Dick Hobbs remembers the BBC Television Centre

TV-Bay Magazine
Read ezine online

I am writing this column the day after the last news programme was transmitted from BBC Television Centre, and by the time you read it the place will be more or less moribund. Which is sad.

My first experience of Television Centre was – frighteningly – 40 years ago when I went to a recording of Andr Previn’s Music Night in TC1. It was a Rachmaninov special: the LSO played the Symphonic Dances and Ashkenazy played an etude and it was all wonderful. Since then, of course, I have been back many times, from the days of persuading Top of the Pops producers that actually the show would look more convincing if the singers used SM58s to discussing tapeless workflows on Strictly Come Dancing.

Talk of Television Centre inevitably leads to two related stories which, sadly, are almost certainly not true.

The first tall tale is that the building was built with a circular main block because the engineering design team was worried about timing video signals without readily available electronic devices, and thought that sending it a couple of times around the building would probably do the trick.

I can find no source to back up this idea, attractive though it is. The most comprehensive, if unofficial, history of the building is by Martin Kempton, and he does not mention it. If you want to know everything else about Television Centre, though, I can highly recommend his website, tvstudiohistory.co.uk.

He also pours a lot of cold water onto the other “fact” that we all know about Television Centre. The architect Graham Dawbarn could not work out how to get all the required facilities onto the very small site. He sensibly went to the pub to think, drew a question mark on an old envelope, and realised that was the solution.

The envelope in question still exists in the BBC archives, and the worked up question mark does look remarkably like the finished plan, albeit in reverse. So it is a lovely story.

However… a colleague of Dawbarn, Arthur Hayes, points out that not only would this have been most unlike the way the architect works, the timing is not right, either. The advantage of doodling on an envelope is that you have a definitive date, in this case 1 December 1949. But the architect and his principle contact at the BBC met to discuss the plans on 23 November, and the first set of detailed drawings were delivered on 10 December. It is very unlikely that the fundamental concept was not created until some time after 1 December.

“So - sorry to spoil a really good story,” Martin Kempton writes, “but it is more likely that the sketch was simply made when Dawbarn was explaining to someone in the pub what was already in his head, rather than a doodle that gave him inspiration. Either way, it was a brilliant scheme and still succeeds as the most efficiently designed studio centre in the UK.”

The question mark design worked because it put the studios on the outside of an internal roadway, linking them all to the workshops where the scenery was designed and built. Indeed, the first stage of the building to be constructed was the scenery workshops. Showing an admirable sense of priorities, stage two was the canteen and bar, the first studios not coming until stage three.

In those days much of the output of the studios was drama. Prestige productions which today we would not think of doing except on location were shot multi-camera in Television Centre. I, Claudius, the wonderfully literate reworking of Robert Graves’ historical saga, was shot entirely in TC1 in 1976. You just would not do that now.

Another thing you would not want to do now is worry about how to record something. But the original design for Television Centre envisaged just 16 video recorders. For the whole of the building, including nine studios, news and presentation. They also had to provide recording facilities for the Television Theatre, a kilometre away on Shepherd’s Bush Green. If that feels like a long cable run, if they ran short of machines at Television Centre they used TVI in central London, the best part of 10km away.

Shocking fact for those used to recording on USB sticks: one of the main reasons for limiting the number of VTRs was that the purchase price of an Ampex 2” Quad was around £2.5 million in today’s money, with a reel of tape the equivalent of £10,000.

But, as they always say, nostalgia is not what it used to be, and so we say farewell to BBC Television Centre and move on to if not bigger then certainly better things. We produce programmes differently today because we can make them more creatively, more attractively, more efficiently and most important more flexibly.

But just because it is right to move on from a building designed to serve the industry as it was 50 years ago, does not mean that it is right to reflect awhile. Farewell, then, the magic doughnut.

Tags: iss076 | bbc television centre | back of a napkin | origins | story | legacy | looking back | closure | closing | moving | [author]
Contributing Author

Read this article in the tv-bay digital magazine
Article Copyright tv-bay limited. All trademarks recognised.
Reproduction of the content strictly prohibited without written consent.

Related Interviews
  • Volicon at IBC 2014

    Volicon at IBC 2014

  • NOA Archive Solutions at IBC 2014

    NOA Archive Solutions at IBC 2014

  • The Vision Charity at BVE North 2011

    The Vision Charity at BVE North 2011

  • External GPU Enclosures from Sonnet at IBC 2017

    External GPU Enclosures from Sonnet at IBC 2017

  • NewsTicker 5 from ChyronHego at NAB 2017

    NewsTicker 5 from ChyronHego at NAB 2017

Cinegy Channel Playout
David Wright Canis Television & Media is a UK-based specialist broadcast services company, providing its clients as a one-stop shop for everything from production facilities to asset valuations to traffic control. In response to growing demand from its clients, Canis identified a need for channel playout facilities.
Tags: iss137 | cinegy | canis media | David Wright
Contributing Author David Wright Click to read or download PDF
Lighting with Gurdip Mahal
Ian Muir Gurdip Mahal’s credits for lighting design are impressive. Including major Awards shows such as BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Children in Need, as well as The Voice, Top Gear and Crystal Maze, his CV would almost certainly include at least one show with which any one of us is familiar. In addition, he has applied his own particular style to performances by major artists such as U2, Beyonce and Lady Gaga.
Tags: iss137 | ac entertainment | gurdip mahal | lighting | stage lights | light assistant | Ian Muir
Contributing Author Ian Muir Click to read or download PDF
TV Futures - Producers Produce
Emily Merritt I’ve learnt two major facts about being a producer since studying on my BSc Television and Broadcasting course: ‘the role of producer cannot be defined in a sentence’ and ‘if your team don’t see you working, you’re doing your role as producer correctly’.
Tags: iss137 | portsmouth university | student | education | training | producer | Emily Merritt
Contributing Author Emily Merritt Click to read or download PDF
What is the JT-NM Tested Program
Bruce Devlin - new The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show 2019 has come and gone with the usual onslaught of product announcements, launch parties, demonstrations and the usual high-density crowds preventing any high-speed movement between halls. The IP showcase, this year, featured a JT-NM tested program. If you're unfamiliar with the JT-NM, then it's worth checking out their website jt-nm.org where you can find out about the work being done to coordinate the different aspects of building an inter-working ST 2110 eco-system. The JT-NM tested program catalogue can be downloaded from the website and it highlights a series of tests that were performed prior to NAB on various products to see how they performed against the written standards upon which the ST 2110 eco system is based.
Tags: iss137 | st2110 | class | jt-nm | nab | ieee | secuirty | amwa | Bruce Devlin - new
Contributing Author Bruce Devlin - new Click to read or download PDF
Post Production on Tour
Alex Macleod I’m writing this article after finally settling back into my office after a busy few days on the Kitplus Tour 2019. The tour saw me travelling from Manchester to Glasgow then onto Bristol, then finally returning back to Manchester. Quite a few miles travelled. But totally worth it.
Tags: iss137 | mediacity training | adobe | premiere pro | kitplus show | glasgow | bristol | Alex Macleod
Contributing Author Alex Macleod Click to read or download PDF