Opinions on the closure

I have made my views on the demolition of most of the studios at TVC perfectly clear.  I invite anyone on the BBC Board of Management who took these decisions to write to me and present the case for carrying out this act.  I will happily include it on this website so readers can form a balanced judgement.  So far, I have yet to receive any emails.

 

 

One of the many talented performers to criticise the closure and whose knowledge and intelligence is beyond question is David Mitchell.  In 2011 he wrote the following whilst musing on new ways the nation might celebrate special days:

 

Television Centre Day  (always the last Tuesday in August – the day before the department stores put up their Christmas decorations).

This should be a day when the nation comes together to celebrate its proud tradition of masochistic decision-making, the unique British characteristic of allowing ourselves to destroy things that almost everyone likes, to be able to accept a line of argument, however nonsensical, purely because it leads to a conclusion that will cause us pain.

The day will feature a parade of bendy buses from Euston station to a block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush where they used to make TV programmes.  The media coverage should generate business for local hotels as a large number of journalists are expected to travel down from Manchester.

copyright David Mitchell – The Observer

 

…and finally, Roger Bunce has written an excellent piece putting the case for keeping the studios at TVC.  It appeared on the ‘Save TVC’ website in April 2013.  If you read nothing else on this website you must read this.  It is absolutely superb.

1: The Architecture.

BBC Television Centre is a design classic – an iconic example of that futuristic, space-age architecture of the late 1950s and early 60s.  It belongs to an exciting, experimental period of design that gave us the Festival of Britain, Coventry, Brasilia and Tracy Island. Modern construction techniques, involving gleaming glass and steel Cathedral, are blended with traditional treatments, including brick, tile, timber and mosaic, to create forms that are entirely original.  There is sculpted concrete, but it is used sparingly, with none of the dingy, graffitied slabs that became fashionable in the later 1960s.  The whole building is a work of art, and the staff within are motivated and energised by the aesthetics of their surrounding.  Those who wish to demolish such an imaginative vision, are taking philistinism to a level unknown since the days of Goliath.

It is clear from the original documents that the architects were not just building a studio centre, they were deliberately creating a permanent monument.  They describe it as “A new London landmark” – hence the sculptures and fountains.  They succeeded.  From the start, programme-makers were so inspired by TV Centre’s art and architecture that they were using it as a backdrop for their productions.  From the Opening Night, via  Square World, Record Breakers, Top of the Pops and Blue Peter, right up to the closing night ‘Madness’ concert, Television Centre has starred as a location in its own productions.

Broadcasts from the central circle or the front car park became such common occurrences that exterior plugging points were installed for cameras and microphones.  And, as a result, the architecture of BBC Television Centre is known to viewers all over the country – and overseas.  It is an immediately recognisable symbol.  There is no other building quite like it.  The uninspired structures at Salford Quays will never be used in this way, nor will they ever gain such widespread public recognition.  They are just bland rectangular slabs, like so many others.  As for the gaping, pointless void of the BH Newsroom, it looks like a singularly ill-favoured shopping mall.

Another of the original concepts of TV Centre is that it could be endlessly adaptable. It could be extended, or contracted, re-equipped or rebuilt, in accordance with operational needs.  It would never be necessary for the BBC to leave.

 

2: The efficiency of the building.

Behind the sculptures and the mosaics there is another TV Centre: the functional TV Centre; the programme-making machine.  And this is another masterpiece of design. When TV Centre was being planned, the Senior Management of the BBC included Senior Producers and Chief Engineers: people with an intimate understanding of programme-making both from the creative side and from the nuts-and-bolts practical realities.  They had learned how studios work from their experiences of Alexandra Palace, Lime Grove and Riverside.  Working with the architects, they were able to design a complex which was ideally laid-out for speed and efficiency of operation.  Everything is in the right place.  The dynamics work.  The encircling Ring Roads ensure the delivery of scenery and equipment.  The Assembly Areas funnel the cast from their dressing rooms, via Wardrobe and Make-Up, into the studios.  Everyone and everything arrives at the right place at the right time, ready to go.  At the peak of its operation, one studio could mount a different programme each day and could be completely reset and relit each night.  Turnarounds were accomplished with all the slickness of a Formula One pit-stop.  And there is a natural buzz and excitement that comes from working at that level of efficiency.  As Victoria Coren has said, “I didn’t realise, until making a film about it closing down, what a fantastic building this is – how purpose built – how fit-for-purpose – or how loved.”  (Did you notice the phrase ‘Fit-for-Purpose’ there?)

One might have expected that the BBC’s new studios, at Salford and New BH, would have improved upon TV Centre and be even more ‘fit-for-purpose’.  Sadly, it is not so. Stories of bad layout, poor planning and lack of foresight abound.  It is as though no one had ever built a television studio before; no one had learnt from past experience. But, the Senior Management of the BBC no longer includes Producers and Engineers.  Today it consists of career bureaucrats, who have only minimal understanding of programme-making, television or broadcasting. Worse, they don’t believe that they need to have any such understanding.  Had the BBC progressed from TV Centre to something even better, I might have shrugged sadly and accepted that this is the nature of progress.  The fact that the BBC is regressing from TV Centre to studios that are less well-designed and much less ‘fit-for-purpose’ cannot be justified by any argument.

 

 

3: The meeting place of talents.

One of the advantages of having so many studios and different types of programmes at one site was that Television Centre became a meeting place for talented people from different genres and different disciplines.  Children’s Programmes could talk to Drama;  Quizzes could talk to Comedy;  Production people could take advice from Technical People (without having to pay for it!).  All knew that they were talking to experts in their field.  And because everyone felt that they were working for the same organisation, experiences and advice were shared freely.  It was in these exchanges that new ideas were born.  If you have two geniuses, each with a good idea, then you have two good ideas.  If you let the two geniuses talk to one another, then three, four or five good ideas will emerge from the conversation between them.  When half a dozen geniuses meet up, preferably with a glass in their hands, the ideas explode exponentially.  And that was how Television Centre worked.  It was not just a programme-making factory, it was an ideas factory – an imagination factory.  (N.B. This is an argument, not just for the preservation of the Studios, but also for the Club, the Canteen, the Tea Bars, and all the communal areas where those impromptu planning meetings took place, and where the programme ideas cross-fertilised.)

The current Senior Management of the BBC is sadly lacking in any understanding of the creative process.  Their dystopian vision of the future places different genres at different sites.  The geniuses will never meet and their ideas will not be exchanged. Meanwhile, a largely freelance workforce will naturally be protective of their knowledge and unwilling to share advice.

 

 

4: History and Heritage.

Many of the celebrities who have deplored the sale of TV Centre have done so from a nostalgic point of view, quoting all the classic programmes that were made there.  It is not an argument that should be dismissed as too emotional.  Heritage matters.  The reason that most public buildings are preserved is because of the history that was made there. BBC Television Centre was first purpose-built TV studio complex in the country – and in the world.  As such it is a historic monument of national, and international, importance.  It is a heritage site.  As Michael Parkinson put it, “It’s as culturally important, in my view, as the Royal Opera House, or the National Theatre.”  Arguably, this is an understatement.  Only a small proportion of the population have ever enjoyed a production at the National Theatre: even fewer at the Royal Opera House.  Yet productions from TV Centre have been enjoyed by virtually everyone in the country, and by millions all over the world.  There are other, older opera houses in the world.  There are other theatres.  But there is only one BBC TV Centre, and it was the first of its kind.  To demolish it would be an act of cultural, historical and architectural vandalism comparable with simultaneous bulldozing of the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Palladium, the British Museum and many other venues of education, information and entertainment.

Historians will doubtless look back on this loss of a national asset and compare it with Dr. Beeching’s railway closures – another misguided attempt to save money, which actually succeeded in wasting money, and did irreparable damage to the country’s infrastructure.

 

 

5: The sheer financial waste.

The BBC sold TV Centre for about £200 million pounds.  This figure is not profit.  The cost of moving BBC Programmes and facilities out of TV Centre needs to be subtracted.  In order to move Sport and Children’s Programmes to ‘the North’, the BBC has invested over £800 million in MediaCity at Salford Quays.  This figure does not include the cost of staff relocation, nor the continuing travel and accommodation costs of staff and cast who are still commuting from London, nor the ongoing cost of hiring studios that the BBC doesn’t own.  We must also subtract the reported £1 billion spent on moving the news operation from a virtually brand-new newsroom at TV Centre, to a much larger, and uglier, newsroom at New BH.  Together, Children’s, Sport and News represent only a minority of the programmes made at TV Centre.  For all the others there is the cost of hiring and modifying temporary studios, until some of them are able to return to TV Centre.  Finally, CCA is still located in TV Centre.  (Did the Management even know it was there?)  It is due to be moved to other locations at an estimated cost of a further £50 million.  Nor should we forget the money paid to Management Consultants, without whom the overstaffed, overpaid bureaucrats of BBC Management seem incapable of actually managing anything.  At a very conservative estimate, the the sale of TV Centre has wasted over £2 billion of Licence Payers’ money.  Only BBC Management could ‘sell the family silver’ and make such a massive loss on the deal.

 

 

6: No consultation with the Licence-Fee Payers.

Those who decided to sell TV Centre were not its owners.  They were only temporary custodians.  Boris Johnson, during his tenure as Mayor of London, would not be expected to bulldoze Trafalgar Square and build flats on it.  Nor should a short-term Director General of the BBC have been allowed to sell a national landmark without consulting its true owners.  TV Centre was paid for by the Licence Fee Payers.  They/we are its true owners.  The Licence Fee Payers are now expected to cover the billions that have been lost.  Yet they/we were never consulted.  (Nor were the staff or the Programme Makers.)  It may be too late to prevent the financial squandering but it is not too late to demand a Public Enquiry into how this mis-management occurred; to ask for full publication of the accounts; to name and shame the individuals responsible, and to take measures to reduce the ongoing waste.

 

 

7: The loss of studio capacity.

If BBC Management has any consistent vision for the future, it seems to be that they no longer wish to own studios.  They would rather rent or lease them.  But this leaves them extremely vulnerable to market rates.  Any reduction in supply will cause an increase in demand and a reduction in competition.  Prices will go up.  The closure of Television Centre means the loss of 8 large to medium-sized broadcast studios, and 4 or 5 smaller ones.  Teddington Studios are also due to close.  Together, they represent a substantial proportion of the studio capacity in the London area.  Such an abrupt reduction in availability will create an anti-competitive situation in the market, enabling the remaining suppliers to significantly increase their prices.  The BBC may, therefore, have scored a massive financial ‘own goal’.  Their cunning plan was to sell studios because it is cheaper to rent, but the loss of those studios will, itself, make renting more expensive!  If, however, Television Centre studios remain available to programme-makers, albeit under different ownership, they will increase the competition in the market and help to keep prices down.

 

 

8: The creation of a near-monopoly.

Two of the studio centres likely to gain work from the closure of Television Centre, and therefore benefit financially, are Pinewood and Shepperton.  Their chairman is Michael Grade, who was chairman of the BBC until about a year before the closure of TV Centre was announced.  Pinewood and Shepperton are owned by The Peel Group (formerly Peel Holdings), who also own MediaCity at Salford Quays and are, therefore, the primary financial beneficiaries of the BBC’s ‘move to the North’.  The Peel Group also owns Teddington Studios, but intend to close them, thus reducing competition and driving more work to their other centres at Pinewood and Shepperton.  Personally, I suspect that the BBC’s role in the creation of this near-monopoly is more cock-up than conspiracy.  But questions need to be asked.  Any enquiry should demand to know why BBC bosses have used Licence Fee Payers’ money to give The Peel Group a disproportionate share of the market – particularly since this will be of benefit to a former BBC Chairman.  I note that during the BBC’s evening of programmes about TV Centre, the primary spokesman supporting the closure, both on The One Show and on Goodbye Television Centre, was Michael Grade.  He did not declare his financial interest.

 

 

9: Studio operation incompatible with residential property.

Current plans involve converting much of the TV Centre site into a hotel and flats.  But studios and residents may not make comfortable neighbours.  From the studio viewpoint, public access will create security problems.  From the residential viewpoint, studio programme-making is a 24 hour operation, and is rarely quiet.  The rumble of lorries, the off-loading of scenery and technical equipment (and the familiar clang of scaffold poles) late into the night will be a constant irritant.  And that’s before we think about loud music programmes, rioting rock-stars and over-excited audiences.  Some of the noise nuisance could be reduced by insisting that all resets and re-rigs take place during daytime, but that would immediately double the number of studios needed to make the same number of programmes.

 

 

10: Studio operation incompatible with a building site.

It gets even sillier.  I had assumed that the BBC were going to abandon the site between 2013 and 2015 because this was the period during which the rebuilding was due to take place.  There would be obvious problems trying to make programmes on a building site: the constant noise and vibration of bulldozers, pneumatic drills, excavators and demolition, creating an atmosphere full of cement dust (and newly liberated asbestos).  But I now learn that the bulldozers aren’t due to start until 2015 – about the same time that BBC Studios are moving back in!  Cue predictable disaster.  Which poses the question, why did the BBC decide to leave in 2013 and waste a fortune hiring and modifying temporary studios for a couple of years, when 8 of their own perfectly functioning studios were still available to them?

 

11: The total absence of any reason to leave .

Maybe the strongest argument of all is simply that there is no rational reason for the BBC to leave Television Centre.  It is a colossal waste of Licence-Payers’ money and a major disruption to programme makers which achieves nothing whatsoever.  The decision to leave seems to have been an obsessive, compulsive urge amongst certain members of the Senior Management team, most of whom have since been required to leave, clutching generous ‘rewards for failure’.  The reasons that they have given for the move are listed below.  It will be seen that none of them bear much relation to reality.

 

 

Reasons given by BBC Management for the abandonment of Television Centre :

 

1: To make money.

It sounds like a sick joke now, but this was the original reason given for selling TV Centre.  It was announced on 18 October 2007 that, because of a £2 billion shortfall in funding, the BBC would “reduce the size of the property portfolio in west London by selling BBC Television Centre by the end the financial year 2012/13. ” Translating management jargon into English, this means simply that they were selling the building to raise cash.  With the Westfield Shopping Centre anticipated, and property prices in the area likely to rise, BBC Management thought they could make a once-only, short-term profit on the sale.  We now know that they have actually managed to make a catastrophic loss.  The cost of moving out of TV Centre must be over ten times the income from the sale.  Any other homeowner, selling a valuable property in London in order to downsize to a cheaper place in the country, might expect to have had some cash left over.  Only BBC Management could fail so disastrously.

 

2: To make the BBC less London-centric.

Because of lower approval ratings in the North of England than in the South, the BBC decided to move some of its operations from London to Salford Quays. This is often given as a ‘Politically Correct’ excuse for closing Television Centre.  But the sums don’t add up.  Most of the mainstream programmes produced at Television Centre have not gone to to the North.  They have been scattered to various temporary studios around London and the Home Counties.  Sport has been sent to Salford, but that could only be used as a excuse for closing TC5, one of the smaller studios.  Children’s Programmes have also be ordered to Salford, which might excuse the closure of TC9, an even smaller studio, and half of whichever studio Blue Peter might be using that week.  The movement of News to New Broadcasting House might also justify the closure of TC7, another of the smaller studios, and the TV Centre Newsroom.  But this leaves absolutely no excuse for closing any of the large or medium-sized studios at Television Centre – TCs 1, 3, 4, 6 or 8.  All the comedies, light-entertainment, chat-shows, quizzes etc. which were made there have been left with no alternative home.

 

 

3: Television Centre is getting old and needs maintenance.

Yes, most buildings of a certain age need a lick of paint and a dollop of filler occasionally.  But no one has suggested bulldozing the Albert Hall, the Palladium or the Houses of Parliament just because they need maintenance.  At Television Centre the problem has become worse because, since making the decision to leave, routine maintenance has been badly neglected.  So, if we put the metaphorical horse and cart in the correct order, and cause before effect – It is true that Television Centre needs maintenance because of the decision to leave.  It is NOT true that the decision to leave was taken because Television Centre needed maintenance.  Even if it were true, it would be the equivalent of buying a new car because the ash tray was full in the old one!

 

 

4: Programme-making has been moving out of studios onto location.

This argument is about 20 years out of date.  In the early 1990s, BBC Drama Department decided that they wanted to make ‘Films’ not ‘Television Plays’.  They abandoned the old-fashioned, multi-camera, ‘as live’ style of shooting in favour of the even older-fashioned, single-camera, ‘as film’ style.  The last major studio drama series,  The House of Elliot  ended in 1994.  As drama and documentaries left, the BBC needed less studio capacity and therefore closed down Lime Grove, TV Theatre and the Greenwood.  They even mothballed some of the studios at TV Centre.  But fashions can swing in both directions.  Programmes were soon moving back into TV Centre.  The mothballed studios were reopened, and additional studio space had to be created around the building.  TC0 and TCs 9, 10, 11 and 12 were opened.  Shows were being shot in offices, dressing rooms, galleries and even corridors.  The success of  Strictly Come Dancing  brought glossy-floored, big studio spectaculars back into fashion.  Budget cuts forced smaller programmes back into studios since working live, or ‘as live’, saved editing and post-production costs.  High-definition led to a need for more detailed, more substantial scenery with the result that more studio time was occupied with scenic construction and standing sets, which created a need for yet more studio space.  Even after the departure of Sport, Children’s and News, TV Centre studios were as busy as they had ever been – right up until the time that they were forced to close.

