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The Strange Death of Television Centre

written by Glyn Davies May 4, 2013

The recent closure of BBC Television Centre went largely unnoticed in the press and media. Glyn Davies asks quite simply, why?

It all began, so the legend goes, with a question mark.  In 1949, architect Graham Dawbarn was commissioned by the BBC to design a dedicated, modern production facility for its fledgeling television service, which at that time was scattered around London in a variety of old theatres, cinemas, film studios and any other disused buildings the BBC could get its hands on.  Having been handed a deceptively-named “brief” detailing the Corporation’s requirements, totalling some fifty pages, Dawbarn quite understandably retired to the pub for some inspiration.  As he sipped his pint, he took an envelope out of his coat pocket and began to doodle on the back of it.  The first thing he drew was a question mark, and at that moment the ungainly behemoth that would become an instantly recognisable icon to generations of television viewers was born.

By the time he’d drained his glass, Dawbarn had sketched out a rough but inescapably logical design: a central circular office block surrounded by all the studios, production galleries, post-production suites, scenery sheds, costume workshops, catering facilities and dressing rooms a modern go-getting public service broadcaster could ever need.  At least, that was the general idea.  This being the BBC, the overall logic of the design did perhaps get lost in translation as the Corporation’s needs evolved, but it generally suited its purpose.  And from the air, if you squinted a bit, it did indeed resemble a question mark.

BBC Television Centre, an unmistakeable red-brick and concrete sprawl in Wood Lane, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, is one of the most famous buildings in the country, every bit as familiar as the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace, and arguably every bit as significant to British life.  Ever since it was opened in 1960, the building has never quite been the finished article and, rather like the BBC itself, has been in a continuous state of flux, forever being expanded, redeveloped and refitted as broadcasting and technology has changed.

Some parts of Television Centre were never used as originally intended: during the 1970s and 1980s, when the main bulk of the building’s expansion took place, it wasn’t uncommon for a studio to be built and expensively fitted out with the very latest equipment, only to be immediately mothballed and used for scenery storage.  There have been very few periods, if any, when all of the dozen or so studios in the complex were in regular use at the same time.  And yet, these studios have produced over five decades’ worth of television, some of it classic and celebrated even today, some of it rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history the moment it was broadcast; but what is significant is that a great deal of it was planned, produced, recorded and edited in the very same building.

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But no longer.  In one of its increasingly frequent bouts of self-flagellation, the BBC, with complete disregard for its heritage, decided in 2007 that Television Centre, for decades the nerve centre of the BBC and the public face of its corporate identity, was surplus to requirements and had become, in the BBC’s own words, “no longer fit for purpose”.  Although quite how a building specifically designed to make television programmes, bringing the talent required to create them under one roof and providing that talent with constantly up-to-date studio and production facilities, can no longer be “fit for purpose” is something of a mystery.  And so on 31st March 2013, with the many BBC departments that Television Centre housed now once again scattered all over the place – this time not only across London, but across the country – the BBC moved out of Television Centre, putting an end to a 53 year chapter in its history and perpetrating arguably one of the most wanton and unnecessary acts of cultural vandalism ever.

Central to the BBC management’s argument for offloading Television Centre has been the notion that the building was “out of date”, but as any technician who ever worked there will tell you, studios were routinely refitted with the latest state-of-the-art equipment every five years or so, keeping firmly apace with innovations in broadcast technology.  From colour television in the 1960s, through various developments like NICAM stereo, widescreen, digital TV, high-definition and even 3D, the studios at Television Centre were fitted out for all of them the moment they became viable; a vital part of the BBC’s remit is that it adopts and even helps develop such innovations.

Despite the protestations of people who actually knew what they were talking about, being those who actually worked on the floor making television programmes every day, the BBC put the building on the market in 2011, and it was sold last year to a property developer, Stanhope plc, for a rather derisory £200m.  To put that into some sort of context, the total cost to the BBC of actually moving out of Television Centre and into new facilities at the expanded and refurbished (and admittedly quite impressive) “New” Broadcasting House in central London and the new MediaCity complex in Salford, has been put at around £800m.  Coincidentally, the sale price of £200m is also the estimated amount of money it would have cost the BBC to refurbish Television Centre, if they’d been so inclined, and they would probably have got another 50 years out of the place.  So much for delivering value for money to the licence payer.

Stanhope’s intention, apparently, is to turn the site into a hotel, residential apartments, retail space and a cinema (because obviously, these are all things that London is woefully bereft of).  Fortunately, English Heritage saw which way the wind was blowing back in 2008 and applied to have some parts of the building listed due to their architectural, historical and cultural importance, notably the central office block (known to BBC staff as “the Doughnut”) and studio TC1, both of which form the iconic front view of the building from Wood Lane that has become so familiar over the last 50 years.  With listed status granted in 2009, these will remain protected from too much external tinkering, while studios TC2 and TC3 are also going to be refitted and leased back by the BBC from 2015, along with the space previously occupied by BBC News, so there will at least continue to be a small BBC presence at the site.  There is also a very vocal campaign afoot to save all of the main studios, in particular the much-loved TC8, which in its time became the unofficial home of British comedy, being the studio where everything fromMonty Python to Miranda was recorded, and is scandalously one of the studios proposed for demolition.

But perhaps I’m being just a touch sentimental.  It’s a possibility.  To the comedy geek in me, Television Centre is very much hallowed ground.  As the more rational among us would no doubt remind us all, it is only a building.  Of course, the Royal Albert Hall is also only a building, but I imagine there would be one hell of a stink kicked up if anyone ever advocated turning it into a hotel, shopping mall and multiplex.  That’s the curious thing about the closure of Television Centre.  It happened remarkably quietly, without the merest peep of protest – BBC employees and a few outspoken celebs aside – from the wider media.  This perhaps isn’t too surprising when this same wider media provides the BBC’s main competition, competition that has to pay its own way rather than enjoy the privilege of being the sole benefactor of an annual nationwide levy on the ownership of television sets.  This media apathy is compounded by the fact that, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and the McAlpine libel, the BBC isn’t exactly flavour of the month with the public right now.

The way that the BBC is funded means that, apart from being the only British broadcaster that is fully accountable to the public, it very often finds itself being used as a political football by the government of the day.  Even though the license fee theoretically guarantees the BBC’s independence from government, that hasn’t stopped successive governments from trying to bend the BBC to its will, usually by the deployment of financial penalties.  When the BBC fell foul of Tony Blair’s Labour government, following a news report that suggested the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been deliberately exaggerated, it resulted in the resignation of a very popular Director-General, Greg Dyke, and a much reduced licence fee settlement.  The BBC has fared even less well under the present Conservative-led coalition.  As the Conservatives are ideologically opposed to the very notion of publicly-funded broadcasting (or indeed publicly-funded anything), David Cameron’s government thought nothing of using the economic crisis to go even further than Labour, freezing the licence fee at 2010 levels until 2016, representing a 17% cut in real terms.

It is this economic climate that has set the backdrop for the sale of Television Centre, as the BBC sought to divest itself of some of its property portfolio.  Although the possible closure of Television Centre had initially been proposed back in 2007, nobody had expected the BBC management to actually go through with it.  It seemed an illogical decision: closing Television Centre to save money is akin to somebody cutting off their limbs to lose weight.  But this is the BBC all over.  It doesn’t have a great record when it comes to saving money, as it always seems to go about it in exactly the wrong way.  I wonder, for example, if the financial genius who decided it would be a great idea to record over several thousand hours of classic TV in the 1960s in order to save a few quid on videotape was ever called to account.  One of the most consistently infuriating things about the BBC to its supporters is its ability to act in its own worst interests just to prove to its critics that it takes its privileged, publicly-funded position seriously.

A week or so before the official closure of Television Centre, the BBC screened a very strange programme indeed called Goodbye Television Centre, presented by Michael Grade, the former BBC chairman and also the man who, as controller of BBC1, cancelled Doctor Who.  In that respect, he was probably the perfect choice to front a programme which attempted to explain why the BBC was about to make one of its biggest cock-ups ever.  In what was a curious cross between a retrospective and a wake, Grade sat in a very spartan-looking TC1, furnished only with what looked like some of BBC Sport’s old sofas and coffee tables, and indulged in some cosy banter about the good old days with a luminous parade of light entertainment legends (and Noel Edmonds).

Except it wasn’t quite as cosy as all that, as stalwarts like Bruce Forsyth, Michael Parkinson, John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett, to more contemporary stars like David Mitchell and Dara O Briain, lined up to heap derision on the BBC’s decision to sell Television Centre, with each broadside accompanied by thunderous applause from the studio audience.  And while David Attenborough gamely tried to see it from the management’s point of view, he must have known he was on to a loser, given the amount affection for Television Centre felt by not only those who have worked there, but also by the viewing (and TV licence paying) public.  The consensus among the guests on the ex-BBC Sport sofa seemed to be that none of the BBC employees any of them had spoken to – at least none below senior level – believed the sale of Television Centre to be in any way a rational or cost-effective decision.  If only these guys had got themselves organised five or so years ago to form a vocal campaign group.  It just might have made a difference.

The BBC has made some pretty dumb decisions in its time, and the pig-headed offloading of Television Centre against, it seems, the almost unanimous advice of those who actually make the programmes is up there with the dumbest.  To just write off a world-class, purpose-built studio facility in the cause of “modernisation” takes a special kind of stupidity.  This, alas, is what happens when you put accountants in charge of a creative organisation; short-term gains take precedence over the bigger picture.  Souls are sold, and grandmothers start looking nervously over their shoulders.  The BBC is still here, of course, and still has some of the country’s finest broadcasting facilities at its disposal, but it’s hard not to feel that, without Television Centre at its hub, the very heart of the Corporation has been ripped out.  It is perhaps appropriate that a building that was created out of a question mark should close with one, preceded by a single, incredulous query: why?

Glyn Davies

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