Tuesday, December 11, 2012

BBC Television Centre, 10th December 2012

BBC Television Centre is one of the more understated landmarks in London.  Step out of White City and you'll find it looming in front you, its curved exterior immediately recognisable from a thousand channel idents over the years. This place occupies an enormously important place in the British psyche.  It's a nerve centre of sorts, beaming out into practically every home in the country in some form or another.

But soon it is to close.  Rising property prices in the area, and a desire to create a "smaller, fitter BBC" spell doom for the building, at least in its present incarnation as a major television studio.  In 2013 broadcasting will cease forever, and a few years later the place will be converted into a luxury hotel.  Tours of the building finish in February, so while I've got a bit of spare time I thought I'd better get in there and check it out.  And I'm glad I did.

The reception
I was met by our two brilliant guides, Lisa and Susie, in the main reception.  It's a smoothly designed, ergonomic and modern place, stuffed with people and authoritative looking security guards keeping an eye out for any troublemakers.  They've got reason to be on the look-out; the place has been targeted by protesters throughout its life, whether it be the 6 o'clock news being invaded by lesbians protesting Section 28 in 1988, to Fathers 4 Justice storming the National Lottery or the news room being bombed by the Real IRA in March 2001.  

This smooth and slick room proves to be the exception on the tour, this is a building very firmly rooted in the past, and behind this glossy facade it's extremely utilitarian and bodged together, with bits looking like they're held together with duct tape and good will.  There are ominous echoes of this even here.  The subtitles on the televisions are corrupted, showing a rolling feed of gobbledegook, while hastily scrawled post-it notes stuck on the side warn visitors not to touch the televisions under any circumstances.

<tardis noise>
After signing in we're led around to the audience entrance just down the street.  I've attended a few BBC recordings, but always in the evening, and always with an eye to getting me in and out of the studio as fast as possible.  It's nice to be able to take our time a little, and we're pointed out some of the landmarks and props dotted around the place. There's a Quattro from 'Ashes to Ashes' parked off to the side, and towards the main entrance there's a genuine TARDIS signed by the Doctor himself.  This and the dalek that lurks inside the cafe are like catnip for those seeking a photo opportunity.

But, as quickly as we step into a sci-fi fantasy we're dragged back to the cold hard reality of 'now'.  We're led up the stairs into a meeting room that overlooks the BBC news offices.  This is the most recent area of the building to be renovated, being completed in the late 90s.  Looking out onto the reporters working away feels strangely zoo-like. There are tours coming through here all day, if I was working a few feet away from a load of goobering tourists I'd begin to feel a little self-conscious.  They do have some need for privacy though, and I was amused to learn that when you see a news room you see behind the news readers on TV it's a CG recreation.  They used to use pre-recorded footage, but once Moira Stewart was reading the news, and wandered across the news room behind herself, deeply confusing viewers.  

I expected the biggest news centre in the country to be a throbbing hub of activity, full of over caffeinated, totally wired journalists running around clutching pieces of paper and frantically tapping up urgent news reports.  Maybe it is like that when 'big news' happens, but the pace when I was there was a bit disappointingly sedate.  A guy was lazily editing a report on 'Strictly Come Dancing', while one of the guys from Newsround was mooching around in the background with not much to do.  Perhaps all the white knuckle stuff has moved their new home in central London already.  There were some neat things to look at here though, John Simpson's bulletproof jacket was hung ominously on the wall behind us, a reminder that while the people working here seem pretty safe and secure, they're sent from here into dangerous and volatile situations.

John Piper's big ass mosaic
Next we're led through the building all the way to the 'doughnut', the ring of studios where most of the BBCs entertainment over the last half-century has come from.  We stop off en route in what was once the main reception to admire John Piper's enormous mosaic on the wall.  The mosaic, tessellated ceiling and the wooden walls made you feel like you're in an episode of 'Mad Men' or 'The Hour'.  It's always weird being in a sensitively preserved modernist building like this, somewhere designed to be forward thinking in a future that's passed it by.  

