As soon as the war was over the BBC knew they would need to build a ‘television centre’. They acquired Lime Grove Studios and shortly afterwards the Shepherds Bush Empire (Television Theatre) and Riverside Studios but these were stop-gaps and the intention was to move all television production into this new purpose built centre. A site of 13 acres, previously occupied by part of the Franco-British Exhibition was bought shortly after the war. This 140 acre exhibition had consisted of several highly ornate pavilions all faced in white which came to give this area of London just north of Shepherds Bush the name ‘White City.’
Following the original exhibition and – let us not forget! – the 1908 Olympic Games, the buildings hosted several other exhibitions and expositions. (What’s the difference?) The last time the site was employed for its original purpose was for the British Industries Fair in 1929 although some areas were used for ‘textile fairs’ until 1937. In 1936 much of the site was taken over by Hammersmith council who built the South Africa Estate of flats surrounding the stadium. During the war some of the buildings were commandeered for the manufacture of parachutes.
(Incidentally, the only remaining buildings dating from the exhibition were demolished as recently as 2004, when the site on the other side of Wood Lane was cleared prior to construction of Westfield.)
By 1949 the remainder of the site was derelict and the BBC purchased 13 acres originally occupied by the ‘Court of Honour’ – although several councillors objected strongly and thought that the land should have been used for housing. The only thing that remained of this extraordinary, spectacular exhibition site until 2017 was a 2m square of ornate terracotta tiles on the ground outside TC1 but this was removed by Stanhope when they re-laid the flooring in this area. Well done them. (It even had a little brass plaque explaining what it was. That was removed too.)
This is the story that all visitors to TV Centre were told over its lifetime. However, Arthur Hayes has written to me casting some doubt on this. He worked with Dawbarn for seven years from 1956 so came to know him well. He says that this would have been most uncharacteristic of the way he used to work. The timing isn’t right either. These are the points that Arthur doesn’t think fit the story…
|1||Sir William Haley wrote to Graham Dawbarn (GRD) on 14th November 1949 inviting him to act as architect in association with M T Tudsbery (MTT).|
|2||Dawbarn replied on the 16th November accepting the commission and offering to commence work before a formal agreement was signed.|
|3||It is believed that a meeting between Dawbarn and Tudsbery took place at the Athenaeum, probably on the 23rd.|
|4||The envelope is date stamped 1st December 1949 and is addressed to Dawbarn at the Westminster Bank, Charing Cross, WC. The earliest that the letter could have been received by him is the 2nd of December but, being addressed to his Bank, the 3rd or later is much more likely. The only certainty is that Dawbarn could NOT have doodled on it before the 1st – and it could have been very much later!|
|5||A site plan showing the layout of all the building elements (very much as they are today) was produced by Dawbarn and dated (in his hand) 10th December 1949. This drawing is bound into the joint report produced by Dawbarn/Tudsbery in 1951 when work ceased temporarily.|
Arthur Hayes continues – ‘So far I have found no documentary evidence as to when the Brief was handed to GRD but it must have been before the end of November and, quite likely, was at the meeting between GRD and MTT. It is evident that, whenever the handover took place, GRD worked rapidly and decisively in order to produce a definitive layout by the 10th December. I think it was a phenomenal feat, one that could only be achieved by first absorbing the contents of the voluminous brief. But that, I believe, was very much in his character. Equally impressive is the fact that a full design scheme and a model was produced for approval by the Board of Governors on the 30th March 1950.’
In other words, Dawbarn is more likely to have already been working on his ideas for the project during the ten days before Dec 3rd (or later), when the back-of-an-envelope sketch was drawn. Only a week after that he presented a detailed design scheme to the BBC which surely would have been beyond the powers of even the fastest working genius.
So – sorry to spoil a really good story 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. On the other hand – maybe, just maybe, those first ten days left him with no workable ideas at all, the BBC had omitted to mention to him that they had been thinking of a circular design for the Centre for several years (see below) and the final inspiration did actually come to him over that pint in the pub – and he really was able to work that fast. In any case, it was a brilliant scheme and still succeeded as the most efficiently designed studio centre in the UK – possibly the world. No other building has come close.
He planned to build most of the studios around a circular hub containing video recorders in the basement – so cable lengths to each studio were minimised. Equally important in those analogue days was ensuring that all the studios were electronically in sync with each other and with incoming sources like telecine and VT machines. The circular shape helped enormously with this.
Around the VT area would be dressing rooms in the basement and on ground floor level. The studios would be spread outside a circular corridor on the ground floor in a large/small alternate pattern, enabling tea bars or ‘assembly areas’ to occupy some of the space next to the smaller studios. On first floor level above the dressing rooms and assembly areas would be the studio control rooms and apparatus rooms – all with easy access to each other.
The fan of studios would create wedges between them where other areas could be fitted – camera stores, prop stores, dimmer rooms and even a puppet studio. A larger wedge between two of the studios would contain a wide access route between the front and back of the studios on the ground floor whilst above this would be the transmission suites, presentation studios, telecine areas and central apparatus room. Outside the studios would be a covered road or ‘runway’ enabling scenery to move between studios and to and from the scenery block – a large construction connecting the main block at the rear of the building. Outside the scenery runway would be a road enabling vehicles to move easily round the site. The circle of studios would extend along a spur that could be built in phases with more studios as and when required over the years. The spur would connect with the scenery runway at the back and the artists’ corridor at the front.
A concept plan was drawn up, a model made, and in 1951 construction began on the first building – the scenery block. However, the foundation stone for the main block was not in fact laid until 1956. There was a pause of a few years before building could commence on the studios. The government was going through financially straitened times following the war and they could not afford the huge capital investment that was required to be borrowed. As it transpired, the delay was very helpful as the plans could be further developed and refined.
The original plans had some of the studios rather different from the way they ended up. TC2, 5 and 7 were eventually built as originally conceived. However, TC1 and 6 were going to be the same size as each other – a very long and relatively narrow 75 x 120ft wall to wall with a grid height of 45ft. More interestingly, TC3 and TC4 were initially both planned to be a similar 75 ft wide and 120 ft long but the end 40ft was to have a grid height of 60ft enabling scenery to be flown as in a theatre. (These dimensions are taken from a magazine article dated 27th May 1950.) The enforced pause before building commenced brought about a squaring-off of the studios, a new idea to make TC6 divisible into two and a realisation that TC1 could lengthen to occupy the scenery runway space and widen by 25ft without ruining the concept of the whole building.
The building was intended to be constructed in phases or ‘stages’. This highly confusing term remained in use at TVC to the end. Thus you would see signs indicating ‘Stage 5’ or ‘Stage 6.’ Most people in the industry would naturally assume these to direct the observer to a studio, given the nature of the building. But no. Stages 5 and 6 were construction phases and came to refer to parts of the building.
Another BBC term that is often taken for granted is the naming of studios. To avoid confusion, every BBC studio in the country was given a unique name with prefix letters relating to its building. Thus ‘TC1’ is Television Centre studio 1. The newly appointed head of BBC Resources in 2001 however decided that this was misleading as visitors might think that TC1 was a telecine suite, not a studio. Really? Thus all the dozens of signs around the building were changed to read ‘studio x’. Nevertheless, everyone in the industry still referred to them as ‘TC whatever’ so I shall here. Apparently, it would appear that he did not think that signs directing people to ‘Stage 5’ or ‘Stage 6 ‘ were confusing at all.