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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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Thoughts on The Guardian’s Open Weekend

Picture the scene… it’s 7:45 on a Sunday morning. The clocks went back overnight, so really it’s 6:45. I hadn’t got in until 12:30 the previous evening having been out drinking in a west end cocktail bar (unusual in itself for me). The previous night I had also been out until late and still up at a reasonable hour. It had been a long week at work, and sleep had been a victim. Surely now was the time to catch up on slumber?

So why in God’s name was I dragging myself out of bed to go and listen to Ed Balls?

The answer is that weeks earlier I had decided that as part of my “get out and do more stuff or you’ll just sit alone in your flat and end up getting a cat” regime I would book a ticket for the Guardian’s first Open Weekend. I know, it sounds like the most revoltingly middle class event in history, which the Guardian themselves described itself as “Richard Littlejohn’s worst nightmare”. As I sat bleary eyed on the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross I really wasn’t sure why I was going, and given the £30 ticket price started to fret that it was all a waste of time, money and valuable doing nothing time.

Fortunately I was proved wrong. Yes, many of the cliches you would expect from a Guardian event were there, including poetry in the foyer, all sorts of free range/organic produce at a canal side farmers market and various eccentric characters milling around. Not that I understood the poetry… I tried, honestly I did, but as I sat surrounded by intelligent looking folk nodding earnestly all I could feel was the whoosh of the prose flying straight over my head. I have no soul.

The event mostly consisted of a bewildering selection of talks, workshops and debates held across the Guardian’s Kings Place HQ, the lower floors of which double as an arts centre. It’s a wonderful building nestled on the Regents Canal just round the corner from Kings Cross. I had serious office envy, although as I know too well a good looking building is not necessarily a joy for its occupiers.

Here are some incoherent ramblings on the sessions I attended:

Ed Balls in conversation

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ed Balls. He always comes across as a bit of a bully who is very keen to tell people they’re wrong but then less so to tell us the solution. In this session his human side definitely came across, probably thanks to the time available and a tone far less aggressive than your regular interview, Commons debate or episode of Question Time. His worries over the NHS reforms was surprisingly chilling, describing such policies as the moments that make opposition hurt the most. His critique of the budget was unsurprising, although again I couldn’t grasp much substance in terms of alternatives.

Obviously a room full of Guardian readers such as myself were going to be sympathetic to Balls’s coalition bashing, and much as I found myself nodding along I felt deeply uncomfortable that I was merely validating my own views. The interviewer could have been more challenging at points, although she rightly picked up on the hypocrisy of a former Labour minister criticising the current government for attempting to manipulate the media. It wasn’t entirely a love-in from the audience though, with many expressing the common exasperation of left-leaning voters despising the coalition but struggling to understand the opposition’s message. Balls’s answer is that as the public grow tired of excuses the mood would change and support would drift back to Labour. I think he’s right about being tired of excuses, but I’m not so sure about the second part.

Some edited highlights of the session are available here.

Will the internet be open?

Richard Allan (Facebook’s European director of policy), Rachel Whetstone (Google’s global head of communications and public policy) and Clay Shirky (auther, professor, God to geeks) discussed freedom on the web and the threats to it. China may be the obvious example, but as Whetstone pointed out this risks letting several (even democratic) countries off the hook. While she was reluctant to name and shame, Shirky was happy to point the finger at Turkey and South Korea. The panel explored some of the issues, both real and hypothetical, that face companies like Google and Facebook as well as their implications for start-ups – YouTube can afford lawyers, the next YouTube can’t.

Allan was reluctant to be drawn on Facebook’s stance on China and what they would and wouldn’t be willing to compromise on to gain access to the lucrative market. I think that relationship status will definitely be “It’s complicated” for a while. There was also a brief but good-natured ding dong over what Facebook did and didn’t reveal to Google and why Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ profile appears higher in Google’s search results than his Facebook presence. It would have been nice to hear the neutral Shirky pronounce over such issues, but time was against us.

No great conclusion was reached, but it was a thought-provoking discussion with excellent speakers, especially Shirky. I ended up buying one of his titles from the bookshop, where I could happily have spent a small fortune had I not reined myself in and remembered my already overflowing in-tray of reading material.

Small society: are Britain’s social bonds fraying?

This was a wildcard option for me as I had a spare slot and there were still tickets available. It was definitely the most “Guardiany” session of my day, addressing issues around social cohesion, community and inevitably last year’s riots. Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company was, as ever, a captivating listen, conveying the sometimes impossible to imagine realities of some young people. There is always a danger of appearing to make excuses which, on the whole, she successfully avoids, although as with Ed Balls this was hardly a balanced room.

