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The circle of life by Dick Hobbs B eing a simple soul, I am endlessly fascinated by ideas which are the great new thing one day, rubbished the next, and resurface the day after as the next great thing. In the 1960s, the BBC decided that it was wrong to concentrate all its radio and television production in London, and established national and regional production centres. The plan was that everybody should get a bit of the fun. In Birmingham, the UK’s second city, the BBC was dotted around in various buildings, so the decision was taken to build a new production centre, in Pebble Mill Road in Edgbaston. It opened in 1971. If you are as ancient as me you may recall that, while Pebble Mill had two perfectly serviceable modern television studios, its most famous productions were done from the foyer. First a daytime magazine show then a Saturday night music and chat show came from the front of the building, a fact made possible because when they built the centre they had the wit to put in camera points and microphone multicores in lots of places. I was reminded of this recently when I had an excellent tour of Dock 10, the studio complex recently built in Salford. Why was Dock 10 built? Well, 20 years ago the BBC “rationalised” its nations and regions production centres. Pebble Mill fell down because it was badly built in poor-quality concrete, and its replacement contained no television studios, nor even a home for Birmingham’s longest running radio production, The Archers. Then there was another change of direction at the BBC, and moving 98 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE: ISSUE 84 DECEMBER 2013 production out of London became an issue of vital importance once more. Despite the sneering of many a politician and commentator, it was decided to open up a major northern centre. Which is what took me to Salford a couple of weeks ago. Touring the studio complex was absolutely fascinating, and I am very grateful to my hosts at Dock 10 for their time. Three things struck me. First was how busy the place was. There are seven television studios so far at Dock 10, and the day I visited – a typical Wednesday in December – six of them were in production, two of them with audience shows. The seventh was being set for the next production. I know, because I am hoping to borrow one of the studios, that this is far from unusual. The idea that no-one makes television in studios any more is clearly wrong, and the idea that no-one would want to go to a regenerated quayside near Manchester is equally wrong. The second thing that struck me may well be related to the fi rst. Everyone I met was really happy and really positive about working in television, and in that building. It might also be signifi cant that these people do not work for the BBC. Dock 10 is an independent enterprise, jointly owned by a property company (Peel Group, perhaps better known for the Trafford Centre shopping mall) and SIS the broadcast facilities company. They are competing for business, and a welcoming attitude from everyone from CEO to audience wrangler is part of that. But most impressive is the technical infrastructure. Building the studio centre from scratch, the architects put in lots of trunking and the systems engineers fl ooded it with fi bre. You can connect anything to anything at any time without thinking about it. Whatever a production needs it can have. One of the shows being recorded when I was there last was Mastermind, and I was slightly stunned to discover that as well as the live cut they also record three or four iso camera feeds. I still struggle to understand how you could need to re-edit a show as rigidly formalised as Mastermind, but that was what the producer wanted so that was what Dock 10 provided. At the front of the building is a huge piazza, and yes there are connection points all around it. Unobtrusive stainless steel pillars contain fi bre points. You simply wheel out a termination box and can be routed to any of the galleries. It means that you can do a show that looks like an OB but from the comfort and convenience of a studio centre. In the summer, for instance, a Gok Wan fashion series was done from the piazza. In the past it would have been done with a truck from maybe a shopping mall, and would have been irritatingly inconvenient. This was done out in the open with a huge and enthusiastic audience, but with proper dressing rooms and a canteen, and with the director in a nice air- conditioned gallery not a cramped truck. Of course, the producers did overlook the propensity for rain in Manchester, but that was hardly Dock 10’s fault. So what goes around comes around. Just as Pebble Mill showed 40 years ago, it is perfectly possible to make television outside London. And if you have smart technical designers who provide fl exible connectivity you can use the space around the studios just as imaginatively as you can the room inside them.