Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Love Letter to BBC Television Centre

“What we now know as British television was invented here.” -Greg Dyke
Anyone who has ever read my blog knows I have a huge amount of love and admiration for not just BBC television but the heart of where many of my favourite programs were made, BBC television Centre. I can’t think of any production complex in the world that would show up in television programs as often as BBC Television Centre. Over the years I have seen it in so many programs such as Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Goodies, Alexi Sayles Stuff and more. I learned at a very young age that this building was where all my favourite shows were being made. Seeing the building in those episodes forged my love for all British television as well as the United Kingdom itself. It doesn’t hurt that the building is very distinctive with its circular form along with TC1 just on the left of it. From most of the shots that show up on these TV shows, one doesn’t always see how big the centre really is. It has been the iconic hub for BBC’s television output for many years but sadly that kind of output has been changing. It hasn’t shot drama in its studio since the early 1990s. Even one of its greatest tenants, Blue Peter has now moved out. The saddest part of all is that the BBC is moving out of the building soon. It’s unthinkable but it is reality. As May has been devoted to final episodes, I felt it was fitting that I include a documentary that looks back when Television Centre was king.

I know I am not the only one who has waited a very long time for this documentary. In fact, I waited 28 years for this. Between 1984 and now, I have watched so much British television, researched it and met many people that worked at Television Centre. Because of the programs that were output from that building, I met other people who shared my passion and my love for these programs. I call many of these people close friends. In the US, it is almost like we speak our own language because no one else watches what we watch. The rarer the program, the happier we are. I have seen BBC Television Centre numerous times from the outside in TV programs and in photographs but I know very little about the inside or any of the stories from the people who worked inside there. Even though I knew it so well, it was still a big mystery. A documentary on BBC4 was able to help me with that.

Tales of Television Centre TX: 17/05/12
Now, I know it is strange that I have written articles for stuff made in the 21st century twice in one month. I will try and not make a habit of it. It was back in September 2011 that I saw Producer/Director Richard Marson post on the Roobarbs discussion forum that he was making a documentary of BBC Television Centre and wanted examples of where Television Centre appeared in BBC programs. I provided examples as did a lot of other people. It was pretty clear that this was going to be something special.

Tales of Television Centre is nothing more than a love letter to BBC Television Centre. From the very start, it confidently introduces the viewer to many of the contributors of the program such as Greg Dyke, Sir David Frost, Jools Holland, Susan Hampshire, Penelope Keith, Janet Fielding, Louise Jameson, Katy Manning, Peter Davison, Sir David Attenborough, Brian Blessed and more with snippets of their interviews interspersed with shots of empty corridors and studios with echoing voices of some of its past glory such as The Good Life, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who. If that is not enough, it is all backed by the wonderful piano coda from Derek and the Dominos Layla.  Like I said, it is a confident start to the documentary and it became a healthy emotional treat just from the start. Not really because of what anyone is saying but how they are saying it. These people loved this place! The nostalgia from the audio snippets from older series helped too. It is a glorious start to the program and I have a feeling that Richard Marson had this opening in his head for some time.

There is actually little backstory to any history of Television Centre apart from the beginning when there is a little bit of newsreel footage showing off the model for Television Centre prior to construction. There is a couple of ways this documentary could have gone. It could have been very structured with a straightforward narrative talking about things like construction, the Television Centre by decade, etc. Richard decided to go the route of a more organic approach. Reading interviews he did on the documentary, he explained he didn’t want any narration. He wanted the personal stories of the contributors fuel the approach to the documentary. I am all about boring narrative documentaries but this approach make the Television Centre come alive which it otherwise could have been looked at as a museum piece or end up being a funeral for the building. It showed us that the building was just the conduit for the creativity that came out of there over the years.

It has been said over the years, meant in a flattering way, that Television Centre was a Television Factory. This is true but think about it. There is nowhere else in the world that had under one roof a way to complete a program in one building such as Television Centre. From concept to completion even to even airing the program it was all done in that one complex. The writing, costume design, set design and construction, shooting, editing…it was all done there. The building was huge and Tales of Television Centre did a great job of showing us how big it was.
The documentary was split up by different parts of the complex. Main reception, Dressing Rooms, Cafeteria, Studios, 6th Floor, etc. The way it was done was simple and effective yet probably in reality was not simple at all. Each segment would start with this beautiful AutoCad model of Television Centre which would raise up to expose the areas we were to look at for that section. It was gorgeous and I would love to have a Blu Ray of just the model where I could go up and down all the corridors and “walk through” Television Centre. Some areas didn’t interest me as much as other but that’s OK. It was all relayed in a way that it was still interesting.
There was a lot of naughtiness going on at Television Centre. As Katy Manning said, people were bonking each other all over the place. Perhaps a little too revealing, eh Katy? Or the stories about people who would drink a little too much inspiration at the BBC club. There were stories of smoking marijuana on site and how David Attenborough had to send out a memo to tell people not to do it so publicly. Of course, perhaps the naughtiest of all could be the infamous BBC Christmas tapes. It is said that these tapes were made between 1977 and 1997. Put together by the Engineer department, it is a culmination of all the mess ups and “bloopers” from that year. It just didn’t end there, there were dance numbers and it all eventually became very complex and big. Performers knew that these mistakes would end up on the Christmas tapes. They would say so after they messed up. “This is going on the Christmas tape!” Perhaps one Christmas I will write an article on them. They are meant in the spirit of fun and they are an important aspect of Television Centre. It was good it was included.

What I found really interesting is how some of the people interviewed spoke of how the BBC management were almost embarrassed that television was made there. Jools Holland says about BBC Television Centre, “The design of it is brilliant. I love the fact that it’s a cross between show business and a KGB interrogation centre.” Some have said that management seemed almost embarrassed that there were studios beyond the reception area. My favourite anecdote was from Biddy Baxter. For Blue Peter, they did a bit where a helicopter landed in the horseshoe carpark at the front of the complex which is meant only for the executives and higher ups. After going through all the red tape to get this helicopter landing secured and approved, she was told by one of the upper-ups at the BBC in regards to Television Centre, “You’re treating this as if it was a place for entertainment.” I love it!
Something I found extremely interesting was just shots of walking through the building using a steadicam. Wonderful shots of going down corridors or stairs. The camera wandering around the 6th floor or shots in the apparently empty East tower. This is stuff I have never seen and was so happy it was included. I hear that Television Centre is in poor condition but these shots looked great and was envious that I know I will never see the place. It was fun to see how small corridors would end up into large spaces with stairwells going on to other parts of the building.

Archive clips treated with respect as they all appeared 4:3. Yes, that is Clive Dunn playing Doctor Who in It's a Square World.
On the archive television front, there are bits from so many great series but what I felt was most intriguing was that most of the shots were studio recording shots and not always from actual finished episodes. That was a great link to remind us that not only are we talking about the programs that were made there but that these programs were made here. Plus all the archive television shots were in 4:3 aspect ratio with the either side filled in with the distinctive tile mural design that is seen all around Television Centre. They were showing us bits and pieces of what it was like to make a multi-camera production. It was nice to see many mentions of Z Cars especially as 2012 is the 50th anniversary. Both Sarah Greene and Peter Davison were able to go behind the scenes to see the show being made. We also hear Nerys (not Nervous) Hughes having her first drink with the cast of Z Cars as she did an episode of the series. Plus we had Brian Blessed in all of his glory explaining how the statue Helios in the center of Television Centre would be named Golden Bollocks. Classic Brian Blessed. Someday I will write about how Brian Blessed spit water all over my friend Roger.
I felt honoured to watch a program with so many of my favourite artist in it. Apart from the Doctor Who folks mentioned earlier, I was so happy to see people I have the greatest respect for such as Biddy Baxter and June Hudson (who both look great), David Attenborough, Harold Snoad, Waris Hussein, Graeme Harper, Robert Powell, Jonathan Powell, Greg Dyke and so, so many more. The one person I was really happy to see was Bob Richardson. I have spent many years on British television discussion boards. Back when the Doctor Who Restoration Team had their technical forum, he would post the most intelligent and interesting posts about all sorts of going on at Television Centre or the BBC in general. He now posts at The Mausoleum Club and over there, whenever I see his name attached to a thread; it is a priority for me to read. My understanding of Television Centre is richer because of you! I wish Bob, Richard and other ex-BBC employees would get together and write a book about the place. It would be a nice supplementary piece to this documentary. It would be a great book published by Kaleidoscope. Richard Marson has already done definitive books on Blue Peter and Upstairs Downstairs for them.

As the documentary winds down, we come to the inevitable reality of what is next for Television Centre. The BBC is leaving it and it is the end of an era. Yet I think we can argue that the era ended a while ago. Television production moved away from multi-camera set ups. The BBC moved away from having staff positions for all their production people and moved to a freelance model. The BBC depicted in this documentary is long-gone and no matter how long the BBC holds onto the building it will never be the same again.  Of course, I hope the building is taken care of for prosperity. It is an amazingly beautiful building. I know parts of the building are protected as being of historical interest. If I am not mistaken, that includes the “concrete donut” (I hate the phrase, why did I use it) and TC1. I am sure more is included with it. It’s the people who made the programs and it’s those people who love Television Centre.

My love for Television Production started with the BBC. I work in commercial production now. I love everything about those BBC productions from the 1960s-1990s. I love how they were made with interiors shot on videotape and exteriors shot on film. I know it made a lot of directors cringe but I adore it. I loved how productions created sets that tried to look like real interiors and how the sets were lit to give the whole thing authenticity. I loved how multiple favourite shows of mine at Television Centre were recorded at the same time and those stars would mingle either at the BBC cafeteria or BBC club. It was the hub where all the actors I loved would come together and make all my favourite shows. I am even crazy for the classic BBC fonts that adorn the studios and lettering all over Television Centre plus used as the font for all the supers in the documentary. It created my strange love for production slates (the opening of this documentary was clearly made for me) and my passion for collecting every bit of British television I could get my hands on. Thank you BBC Television Centre and thank you Richard Marson. You created a love letter to Television Centre and this is my love letter to your documentary.
I know this will probably never be able to be released on Blu Ray because of all the rights for all the programs and music featured on the documentary but I will say this. I would happily buy a Blu Ray of just the Steadicam walking through the entire building one floor at a time. I would watch that daily. I would love to see all the uncut interviews plus the people who didn’t make the cut and I would love to see more of that AutoCad model. It was beautiful.

In short, this is one of the best programs I have ever seen in my life. Thank you Richard!

Next week: After pouring my heart out about British television and BBC Television Centre, we will move away from British television for a week and look at a rare Disney program that also looks at its past.  I will be looking at The Disney Family Album. I will be watching two episodes: one about Imagineers and the other about The Sherman Brothers. I will also talk a little but why some of these cool programs from Disney 1980s output has not seen the light of day since. Articles for British television will return after that.
Have a great week!

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Dave G said...

Once again a great write-up. I have not yet had a chance to watch this, but will be doing so in the next few days, and I am certain I will enjoy it almost as much as you did.

Just out of curiosity, did you view the pre- or post-watershed version?

Greg said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I am actually surprised that you have not seen it yet. It really had the right balance of being great yet not overly emotional.

I watched the post-watershed version but the screengrabs were from the BBC HD broadcast and I am not sure which version that is. I have a friend who is sending me both versions too.

Dave G said...

I watched this last night and was quite impressed - TV Centre truly was a place where dreams came true. I think the most moving part for me was at the end when the contributors were asked to describe it in one word.

As far as viewing goes, make sure you have both versions, since the pre watershed version didn't just cut bits out but actually had new material to replace those "naughty bits", a little over 3 minutes if I recall correctly. Ideally, you could edit them back in and have the definitive version.

Overall, brilliant tribute to the home of British television as we know it. RIP TVC - you will soon be gone bit never forgotten.

Dave G said...

One final little nitpick. At the beginning with the slates and countdown, they did not have the full three seconds from the last slate to the beginning of the program. Still, I think I can forgive that.