diamond geezer

 Monday, February 18, 2013

The BBC opened Television Centre in 1960. Famously designed on the back of an envelope, its question mark shape was the perfect arrangement for a swirl of studios, offices and storage areas. Since then it's been at the heart of nation's consciousness, churning out memorable programmes from Come Dancing to Strictly Come Dancing, and only a licence-denying curmudgeon would deny otherwise. But no more. Next month the BBC moves out and the studios go dark - three of them for two years, the other five permanently. The site's been sold off to developers Stanhope plc who plan to transform it into a cross between a residential village and a heritage attraction, complete with hotel, cinema, health club and restaurants.

Whilst it'll no doubt be entirely unaffordable to live at Television Centre, the site will at least be open, and you'll be able to wander in from White City or Hammersmith Park without hindrance. But it has been possible to take a look around inside TVC while it's been operational, in some detail. The BBC have been running tours for years, and these have increased in number as the building's slowly emptied. The last of these tours runs this week (don't bother looking, they're already sold out), before the final TV shows are recorded next month and the remaining handful of staff move out. I nipped back inside last week for a lingering look at the end of an era.

Tours of TVC vary according to what's going on where, so sometimes you get to see one studio and at other times another. But all tours begin on the BBC Star Terrace, which is an elevated area near the main entrance with dozens of circular plaques underfoot. Here are commemorated Dick Emery, and Harry H Corbett, and Paul Eddington, and one suspects Sir Bruce Forsyth is out there somewhere. From here the exterior of the famous 'doughnut' is visible, that's the central ring containing the earliest offices, and the bobbly walls of Studio 1, one of the largest recording spaces in the country. There's also a Tardis up the back, or at least a few bits of wood painted blue and banged together to look like a Tardis, which (to break the illusion) is all a Tardis is. It's here so that visitors on the tour have something to take their photo next to, although I waited specially until there was nobody in the way before I snapped.

At the front of the building is a new block, opened in 1997, inside which the BBC's TV news broadcasts have been based. Not for much longer. This giant room full of desks is being replaced by another giant room full of desks at the revamped Broadcasting House in the centre of town, and now only a handful of staff remain. Those on the tour get to sit inside the News Bubble, which sounds like a concept invented for The Day Today but is instead a crescent-shaped meeting room with glass walls where producers meet each morning to map out the day's news. Last time I was here the actual John Simpson walked past - now one of his bulletproof vests sits in a case in the corner as a reminder of how dangerous truth-gathering is.

The interior of the doughnut is a mixture of elegance and mothballs. Several rooms are already closed, with a sign on the door saying "This room is now vacated". Others are very much in use, like the dressing room with Jamelia's name on the door (she's been filming 8 Out Of 10 Cats). Our tour got to enter one of the communal dressing rooms, a sparse affair with mirrors and a few bowls, for a round-up of anecdotes from our BBC guide. We trekked up and down the cantilever stairs, lovely, and emerged in the main reception where the talent signs in. This is a gorgeous space, with chequerboard ceiling, wood-panelled walls and marble floor. Above the main desk is a dazzling John Piper mosaic... which'll no doubt look the part when this bit of TVC is transformed into a boutique hotel.

Normally the tour gets to go outside into the central court where the golden figure of Helios stands atop the fountain. Not on this occasion, alas, because the exterior of the building was being used for filming. The very last TV drama to be filmed at Television Centre, no less, a drama entitled An Adventure in Space and Time. This recounts the awkward birth of Doctor Who in 1963, and will be on your screens for the anniversary in November. We weren't allowed to take photos, indeed there wasn't too much action to see, but we did get to share reception with a dozen extras dressed in everyday Sixties garb, waiting patiently for their cue. Later author Mark Gatiss wandered past, deep in discussion on some point of production, perhaps preparing for Sunday morning's filming of Daleks on Westminster Bridge.

We got to visit three studios, two from above and one on the floor. There are viewing galleries high above the racks of numbered lights, ideal for keeping an eye on the action without ever getting into shot. In Studio 4 they were filming Beat The Pack, a new daytime quiz with Jake Humphrey, and in Studio 3 Gory Games, some CBBC extravaganza. We couldn't see much, but the scale of the latter space was impressive, far larger than you'd ever have imagined watching Top of the Pops on the screen. We weren't allowed to spy on Let's Dance For Comic Relief in Studio 1, although some of the protagonists wandered by trailing brightly coloured headgear. And we did get to enter Studio 5, a smaller setup where the Match of the Day sofa has been left lying around after BBC Sport's exodus to Salford. Some were excited to step up and sit where Gary Lineker had ruled court, whereas I was far more keen on imagining Play School, Jackanory and The Sky At Night being filmed here.

Elsewhere on the tour we got to visit the floor on the inner ring where the weather forecasters self-broadcast, and a small room where three of the party got to play at being quiz contestants. We saw Pauline Fowler's laundrette pinny, and the Blue Peter time capsule for the year 2000, and the actual Gordon the Gopher. We visited the BBC shop where all the stock was being flogged at 75% off... or at least what stock was left after BBC employees had descended en masse earlier in the month. But possibly best of all was a visit to the Grade II listed scenery block round the back of the studios, beneath a gabled roof whose skylights are said to have inspired the design of the Tardis. Here was the Blue Peter set, the last before the programme moved up north, complete with big ship, totaliser and fragile plywood walls. But four Daleks were lined up where Val, Simon, Yvette and Barney should have been, their plungers poised, awaiting their turn in front of the cameras. They'd have scared the life out of me once, but any lingering fear disappeared when two workmen wandered in to start wheeling them away.

Comic Relief will be one of the last big shows to be filmed at Television Centre, although Studios 1-3 should reopen by 2015. The BBC will have to compete with other production companies to hire them, while other perfectly good studios will be transformed into attractions such as TV-themed restaurants - a decision which leaves many current employees scratching their heads. Meanwhile from April you'll be able to take tours of the new Broadcasting House instead, peeking inside the new newsroom and the Radio Theatre, recordings permitting. But a tour of Sound somehow won't have the thrill of this tour of Vision, so I'm glad I had a last chance to visit Auntie at work before her premature retirement.

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