Broadcasting House

(revised September 2021)

 

For many years Broadcasting House (BH) was the home of radio – and Television Centre the home of television.  Of course things are different now and BH has many TV studios (used for news and weather) whilst TV Centre – the best designed, best equipped television studio centre in the country – was almost completely destroyed by ill-informed, discredited, overpaid managers – most of whom have now left the corporation.  (*long pause whilst blood pressure subsides*)  Anyway, a long time ago there was a small TV studio at Broadcasting House.  More than one actually, at different times.

The first studio opened on 22nd August 1932, believe it or not.  It was studio BB and was the home of the BBC’s experimental television broadcasts using Baird’s 30-line system.  The picture and sound were transmitted on different frequencies and were picked up by engineers and enthusiasts all over northern Europe.  At first, the BBC were extremely sniffy about all this television nonsense and didn’t want anything to do with it.  Then, after more than 1,000 TV sets had been sold and Baird had proved he was onto something they suddenly declared that they should be the ones in charge, not him.  They asked him for all the equipment needed to equip their studio and without paying Baird’s company a penny proceeded to take over the experimental broadcasts.

According to Roger Beckwith’s excellent history of BH website, Studio BB was 29 x 18 ft and was unusual in being of double height, with a small balcony. The main floor was at sub basement level.

bh studio bb roger beckwith 300p
Studio BB, soon after it originally opened and before the TV experiments began.

 

Strange but true – on August 22nd 1933 the world’s first televised boxing match took place in this studio in a 12ft square ring – between Freddie Baxter and Bill Lewis.  Heaven only knows how they could even have seen each other to land a punch in the flickering light of Baird’s flying spot and indeed what it must have looked like.  There was a running commentary of course – so one assumes that helped to make sense of the somewhat indistinct images that were being displayed on the tiny televisor screens.  The commentators were Viscount Scarsdale and Jim Mollison.  Jim was an aviation pioneer who happened to be married to Amy Johnson – also famous for her flying exploits.  The couple returned to this studio a month later to be interviewed under the flickering light of Baird’s flying spot.  Producer Val Gielgud later commented that ”Amy Johnson retains a soft, restful charm, and though she photographs badly, she televises well.’ What a charmer.

 

In February 1934 the BBC’s TV experiments were moved up the road to a larger studio in 16 Portland Place where the broadcasts continued.  Studio BB was then used by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra for many Empire Service broadcasts.  (That must have been a tight squeeze!)  It was later renamed S1.

By then, Baird himself had moved on and was working on a much more sophisticated 120-line system as well as other developments.  He would be constructing a studio centre of his own at Crystal Palace by 1933 and commenced broadcasts within a couple of years using a 180-line system.  Meanwhile, for reasons of their own, the BBC plodded on with his original 30-line cameras until 1935, the year before their new studios opened at Alexandra Palace.  A bit like the RAF continuing to flight-test Sopwith Camels in the days of the Spitfire.

 

Ken Banwell informs me that Portland Place was also the home of a later TV studio around 1960.  It was used as a news studio and was in the church hall where the record library was built later.  It was used for interviews and was equipped with 2 Peto Scott Vidicon cameras.  In 1963 this closed and was replaced with a brand new studio (only 30ft x 20ft) in the basement of the newly built extension to Broadcasting House.

This new BH studio was equipped with 3 EMI Vidicon cameras – one of which was remote controlled and the other 2 were standard EMIs with fixed lenses.  (It was colourised in 1970.)  The studio was intended for interviews and news broadcasts but it also had another rather surprising use.

Astonishingly, It was used for Top of the Pops.  Not the whole show, naturally, but it seems that they could just about fit one group in it – rather like Pres B was used for Whistle Test.  The main show came from Manchester from 1964 – 1967 and to simplify the routing of the signal it was fed from Manchester to BH and then to the transmission suite at TV Centre.  The BH studio appeared as the ‘source’ for TOTP to the presentation controller.

Some groups were unable or unwilling to make the journey north  (enthusiasts for MediaCity in Salford please note)  so they performed in this tiny studio as an insert into the main live programme.  The show changed presenter from week to week  (I think there were three or four original regulars from memory)  and the following week’s presenter usually did a piece to camera at the end of the show from BH.

Clearly, there wasn’t much room to have a fancy set or lighting – according to Ken Banwell you could always tell the BH performances by the fixed gobo projected on the wall.  Lovely.  He also says that it was a very fast turnaround between the regional news inserts between 18.00 and 18.30 and the insert into Top of the Pops.

The studio remained in use for ‘down the line’ interviews for some years, closing in 1986.

 

bh aerial 450p
Broadcasting House in 2013.  The original BH at the centre bottom of the photo represents perhaps one fifth of the size of the present building, which cost over 1 billion pounds.  Television Centre had 8 medium/large production TV studios plus several smaller ones and a number of news and weather studios.  New BH on the other hand contains no large television production studios – only small ones suitable for news and weather.  New BH cost over 1 billion pounds to build. Television Centre was packed with all the latest HD technology but was sold for only £200m.

 

The 1963 extension to BH, in which the old TV studio had been located, was demolished in 2003 to make way for a new, very smart building which was completed in 2011.  It cost over £1bn. That’s one thousand million pounds.  Television Centre was sold for £200m.  Compare and contrast.

