In 1949, the architect of BBC Television Centre, Graham Dawbarn, answered the question of how to arrange the world’s first purpose-built centre for television production after drawing a question mark on a used envelope: build the studios in a circle, leading to a central hub of tape machines. An outside track would feed the sets built in the scenery block, and rehearsal rooms and canteens were placed at the other end, with offices and editing suites scattered throughout. It was literally a factory: wood, paint, fabric and tape went in one side, and a finished programme was sent out.
When I have visited Shepherd’s Bush, I am aware how much of the area was once employed by the BBC: the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was known as the BBC Television Theatre from 1953 to 1991, hosting everything from “Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game” to Terry Wogan’s thrice-weekly chat show; the former Gaumont-British studios in Lime Grove, used by Alfred Hitchcock to make the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes,” were bought in 1949 and operated as TV studios from 1950-91; in nearby Hammersmith, the Riverside Studios were operated by the BBC from 1954-74, making “Hancock’s Half Hour” and “Doctor Who,” well before their starring role in Chris Evans’ Channel 4 show “TFI Friday”; and Ealing Studios were owned and run from 1955-95 as a base for productions shot on film, including the bits during sitcoms when action took place outside. Even the original TV studios at Alexandra Palace in Haringey, where BBC Television began in 1936, remained in use as a base for news bulletins.
The BBC needed so many studios, even as they built their own, because the industry they were building for was unrecognisable by the time Television Centre fully opened in June 1960. With no opportunity to extend Broadcasting House in the centre of London, in 1949 the BBC bought thirteen acres of land at one of the few available sites left in London that were suitable: the site of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. Building began in 1951, with the Scenery Block finished in 1953, and the canteen and rehearsal building in 1955, but construction of the central ring of studios and offices did not begin until 1956, owing to the Government not yet being able to afford, even a decade after the war ended, to lend the investment necessary to continue building. The Scenery Block, however, was already supplying sets and costumes to the other studios nearby. By 1960, only one studio was ready to make programmes, with the others being completed slowly – studio 1, the biggest of all, was not finished until 1964.
|Television Centre today|
Officially, the brick-and-glass centre is built in the Minimalist style, reduced to clean lines and only necessary elements. The front of studio 1, the circular front windows and courtyard, alongside mosaics, the Helios statue, and front lift shaft and clock, have listed status from English Heritage, preserving both the architectural style and cultural history, despite The Goodies having blown it up on screen, and Kenny Everett defacing the sign with spray paint. A man named Arthur Hayes is responsible for the twenty-six lights on the front of studio 1, known as the “atomic dots,” and was responsible for choosing the uber-Sixties-defining Stymie font originally used to spell out “BBC TELEVISION CENTRE,” later used on every other sign in the building.
In 1950, BBC Television was broadcast for an average of only four hours a day to London and the West Midlands, the latter area only starting from 1949. By 1960, it was up to seven hours daily, with national coverage and, in most areas, competition, with the ITV network starting to open from 1955. The Conservative government elected to office in 1951, returning Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, had written commercial television into its manifesto to deliberately provide competition to the BBC, no matter how perturbed people might be at the prospect of American-style advertising. Whatever plans the BBC made at the start of the decade no longer applied, especially when ITV took as much as seventy percent of their audience when it began, but it was exactly the technical advances and forward planning exemplified by Television Centre was what led to the 1962 Pilkington Report on Broadcasting recommending a “BBC Two” in 1962, needing yet more studio space.
More programmes, more technically adventurous and superior programmes, and more type of programme were all required, the BBC holding on to all their studios long after Television Centre was finished. The Television Theatre only became the Shepherd’s Bush Empire once again when Terry Wogan’s chat show moved to Television Centre, but Lime Grove eventually closed when current affairs and news became one department, sharing their studios. When I visited in 2009, the BBC News Channel came from what was essentially converted office space, improved technology negating the need for programmes to be made in a specialist soundproofed room. It was already known that BBC Breakfast, sport and children’s programmes, and Radio 5 Live would be moved to Salford in coming years, but the BBC already had regional studios dotted around the country, most famously at Pebble Mill in Birmingham, and at Oxford Road in Manchester, themselves already replaced by newer studios. The BBC’s requirement to take programmes from independent companies meant those could also be made wherever they liked, which also put paid to the BBC’s need to maintain departments specialising in wardrobe, hair and design.
I did not know Television Centre would be closed four years after my visit, although it now appears that, apart from the studios, much of it was not being used. The three studios that reopened in 2017 are still operated by the BBC, but are ironically sub-let to ITV, after they decided they no longer needed to own their own studios – the former London Weekend Television studios on the South Bank are to be completely demolished.
The BBC’s television news, moved from Alexandra Palace to Television Centre in 1969 when the BBC gave their original studios to the Open University, now comes from Broadcasting House, having been extended in the way not possible following World War II. However, due to terrorist attacks in central London, you can no longer take tours of Broadcasting House, which is a shame – much like the use of Television Centre in programmes, the continuous glimpses of Broadcasting House confirms that TV is an industry where function meets style starting from its production base... although if your base houses the largest newsroom in the world, you would put that on screen as often as you can.
I think what I have tried to do here is temper the nostalgia of my visit to Television Centre, as a lot of what made me excited about it is not there. The bold architecture and period details remain, but it was what went on inside that got me. I wasn’t the only one – when it closed, one person said, “I know it’s only a building. I know it’s an inanimate object and it doesn’t have a heart. But it has a spirit. There are spirits here, of immensely talented people who made some of the best television programmes ever seen and I think it’s a shame. It’s a shame to close it down.” Sir Terry Wogan was right then, and for all the discussions over bricks and mortar, British culture shaped, and was shaped by, Television Centre.