Social analyst Richard Sennett discussed the implications spending more time at work, especially with work now often so far from home. His suggestion seemed to be that more home “stuff” (my pathetic phrasing, not his) such as schools and childcare should be moved closer to our work. I wasn’t too clear on how this would make a significant difference, other than distancing us even further from our home communities. As an audience member later questioned, why must we accept the premise that life should adapt to work and not the other way around?

Conservative MP Jesse Norman somehow bypassed security and made it to the stage, but generally refused to play up to the Tory stereotypes which was pleasing, although I honestly can’t remember the thrust of his argument (and I wonder why the journalism thing never worked out for me?).

The tone of the discussion was not especially combative, with each speaker largely making their own points without disputing the others. There was one tense moment when Norman attempted to suggest that Hereford was not the bed of roses you might expect, which seemed to rile Batmanghelidjh and more so the audience, which I found frustratingly predictable.

Again there was little in the way of conclusion… other than the depressing thought of what social unrest may blight the Olympics. Cheery cheery. Incidentally I’m no saint on communities – in the six months I have lived in my current flat I have barely said a word to my neighbour, and I’m massively jealous of my friends in the suburbs who not only know their neighbours but even socialise with them!

On the cutting edge: scientists working at CERN explain the latest developments in physics

Scientists communicating their work always fascinate me… I don’t know why people so fantastically intelligent and sufficiently focussed (some would say blinkered) to reach the summit of their chosen field should somehow, by coincidence, be expected to also possess the ability to disseminate this knowledge to us mere mortals. Many of my university lecturers were, I’m certain, at the bleeding edge of their specialism, but they couldn’t explain the relative basics for toffee.

The three physicists on this panel did a reasonably good job explaining their amazing work, and an excellent job conveying their passion and enthusiasm. I was definitely struggling by the end though… clearly this was due to a lack of sleep. Yet even as I sat in utter confusion, I was thrilled that on a glorious Sunday afternoon there were a few hundred people willing to sit in a dark basement in Kings Cross to hear about this stuff.

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

Some other nice touches to occupy time between sessions:

  • Over lunch in the staff canteen (a very tasty lamb cobbler) I shared a table with a couple of Guardian writers who were happy to chat about the sessions we had each been to, along with what they were working on that afternoon. A reminder that amidst the crowds there were still people putting together a newspaper for Monday morning.
  • A giant mural was created over the course of the weekend, documenting and reflecting on the event, exploring the purpose of the paper, its relationship with its readers and its future in the digital age. Yeah, OK, very Guardian.
  • The three little pigs and the big bad wolf from the Guardian’s recent TV ad were on display in the foyer. If you haven’t watched the ad, do so now – I think even an Express reader would chuckle.

And the point?

So what was the point of all this? At £30 for a day ticket it wasn’t exactly cheap, but I have no idea if they made a profit or if that was even the purpose. I suspect this was more about a newspaper engaging with its audience, trying to make them feel more connected, more inclined to get involved and more likely buy copies / subscriptions / associated services.

And the point for me? I don’t really know. It was just a nice way to spend a day, surrounded by pleasant and friendly people. Much like when I go to Radio 4 comedy recordings at the BBC, this felt like my crowd – certainly more so than the people I shared the cocktail bar with the previous evening (my friends aside of course!).

This was an opportunity to learn more about things that I knew a bit about and to learn a bit about things I didn’t know about at all, though I should probably have challenged myself and done more of the latter. My one regret is not getting along to any of the sessions about the paper itself – how it’s put together and what the future holds. Hopefully I’ll have another opportunity next year.

I’m still a media anorak at heart. And apparently a Guardianista as well. I can live with that.

Categories: General, News

I’m back

25th July 2007.

That was the last time I wrote a blog entry. It was about hidden tracks on CDs and how I thought they were a terrible idea. It ended as follows:

Sorry for lack of posts in the past, eek, 2 months. You know what I’m like!

Oh the irony.

Flash forward three and a half years to a rainy Saturday afternoon in February 2011 and I’ve finally got around to doing what I’ve been meaning to do for, ooh, about three and a half years. And so this blog is (re-)born. I have no idea if I’ll stick at it, but I’ve given WordPress $12 to host the domain name so perhaps for a little while I’ll feel obliged to get something for my money.

As an extra incentive to actually stick with this, I’m going to throw-forward (hey, I still know the radio lingo) to some posts which should appear in the next couple of days. First, a brief update of what the hell I’ve been doing for the past few years for those that don’t know. Second, an almighty rant about the disastrous changes to higher education policy. Oh yeah, I can do politics.

You’re excited now aren’t you?

Categories: General