19 October 2007

BBC Television Centre 1956-2012

The news of the long, slow death of BBC Television Centre - the home, over the years, to many of Britain's favourite television programmes (not to mention quite a few of Britain's least favourite programmes as well) - is unlikely to come as a surprise to those who have known and loved it during its long life, and will be particularly unsurprising to all those who are aware of the vast amounts of asbestos to which the building has provided a home for more than five decades.

The story of TV Centre's design is an unusually apt one, involving as it does - like so many a BBC project - great cost, vast layers of bureaucracy, government interference, a lengthy planning document and, in the end, a lonely creative left with no alternative but to come up with something in ten minutes while knocking back a couple of pints in the pub. Even more appropriately, architect Graham Dawbarn was to draw his inspiration for the building's design from doodling a question-mark, the act of doodling anticipating the activity many future BBC employees would spend their time engaged in while senior management banged on at length about "vertical integration", "360-degree vision", "trimediality" and making joy through work, and the question-mark design anticipating the many viewers wondering why the hell they were paying their licence-fee for repeated editions of Tittybangbang. More appropriately still, the project displayed the BBC's legendary swiftness of foot: having been commissioned in 1950, the foundation stone for TV Centre was not laid until 1956 with building only being finished in 1960.

When the building was, eventually, completed, many were amazed - not to say utterly bewildered - by its unique design, with its central rotunda's circular corridors set out over seven identical floors and its signage apparently arranged by a group of drunken medical students as part of a rag week prank. Indeed it is rumoured that last year a tattered figure, dressed only in the shredded paper waste removed over the decades from the innards of the BBC's many malfunctioning photocopiers, was discovered, having been wandering the building for over 20 years, surviving on curly-edged sandwiches left behind in empty green rooms and the water dripping from the malfunctioning air conditioning(1)

Yet somehow thousands upon thousands of programmes - from such well-loved gems as The Wednesday Play, Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Tomorrow's World, I'm Alan Partridge and Dr Who to such well-loathed dross as Noel's House Party, National Lottery Stars, He's Having a Baby and Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow - were created within TV Centre's walls. The building was filled with designers, builders, make-up artists and wardrobe departments as well as all the lighting, sound and camera units needed to provide entertainment to the nation. It echoed to the sounds of fierce political debates on election nights, the sussurus of silken underthings being removed in hundreds of costume dramas, the tapping of thousands of record-breaking feet led by Roy Castle and the croaking of Daleks bent on extermination (not all of those Daleks being John Birt), not to mention the frequent hissy-fits of luvvies, screaming of irate directors, flopping of elephant dung on Blue Peter studio floors and the constant banging, hammering and drilling from thousands of technicians ... usually in the middle of a live broadcast.

Such great days, however, are gone. Now the make-up, wardrobe and design departments are closed, much of the camera, sound and vision work outsourced. Studio-based drama has passed away. The news operation - much of which was moved to the building in 1998 - is to be sent back to central London, following the discovery that nobody actually in the news had any desire to make the lengthy journey to be interviewed in a part of London with all the charm, character and cultural facilities of a defunct urinal block in Salford (which, by happy coincidence is the new location for the BBC's Sports and Children's Departments)

With TV Centre a hollow shell of its former self and the BBC eager to grab a bit of cash to fund vital services like news and drama (and not-so-vital services such as BBC3's low-rent factual output and patronising "youth" TV), it was inevitable that it should be quietly put down.

BBC TV Centre will be buried in the Blue Peter Garden, next to the statue of Petra and just above the Blue Peter time capsule. It was pre-deceased by thousands of BBC jobs and Lord Reith's Legacy.

(1) So Byzantine is TV Centre's design that many people have been astonished to round an unfamiliar bend only to bump into Dr Who's Tardis lurking in a darkened corner.(2)
(2) Although not as many people as have been astonished to bump into Dead Ringers' Jon Culshaw lurking in a darkened corner doing an impression of Tom Baker as Dr Who ... especially as Mr Baker ceased to play the role more than 20 years ago.
NB the author of this obituary wishes to acknowledge his huge indebtedness to the excellent "Unreliable and Wholly Unofficial History of BBC Television Centre", which interested readers (of whom we are sure there must be at least one ... surely) can find here.