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A Few Notes on a Tour of BBC Television Centre, 28th January 2013

Posted 12th February 2013

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I often ponder what my ideal job would be. Perhaps it would be working in TX for BBC One in the 90s, at TV Centre. Or working in BBC VT in the 80s, at TV Centre. Or being a BBC cameraman in the 70s, at TV Centre.

You may have spotted a subtle link between all those jobs. Sadly, I will never enter TV Centre – as it stands now, anyway – as a professional rather than a telly nerd. So a telly nerd I remained, as I walked into the reception of TV Centre in January, to take part in one of the last BBC Tours of the building. I won’t try to detail everything that went on in the tour, but I thought a few observations may be of interest.

TV Centre from outside

BBC News: First stop was Stage 6, the heart of BBC News… or, at least, where it used to be, as the exodus is well in progress to Broadcasting House. My overriding memory of this section however was not the spiel about Broadcasting House, nor the guide flicking the screen between the BBC News Channel and a behind-the-scenes shot of the studio; it was of the guide informing us that BBC News could rip your pictures from Twitter or Facebook without your permission “depending on your privacy settings” and seeming quite proud of the fact, rather than outraged. The truth is somewhat murkier, but it somehow seems very BBC to manage to shoot yourself in the foot on the issue on an official tour.

TC8 Viewing Gallery: A glimpse at the set of one of the last programmes to be made in TC8, Live at the Electric, from the viewing gallery. (Pictures forbidden to be taken, unfortunately.) Sadly, in the middle of his relatively informative spiel about sitcoms shot at TV Centre, the tour guide told us that Red Dwarf was also shot at TVC, and that the lightning gantries could be seen in the final episodes. For the record, Red Dwarf was shot at Oxford Road in Manchester for the first three series, and Shepperton ever since then – and has NEVER been shot at TVC.

Unfortunately, this was far from the worst inaccuracy given on the tour; the oft-told story of the BBC switching off their television service in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon because of World War II was also given as fact. I’ll let Transdiffusion debunk that one. Sadly, these inaccuracies immediately made me doubt everything the guide said for the rest of the tour. Which is a shame, as he had plenty of amusing worthwhile stories that I just don’t know are true or not.

BBC Weather: A brief tour down the corridor leading to the weather studios; we didn’t go into any of the studios themselves as they were in use, but we saw the studio output on the television outside. My job involves taking in live programmes on a daily basis, and I still got a kick out of seeing a VT clock for BBC World Weather. (And Thomas Schafenacker screwing up.)

What was genuinely delightful about this section was when the tour guide suddenly flicked the channel on the television to reveal a surprised woman on-screen in front of a weather map… the woman being part of our tour party. It was then I realised that part of the corridor we were standing in had a bluescreen wall. In 30 seconds I watched someone who had no knowledge of how weather bulletins were created manage to understand the basics – including where to gesture to on a non-existent map. In terms of actually doing what the tour set out to do for the vast majority of visitors, this was by far the most successful part.

Incidentally, this was the point when my girlfriend asked the tour guide whether she could double back and take photos of these:

B floor sign
G floor sign

1 floor sign
2 floor sign

And that’s why we’re stuck with each other.


TC4 Entrance

As we were taking a photo of this, a woman behing us was heard to ask her husband “What’s interesting about that?” That woman was clearly a fucking moron. No, I will not back down on this.

TC5: At once, both a beautiful and depressing experience; we were allowed onto the studio floor of TC5 and take photographs. Beautiful, because WE GOT TO GO ONTO THE STUDIO FLOOR AND TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS. Depressing, because it was the biggest reminder yet that the studios are winding down; there was a Match of the Day set there specifically to allow for a photo opportunity. Something that simply could not have happened in the studios heyday.

Fuck the Match of the Day set, though. We peeped round the corner instead.

TC5 Studio floor

MAKE A TELLY SHOW: The final part of the tour was also by far the least impressive, sadly. We were shepherded into a tiny room and given the chance to “make our own TV programme”. A couple of tour members got to read the news, three more got to play a quiz – all shot with a couple of cameras and shown on a TV on the wall.

I suppose this kind of thing is what a lot of the general public came to a tour of TV Centre for, whereas the nerds just like standing in the original TV Centre reception and soaking up the John Piper mosaic. Still, I could have found it enjoyable if it’d been done with a bit of panache – but the whole thing was just so shoddily done. Having a specially-shot introduction of Huw Edwards in the BBC News studio throwing to the BBC Tours news desk was inspired, but the picture quality and rest of the links were just technically inept. I suppose no money at all had been put into it, but it surely wouldn’t have cost much to have made it half-decent running off a bog-standard PC. Rubbish.

As we left, somebody asked one of the tour guides where the CBBC Broom Cupboard was; the answer involved a studio called TC0. Which is completely incorrect; the correct answer is that it was – at various times – the old BBC One/BBC Two continuity booths, long since disappeared. (The real story behind TC0 can be found on this incredible site.) I can’t stress enough how nice the tour guides were; a real love of TV Centre and what it represents shone through with each word they spoke. But their facts were sadly lacking at times, which for an official BBC Tour just isn’t good enough.

Was it worth going? Hell yes. But less for the tour itself, and more for the privilege of wandering through TV Centre. Even mostly empty, there’s a magic that resonates through those corridors. A magic that’s hard to see being recaptured anywhere else in a hurry. (Although to be fair, BBC World is doing a damn good job of fetishising Broadcasting House in the same way as they did TV Centre.)

…I have to go now. I want to cry. For weeks.

TC5 Exit sign

Additional photography by Tanya Jones.

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W12BC on 12 February 2013 @ 9pm

A lovely summary of the tour, and I’m glad you got quite a lot out of it. As a staffer I’ve spent a fair amount of time in TVC over the last few years (not just in the Club!), and it’s been a privilege to walk its corridors, enjoy the old signage, hang out in the studio observation rooms, eat rice & peas in the restaurant block, and have meetings in the horrible windowless rooms in the basement, all amongst the ghosts of LE celebrities past.

The magic is definitely leaving the building. It does need a major refit, no doubt there, but it just won’t be the same.

Andrew Bowden on 14 February 2013 @ 11am

Although I never worked in TVC during my years at the BBC, I always loved visiting the place. And I always loved walking past those tour groups – especially near the Weather Centre where I often went for meetings. I had one meeting with a producer in the narrow room between the weather studio and the main office – Daniel Corbet silently presenting. Happy days. And, of course, that screen in the corridor could be turned on at any time. Like when you’d had a few too many in the BBC Club!

Ah but the best thing was looking official as you passed by the tour groups. Although there was always the disappointment in their eyes that you weren’t someone famous.

Happy days.

Ben on 4 April 2013 @ 11pm

I went there for some training one day in 1997 and at the end we got to watch the 6 o’clock news from a viewing gallery above the studio (when the opening titles used to pan to the desk from a virtual crest). I remember thinking how dusty the top of the set was. Anna Ford and Moira Stewart were reading the news. Anna Ford kept brushing her hair whenever she wasn’t on camera and asked for someone to find her a new chair.