Friday, 15 March 2013

Farewell to the Concrete Doughnut

I can't claim to have any great association with BBC Television Centre other than, like most, a long-term viewer of output from within its walls.  But in a way that's the best association of all - you feel like you know the place inside out despite having only visited on a handful of occasions.  So, like any self-respecting telegeek, I'm more than a little sad that this month sees Auntie bidding farewell to the good old Concrete Doughnut.

Growing up and watching too much telly, TVC simply looked like the most fun place you could hope to work.  Saturdays in particular showed it at its best, starting the day with the imperial behemoths of Going Live! and Live & Kicking making the most of their studios and indeed the whole building.  Grandstand then straddled the entire afternoon with a backdrop apparently of the bustling sport department hard at work.  Saturday night entertainment - either the Generation Game, Noel's House Party or The National Lottery Live - would show the larger studios at their best and finally Match of the Day would round things off.  And I haven't even mentioned news, weather or continuity yet, all of which was in the mix too.

Particularly for my generation the building was made into something of an icon by the title sequence of Live and Kicking, which turned TV Centre into a pinball machine.  Every Saturday morning for seven years the image of TV Centre was placed into the minds of millions of children.  Not only was it one of the best title sequences ever created, it ensured that no-one could miss where the programme was being made.  That iconic shot of the ball bursting out of the wall of TC1 signals the start of the weekend to many twenty-and-thirty-somethings.

I first visited TV Centre in September 2002 with my good friend Chris.  We'd booked to go on the famous guided tour of the building.  Famous mainly because it wasn't that good, and because it barely changed in the decade it operated for.  Like most, I have to admit that when the famous facade first appeared into view as we arrived on the Central Line I was a little underwhelmed.  You forget that on Children In Need night every spotlight in West London is pointed at the frontage to make it look glitzy, and that there was an awful lot of post-production on that famous Live and Kicking title sequence.  It just didn't look that....big, which is ironic because the site is famously huge.  You can read about our trip here.  I have to admit that the 18-year-old me was a little economical with the truth about the tour, mainly because the tour guide I mention was keen to get a good write-up.  I also don't mention that due to joining the wrong queue Chris and I almost ended up on an early edition of Dick and Dom in da Bungalow! Unsurprisingly the tour groups were kept away from most actual TV, so the most interesting bit for me was standing in the viewing gallery of TC6 watching The Saturday Show's set being dismantled (that Saturday morning obsession surviving my childhood!).  A depressing amount of time was then spent showing off a demonstration chromakey green screen (is there really anyone left who doesn't know about that?) and finally a tedious quiz in a box room away from anything telly-related.  But still - you got to go inside, and that was good enough for me.

Perhaps the best way to visit TV Centre was to go to a studio recording, which by definition meant you got to get close to actually telly.  When Kate and I first moved to London we decided to take advantage of our location by applying to go to a fair few of these.  The first was Grownups, a BBC3 sitcom (remember that?  nope, thought not) which mainly involved sitting there for three hours watching Sheridan Smith fluff her lines.  After that experience we decided to try and see something live so went to The National Lottery Jet Set, only to turn up to an edition where Eamonn Holmes had pre-recorded most of the quiz sections earlier due to other commitments (lunch? tea?).  Still, we were some of the last to see the live lottery draw before Fathers for Justice disrupted it from the audience and it was locked away at the BFBS studios instead.  Next up was The Late Edition, an entertaining BBC4 Marcus Brigstocke comedy programme.  Kate fulfilled a childhood ambition in 2008 by attending the Top of the Pops Christmas Special ("Girls Aloud are very thin" was her insight from this occasion), late in 2010 we witnessed a recording of Harry Hill's TV Burp and finally towards the end of 2011 we saw the first Frank Skinner-hosted Room 101.

