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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.
Back of an envelope
by Dick Hobbs
I am writing this
column the day
after the last news
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
André 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 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. 98 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE