One thing I've always wanted to do, and somehow never managed, is attend a TV recording at BBC Television Centre. With a closure deadline approaching fast (two weeks and counting) I realised I had to act quickly. So I booked tickets to watch the filming of BBC4's first ever sitcom, the last episode of which was recorded last night. It was a fascinating evening - illuminating and historic, hilarious and sad. And what's more, the experience was more like watching five programmes, not just one.
Programme 1: Up The Women Up The Women is a Suffragette sitcom, which may sound unlikely, but then this is for BBC4. It's been written by (and stars) Jessica Hynes, who you might know as the PR woman from Twenty Twelve, or maybe as her out of Spaced. The year is 1910 and the location is an Oxfordshire church hall, home to the ladies of The Banbury Intricate Craft Circle. This group of well-meaning women, and the odd hanger-on male, are attempting to advance the cause of universal suffrage through the making of jam and the occasional Post Office protest. The script had a certain historical subtext, but also plenty of laughs of the kind your aunt could safely watch. Included in the line-up were Rebecca Front and that stuck-up receptionist from Hotel Babylon, plus a guest appearance by the grand dame of BBC comedy herself, Ms Sandi Toksvig. Sandwiched between us and them were the dozens of crew who we saw but you won't - the cameramen, the boom operators, the sound engineers, the prop master, the dressers, the make up artists, the runners, and everyone else who won't have a job here next month. Up The Women is a Baby Cow production and will be lots of fun, whenever it finally makes it onto our screens, and you might even hear me laughing at an inopportune moment.
Programme 2: It'll Be Alright On The Night
Unlike a stage performance, where you have to get the lines right first time, on TV you're allowed to stumble. That's partly because you can, but also because you haven't had long to learn the script (in this case group rehearsals had been going on for only two days). So every now and then, just when the acting was otherwise storming along, somebody forgot their next line or tripped up over their words or burst into fits of giggles. That happened dozens of times last night, and suddenly you switched from watching a proper drama to a Saturday night blooper show. Sometimes the actor just stared plaintively at the floor manager in a mouth-gawping way, while at other times there were streams of swear words that Dennis Norden would have needed to bleep out. Last night's selection of verbal and physical mishaps would never make a highlights show, but they were hilarious in context.
Programme 3: Whose Line Is It Anyway
When the recording stumbled, either through amnesia or technical mishap, the gap was often filled with a little unscripted banter. These are comic actors, so witty improvisation is the very least you should expect. Timely putdowns, off-the-cuff remarks and ad lib badinage were de rigueur, especially from Sandi. Her guest star role kept her backstage for most of the recording, but when she finally emerged her sharp (but tired) tongue fired as if she were hosting The News Quiz. On one occasion the red-faced floor manager got chatted up, on another Jessica grabbed the microphone to say hello to her son in the audience. The funniest interjection of all was the entire cast slipping into an anachronistic a capella All The Single Ladies, although I suspect that one was planned, because you don't all mass-Beyonce by accident.
Programme 4: The Comedians
You may not remember ITV's tired stand-up show from the 1970s, but that always felt like it was full of warm-up men. Our warm-up man wasn't the finest example of his genre, managing to peak early and then awkwardly fade away. He didn't seem to have many actual jokes, preferring instead to banter with the audience in a semi-victimisation way. He found one member of the audience who needed to get a coach home afterwards to Norwich, and milked that situation almost to death. He next picked accidentally on a recovering alcoholic, before proceeding to delve into his predicament rather awkwardly. He didn't win us over at all, to be frank, and gradually his attempts at interaction reduced in frequency. An hour and a half later he'd resorted to raiding backstage for food to pass round the audience, which is no way to keep a long-term crowd entertained. It was fortunate then that Jessica's script kept us laughing, because the warm-up man blew cold.
Programme 5: Up The Women (repeat)
The main thing they don't tell you before you arrive, but which in retrospect is obvious, is that you're going to have to watch the entire show more than once. Partly that's because of forgotten lines, but mostly it's for technical reasons, like when someone's head blocks someone else's or to ensure that the producer has a choice when splicing scenes together. First time through you laugh, because the joke or the funny hat is unexpected. Second time through you have to laugh too, otherwise the audience reaction sounds all wrong, and third and fourth too if necessary. That wasn't too hard to manage, although there are now certain lines I think I can remember off by heart (even if the actress speaking them at the time apparently couldn't). These gaps also allowed the BBC's crack make-up team to rush in and spray down a flapping forelock, or the special effects team to perform emergency surgery on a trifle, using squirty cream so that it'd looked once more as if nobody had scooped out a bowlful already. And it was this repetition which meant that a half hour sitcom stretched out to almost three hours in the studio, which is a long time if you're sat squashed in a seat, or sweating under full make-up in a crinoline. Indeed when we finally filed out approaching half past ten, TVC's final BBC1 news broadcast was signing off somewhere across the courtyard.
It'll be a damned shame to see this great old building closed and redeveloped, even if the decision probably does make perfect sense on a balance sheet. Television Centre gets a big Light Entertainment send-off on BBC4 on Friday, recording this evening, if you're lucky enough to have tickets. And there's one more sitcom to go, a pilot for Reeves and Mortimer on Friday afternoon, for which tickets are somehow still available. It's OK, Studios 1-3 will reopen at the end of next year, in a more transparently independent way, before being surrounded later by flats, restaurants and a hotel. But I'm delighted I got inside to watch a recording at the proper home of BBC TV before the curtain falls, and enjoyed a memorable night out at the best free theatre in town.