White city blues: farewell to a national treasure

Times are hard at Television Centre, as BBC managers struggle to balance the books. And now the world's most famous broadcast studios are up for sale. Ciar Byrne reports
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It's an address etched into the memory of everyone who ever entered a BBC competition as a child. "Television Centre, Wood Lane, Shepherd's Bush, London W12." In 1983, when Tracey Ullman sang "You broke my heart in 17 places, Shepherd's Bush was only one," (a cover of a Kirsty MacColl song) I assumed it was because like me she had failed to win a place on the BBC children's talent contest Saturday Superstore Superstar.

A decade later, when Saturday Superstore had been replaced by Live and Kicking, the title sequence to the kids' weekend magazine show featured TV centre as a giant pinball machine, imprinting the building's image indelibly on young minds.

And for several generations of teenagers, joining the screaming gaggle on Wood Lane to be part of the studio audience for that week's instalment of Top of the Pops was a rite of passage.

But for tomorrow's children, Television Centre will be just another building on a busy thoroughfare four miles from the centre of London.

This week, the BBC confirmed it will sell off its home by 2012, as part of its latest round of cuts, designed to shave 3 per cent off the Corporation's annual spend and plug a £2bn funding hole caused by a below-inflation licence fee settlement.

From afar, Television Centre seems a sort of Xanadu, where highly paid celebrities inhabit rainbow-coloured sets while armies of executives, technicians and support staff toil away in endless offices.

Indeed, to those who have worked in, or visited the site, TV Centre is an unwieldy rabbit warren, with 2,010 rooms (not including lavatories) and 170,000 square metres of floorspace.

The first challenge is to gain entry. All visitors must be armed with a security pass, which guards scrutinise closely before granting access through rather terrifying revolving doors. It is easy to get lost in the miles of corridors between the sixth floor, where BBC Vision executives have their offices and the ground floor, where the Radio 4's Today programme nestles in room G630. Visual clues help to identify departments. In the corridors of sport, for instance, the floor boasts pictures of footballs, rugby, tennis and golf balls. Elsewhere, super-sized pictures of "talent", such as Jonathan Ross, adorn the walls.

TV Centre, opened on 29 June 1960, was the first purpose-built centre for television production. In its first quarter century of making television programmes, the BBC adapted buildings that had been designed for other purposes, including two small studios at Alexandra Palace in north London and four converted film studios bought from Rank at Lime Grove.

In 1953, the Shepherd's Bush Empire, just down the road from TV Centre, a converted music hall, became Television Theatre and in 1956, two more studios were converted at the Riverside in Hammersmith.

But ever since the end of the Second World War, the Corporation had wanted to find a permanent home for its television shows. In 1949, it purchased a 13-acre site at White City, so called because it was the home to the 1908 Franco-British exhibition, which consisted of ornate white pavilions. White City was also home to the 1908 Olympic Games. All that remains of the grand spectacle now is a small square of tiles on the ground outside TC1, the biggest studio at TV Centre.

By the time the BBC acquired the site, it had grown derelict. But some local councillors objected to the purchase, believing the land should be used for housing.

The origin of TV Centre's unique design is well-documented. Presented with a 50-page brief, the architect, Graham Dawbarn, headed off to a local pub in search of inspiration. He had been charged with coming up with a design comprising eight studios, production galleries, dressing rooms, camera workshops, recording areas and offices. The centre would also have to include an area into which trucks carrying sets could drive, as well as an area for audiences and guests.

Mulling over a pint, he pulled out an old envelope and drew the triangular shape of the site on the back. Inside this he drew a question mark. In a flash, it came to him; the symbol was the perfect fit.

TV Centre was born; at its heart a distinctive circular block with a hole in the middle known affectionately as the "doughnut". Grouped around the circle are the studios, linked by a covered carriageway to a scenery block, allowing sets to be moved quickly in and out.

In the centre of the circle is a garden containing a sculpture depicting Helios, the Greek god of the sun. Designed by TB Huxley-Jones, the artwork is meant to represent the radiation of television light around the world. At the foot of the sculpture are two reclining figures representing sound and vision, the two components of television. Originally, it was intended as a working fountain, but was deactivated because it was too noisy.

Construction began in 1951, but was hampered by the Government's need to keep a tight hold on its purse strings following the war.