New BH became operational in March 2013, when BBC News and the weather department moved here from TV Centre, and the World Service from Bush House.  The Egton Wing or Peel Wing opened in 2006 containing TV Studios for the BBC’s Arabic and Persian television services.  The BBC London TV studio was also temporarily based in the Peel Wing before moving into another part of NBH.  The One Show  moved here from White City in January 2014.

The building was intended primarily for news and weather.  However, long before it opened the BBC board of management decided to send several other departments there too.  The building is therefore very crowded with very few dedicated offices – almost everyone has to ‘hot desk’ which is understandably very unpopular.  If only they had moved to TV Centre there would have been plenty of room for everyone.

 

There are currently 22 radio studios plus the BBC Radio Theatre that is now occasionally used to record music concerts and other events for television. It has a permanent well-equipped lighting rig but no TV facilities. Usually a flyaway kit is hired in when recording TV shows.

bh radio theatre 450p
The BBC Radio Theatre that occupies the ground and first floor in the centre of the original BH.  This beautiful art deco space was originally called the BBC Concert Hall.  Before its restoration around 2005 the floor was several feet lower at the stage end.  Here it is dressed for a televised stand-up comedy series in 2015 with lighting designed by yours truly.

 

The TV studios in New BH were at the time of writing (April 2014) as follows but may now be different.  For example, I believe Studio B was closed when the Covid pandemic began as it uses human rather than robotic camera operators:

 

34D  – BBC Arabic TV

44D  – BBC Arabic TV

54D  – BBC Persian TV

A  – green screen studio – HARDtalk, Newswatch, News at 9, News summary

B  –  Andrew Marr Show, Sunday Politics, Newsnight, BBC World News programmes including GMT, Impact, Global and Focus on Africa

C  – BBC News and World News –  News at 5, The Film Review, Newsday, World News Today, Business Edition

D  – BBC London News

E  –  News at 1, 6, 9 (weekends), 10, Weekend News , News Channel, Dateline London

–  60 Second  News

G  – Weather (greenscreen)

H  – Weather (greenscreen)

J  – Weather – large plasma in newsroom

K  – multipurpose – similar design to L (see below) but on the 2nd floor and half the size.  It has a greenscreen or view of newsroom and capable of a 1 + 2 interview but has only 1 camera permanently rigged.  Due to being open plan with no walls it is, I am told, an annoying source of disturbance to those trying to work nearby.  Used by technology show Click using their own cameras. World Service’s  Tech Tent  use K with extra cameras added.

L  – This is the 5th floor ‘ Multiplatform Production Area ‘.  This ‘studio’ helpfully has no walls either which I am told is like studio K in that it provides constant irritation to nearby production teams and studio crews alike.  It is basically converted office space with all the attendant problems of a very low grid.  It has 3 cameras and a set with a hard area and a soft area.  This ‘studio’ is used for BBC Swahili and BBC Russian programmes.  The soft area is occasionally used for a BBC Arabic discussion show and BBC News Channel’s Meet the Author.  It has also hosted Talking Business for World News.

M  – Green screen studio for World Service TV.  Controlled by L’s gallery so when in use L cannot operate.  With a single camera it provides bulletins in various languages.

P  – Green screen studio, never used as a studio so often taken over as a temporary edit suite or for storage.

V  – The One Show –  in the area on the ground floor of the Peel Wing originally designed to be used as a BBC shop.  BBC London was based here for a while.

…plus the newsroom is used for several programmes including  Reporters, Click  and  Points of View

 

In December 2013 it was reported in the press that the BBC would be spending a further ‘half a million pounds’ on New BH, refurbishing the sixth and seventh floors after complaints from staff.  According to reports, they were to be made ‘more creative and vibrant’.  The reports also said that witty signs indicating ‘streets’ are to be placed around the building helping staff to find their way round.  Areas and meeting rooms would be named after well-known television programmes – none of which were of course made in this building.  Viewers of the excellent sitcom W1A will be all too familiar with this kind of nonsense.

Decisions like this are a gift to the Daily Mail but seriously annoy television programme makers too, who are having to use over-priced studios that are not half as good as the lost ones at TV Centre.  Margaret Hodge is quoted as saying ‘None of us get everything right when we move into a new building but spending money on what sound like questionable improvements is inappropriate when money is tight.’

I gather that BBC World Service was originally allocated the 6th floor as well as the 5th.  When it was decided to move ‘Vision’ from TVC, World Service was bumped (and squashed) onto the 5th floor only.  However, half the WS radio studios remain scattered throughout the 6th floor.  There was originally going to be a second ‘Multiplatform Production Area’ on the 6th floor like the one on the 5th floor.  All the cabling was installed between what was to be the gallery (now the BBC3 controller’s desk) and a wallbox in the middle of what is now the 6th floor office (near the BBC2 controller’s meeting room).  I am told that there is a chronic shortage of studio space in NBH but the chances of those controllers giving up their desk space is zero.  There is after all an even greater chronic shortage of desks.

For an in-depth and scarily accurate view of life in New BH I can do no better than recommend watching the excellent sitcom  W1A .