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Thoughts on… Television Centre

I have spent a worryingly ample amount of time over the past few days indulging in some nostalgia of a seriously geeky variety. Since others haven’t shied away from joining in I thought I would engage in some unashamed self-indulgence and share my thoughts and memories on the closure of BBC Television Centre (TVC).

I’ve always been a bit of a telly geek – alright, I’ve been a geek of many varieties. When I was a kid I loved the idea of working in TV, in the way that some kids want to be astronauts or footballers. The sadly abandoned tradition of the live Saturday morning shows (Going Live, Live & Kicking…) were incredibly exciting, not least as to some extent they broke the fourth wall and exposed some of the mechanics of broadcasting. Those shows proudly boasted of coming from the magical BBC Television Centre, once rightly described to me as “Disneyworld for TV people”.

Flash forward a fair few years and I found myself walking into TVC for the first time, proudly boasting my (albeit temporary) BBC pass. I had managed to get work experience at BBC current affairs, working on a BBC Three “documentary” about hairy women – not exactly what I had in mind, but my anecdote of building a hair bonfire on some wasteland in Docklands has served me well at many dinner parties. But that’s another story…

Current affairs wasn’t based in TVC; instead it was along Wood Lane in the monolithic and less prestigious White City building. Late one afternoon I was thrown some tapes and told to get them to “Film Despatch” in the basement of TVC in time for the last collection of the day. Having got over the excitement of finding that my pass let me through the TVC turnstiles, I remembered that I had no idea where “Film Despatch” was. The receptionist told me to “go up those stairs, through stages 5 and 4, through the Spur to Stage Door, double back, take the escalator down and follow the corridor”. I had no idea what half of that meant, so inevitably it all went wrong and I ended up doing the TVC cliché of walking around the entire centre ring (the doughnut as it’s known) at least once. Thankfully the natives were a friendly bunch and eventually I found my destination just in time, disaster averted.

News set

Me on the news set… yes, don’t I look young.

A few months later I got myself a placement with radio news. I had an amazing week shadowing programmes and learning how to write for radio, preferably without getting sued. Ironically one of the highlights related to television, as our mentor persuaded the director of the Six O’clock news to let us sit in the back of the gallery as the programme went out. For me this was like entering the chocolate factory – dozens of screens, buttons and lights, and lots of very important looking people running around and making it all happen. A big story broke minutes before the programme went on air, which of course made it all the more exciting for us mere bystanders. I remember someone shouting at about 17:58 “would someone please get us some headlines?!” That “someone” had seconds to rewrite the words that would be read to an audience of millions. Later that week it took me over an hour to pen a 20 second story for a Radio 4 bulletin, which went on to be (rightly) subbed to death.

Through a fortuitous twist of fate that week happened to coincide with the BBC’s radio festival. Amongst the speakers at one session was a lone representative from commercial radio, LBC’s James O’Brien. After the session in a totally out-of-character moment of nerve and shamelessness I bounded up to James and babbled something about being a huge fan and could I possibly, maybe, perhaps, come in and help out sometime? That led to a couple of years freelancing at LBC as a producer and studio manager – I got to press buttons!

BBC pass

I probably should have given this back. Oh well.

Around the same time I got myself an actual paid job at the BBC, looking after some of the newsroom rotas. This meant I got a proper BBC pass, which I still have in my box of stuff that I can’t bring myself to chuck out. It also meant that I got to stroll up to TVC every day and be able to proudly say “I work in there”. Obviously I didn’t actually say that to anyone, not least because most passers-by also worked for the BBC – this was pre-Westfield, why would anyone else come to White City?

Working in the newsroom was again something of a childhood fantasy, but the novelty quickly wears off and it becomes like any other office. Occasionally I would have been visible behind the News 24 set having what may have looked like a very important editorial discussion, but chances are I was begging one of the producers to work an extra night shift.

I also got to do a couple of cover shifts on the newsdesk – answering phones, booking satellite feeds, and trying to find out why the line to the Old Bailey had failed just an important verdict was due. One day I was asked to appear on The World at One to talk about Iran, but it quickly became apparent that they actually wanted the diplomatic editor James Robbins, and a hurried producer and clicked the wrong name on the internal messaging system. I’m sure I could have blagged it.

All good things (and short term contracts) come to an end, and eventually I left TVC for good. I carried on playing radio stations with LBC for a while, but not long after got myself “a proper job”. It had become obvious that to get any further I would have to go back to university and re-train as a full-on journalist. I was already weighed down with student debt and although I loved the day-to-day buzz, the long term prospects didn’t massively inspire me.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed wallowing in all the recent nostalgia over the closure of TVC, especially with my memories of the now defunct stage 6 newsroom. It’s sad to lose the history, but the decision was probably the right one. News will benefit from being under one roof in their snazzy Broadcasting House newsroom, which I have gawped at through the glass of the radio theatre cafe above. The plans for the redevelopment of TVC are also far more sympathetic than may have been. And I’m sure that one day the various new BBC buildings will be thought of in the same fond way as some of us  do TVC.

The memories have also prompted one of my occasional bouts of soul-searching. Should I have clung on? Why didn’t I make more of my time at the BBC and have the balls to ask more favours and prise the door open having wedged my foot in it? Who knows whether I made the right call, but at least I can say I gave it a go, and frankly my childhood self would have been over the moon with a tenth of what I got to see and do.

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