Early plans

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.)

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The original White City.  Part of the ‘Court of Honour’ in the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition.  This picture shows a fraction of this extraordinary development of palaces and pavilions.  It’s hard to believe that Television Centre later occupied this land. Or rather, this water.
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The whole White City site, possibly a year or two after the photo above as the lake appears now to be dry.  The two big sheds in the lower quarter might help to establish where things are.  They are known as the Dimco Buildings and still exist (see below).  Westfield was built over the sidings and tube train sheds at the bottom – they are still there beneath the shops.  The main entrance to the exhibition was under the railway arches – where the entrance to TV Centre used to be from the multi-storey car park.  The size of the exhibition can be seen to be vast and only a quarter of its area was later occupied by TVC.  The BBC’s White City Media Village later occupied the area where the 1908 Olympic stadium can be seen.  The rest became the South Africa estate, including Hammersmith Park and QPR’s stadium.
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The Dimco buildings.  One was used as a location for the ACME factory in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and as the interior of the British Museum in The Mummy Returns).  They were originally an electricity generating station for the Central Line, then became a machine tool shop for the Dimco firm before closing and falling into disrepair over many years.  Grade II listed, they were painstakingly restored over 2 years, reopening in 2008.  The eastern shed became a bus garage next to Westfield and was then converted into a conference and entertainment venue in 2020, named ‘Exhibition London.’  The western building is still owned by TFL.
 
The story of how architect Graham Dawbarn came up with the design is well documented but I’ll repeat it anyway.  Given a fifty-page brief, he is said to have retreated to a pub for inspiration and with a plan of the oddly-shaped site in his head he pondered on the problem: How to fit eight to ten studios in this area – giving easy access to scenery and separately to artists, crew and audiences.  Gazing at it for a few seconds he doodled a question mark on an envelope and the penny dropped.  The shape was perfect.
 

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.

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In 1946 a short film was produced to celebrate the return of television following the war. This graphic from the film indicates what the new BBC Television Centre might look like when eventually built.  It was spookily accurate and judging by the skyline, they were even thinking it would be somewhere on the outskirts of Central London like White City. This of course was four years before Graham Dawbarn was appointed. He was a brilliant architect but unless it’s a huge coincidence and he was kept in the dark about what the BBC had been hoping he would build for them – the ring of studios idea was not his.
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The famous back-of-an envelope doodle that the story goes is what started it all. Note the date on the postmark.

 

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.

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The ‘real’ foundation stone, located in a chiller room in the sub basement – an area off-limits to staff and visitors.  A copy was placed at the bottom of the staircase near main reception.  That’s the one everyone was shown when they looked round TVC.
photo thanks to Simon Ellis

 

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.

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The model of the original concept.  Note that it indicates that 10 production studios were originally planned and that TC6 was going to be the same way round as the other studios.  TC3 and TC4 both have scenery fly towers in this model.  Note also how much of the site is occupied by the scenery building.  The part of the scenery block on the far right did not end up this shape and in fact this area became occupied by the paint frame and later the ‘EBX’ building and offices.
Of course, other differences include the absence of the East Tower, which was constructed in 1964 on top of the ‘works’ building shown just above the scenery block here, and the multistorey car park which was built in the 1980s on the other side of the Hammersmith and City railway viaduct.  On the lower left is the restaurant block. The interesting construction that occupies the far left of the garden was never built but the single storey one at the right hand end of the garden became TC9 – from the mid ’90s for a decade this was the CBBC continuity studio.

 

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.

 

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The back of the scenery block in 1954.  This all looked very different in later years.  The protruding section of the building is the scenic artists’ studio or ‘paint frame’.  This was later completely hidden by – you guessed it – offices, and satellite dishes occupied much of this area.  Note the wonderful old cars! You certainly weren’t able to park there after about 1965.