Dick Hobbs remembers the BBC Television Centre

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I am writing this column the day after the last news programme was transmitted from BBC Television Centre, and by the time you read it the place will be more or less moribund. Which is sad.

My first experience of Television Centre was – frighteningly – 40 years ago when I went to a recording of Andr Previn’s Music Night in TC1. It was a Rachmaninov special: the LSO played the Symphonic Dances and Ashkenazy played an etude and it was all wonderful. Since then, of course, I have been back many times, from the days of persuading Top of the Pops producers that actually the show would look more convincing if the singers used SM58s to discussing tapeless workflows on Strictly Come Dancing.

Talk of Television Centre inevitably leads to two related stories which, sadly, are almost certainly not true.

The first tall tale is that the building was built with a circular main block because the engineering design team was worried about timing video signals without readily available electronic devices, and thought that sending it a couple of times around the building would probably do the trick.

I can find no source to back up this idea, attractive though it is. The most comprehensive, if unofficial, history of the building is by Martin Kempton, and he does not mention it. If you want to know everything else about Television Centre, though, I can highly recommend his website, tvstudiohistory.co.uk.

He also pours a lot of cold water onto the other “fact” that we all know about Television Centre. The architect Graham Dawbarn could not work out how to get all the required facilities onto the very small site. He sensibly went to the pub to think, drew a question mark on an old envelope, and realised that was the solution.

The envelope in question still exists in the BBC archives, and the worked up question mark does look remarkably like the finished plan, albeit in reverse. So it is a lovely story.

However… a colleague of Dawbarn, Arthur Hayes, points out that not only would this have been most unlike the way the architect works, the timing is not right, either. The advantage of doodling on an envelope is that you have a definitive date, in this case 1 December 1949. But the architect and his principle contact at the BBC met to discuss the plans on 23 November, and the first set of detailed drawings were delivered on 10 December. It is very unlikely that the fundamental concept was not created until some time after 1 December.

“So - sorry to spoil a really good story,” Martin Kempton writes, “but it is more likely that the sketch was simply made when Dawbarn was explaining to someone in the pub what was already in his head, rather than a doodle that gave him inspiration. Either way, it was a brilliant scheme and still succeeds as the most efficiently designed studio centre in the UK.”

The question mark design worked because it put the studios on the outside of an internal roadway, linking them all to the workshops where the scenery was designed and built. Indeed, the first stage of the building to be constructed was the scenery workshops. Showing an admirable sense of priorities, stage two was the canteen and bar, the first studios not coming until stage three.

In those days much of the output of the studios was drama. Prestige productions which today we would not think of doing except on location were shot multi-camera in Television Centre. I, Claudius, the wonderfully literate reworking of Robert Graves’ historical saga, was shot entirely in TC1 in 1976. You just would not do that now.

Another thing you would not want to do now is worry about how to record something. But the original design for Television Centre envisaged just 16 video recorders. For the whole of the building, including nine studios, news and presentation. They also had to provide recording facilities for the Television Theatre, a kilometre away on Shepherd’s Bush Green. If that feels like a long cable run, if they ran short of machines at Television Centre they used TVI in central London, the best part of 10km away.

Shocking fact for those used to recording on USB sticks: one of the main reasons for limiting the number of VTRs was that the purchase price of an Ampex 2” Quad was around £2.5 million in today’s money, with a reel of tape the equivalent of £10,000.

But, as they always say, nostalgia is not what it used to be, and so we say farewell to BBC Television Centre and move on to if not bigger then certainly better things. We produce programmes differently today because we can make them more creatively, more attractively, more efficiently and most important more flexibly.

But just because it is right to move on from a building designed to serve the industry as it was 50 years ago, does not mean that it is right to reflect awhile. Farewell, then, the magic doughnut.

Tags: iss076 | bbc television centre | back of a napkin | origins | story | legacy | looking back | closure | closing | moving | [author]
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