Normally when Twitter erupts with adoring tweets about a BBC4 programme, it’s at 9pm on a Saturday night and the subject is the latest instalment of a Scandinavian crime noir serial. But for once last week, there was an exception to the rule, as everyone seemed to be wallowing in the nostalgia fest that was Tales of Television Centre.
The BBC’s prolonged departure from its iconic White City headquarters in London proved a good excuse to raid the archives for a celebratory look back at the building which for many of a certain age – including myself – had been the very face of British broadcasting down the years. Its distinctive round shape enclosing the circular quad and its UFO/satellite dish-esque fountain is unlike any other TV company facility, and for that reason became forever linked with the BBC’s output through the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The archive footage stirred those memories very well with a ton of programmes I remember watching when I was young, from the kids shows such as Swap Shop, Record Breakers and Blue Peter through to the panel quiz shows, comedies and drama programmes that I graduated to as I grew up. These provoked cosy and warm memories, and there was plenty of material new to the viewers as well. From outtakes and studio trims from the time through to newly shot interviews with people who worked in the building down the years both in front of and behind the camera who enjoyed sharing their anecdotes of post-filming drinks in the BBC Club, to David Attenborough recalling how – as controller of BBC2 – he once had to politely ask one of the production teams to show a little more discretion in what they were smoking as the distinctive odour was working its way throughout the building. There was Barry Norman remembering how he had to sober up before taping the film review show after over-indulging at a leaving do, only to end up with the most sober and hence dull programme he ever did. And there were three Doctor Who companions raucously agreeing with Jools Holland’s description of the Television Centre as a cross between showbusiness and a KGB interrogation centre.
Best of all, it didn’t just concentrate on the programmes but also on what made the building so special: we got a virtual tour of the place and saw how it had been bespoke created for no other function that producing television programmes as quickly and efficiently as possible, the Ford factor conveyor belt of the showbiz world: scenery in this door, cast in that one, props there, and the whole thing deconstructed minutes after it was no longer required.
Modern studios just aren’t like that: they’re soulless, sufficiently fit-for-purpose boxes which – if they weren’t shooting TV programmes – could easily be repurposed into some other industrial uses if required. Not so with the BBC Television Centre: without the studios humming with activity, it’s a bizarre, idiosyncratic place with no other purpose. It makes the sight of it being wound down – the empty rooms, the former Blue Peter garden now just a patch of landfilled grass – a sad one indeed.
And yet even as the programme ended on a melancholy note to a chorus of interviewees declaiming what a crime it was for the BBC to abandon its spiritual home, I couldn’t help but think just how much times had moved on. The conveyor belt studio approach is a relic of the past along with the labyrinthine bureaucracy that inevitably went with it in its day; it has as much to do with modern TV programme making as the 1930s Hollywood studio system does to today’s blockbusters. As much as it appeals to our heart-strings, trying to keep the BBC at Television Centre would be like tying both hands behind the BBC’s back in this modern world of programming and then wondering why the Corporation was floundering, sinking rather than swimming.
Its day has gone, sad though that is to anyone with an emotional attachment to that era of TV programmes such as me. I just take consolation that I was around for its heyday and got to enjoy the output of the Television Centre at its height, from Secret Army to Doctor Who and The Goodies – and that such gems are available to buy on DVD for those who still don’t want to let the past go. That’s far more important than the building itself at the end of the day – although I can’t help but feel sorry for the generations to come who will never know such a boom time in British television production again.
I last went to the Television Centre about two years ago as part of a studio audience for the filming of a topical news quiz. It was a nice bookend to my very first visit there, as a small kid some three decades previously, when my dad and I were guests of my uncle who was an actor with a recurring role on Grange Hill. Being the unappreciative nephew that I am, however, all I wanted to see was what they were shooting on the stage next door: scenes for my favourite show of the time, Blake’s 7. I got to stand on the set of the flight deck of the Liberator: all cheap plywood, and big holes in the plastic casings where the “instrument panels” should be since the camera angles were such that the detailed inlays weren’t required for that day’s shoot. Some might have been put off by this tawdry reality and had their faith in the illusion and magic of television shattered there and then, but I went the other way: I saw the miracle of how these talented technicians and performers took this humdrum reality and made it soar on the screen, and wanted to know ever more.
It’s memories like this that are the magic of the BBC Television Centre, and which were so ably captured in this wholly sentimental and wonderfully indulgent salute to the place. It certainly wasn’t a serious investigative analysis of whether things were better done in the old way or whether the modern era produces better results: the ship for that argument has long since sailed. Instead it was one last opportunity to be spellbound by the spectacle of Roy Castle leading a world record tap dancing attempt around the iconic fountain: the fountain that couldn’t be turned on for very long or else it would flood the basement. The one where all the electrical VTR equipment crucial for all the work in the building was located.
Did I mention the building was bespoke purpose-designed?
Currently being repeated periodically on BBC4 and accordingly available on BBC iPlayer.