National Fisheries Museum Experience in Grimsby
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 01 November 1997
And, in general, to experience an "Experience" is to be battered with multimedia banalities; fundamentals are concealed lest they be too intellectually demanding.
So I approached the BBC Experience with trepidation. The new attraction opened to the public two days ago, occupying an area in the bowels of Broadcasting House that was previously studio space for making radio programmes. Today, it is populated by actors pretending to be technical staff so that tourists can pretend to be actors. But only a churl would deny that the chance to play opposite Joe Grundy in a spoof edition of The Archers is both enjoyable and instructive.
"To bring the best of everything to the greatest number of homes": that was John Reith's promise on becoming the BBC's first director-general. Seventy-five years on, the Corporation is spending heavily to tempt people out of their homes and into Broadcasting House.
Sixty thousand licence fees were consumed in creating the BBC Experience. Its boss, Mike McDonald, reckons the cash will be repaid within seven years if the predicted number of punters can be prevailed upon to pay pounds 5.75 (about three weeks' worth of licence fee), for the 100-minute, um, experience.
He may be proved right. The BBC Experience is essentially an exercise in self-glorification, but by a rare institution that has reason to rejoice.
New arrivals are mustered in an exhibition area where Guglielmo Marconi's quantum leap towards wireless transmission is explained. Then you are sat down in front of a bank of seven screens to witness the logical conclusion of the pioneer's work: a filmed account of a day in the life of BBC radio, from a strident dawn chorus of Radios 1 and 5 Live to that soothing pre- med known as the final shipping forecast on Radio 4.
In fact, this slick presentation was put together last April - so long ago that a Conservative government was still in power and Mark Radcliffe presented the breakfast show on Radio 1. To show that the BBC never sits still, closed-circuit cameras have been installed in key Radio 5 Live studios and offices, so you can see programmes being assembled and broadcast.
Suddenly, pressurised presenters and production staff find themselves unwitting points of interest; I predict a swift enhancement of sartorial standards among radio staff.
Next, the mock studio, where visitors concoct a counterfeit episode of The Archers with the help of a real (or at least on-tape) Joe Grundy; much jollity as spoof Borsetshire accents collide with mistimed sound effects and a grumpy Grundy. Goodness knows what polite Japanese tourists will make of it all.
The Experience really begins to show when you move from a fictionalised present to the all-too-real past. Radio archive material has been cleverly intercut with images to merge 75 years of British history with the BBC, until the two are virtually congruent.
The main omission, though, is painfully obvious: the death of Diana. If the schedule that created the BBC Experience in just a year was thought too tight to allow late changes, the Corporation's news team could surely have demonstrated otherwise. If, on the other hand, the decision was made on grounds of decorum, why sell the video of the Princess's funeral in the shop?
The final third is a "free-flow" area, Experience-ese for a part where you can dawdle or dash through hi-tech, hands-on exhibits. You may, for example, watch transfixed as Michael Fish gets ready for a TV weather forecast. You learn that he is the one person in the country without a clear view of the weather map; colour separation technology means he faces a near-blank patch of blue, which explains why weather presenters stick to broad sweeps of the hand in order to sustain the illusion.
The BBC performs a similar trick, defying intuition yet somehow delivering. Enough people, inside and outside the Corporation, have shown sufficient belief that an organisation whose raison d'etre is purely transient has become custodian for the spirit of a nation - and, now, purveyor of a good day out.
If your High Street travel agency looks a little empty today, that could be because your travel agent is in Tenerife, for the annual jolly known as the Association of British Travel Agents' convention. Labour's Nigel Griffiths neatly summed up last year's event by referring to "that grey area between networking and not working".
Networking, and indeed not working, is often alcohol-assisted. Every organisation with something to sell (ie all of them) plies the travel trade, and assorted hangers-on such as journalists, with impressive ranges of refreshment.
The whole soggy saga is summed up by an invite from the Belgian tourist office to "Get ABTAlutely Mannekin Pis***!". As well as free fries and mayonnaise, the invitation promises "Barrel Loads of BEER!" And if you still haven't got the message, there's a picture of Brussels' most celebrated tourist attraction urinating into a beer glass.
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