I was in a kingdom of dreams today – and for the very last time. It was a relatively prosaic – but I must stress most enjoyable – meeting of the Southern Broadcasting History Group that took me once more to Shepherd’s Bush and to BBC Television Centre. I first visited this iconic, astonishing and beautiful building on 17 March 1973 – that’s almost forty years ago, gentle reader – and it has been central to my professional life ever since, and to my dream life and fantasies for even longer. The BBC has sold the freehold and by the end of this month will have decamped to the glass and glitter of Broadcasting House and to other pastures new. So I’ll never have another meeting here, nor another viewing, and I’ll never see another programme recorded in the studios. Cue therefore a memory or two – and, no, sorry, that must be just a speck of dust in my eye.
I have blogged about TVC before, back in February 2009 – and for the history you should read that first (and also watch the wonderful film I’ve embedded below). Here you are only going to get the personal stuff, which begins with the recollection of a visit with my friend Mick Charlesworth when we were doing our A’ levels. We travelled up to London on a Saturday evening clutching audience tickets to the live broadcast of Full House, an arts show that stretched across the evening.
That was the first time that I saw the bright and beautiful John Piper mosaic in what was then still the main lobby. We waited there before being taken through into a studio with maybe one hundred others. Here was the television machine whirring smoothly, satisfyingly and – yes – sexily. And although I’ve never quite made this connection before, perhaps that was the day I decided I had to work in television.
The actor Joe Melia, who died recently, introduced a line-up that included the Afro-rock group Osibisa, ‘The British Soccer Dance’ choreographed by Gillian Lynne, poems read by Brian Jones (our English teacher), Ivor Cutler and Glenda Jackson, and – extraordinarily, as it seems to me now – the French composer Olivier Messiaen and his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, performing sections of Visions de l’Amen on two pianos. As I recall it, Mick and I later travelled across to the National Film Theatre on the South Bank for an all-night programme of Marx Brothers films. We emerged to the first light of a spring morning and caught a train back to Canterbury.
Fast forward just four and a half years. I had taken my A’ levels, achieved a decent Second from Magdalen College, Oxford , and – with no-one being more surprised than me – secured a job as Time Out‘s Television Editor. Now I had a weekly preview column to write and the only way to see programmes in advance, in a time before DVDs, before even VHSs, was to spend each Friday at TVC in B309. (I should have gone today to see if it’s still there; a while back it was, although re-named – re-numbered? – and turned into some kind of corporate hospitality space)
B309 was, as the initial might suggest, a windowless room in the basement. You went round the back of where the reception desk used to be in the lobby and down one floor on a small escalator. And there behind a blue door was a modest cell in which three or four previewers immured themselves from 9am until deep into the afternoon each and every Friday.
There was the fearsome Elkan Allen from the Sunday Times, who a few years before had strong-armed the BBC into putting on such previews. There was the revered W. Stephen Gilbert, writing waspishly and brilliantly for the Observer. There was the scatty Liz Cowley from the Daily Mail – and there was me, largely clueless and wide-eyed with amazement that I was being paid to sit in Television Centre watching previews so that I could opine on them in print. Programmes were piped at us from machine rooms far away, and we sat there moaning about why no-one from the press office thought to bring us an occasional cup of coffee.
Gradually I began to feel more at home at TVC. I knew at all times of the day or night whether the Red or the Green tea bar offered the best chance of being open. I almost felt confident walking round the dough-nut on the fifth floor which was the home of the Drama department. And I began to be invited to watch studio recordings, the first of which was the final episode of Pennies from Heaven. Sitting in the gallery behind the director Piers Haggard and producer Ken Trodd, I watched as the clock ticked round to 22.00 and the plug was pulled – before they could snatch the final shot of the trapdoor opening beneath Arthur.
My relationship with the BBC press office, located on the second floor, was never easy, and were not improved when “anonymous” at TVC occasionally sent me confidential minutes of Programme Review Board, titbits from which I was happy to publish in Time Out. But programme makers continued to invite me back, and in 1980 I spent a notable five days in one studio watching Richard Eyre directing Judi Dench, Harriet Walter and Bill Paterson in a great production of The Cherry Orchard.
For a while in the early 1980s my focus was on the new Channel Four, and I moved on from being a journalist to becoming a producer. When the BBC began to work with independents at the end of the decade, my first meetings were with the arts department over at Kensington House, but I soon started visiting Television Centre again, and across the past two decades I have sat down to innumerable meetings here.
I have walked away from one or two with new commissions in my pocket – including from a notable one with the now former Director-General George Entwistle having secured his commitment to Hamlet. To promise programmes I have occasionally spun dreams with words in the offices here, and I have more often been brought down to earth with a “no”. There are rooms here where I have felt frustration, excitement and joy, and I have even occasionally had the idea that the people round the table were bringing into being the future of media as we would know it.
I have been to briefings here, to launches and to not a few farewell parties in the “sixth floor suite”, currently – but not for much longer – a secondary reception space where you wait before meeting the commissioners and channel controllers. I have spent more hours than I care to think in the reception area, waiting to be ushered up. But perhaps my most vivid memories are of the occasional humiliations inflicted here.
One that rankles still was a meeting of Programme Review Board in the mid-1990s. I was editing a series of creative arts documentaries called Tx., and we had just screened Vanessa Engle’s artful and rather extraordinary profile of Sarah Lucas. The film was among the earliest media engagements with the group who were coming to be known as the yBa, and Vanessa’s film remains a remarkable (and subsequently much-mined) portrait of the artists as young people. She had self-shot much of the film, with one of the new camcorders that were coming on the market, and it was this that had helped her secure such remarkable access.
Producers were only occasionally summoned before Programme Review, but this morning at Television Centre Tx. was on the agenda and my attendance was required. So did the assembled grandees congratulate me on the remarkable film about China, David Hinton’s Children of the Revolution, that has just won a BAFTA? Did they recognise that Vanessa’s film opened up new ways of looking at the lives of artists? Or did they berate me for the images they claimed were out-of-focus and gripe about the ‘fuzzy’ sound, not to mention the ‘meaningless’ art of Sarah Lucas. Yep, no prizes for guessing right on that one.
So my memories of Television Centre are mixed. But I have met here some of the most creative figures of our generation, and I have seen more wonders, both on screen and off, than I can count. Even today, they were filming Doctor Who in the precinct, right underneath our meeting, and tough-minded academics told each other excitedly that they had just seen Matt
Baker Smith in the corridor.
Perhaps best of all, over the years I have occasionally walked around the outside of the circle of studios as shows were being changed over, as huge lamps stood around on trolleys, as lumbering sets were being brought out and taken in, and as the pasteboard and paint went through the processes of being transferred into such stuff as dreams are made of.
I have been to Television Centre, and now I will not go again, and that does indeed leave me feeling a little sad. But pack up all your tears and woe and revel in one hundred and two minutes of pleasure, courtesy of the BBC itself and (on YouTube) the Alexandra Palace Television Society. Happy days.
PS. As we wandered around today, had a rather tasteless lunch in the canteen, and bought a last cup of coffee on the sixth floor, the temptation was almost overwhelming to unscrew and walk off with a sign, or to purloin a door handle. I didn’t do so, and I am already regretting my choice.
PPS. My correction about the star spot in the paragraph above reveals just how little I know about Doctor Who. I am grateful to one of the tough-minded academics for pointing out my error.
All of the pictures were taken on my iPhone on Tuesday 18 December. The header image shows the internal view from a sixth floor window with, in the foreground, a delicious Blue Peter cake made for our meeting today by Amanda Beauchamp, who has just been awarded her PhD on the history of the programme at the University of Reading.