ATV Icons are reserved for famous faces, however, sometimes buildings can in their own right become ‘iconic’. No doubt none in television terms more so than the BBC 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 53 years London’s BBC Television Centre has not just been a studio facility, it became as famous as the programmes made there.
The studios and office facilities are spread across 14 acres on land which formed the site of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition.
The central ‘ inner ring’ of the building and the front flank of Studio 1 are Grade II listed as a special interest and are no doubt the most instantly recognisable exterior view of the centre.
The West London complex has been home to everything from lavish drama to live variety and 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 freshly build studios and grounds.
“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.
It officially opened in June 1960 and was designed by the and appears to be like a question mark in shape. The site has been expanded over the last 60 years and there are currently 1.6m sq ft of existing buildings dating from the 1950s-1990s, and operates as one building from a services point of view. The site is designated for employment, media/creative and residential uses in the GLA’s White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework which also envisaged the opening up of the site. The uses identified for Television Centre will complement the other regeneration sites in the White City Area.
The design by architects Norman and Dawbarn – lead 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 it all 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 building has provided facilities to many popular productions over five decades 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 production 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 (pictured below), which now shows the sign of the times. The pond has been filled in and the garden removed as the production of Blue Peter and many other programmes move elsewhere.
In 2012 the BFI and BBC Four aired a special feature-length documentary celebrating the people, the programmes and the building, with Patrick Mulkern of the Radio Times noting at the time:
“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.”
Such is the affection for the building on Wood Lane, Shepherd’s Bush, a host of faces wanted to talk about their time at the place including 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 Ball, Johnny Ball, Katy Manning, Louise Jameson and Janet Fielding to name a few.
It hasn’t always been glamorous, in 1993 the live Noel’s House Party failed to air after a hoax call said a bomb was hidden in the studio while the building was actually damaged by a car bomb located outside the more modern extension, for the News Centre, in March 2001. Staff evacuated the premises and no-one was injured.
The bombing was attributed to dissident Irish Republicans. The studios also suffered an armed robbery which some staff believed to be part of a programme being recorded and not a real raid while the famous Blue Peter garden was vandalised twice – first in 1978 and more seriously in 1983.
In June last year the Beeb confirmed that the centre had been sold for £200m.
“Television Centre will be retained and enhanced, including the instantly recognisable exterior view. The site has been expanded over the last 60 years and there are currently 1.6m sq ft of existing buildings dating from the 1950s-1990s, and operates as one building from a services point of view.
“The site is designated for employment, media/creative and residential uses in the GLA’s White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework which also envisaged the opening up of the site. The uses identified for Television Centre will complement the other regeneration sites in the White City Area.” say Developers Stanhope who now own the building.
In February 2013 it was revealed that for the first time, Television Centre will be opened up to the public and the famous forecourt re-imaged and enlivened by new retail, leisure and entertainment uses and access through the site providing connectivity with the local area, including Hammersmith Park. The BBC will remain at Television Centre operating studios and BBC Worldwide will consolidate their new home at Television Centre, following refurbishment.
The remaining offices will be marketed towards the creative sector and there will be a variety of public uses, including a cinema, health club, restaurants and cafes, which will benefit the local community. There will also be a hotel and residential apartments in the ‘doughnut’ part of the complex.
While most of the iconic part of the complex will remain some of the TVC is to be met with the bulldozers including the Drama Block, Restaurant Block, Multi Storey Car Park and East Tower. These are to be replaced with a mix of residential buildings and townhouses.
[Information: The Tales of Television Centre/BBC/BFI, BBC Television Centre, 1960-2010: Celebrating 50 years/BBC Books, Stanhope: The Future of TVC]
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.