Monday, 25 March 2013

Some thoughts on Television Centre

(Disclaimer: I'm a BBC staff member, and these are all my own views, not of the BBC).

BBC Television Centre is finally closing its doors. The final shows were recorded there on Friday. It has ceased to be - in its current form as a wholly-owned BBC production centre and office complex at least -  and when it re-opens in 2015 after what I expect to be a considerable amount of redevelopment, it will be unrecognisable in both form and function.

You can read all about the whys in various places - but I'd like to write down my own personal views on the building and its closure, as I feel it's always been a big part of my life in one way or another.

My earliest ambition was to work for the BBC, at Television Centre, making TV programmes. Like so many proto-nerds of my generation, growing up in the 80s, it wasn't the thought of stardom itself, but the process behind the shows that looked and sounded so enthralling. Occasionally, shows like Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore (and probably Blue Peter) would swing off from the main studio action and head out, via fuzzy early portable camera technology, to the corridors, galleries and basement rooms that formed the real factory floors of television production.

It all just looked so cool, and given the state of the technology at the time, of industrial scale. Big chunky TV cameras being hauled around enormous studios. Vision mixers covered in blinking lights and buttons. Banks of videotape machines whirring spools at high speed. Adrenaline-pumped production staff hurrying around doing eighty things at once, just to get the show out. I wanted to do that! 

Fast forward 20 years or so and I enter Television Centre for the first time - not only as a massive TVC fanboy, but also as a BBC staff member. The intervening years saw me focus not on media production - short of a few media studies courses I'd rather forget - but the emergent technology of the Internet and the web, and as well as running all its TV and radio powerhouses, the Beeb has been thoughtful enough to require people who know their way around a Perl application to make their web presences work. So, although I hadn't quite fulfilled my ambition to drive a TV camera around TC1 to the letter, I wasn't a million miles off. In fact, I was right there - gazing at the curious combination of faded glamour, cost efficiency and national pride that seemed to be written into the walls of Television Centre.

That first time, I proceeded to have a raucous evening in the bar ("I'm in the BBC bar! Holy f**k! Where's Parky?") with a bunch of fellow software engineers - whilst they all wanted to chat about the latest web frameworks, I was far too starstruck to gibber about anything but doing a tour of the legendary studio observation rooms - which I subsequently did, having talked a few of them into joining me. I walked amongst the ghosts of Light Entertainment and popular culture past.

In the intervening years, although never based there, I've had meetings, workshops, celebrations and all manner of all-hands get-togethers around the building, so I got to be able too appreciate it as a place of work as well as a place to visit. It's when you worked there that the initial amazement wore off a bit - windowless meeting rooms with no network ports, naff catering, that curious feeling of neglect and lack of pride that seems to seep in to nearly all public buildings long after their initial heyday. Yet as an audience member of a recording, as any member of the public could be for free, you got to see TVC at its finest - as a centre of gravity of all that was excellent in British television production.

It's true that TVC is partially a victim of its age - many fifties buildings haven't aged that well, structurally or aesthetically. The danger of asbestos always seems to hang over it, although most of it has been (expensively) located and removed. It's not a concrete monstrosity - there is elegance in the clean brick of its front aspect, the tiled columns holding up the doughnut, the ingenuity of the flying South Hall staircase. There is less to be celebrated about the various extensions to the west over the years - the ring of prefabs that dominate the view from the Club windows - and the inevitable disappearance of the East Tower will surely only be celebrated, even (or perhaps especially) by those who worked in it.

Times change, and technology accelerates. You no longer need eight enormous studios, scenery workshops, editing suites and technical resources on-site to produce television programmes. Cameras are tiny, light, cheap and for most situations, more or less work themselves compared to the analogue monsters of yesteryear. Editing is all on PCs and laptops these days. Even playout and transmission got commodified, sold off and moved up the road (to the Broadcast Centre, the building I now work in). Production staff are mainly freelance these days, no longer a standing army of technicians and trades. Lines between editorial and production staff are getting blurrier - for better or worse.

There would be no justification for building a Television Centre today, in today's multi-platform, multi-discipline, multi-skilled world. Agile, lightweight, ad hoc, loosely-coupled - terms from my own industry of software engineering, which feel very hard to relate to a custom-built palace like TVC. No-one likes bespoke anything any more - due, I think, to the modern aversion to actually owning anything of worth in the long term.

Is it just nostalgia that makes us sad to see it go? Are we really lamenting the passing of a final link back to a heyday - of Cliff Mitchelmore, Joan Bakewell, Bob Harris, Python, Frosty, Galton & Simpson and the rest - which makes those of a certain age feel comfortable? Recent, very unpleasant uncoverings in the news have tarnished that legacy, and I'm sure there are those who consider the closure of TVC as something of a fresh start for the BBC.

I can partially get behind that, and can see the redevelopment as a chance to repurpose the building into something that will properly support the requirements of the Beeb, and other chunks of the media industry, into the future - even with the inevitable presence of retail n' flats that presumably make the overall scheme attractive to the developers. This is certainly preferable to the alternative of flogging the site off completely and blighting Shepherd's Bush and White City with yet another identicomplex of steel and glass to complement Westfield. So whilst I'm sad to see the wholly-owned BBC area pass, I'm open-minded and optimistic about whatever TVC turns out to be in two years.

I wouldn't want to live there, though. Too many ghosts.

For a hugely fascinating, in-depth, anecdote-heavy long read about the history of Television Centre, go here and lose an hour or two. 

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