The holy grail though was a wander round the building unattended, which I finally got to do in the summer of 2007 when Kate got a job at the BBC and shamefully abused her position by signing me in as a guest.  And guess what?  It's a working building, with lots of busy people getting on with their jobs.  I think this is the slightly sad reality of it being such an avid TV fan as a child - you take it for granted once you work there.  I remember waiting outside the ITN building on Grays Inn Road in September 2005 before my ITV job interview, seeing employees walking in and out and wishing I could be one of them.  For the last eight years I have been, and yet I do take it for granted because most of the time, it's a job, and a job that has its fair share of frustrations and gripes.  You can see a similar contrast between the TV Centre presented on screen to millions as the glamorous, shiny, exciting home of popular telly and the TV Centre of reality that's a bit shabby, full of asbestos and miles away from anywhere in west London.  It's quite telling that whilst celebrities are lining up to bemoan the loss of the studios, those who have actually worked in the offices all day are less complimentary.

The BBC deciding to leave the site has prompted much derision.  Whilst sad to see it go I'm not sure I totally disagree with the decision.  It's true - in many parts it is a building that's not particularly great to work in, built for a different era and difficult to modernise.  You can see a similar situation on a smaller scale at ITV.  The former LWT tower on the South Bank has terrible lifts that can't be fixed and nasty shoebox-sizes offices.  On another point, the closure is largely the result of other decisions.  News has quite rightly been centralised in New Broadcasting House - TV, radio, online and World Service all under one roof in central London for the first time.  I've written about the move of sport, children's and Five Live to Salford before, but suffice to say it's a move I support.  All of this means there is far less of the week-in-week-out TV programming that kept the centre busy over the decades.  

But it's not all bad.  In fact, TV Centre is coming out of this far better than many other iconic studio closures over the last few years.  Tyne Tees Television on City Road in Newcastle is now dust, all that's left of Central TV on Broad Street in Birmingham is a set of multi-coloured railings and BBCs Pebble Mill and Oxford Road are both history too.  Not only is TVC getting a superb send-off - from Richard Marson's superb 2012 documentary Tales of TV Centre to BBC Four's Goodbye Television Centre night on 22nd March and everything else in between - it will in essence survive. Studios 1-3 will be retained, presumably on the same sort of model as The London Studios operates, although there is some concern that there will not be enough studios and that the right ones are not being retained.  BBC Worldwide will move into the former news centre, with the corporation vacating the soulless White City and Media Village site up the other end of Wood Lane (in itself a reversal of the property strategy of the past decade).  The rest will be an as yet undefined mixture of homes, hotels and whatnot, bringing a new meaning to the phrase "studio flat".  Don't get me wrong - it's terribly sad that so much will be lost, but TV will still be made on the site and the front-facing facade will look more or less the same.  In today's unsentimental world that's quite a result.

It doesn't stop the exit from the site for redevelopment work to begin being unbearably sad for us anoraks.    Before Kate left the BBC we once again abused her staff status for a wander round the building, which even last year was very quiet.  We took a look at the former Blue Peter garden, now dark and empty.  Studio 9, facing the garden, was amazingly unlocked, and I couldn't resist a quick look inside.  It was the home of CBBC continuity for a decade and lived out its last few years housing the final incarnation of live Saturday morning children's TV, TMi.  Now it was stripped of all equipment and in a very sorry state given how it was the face of children's TV for a generation.  Wandering around the scene dock I was amazed to see a painted mural outside TC6 dating back to a Live and Kicking phone-in game in the late 1990s was still there!  And I have to admit that I did something of a pilgrimage to find where the broom cupboard would have been.  OK, it's not there anymore - the whole area has been redeveloped into offices - but I couldn't resist wandering up to where it would have been.  I have a very patient fiancĂ©e.

It'll be a sad week as the last parts of the corporation move out.  Comic Relief is the last large-scale live studio production and news leaves at 1pm on Monday afternoon.  Friday sees the on-screen farewell, starting with The One Show followed by BBC4 dedicating a night of programming to the site including an outdoor concert by Madness.  The vast majority of BBC activity on the site will cease at the end of March.  Farewell, concrete doughnut - for now at least - and thanks for the memories.  


Post a Comment