diamond geezer

 Monday, September 19, 2005

London Open House: Details below of three more properties I visited over the weekend. Still to come tomorrow, the room where they decide UK interest rates, a Victorian sewage cathedral and London's only lighthouse. [and see my photos here]

BBC Broadcasting House: The original BBC Broadcasting House was built in 1932, an Art Deco masterpiece at the top of Regent Street [explore the interior here]. Wartime news broadcasts, Listen with Mother and Desert Island Discs - they all came from here, as have millions more hours of BBC radio broadcasts. Now the building is undergoing refurbishment as part of a multi-million pound construction project (don't worry, none of it is coming out of the licence fee), due for final completion in 2010. To the east of old Broadcasting House a new building is being erected on the ruins of Egton House, and between the two there'll be a new public piazza where it's hoped concerts will be staged. On the roof of the east wing a glass cone sculpture [photo] has just been erected as a memorial to journalists and crew killed while on assignment. A laser beam installed inside will fire a beam of light high into the London sky at key moments of national importance (such as the death of a monarch or the start of the Ten O'Clock News). It's like the Batsignal made real, and it's due to be switched on for the first time next year.

As part of London Open House I was lucky enough to get a space on one of the very limited tours that took place this weekend, so I've been inside to see the old and the new. The Art Deco entrance foyer has been sympathetically restored, complete with Latin inscription to "the temple of the arts and muses" and a glowing white reception desk. We were taken inside up a narrow utilitarian 1932 staircase to the BBC Board of Governors' council chamber which, like the whole of the building, had been gutted and restored (now with sprung wood floor to conceal multimedia cabling). On the floor above we entered the holy of public broadcasting holies - the Director General's Office. It's empty at the moment, and will be until the whole building project is complete, but I felt quite at home in the DG's lair. On to a more modern facilty in the heart of the building - the new Radio 4 drama studio. The original studio suffered from vibrations every time a Bakerloo line train passed underneath, so the new facility has been very carefully sprung and soundproofed. There are front doors with knockers and bells for that authentic radio sound effect, as well as two sets of stairs, a bedroom and even a kitchen sink. Finally on to the new open-plan offices on the top floor and out onto the balcony at the front of Broadcasting House. We stood beside the big clock beneath the tall white 'radio mast' and enjoyed a most impressive view south over All Souls' church towards Regent Street [photo]. The whole tour, though brief, was a fascinating insight behind the scenes of a national landmark just before the broadcasters move back in. And I'm sure it'll be lovely when it's finished.
(full details on the BBC's very detailed New Broadcasting House website)

Alexandra Palace: The BBC's other key acquisition in the 1930s was a failed amusement centre located high atop Muswell Hill in North London. Alexandra Palace had first opened to the public in 1873, and then promptly burnt to the ground 16 days later. The replacement building wasn't much more successful, long term, and so was vacant when the BBC came looking for a base for their inaugural high-definition television service. A competition was held between John Logie Baird and Marconi-EMI to see who had the better broadcasting technology, so two studios were built at either end of the building to give them both an equal chance. The world's first public television broadcast was made from the Baird studios on 2nd November 1936. Programmes were shown for just two hours a day (except on Sundays) and could only be received by the very few with appropriate receiving equipment living within 25 miles or so of the site. Eventually the 405-line EMI system won out, until the service was interrupted for six years by World War Two during which time the TV mast was used to jam German navigation signals instead. BBC TV production moved to Lime Grove in the Fifties but television news continued here until the Seventies at which point those bearded Open University types moved in. Then in 1980 Alexandra Palace was hit by another catastrophic fire, the BBC cancelled its lease and the studios fell into disrepair.
(highly recommended histories of Ally Pally here, here and here)

Saturday's studio tour was hosted by the Alexandra Palace Television Society, whose dream it is to restore this unique slice of broadcasting heritage to some sort of working operation. These very keen amateurs have assembled a fine collection of historical televisual ephemera, from an old BBC television camera to 70-years worth of old TV sets. As part of their presentation we got to watch a video of the cinema newsreel that reported the opening transmission of the new television service in 1936. A Thirties glamourpuss sang a scarily over-the-top song in praise of television (X-Factor it wasn't), and the realisation that she had sung on the very spot where we were sitting sent a chill down my spine.

After an all-too-brief a look round the exhibits our next stop was back in the main building. Here the main attraction is now a municipal ice rink, and I don't think I've ever seen quite so many cocky adolescent girls in fluffy hooded jackets and snarling sportswear-attired boys as I did in the lengthy snaking queue. We headed instead to the old Victorian Theatre. Nothing quite prepared us for the experience as we emerged from the foyer into a cavernous dark space that had once been an auditorium. The theatre had never quite been a success, not least because acoustics and lines of sight were poor, and several decades of neglect made for a very sorry sight indeed. Naturally there's a charitable band of volunteers dedicated to restoring the rotting boards and crumbling ceiling, although I couldn't help thinking they were in danger of spending several years and several hundreds of thousands of pounds on rescuing a theatre that couldn't possibly stand on its own two feet financially. Still, good luck to them, and if you ever get the opportunity to peer inside, do.

19 Princelet Street: Tucked away in a quiet street between Spitalfields and Brick Lane lies a unique 18th century silk weaver's house, now an extraordinary museum. Over the years this house has been occupied by generations of immigrants, first Huguenots fleeing from France and later Jews who built a Victorian synagogue in the back garden. Astonishingly the house and synagogue still stand - but only just, and £3 million is needed to stave off the threat of decay and possible collapse. The exhibition inside depicts the history of East End immigration, right up to modern Bangladeshi and Somali arrivals, using the symbolism of piled-up suitcases. Impressively the majority of the displays throughout have been contributed by local Tower Hamlets schoolchildren, most of whom are immigrants themselves. It's genuinely inspiring stuff, putting across powerful messages with simplicity and clarity. No wonder there were queues outside all weekend (thanks for keeping me company, Ben). Due to the house's fragile nature the museum is only open for a handful of days each year, but I'd urge you to visit this hidden treasure at the next available opportunity.
(make a virtual visit to 19 Princelet Street here)

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