The Beeb’s low-rating saga is having a high spending spree as the Albert Square replacement will cost £27 million more than planned.
The Beeb have suggested that the Elstree exterior is virtually falling down, unfit for purpose.
“While the ‘Enders set is obviously ‘not fit for purpose’ some may suggest neither is the programme currently, time to invest in writers and decent storyliners rather than fancy bricks” – TV Critic Vivian Summers
As part of a program entitled E20 the corporation announced in 2013 it intended to replace the 1984-built Albert Square and surrounding backlot exteriors for EastEnders. The scheme would also, the Beeb noted, improve various infrastructures at BBC Elstree Centre – which opened as a television facility in 1961 – however parts of the complex go back over 100 years when the site opened as the Neptune Film Studios in 1914.
This week the National Audit Office forecast the plans will go £27 million over the original forecast budget. It isn’t just finance that has exceeded expectations; with the rebuild now taking an additional two and a half years to complete. In its report, the National Audit Office concludes that the BBC will not be able to deliver value for money on the E20 programme in the way that it envisaged in 2015.
The BBC built the external filming set for EastEnders on a backlot that had been used for several other production including the land used for a replica of The Globe Theatre for a lavish William Shakespeare drama starring Tim Curry, an Olde English village for a Bing Crosby festive special Merry Olde Christmas, an East End market street for 1960s soap opera Honey Lane (the first specially built external set for a UK serial) and an industrial late-1800s town in Clayhanger. It’s final use before ‘Enders arrived was for Central Television’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which saw the land home to a German-based building site.
The Queen Vic Pub structure has survived a couple of fires, car crashes and Peggy Mitchell’s howling.
The BBC Elstree Studios were originally converted for TV production for ITV programming by ATV Network in 1958. The original EastEnders blacklot set followed the same format of the previous structures – in as much it was built only for a short-term plan, with the Beeb not envisaging it being still standing after two years – the frontages have stood for 34 years.
The NAO go on to note that the ‘poor condition of the set means the BBC cannot film in high-definition, degradation has led to increasing filming delays owing to stoppages in production due to health and safety concerns, and there are ongoing maintenance costs to ensure filming can continue.’
“The BBC will not be able to deliver value for money on E20 in the way that it originally envisaged. It is surprising that some of the reasons for this were built in from the beginning. Despite recent project management improvements, E20 is late and over budget against its 2015 plans. We believe that the planned benefits are still broadly achievable, but given the high-risk nature of E20 it will need close scrutiny until it is finished.” – Amyas Morse, head of the NAO
In 2013, the BBC proposed building a temporary set, two-thirds of the size of the existing external filming site, to use while it constructed a new permanent set. It expected E20 to cost £59.7 million and to be completed by August 2018. Due partly to forecast cost increases, the BBC substantially revised its plans in 2015, moving its target completion date to October 2020. The case for E20 and the rationale for the current approach is clear the body note. However, in October 2017, the Beeb reported internally that its revised plans were no longer achievable due to forecast delays and cost increases.
As a result more realistic plans now see the corporation forecasting that E20 will cost £86.7 million – 45% more than the original budget. Most of this increase relates to the higher cost of the Front Lot, which the BBC now estimates will cost £54.7 million – £23.5 million (75%) more than planned. Following negotiation and clarification around the Front Lot construction contract, including the type and supply of bricks required, Wates was appointed by the BBC in September 2018 to carry out the work at a fixed price of £24.2 million, £9.5 million more than the BBC budgeted in October 2015. The BBC expects the Front Lot to be completed at the end of March 2021, 22 months later than originally planned.
The BBC Elstree Centre, back in 1961 when it opened for TV production as the ATV Elstree Centre.
The Beeb now intends for E20 to be completed in May 2023 – 31 months later than envisaged in its 2015 plans. Delays have come from contract negotiations as well as creative discussions on the lot look. The overall forecast delay, which includes contingency time, is additional and separate to the 26 months the NAO reported in 2016.
By the end of September 2018, the BBC had spent £28.2 million and completed various elements of E20, though much of this work has cost more and taken longer than planned. In October 2018, the BBC began constructing the Front Lot, the most challenging part of E20, and the Back Lot was at an early design stage. The Beeb expects to realise the intended benefits of E20, albeit at a later date and greater cost than originally planned.
The NAO went on to note that they ‘consider some of the reasons for the delays and cost increases could have been addressed earlier by the BBC. Early planning processes resulted in the BBC underestimating aspects of complexity, cost and risks of its approach. There was also insufficient construction project management expertise to identify critical design issues, for example with the Front Lot. Furthermore, while they did engage with each other, the programme team and EastEnders production (the end users of the set) were not sufficiently integrated, leading to ineffective design development and change processes.
The BBC reacted to the NAO findings by noting that despite the show’s current dire viewing figures – it is at the bottom end of the BARB top 20 Ratings while Emmerdale and Coronation Street continue to dominate the top ten – ‘EastEnders celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2015 and we are committed to seeing one of BBC One’s biggest shows mark future anniversaries. The drama continues to attract a loyal and diverse audience, including younger viewers. This is a priority for the BBC, supporting our strategy to reinvent the BBC for a new generation.’
“We recognise that this complexity has brought challenges, impacting both cost and timelines. The BBC has made many improvements to the programme including across the governance, stakeholder engagement, scheduling and budgeting, as the NAO has acknowledged. We are also pleased that the NAO conclude that the benefits remain achievable.” – BBC Statement
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