"They needed a system, yes, an industrial-age machine."
This feeling carries on as we're led out into the centre ring of the doughnut with its statue of Helios, the Greek God of the sun, representing the radiation of television around the world.  Two nymphs recline below him symbolising sound and light.  This area was once a fountain, but according to our guide the sound of running water day and night was causing bathroom problems for the BBC employees so they took it out.  We head inside and we're led to the studios. Wandering through this part of the building feels a bit like being in an old NHS hospital.  The floor and walls are covered in scuff marks from things being quickly wheeled about, the pipes along the ceiling are exposed and dusty and there's signage in all sorts of 60s and 70s looking retro fonts about the place.  

The place is labyrinthine, and the circular nature of the building means that pretty every corridor curves around.  It's very easy to get confused and turned around here, and our guides keep a close eye on us to stop us blundering into Cheryl Cole's dressing room by mistake, or opening the door onto the set of '8 out of 10 Cats'.  When we reach a studio we look down through a forest of lights.  This system dates from the 1960s, using a phenomenal amount of electricity and producing so much heat special air conditioners are needed to prevent, say, Dick and Dom's bungalow becoming an unbearable sauna.  

The Blue Peter set looking a bit shabby and drab.
Props and set stuff lost to time.
After seeing this, we're taken off to see an abandoned set from Blue Peter which has been left set up in a warehouse.  The thing looks a bit used and depressing, when TV sets aren't under bright stage lights and massaged by nice camera angles it all looks a bit cheap and flimsy.  The walls are a dull, plain grey without coloured lighting, and as you look closer you can see parts where it's chipped and stained.  I guess this is a symptom of the transitory nature of television.  All these props and sets, however welcoming and cleverly designed are temporary, designed to be discarded.  Even knowing that this process is inevitable, it's a bit depressing to see children's drawings discarded in the same way, left to slowly rot in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere.

VHS graveyard
As we're led around these spookily empty huge spaces it almost feels like production has already moved out.  You see the odd guy in a boiler suit wheeling something about, but apart from that the place is pretty quiet.  We stop off and look at the set for Match of the Day, and as people pose on the sofa for photos I slip off and have a look behind the curtains.  Back here there are thousands of VHS tapes containing god knows what.  Who knows what could be on these?  I'm reminded of the old policy of deleting programmes to make space for new ones, resulting in the loss of many classic moments in TV, from episodes of Doctor Who to the BBCs coverage of the moon landing (I mean c'mon archivists, that seems important).  This enormous pile of obsolete media seems like a neat little symbol for why the BBC are leaving.

I was so tempted to start randomly flicking switches.
Television as traditionally produced here is becoming like the VHS tape, an anachronism unsuited to the modern era.  For most of the building's existence this was the undisputed hub of mass-communication for the country, but now this power has been redistributed to the public.  Rather than having 3 or 4 channels of television to choose from, we have a panoply of both professional and user-generated content to pick from.  This shift leaves enormous television complexes not obsolete, but at least riding a wave that's already crested.    You can see this in the prehistoric looking dials and switches hiding behind curtains, in the way the heating pipes gently clank and in the way everything is chipped and scuffed.

"It's an Ood! Oods are good.  Love an Ood!"
This isn't to say that I didn't have a wonderful time here.  As you turn corners you're confronted with holy relics of from the annals of the BBC.  There's a Ood!  There's an entombed Gordon the Gopher!  The bust of Queen Victoria from the Queen Vic!  A ripped open chest cavity from Casualty!  I'm glad I got to see the place up close before it closed down, it deserves to be treasured and sensitively preserved, but all this heritage can't stand up to the steady march of progress.  This is a monument to 'old' media, lumbering dinosaur-like towards an inevitable extinction.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “BBC Television Centre, 10th December 2012”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights