Once the venue for the BBC's lunchtime concerts (and air-raid shelter for BBC staff during the Blitz), the Radio Theatre has been restored by in-house architects and with the blessing of English Heritage. It suits its new purpose well. In fact, despite a lot of smug brouhaha when it opened in May 1932, the room was never really right for its original role as a concert hall. For one thing, the Underground's Bakerloo Line ran audibly below the crimson and gold carpets; for another, the stage was never big enough to hold a full orchestra. The air-conditioning wasn't quite what it should have been (who can forget the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at Broadcasting House some years ago?) and the acoustics were no match for those of, say, the Royal Festival Hall.
As live audiences have been absent from Broadcasting House for more than 50 years, the Radio Theatre will be something quite new. Almost. The old concert hall has always been at the core of Broadcasting House, yet has remained in a rather sorry state for many years. Until the current restoration, the walls were painted a yukky pink, the distinctive wall-mounted uplighters had gone awol and all sorts of visual nasties had wormed their way into this apple of Lord Reith's eye.
Jane Thornley and her team have done their level best to restore this massive room into a semblance of its original, flawed splendour. She has brought back the missing lamps (had them remade in actual fact), commissioned a new carpet identical to the original, installed 307 comfortable new seats (the original 538 lacked a little in the leg department), breathed fresh life into the sculptural reliefs that adorn the walls (these are by Gilbert Bayes; interesting, but not a patch on Eric Gill's, which ornament the exterior of Broadcasting House), sorted out the heating, cabling and ventilation.
When a new cafe opens alongside the Radio Theatre next month, this will be a much coveted place of entertainment, particularly because (as with the old Paris Studio) tickets to shows will be free.
At the time of its construction, Broadcasting House was showered with plaudits and brickbats in roughly equal measures. Designed by Lieutenant- Colonel G Val Myer, the building was a showcase of broadcasting technology and contemporary interior styles. Individual studios were taken on by a catholic mix of architects and decorators, no one room being quite like another. While Serge Chermayeff, the Russian emigre, Modernist and ballroom dancer, produced the Japanese-like Studio 8B (Japan seen through a Modern Movement lens), Dorothy Trotter tackled Studio 3D in what Osbert Lancaster would have called a Vogue Regency style. Edward Maufe, architect of Guildford Cathedral, took on the studio for religious services and Wells Coates, the up-to-the-minute Canadian architect (who designed some famous wireless- sets in the Thirties) gave shape to a number of streamlined technical studios. The most dramatic room of all was the concert hall, measuring 106ft by 42ft by 31ft high and occupying a sizeable chunk of the first, ground and lower ground floors of the building.
For Professor Charles Reilly, writing in the Listener, there was "something Cyclopean" about the concert hall; he went on to compare it to the visionary engravings of Piranesi. Writing for Aunty Beeb's own magazine, he would, wouldn't he? For Robert Bryon, architectural critic and travel writer, the whole building, although impressive by contemporary English standards, was a display of "labyrinthine pokiness".
Both were right. The odd, even unique thing about Broadcasting House is that it is really two buildings in one or, perhaps more accurately, one building wrapped up in another. What you see from the street is a great, white ocean-liner (I know I said battleship before, but you pay your licence fee and you take your choice) of a building, a steel-framed leviathan clad in Portland stone. What you are looking into are the adminstrative and executive offices. Behind them, and invisible, are the studios and concert hall sheathed in a core of solid brick, a sort of modern keep within an Art Deco castle.
The idea was, of course, to keep noise at bay (or BBC producers from reality) and to make the hub of the nation's broadcasting safe and secure. This certainly worked: the newsreader at the time really did carry on as if nothing had happened as a German bomb blasted into the Portland Place side of the building in 1940.
Nevertheless, the reality was a curious composite of a building both inside and out. Being kind, one can view Broadcasting House as an architectural interpretation of a day's radio broadcasting: there is something, ideally, for everyone. Time, however, has not been especially kind to Broadcasting House. All those wonderful Chermayeff, Maufe and McGrath studios have long since gone, to be replaced by a make-do and mend approach to interior design that is never less than tatty. At the north or far end of the building, a team of Russian architects has been at work in recent years (proof either that the BBC really was once a hotbed of Communist moles, or that it knows how to make the most of cheap talent among the former comrades), while other, equally unconvincing attempts have been made to bodge the building together.
Broadcasting House deserves a little love and care. It was the first great symbol of one of the public corporations (along with, for example, the London Passenger Transport Board) that did so much to raise cultural standards in Britain, and to bring art and education to everyone as cheaply as possible. This, of course, is unfashionable now, a time when men in suits tell us how we bright young pluralist things of the age of unlimited choice (and burgers) are quite beyond being patronised by the likes of John Reith and Frank Pick; no Brains Trust or Tube stations by Charles Holden for us, thank you very much. Give us Talk Radio and petrol stations instead (and burgers).
Yet, Broadcasting House was, physically, and remains, culturally, home to a wide range of tastes. Now, for the first time in half a century, you can step beyond those formidable portals ("Nation shall speak peace unto nation", they proclaim in Biblical style - the text is a Thirties' fabrication) and enjoy the idiosyncratic charms of Art Deco architecture and the team that brings you in true, burger-free BBC tradition, the cast of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue and other programmes that, like Broadcasting House itself, we might have tired of long ago, but for which we actually retain more than a sneaky affection.
For free tickets to BBC radio shows, write to the BBC Radio Ticket Unit, Broadcasting House, London W1A 4WW. Telephone 0171-765 5243.Reuse content