diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 02, 2011

Random borough (31): Hammersmith & Fulham (part 1)

It's not a big borough, this - a narrow strip six miles long and two miles wide. The southern boundary is the Thames, wiggling from Hammersmith round to Fulham (as you might expect). It's more multicultural up top, around Shepherd's Bush, and much more aspirational nearer the river, where terraces and semis sell for millions of pounds. And there are some mighty famous places here, so I sought some of those out and some of the lesser delights too. Starting up north, where the Olympics were.

Somewhere famous: BBC Television Centre
Ever since 1960, most of the BBC's television output has been created in White City. From the big concrete doughnut on Wood Lane, famously question-mark-shaped from above, with a grand fountain in the central courtyard. But not for much longer. There are plans afoot for the BBC to sell up, some time before the end of 2013, and a golden era of broadcasting will be at an end. You can go on tours, although you have to book rather sooner than "on the same morning after you you pick a piece of paper out of a jamjar". Those who'd booked earlier wandered up to the visitors entrance while I was there, then strode in through security past the first thirty lined up for Strictly. There's keen for you, eight hours before transmission [photo]. I have been on the tour before so I've seen what's in there. As well as the fountain (ooh, Roy Castle) there's a ring of studios (ooh, Fawlty Towers) leading out to a U-shaped road where they deliver all the sets and stuff. The original reception's impressively of its time, including a John Piper mural, while upstairs are offices for folk without whom BBC1 wouldn't run. Plus, somewhere out the back, the patch of land where the Blue Peter Garden used to be, until they packaged it and trucked it up to Salford. If you don't get on this tour quick, there isn't going to be much left to see.

There's already nothing to see at Lime Grove. Here were the studios the BBC used before Television Centre opened, tucked away on an ordinary street parallel to the railway behind Shepherd's Bush Market. They'd been film studios previously, courtesy of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, but in the 1950s they started churning out black-and-white 405-line programmes, including Andy Pandy, Panorama and This is Your Life. Doctor Who's entire early canon originated here, and all those Grandstands you watched as a child, plus Nationwide and Breakfast Time and I could go on like this all day. What's left now? Absolutely bugger all. When the BBC sold up in 1991 the entire site was demolished (and the rubble reputedly used to help widen the M25). And now there's an entirely non-descript housing estate on the site, nothing big, only a frontispiece of terraced tedium and a couple of cul-de sacs behind. The only nod to Lime Grove's past is in the names - Gaumont Terrace and Gainsborough Court - and even then there's no mention of anything BBC. Almost every other building in the street has more character than these 1990s upstarts, which is a pity given the intense creativity exhibited on the site where they stand.

The one establishment that will survive into the future is the complex of buildings in the BBC Media Village (October 6th update: oops, no, that's doomed too in future BBC cutback plans). This first appeared just before Lime Grove disappeared, on the site where previously had been the White City Stadium (and the 1908 Olympics). It doesn't look like much of your licence fee was wasted on hiring a great architect. The main office block is an over-complex silver stack, of the sort of design you might expect to find in central Milton Keynes [photo]. Up the side is the slightly newer Broadcast Centre, alongside a semi-public courtyard with Starbucks and a Post Office incorporated [photo]. The One Show is broadcast from here (it would so have been a Lime Grove show before), just beyond a line in the ground marking the 1908 marathon finish [photo]. Peer in through the Media Centre windows and you can see the desks belonging to the fledgling Youview crew, while the Stig still peers from an upper window round the back overlooking the Westway. It's hard to imagine any current TV viewer developing an emotional attachment with any of the buildings here, indeed they'll probably demolish all this lot one day without a tear being shed.

For now Television Centre bustles on. They can't destroy it all, the main building's Grade 2 listed, but it'll most likely be repurposed (probably into flats, it's always flats). All the big satellite dishes will come down [photo], the studios will go dark, and the BBC will earn lots of money which they can plough back into programmes. At least one patch of potential building land will survive. The BBC gave away seven acres back in the 1960s which became Hammersmith Park - a protected oasis with a delightful Japanese Garden. The pond and cascades and rock garden are the last remaining feature of the old White City - part of an international exhibition held here in 1910, and recently restored to celebrate their centenary. Stood here on the packhorse bridge, just a brick's throw from Petra's final resting place, BBC Television Centre looks nothing more than an ugly office fortress [photo]. But this is our Workshop of Dreams, our Palace of Imagination, still On Air until the last red light blinks off.
by tube: White City   by bus: 95, 220, 272, 283


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