Sections of the building began to be used as they were completed – as early as 1955, dozens of celebrities were invited to a televised ball in the scenery dock in a bid to upstage the launch of ITV – although the official opening was not until 1960.

Scenery sets were manufactured and stored on the ground floor until set-building was outsourced under John Birt, the former director general, and sets were either destroyed or returned.

A notable exception to this rule, according to the website www.tvstudiohistory.co.uk, is the original Doctor Who Tardis, which fell apart in the 1970s and was replaced by a new model. The original was never destroyed, but has been quietly moved around the building and kept hidden. The futuristic roof of the scenery block provided the first Doctor Who production designer, Peter Brachacki, with the idea for the interior walls of the Tardis.

The TV Centre canteen, which opened in 1960, included a balcony restaurant with waitress service, so those who could afford to dine well could look down on those less fortunate – a practice which has since been discontinued.

The shiny new home of BBC Television soon became host to some of the best-loved shows of the age. Iconic dramas including Play For Today, Vanity Fair starring Susan Hampshire, which in 1967 was the first colour drama to be filmed there, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and I Claudius; comedies from Steptoe and Son to Little Britain; entertainment shows including Friday Night With Jonathan Ross and Strictly Come Dancing.

Now that many BBC programmes are shot on location, the studios are often rented out to independent production companies to film non-BBC shows, including Channel 4's Paul O'Grady Show and Eight Out of Ten Cats.

In 1974, the then editor of Blue Peter, Biddy Baxter, came up with the idea of a Blue Peter garden, to show the programme's young viewers, many of whom lived in flats, how plants change with the seasons. Percy Thrower designed a working crop garden within the grounds of TV Centre, which he revamped in 1979 to create an Italian sunken garden with a fish pond and benches for the presenters to sit on.

Four years later, disaster struck. In November 1983, Blue Peter opened with pictures of a devastated garden and presenter Janet Ellis explained that vandals had broken in, tearing plants out of the ground, pouring oil into the water and smashing an ornamental sundial. The scene brought tears to poor Percy Thrower's eyes.

The culprits were never found, but in 2000, the footballer Les Ferdinand said he had been a member of the gang that trashed the garden, although he later retracted this confession.

In 1988, Television Centre suffered another invasion, when three militant lesbians protesting against Clause 28 burst into the studio if the the Six O'Clock News where Nicholas Witchell and Sue Lawley were presenting. While Lawley continued to read the bulletin, Witchell leapt from his seat and put his hand over the mouth of one of the women, who had chained herself to his desk, prompting the Daily Mirror headline: "Beeb man sits on lesbian".

A far more serious threat came on 4 March 2001, when a bomb went off in a taxi outside TV Centre shortly after midnight. When five men were convicted at the Old Bailey for taking part in a Real IRA terror campaign two years later, the Crown said it was nothing short of a miracle that no one had been killed. While TV Centre suffered considerable damage, the only person injured was the duty manager at White City Underground station.

Those who have worked at TV Centre have mixed feelings about it. Peter Sissons, who was poached by the BBC from ITN in 1989, said: "It's a highly functional building. I came from ITN's cramped headquarters to this vast edifice. It was a great culture shock." John Getgood, the former executive producer of Children In Need, which is filmed in TC1, said: "You were always aware of the heritage. Just about everybody who was anybody in the business had gone through TC1."

The walls and corridors may resound with its history, but in five years' time, TV Centre will no longer belong to the BBC. The news operation, which transferred to Wood Lane in 1998, is moving yet again to Broadcasting House, in Portland Place, central London, which is currently undergoing a major transformation. The children's and sport departments and Radio Five Live are heading north to the BBC's glossy new development in Manchester's Salford Quays, and large chunks of television production are also moving out of the capital. The BBC will retain a newer site, just up the road, which is home to its current affairs, factual, future media and marketing and communications departments.

Angus McIntosh, a partner at property consultants King Sturge, said the TV Centre site was unlikely to be used for a retail development, as a huge shopping complex is already being constructed just across the road. "What is most likely is a mixed-use development, there would be quite a high percentage of housing, some affordable housing, there's obviously some opportunity for office development. To make it work, they would have to make it a café society. If it was made into apartments it would be quite iconic," said Mr McIntosh.

So, after half a century as Britain's cathedral of pop culture, those councillors who wanted the site to be turned over to housing when the BBC first bought it may get their wish after all. But television may never be the same again.