diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 18, 2022

On 18th October 1922 the British Broadcasting Company was formed. Happy centenary, Auntie.

Initially the BBC was a private company set up by six wireless manufacturers (Marconi, Metropolitan-Vickers, Radio Communication Company, British Thomson-Houston, General Electric Company and Western Electric) in an attempt to flog more sets. A growing body of amateur radio receivers had wanted something to listen to, and the GPO decided it was better to have one single body rather than numerous local licences. The plan was to fund the BBC from sales of wireless sets but people bought cheaper unlicensed sets instead, or made their own, so a 10 shilling licence was introduced the following year.

The first BBC radio broadcast was made on 14th November from Marconi House, an eight-storey building on the Strand, close to where Waterloo Bridge meets Aldwych. Previously it had housed the Gaiety Restaurant, an Edwardian adjunct to the famous Gaiety Theatre, before being taken over as the HQ for the Marconi Company. The roof of a centrally-located building proved the ideal spot to raise a transmitter, call sign 2LO, and the first BBC broadcasts were made from rooms on the 7th floor. Today only the facade of Marconi House remains, because everything behind was demolished in 2006 and transformed into luxury apartments, but the 2LO transmitter remains on display in the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum.

The BBC soon outgrew its birthplace and in 1923 rented space at Savoy Hill, the home of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. You'll find it just off the Embankment between the Savoy Hotel and Waterloo Bridge, still occupied by the IEE (and a bit of a dazzler if you ever manage to get inside). The BBC's 30 staff started with two studios, with the air of a gentleman's club, and eventually expanded into the adjoining Savoy Hill Mansions. Here famous names like HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw came to speak to the nation, and the first BBC dramas, weather forecasts and children's programmes were born. It was also here in 1927 that the BBC became a Corporation rather than a Company, public rather than private, under the leadership of its first Director General John Reith.

The BBC's third London HQ was purpose built and is still in use. That's Broadcasting House, the Art Deco edifice berthed like an ocean liner at the top of Portland Place. Outside are sculptures by Eric Gill in Portland stone, and inside is a solid core of studios muffled by a mantle of offices. I've been inside back when the BBC still ran tours, and also on an Open House visit during refurbishment when we were allowed out onto the roof terrace and got to stand in the DG's office. I've sat in the marvellous Radio Theatre for a recording several times too, because that's one joy of public service broadcasting.

BBC Television first broadcast from Alexandra Palace in November 1936. They nearly picked Crystal Palace as a location instead, and it's fortunate they didn't because that building burned down at the end of the month. Ally Pally's flickering broadcasts played to a minimal audience, with radio still king, filmed in an upstairs studio filled with humming whirry equipment. Again I'm fortunate enough to have been inside, again thanks to Open House, to see the spot where Adèle Dixon launched the service by singing 'Magic Rays of Light'. TV News remained at Alexandra Palace until the 1960s, and the Open University until the 1980s, but all studio work shifted to Lime Grove in Shepherds Bush in the 1950s. I won't show you a photo of Lime Grove because these days it's a housing estate.

The BBC's big Fifties investment was Television Centre, the question-mark-shaped campus in White City. It opened in 1960 with its swirl of offices and studio blocks, within which were recorded some of the finest television programmes ever recorded (watch out for several in a cavalcade of full-on archive classics on BBC4 all next week). Again I've done the tour, again BBC and Open House, so have stood in the Blue Peter Garden, walked through the Play School studio and met Daleks in the scenery block. Also I've sat in the audience for a sitcom, downed a bottle of Becks in the BBC Club and been for a wee in the management toilets, but that's just showing off. These days of course Television Centre is a luxury housing development, the BBC having moved out in 2013. They still hire back a few studios but mostly TVC is concierge-protected living, mainly in bland blocks out back and with convenient restaurants out front. This is what squeezing the licence fee has done.

In the mid 2000s the BBC bolted a new extension onto the side of Broadcasting House, helping to ease the pain of closing White City. It contains a massive basement newsroom, easily seen into while you wait for your seat in the Radio Theatre, plus a stack of offices lampooned in the series W1A. To the right is the studio where they record The One Show (yeah, been there) and entrances to where Radios 1 and 2 originate. People watchers enjoy sitting outside the Caffè Nero in the front courtyard - yesterday I spotted a well-known BBC weather forecaster walking past with less hair than you normally see him with on telly.

The BBC's latest London building is under construction on the Olympic Park. It's the BBC Music Studios and will be home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the BBC Singers, plus various performance spaces, plus the world's largest collection of sheet music. It means the BBC gets the chance to shut down its famous studios at Maida Vale (yes, I've recorded there, thanks), but only if its new listed status doesn't scupper the sale. The East Bank alternative topped out this spring and should open in 2025, and I look forward to getting inside yet another BBC building then.

The 100 year-old BBC is a mercurial marvel, its mission to inform, educate and entertain unparalleled in the history of broadcasting. It provides a uniquely British service in an era when streaming services are trying to globalise everything, it strives to report fairly on the world around us even if you think it doesn't, and its creative output is second to none. I reckon it costs me 4p an hour, which has to be the best bargain going, and if the government ever succeeded in throttling it I'd have the biggest hole in my life. It's a given that the BBC's next century isn't going to be as successful as its first, there being far too many competitors out there now, but I trust that enough people recognise its value because Britain would be a very different country without its Broadcasting Corporation.

Immerse yourself in all things BBC 100 here, here and here, or just turn on your TV or radio over the next few weeks and escape back into a glorious century.

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