BBC Television Centre: Farewell to the dream factory
It gave us Basil Fawlty, Del Boy, the Daleks, and Eric & Ernie – though not, necessarily, in that order. Now, after more than 50 years, BBC TV is to quit its Wood Lane base
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 03 March 2013
It is always sad when a dream factory closes, even one with a name as prosaic as Television Centre. Certainly, no single building has loomed larger over British popular culture these past 50 years than the west London edifice said to have been inspired by a question mark doodled by an architect on the back of an envelope, and which now approaches an emphatic full stop. An era that began in June 1960 will close at the end of this month, and development will start on flats, offices, and a hotel that will not, alas, be called Fawlty Towers.
It was, marvellously, an actual establishment in Torquay run by an irascible retired naval officer called Donald Sinclair that gave John Cleese the idea for his hotelier on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it was in the bowels of Television Centre that he, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth and Andrew Sachs gave those wonderful characters the gift of eternal life.
It was there, too, where Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring said "Don't tell him Pike," and where David Jason's Del Boy fell through the upended bar, and indeed where Eric Morecambe grabbed hold of conductor André Previn to inform him that he was playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
If it had been only a house of mirth then Television Centre would warrant a firm place in our hearts, but it has yielded so much more, particularly for those of us who grew up knowing W12 8QT – the address to which we routinely sent answers on a postcard – even better than we did our own postcodes. Insofar as it housed Jackanory, Blue Peter, Dr Who, Top of the Pops, The Generation Game and Match of the Day, it housed our childhoods and adolescence.
Of course, misty-eyed nostalgia ain't what it used to be now that we know that Jimmy Savile was using his dressing-room to assault children. Those "Dear Jim" letters went to W12 8QT too, but we mustn't hold that against the building. Au contraire, as Del Boy used to say, we should use the valedictions for Television Centre, and recollections of the thousands of hours of superb programming produced there, as a reminder in these benighted times for the Corporation that it still commands our affection. Our respect has diminished, but that, I dare say, is retrievable.
All the same, one rather doubts whether the programmes commissioned over the next 50 years by the BBC can possibly match the quality of the stuff knocked out over the past 50. Where, really, are the dramas now to compare with I Claudius or Pennies From Heaven or the best of Play For Today, all made on the ground floor of Television Centre? Yet in a way it's a moot point, for obviously there can be no recapturing the pioneering spirit that drove drama in those days, as well as shows such as the joyously satirical That Was The Week That Was, and the blissfully madcap Monty Python's Flying Circus.
One of the Pythons, Michael Palin, has joined in the lament for Television Centre, recalling how exhilarating it was, as a young comedy writer, to see a newly delivered script of Steptoe and Son sitting on a desk. Its circular corridors made it an odd place, he added. "I just remember holding the doors for people all the time. But there was something appropriate about going round in circles, trying to find something new to do."
In my own admittedly limited experience of the building, he did well to find his way out. The story that Sir Ranulph Fiennes once got hopelessly lost in there on his way to an interview might well be apocryphal, but I can see how it might have happened. And although most BBC old-timers speak fondly of the main circular block known to them all as "the doughnut", a few of them have pointed out that a structure in which offices faced inwards towards other BBC offices, rather than outwards towards the wider world, was the perfect metaphor for the corporate mentality. The BBC is a febrile, self-absorbed and incestuous society of its own making – heaven knows how many extra-marital affairs were ignited behind the backs of those proud commissionaires – but that can't be blamed on Television Centre. Broadcasting House is no different.
What Television Centre also nurtured, though, was a society pulsating with extraordinary creative energy. A friend of mine, the newsreader Sian Williams, talks wistfully about the buzz of following, as a random example, David Attenborough, a man pushing a Dalek, and a woman in sequins along a corridor. And it was doubtless Michael Palin holding the door open for them all.
Williams was first taken to the building by her father, a BBC "lifer", when she was 12 years old, to watch a recording of The Two Ronnies. Decades later she was back in the same studio, where as a wide-eyed girl she had watched Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett performing take after take of their morris-dancing routine, only this time she was the one in the spotlight. With the passing of Television Centre goes that unique sense of history and lineage.
Times change, of course. A building that opened for business in 1960 isn't necessarily best-suited to 21st-century needs. The cavernous Studio 1, which connects The Black and White Minstrel Show with Strictly Come Dancing, was once said to be the largest television studio in Europe and is now merely the fourth largest in Britain. Even so, one wonders whether a complex that is such a core part of the BBC's DNA, and by extension the nation's, couldn't have been preserved to fulfil some of the functions it was built for? At any rate, it somehow seems apt that the band chosen for the farewell concert on 22 March is Madness.
The only function Television Centre now serves, in its twilight days, is news provision. Everyone else has left the building. But in a way this too is apt, for of all the departments there, News was always primus inter pares. No production was ever deemed more important, by the power-brokers on the sixth floor, than election-night coverage, from the days of Letraset graphics and Bob McKenzie's cardboard swingometer all the way to Jeremy Vine's whizz-bang pyrotechnics.
Television Centre has made the news itself, down the years. There was an attack by the Real IRA, an exploding lightbulb, even an invasion of lesbians protesting against Section 28. And soon it will do so one final time. To paraphrase the Ronnies, it will be goodnight from Huw Edwards, and goodnight from Wood Lane. But thanks, from us all, for the memories.
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