireworks after moving into nearby Highgate, and the following year saw more MHP drinks there. Finally in 2008 we moved into our current flat from which you can see the mast from our balcony.  I swear the place is following us around.

Naturally we jumped at the chance to have a look around the original studio.  Despite continuing attempts to turn it into a kind of "museum of television" it is closed to the public most of the time, with only occasional tours available to small groups.  This weekend's tours were booked up within a day or two of being advertised online but being locals we decided to head up to Ally Pally anyway to see the exhibition part of the event.  When we got there we were surprised to hear there were spaces on a tour the following afternoon, which we duly snapped up.

So come the following day we were taken through the "BBC Tower Reception" entrance, up some windy, narrow stairs (obviously no health and safety in those days) and into Studio A - where it all began.  The BBC stopped making programmes there in 1981 (yes, that late!) so it's just a shell today, but it's impossible not to be slightly humbled at the weight of history that the place contains when you walk in.  The Alexandra Palace Television Society have done a good job of displaying a few items to look at when you're there.  There's a mock-set for "Picture Page" at one end, lots of information on the walls about the history of the place, a couple of period cameras and a presentation area (surrounded by TVs from over the years) at the other end of the studio.

I have to admit it was bigger than I was expecting - apparently the rooms were originally banquet halls.  Certainly it's tiny by the standards of much that can be found at White City, Waterloo and Wembley but I guess what you have to remember is that, in conjunction with Studio B next door, this was where everything happened - production, transmission, and everything in between - for the formative years of the BBC Television Service.  When considering the amount of meetings, committees, working parties, consultants and general faffing about it takes to put anything on air in TV today, it's a sobering and humbling thought that these studios and the handful of offices nearby were responsible for a few hours of mostly live television a day, every day, for many years. You can read memories of these pioneering days from someone who was there at the time on Arthur Dungate's website, and the broader picture over at Transdiffusion.

Following BBC TV's expansion into other buildings, Ally Pally's studios became the home first of BBC Television News and then to the Open University, before finally closing in 1981.  You can see a picture of Studio A when it closed here.  It actually looks quite respectable on the final day of operation so has clearly been stripped of anything of any worth in the intervening thirty years.  It's a real shame that the studios sit, if not unloved, then unappreciated and hidden away from view.  They deserve better than that.

You can see a panorama of Studio A that I took on my Generic Mobile Phone Device here.