So farewell to the loyal and trusted servant Esther Rantzen called a”media cathedral”. BBC television has made its last live broadcast from the London HQ opened 53 years ago. It will vacate the 14 acre site on Sunday March 31st. TV Centre was sold last year for £200m to a property developer and is to be redeveloped into a hotel, flats, a cinema and offices.
The three main television studios will be refitted and leased out to production companies, including the BBC, from 2014/15. The commercial arm BBC Worldwide will move into what is known as “Stage 6”, an area used by BBC News up until its transfer to Broadcasting House in a new multimedia newsroom near Oxford Circus. Many other BBC staff have now moved to the new Media City at Salford Quays beside Manchester.
Having started my news reporting training in the basement of the old section of Broadcasting House in April 1974 on my 22nd birthday, it was slightly daunting to move on to the television side of the operation. This meant a period of familiarisation at the television centre at White City, a very different location from the bustling atmosphere of central London.
My first day there (and I have just found the paperwork for the course) was on October 21st 1974. There were eight trainees including myself on the course. One of the particpants on the same scheme the previous year was Tony Hall, who after moving to the private sector in 2001 is the incoming Director General of the BBC. The month-long course was organised by Ivor Yorke, who went on to become head of journalist training and wrote a manual on television news reporting. The first day consisted of a tour of the Spur, followed by a visit to the news studio N1 and a seat in the observation gallery for the rehearsal and transmission of the early evening bulletin at 5:45pm. It was fascinating to see all the elements coming together and then watch as the news went live.
I remember amongst others Philip Hayton who had just started as a TV home news reporter. His colleagues at the time included Michael Buerk and Michael Cole. The late Brian Hanrahan who had joined the Corporation as a junior clerk in the photo library in 1971 was a sub-editor or script writer, before moving on to become duty editor and then Northern Ireland Correspondent, based in Belfast.
Brian was among the people I found very welcoming when I began a three months attachment in television newsroom immediately after the short course. I met him again on one or two occasions when he was sent back to cover events in the North. Only now am I discovering that he was a supporter of the Integrated Education Fund here and had attended an IEF dinner at the House of Lords a month before his death.
Among my memories of working at the television centre are the visits to the canteen for lunch and tea breaks (the duration of which was laid down in agreements with the unions). There was also the possibility of visiting the fourth floor BBC Club, particularly after a shift had finished.
On Thursday nights when Top of the Pops was recorded in one of the large studios the bar was usually crowded. Among the acts who appeared with their Christmas single in 1974 were The Wombles from Wimbledon, where I was living in a bedsit at the time. I was also able to follow once again the fortunes of the local football club, then top of the Southern League and enjoying a great FA Cup run.
Other big programmes to be recorded there or broadcast live included Blue Peter, Morecambe and Wise and I, Claudius along with sports programmes such as Grandstand, to name but a few. A record of many of the programmes and an informal history of Television Centre can be found here.
My main memory of may days at White City will be my role as a sub editor on the innovative late-night news programme on BBC2 called News Extra, when the late Derrick Amoore who had created Nationwide was Editor of Television News. The regular presenter was David Holmes. However the starting time for the bulletin was a bit of a moveable feast, being any time after 11pm usually. There was one consolation however of having to work after midnight. The BBC in those days provided taxis home for its staff late at night and I would usually share with a colleague heading in the same direction.
Although the bulletin was a change from the regular evening ones on BBC1 and allowed time for reporters to explain the background to a story in four or five minute film packages with longer interviews, instead of the standard ninety seconds or two minutes, it managed only to attract around half a million viewers nightly, mainly insomniacs, I suspect! In his book “Putting Reality Together: BBC News” (1987), Professor Philip Schlesinger (Glasgow) says that the great self-confidence in the Television News department in the early 1970s following the move from Alexandra Palace and the assured place of News in the Corporation’s output had disappeared by 1975. He goes on:-
“The main symptom of the News Department’s loss of prestige was the axing of the BBC-2 late-night news programme News Extra. According to informants this came about because the programme, the most sophisticated news output of the department, was extremely vulnerable at a time when the BBC was looking for cuts. News Extra was axed for several reasons. The most fundamental would seem to be its failure to attract high audience ratings, at a time when outputs had increasingly to be justified in those terms — even those on the ‘minority’ channel, BBC-2. In the world of commercially competitive broadcasting, not even a public service Corporation can escape the ultima ratio. While News Extra’s defenders argued that it was being transmitted on a channel where audiences were anyway not high, this proved to be no defence“.
If I get time, I will add pictures of some old scripts from News Extra here. For a glimpse inside the vacated offices of TV centre, there are some in this article (Daily Mail) “End of an era: Sad pictures of inside of what’s left of BBC TV Centre as doors close for the last time and staff move across London”.