BBC Four reflects on Television Centre

It was planned in the 1940s, beaten to being the first purpose built TV Studio in operation by ITV in Manchester, but for 52 years London’s BBC Television Centre has not just been a studio facility, it became as famous as the programmes made there.

This week the BFI and BBC Four celebrate the West London 14 acre complex that has been home to everything from lavish drama to live variety.

It was a variety show, which kicked off the broadcasts from TVC – its shorthand name – on the 29th June 1960. First Night showcased the new building with song and dance taking place across the complex.

“Designed by Graham Dawbarn and built in 1960, it lies four miles outside central London at Shepherds Bush. A distinctive circular main block – affectionately known in-house as the ‘doughnut’ – houses technical areas and equipment, together with facilities for artists and administrative offices.

“Grouped around it are studios, linked by a covered walkway to a scenery block to allow swift movement of scenery. The sculpture in the central garden of the building shows Helios, the Greek god of the sun. Designed by T. B. Huxley-Jones, and erected in 1960, it represents the radiation of television light around the world. The two reclining figures at the bottom are Sound and Vision, the two components of television.” – The BBC state.

The design by Graham Dawbarn was, and still is, unique in broadcasting. The legend has it that when Dawbarn first looked at the site, he was perplexed about how to fit on the land, with the maximum use of space, a centre with eight studios, production galleries, dressing rooms, three restaurants, camera workshops, recording areas and offices blocks.

Sitting in a bar, in 1949, pondering the TVC on the back of an envelope Dawbarn drew the triangular shape of the site on the back. He then drew a question mark in the middle.

“He looked at the question mark and in a flash of inspiration realised that it would make the perfect design.” – The BBC state.

The centre has ten studios, eight originals, two added after an extension was built in the 1990s, ranging in size from 110 square metres to the vast Studio TC1 at 995 square metres – the second largest TV studio in Britain. The circle centre has seven floors of office space looking down upon a courtyard.

The studios have been home to many popular productions including the original Doctor Who which owes TV Centre for one of its iconic designs.

The scenery building and storage docks unique roof, with its futuristic design and circular roof windows, proved to be the inspiration for the interior of the Doctor Who Tardis. (picture right, the roof)

The studios were home to the Michael Parkinson, Parkinson, chat show, including the famous incident with Rod Hull and his bad tempered Emu, the equally bad tempered Bazil Fawlty – actor John Cleese – annoying the guests of Fawlty Towers, the revived Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth and later Jim Davidson, Sir Bruce’s other big Saturday night hit, Strictly Come Dancing, comedy with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Not The Nine O’Clock News and Absolutely Fabulous as well as legendary music shows Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

There was a time when most television was done in a studio, even the outdoor scenes. However with cameras becoming more transportable and technology improving TVC has seen drama production come to an end. The final produced at the site was House of Elliott in the 1990s.

The studios also became famous in their own right, with the exterior beamed into homes via programmes such as Children In Need, Record Breakers, Newsnight, Comic Relief, Going Live!, How Do They Do That?, Grandstand, Live and Kicking and the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest to name just a few – all making the most of the unique outdoor areas of TVC.

The most famous outdoor area was possibly the Blue Peter garden, which now shows the sign of the times. The pond has been filled in and the garden removed as production of Blue Peter and many other programmes move elsewhere.

“It may be hard to get worked up about bricks and mortar – or 1950s architecture – but this film rams home the brilliance of TVC and what a vital role it’s played in Britain’s cultural life for more than five decades. It should leave you questioning why on earth the Corporation is so keen to let it go.” – Patrick Mulkern, Radio Times.

The building was damaged by a car bomb located outside the TVC News Centre in March 2001. Staff evacuated the premises and no-one was injured. The bombing was attributed to dissident Irish Republicans.

Now as the BBC prepares to leave TVC BBC Four tells the story of the building by both staff and famous faces, among them Sir David Frost, Sir David Attenborough, Dame Joan Bakewell, Jeremy Paxman, Sir Terry Wogan, Esther Rantzen, Angela Rippon, Biddy Baxter, Edward Barnes, Sarah Greene, Waris Hussein, Judith Hann, Maggie Philbin, John Craven, Zoe and Johnny Ball and much loved faces from Pan’s People and Doctor Who stars Katy Manning, Louise Jameson and Janet Fielding.

The Tales of Television Centre is to be screened at the BFI on May 15th with the 90-minute programme airing on BBC Four on May 17th at 9.00pm.

ATV Today: Top 10 UK TV Studios (article from June 2011)

[Written by Mike Watkins, images courtesy of BBC. Children In Need 1991 screengrab BBC TV]

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8 Replies to “BBC Four reflects on Television Centre”

  1. They shouldn’t sell it. If it is to become a media hub surely the best way is the BBC Studios division rent out the building so the BBC makes money from it not them paying new owners to stay in bits of it.

  2. TV Centre is an Iconic Building in British Broadcasting. The BBC should not be allowed to leave it!

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