 

 

5: Television Centre has problems with asbestos.

More old news.  This argument is about 25 years out of date.  Asbestos problems were identified in TV Centre studios in 1988.  Since then the asbestos has been stripped out or encapsulated.  It is no longer a problem, (unless, of course, someone does something incredibly stupid, like knocking the place down and building a hotel).  There are still asbestos and structural problems in the East Tower, but few people would complain if that was demolished.

 

 

6: Television Centre has out-of-date technology.

Does anyone know who coined the phrase, “Television Centre is an analogue dinosaur in a digital age.”?  It would be nice to know, if only so that they can be publicly pilloried.  It is difficult to know whether the Senior Management of the BBC were really so badly out-of-touch with their own business that they actually believed this, or whether they were resorting to desperate lies in order to justify an obviously stupid decision.  Just because TV Centre was opened in 1960 does not mean that it is only capable of producing black-and-white, 405 line television!  Anyone who has worked there, or anyone who has ever turned on a Tele, knows this to be untrue.  The technology has been constantly updated – to 625 lines – to colour – to stereo – to digital, hi-def widescreen.  A number of studios were equipped for Virtual Reality, and one (TC6) was even capable of broadcasting in 3-D.  Up until its forceable closure, TV Centre contained some of the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art equipment in the world.

 

 

7: Television Centre is not ‘Fit for Purpose’

You know they’re getting defensive when they resort to meaningless managerial jargon.  Those who say this are either lying, have never worked at TVC, or are desk-bound bureaucrats.  No one who has ever worked at the sharp-end of TV could believe it.  An endless succession of Cameramen, Engineers, Directors etc, could be produced to explain exactly why TVC is entirely ‘Fit for Purpose’ and, more importantly, why it is much MORE ‘Fit for Purpose’ than either Salford Quays or New BH!

If they get really desperate they may even claim that TV Centre has been tainted by Jimmy Savile.  (Didn’t he come from Salford? Better cancel the move to the North!)

The decision to leave TVC was taken years before the scandal arose, and cannot, therefore, have been a true motivation.  Actually, most of Jimmy Savile’s programmes were made at TV Theatre.  Stricter security would have made abuse much less likely at TV Centre, although some must have happened.  But no one has suggested demolishing Stoke Mandeville Hospital and ending all the good work that is done there, just because of the behaviour of one nasty, creepy man.

 

 

Final Question?

One question we are certain to be asked, and it has been puzzling me, is why it has taken us so long to start this protest.  I can only answer for myself.  I think it is because I couldn’t believe that it was really going to happen – even BBC Management couldn’t be quite that stupid.

There has always been a comedy element to the leadership of the BBC. It dates far back to quotations like, “What is this ‘Go On Show’?”, or the memo telling Michael Bentine that, “BBC Television Centre is not to be used for purposes of entertainment.”;  or the apocryphal story that some executives believed that “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was a documentary about aerobatics.  I particularly liked the ‘Ariel’ headline, which explained how important it was for Sports Department to be established in their new home at Salford in time for the London Olympics!   As a fan of the ‘Tintin’ comics, the knowledge that the most senior figures in the management were called ‘Thompson and Thomson’ (one with a ‘p’, one without) seemed entirely appropriate – even if they didn’t wear bowler hats.  But the announcement in 2007 that they were planning to sell TV Centre seemed to take corporate idiocy to an entirely new level.  Even their cartoon namesakes wouldn’t do anything that ridiculous.

At each stage of the process, new evidence arose which should have convinced any sentient observer that the policy was misguided.  In 2009 the central parts of the building were Grade 2 listed by English Heritage.  Surely, the bureaucrats would take note and realise that they could not sell off a national treasure.  Yet, they carried on.  It soon became apparent that the cost of leaving the building would greatly exceed any income from the sale.  At this point even the accountants should have recognised their mistake.  The most innumerate bean-counters would surely notice that they were about to lose over two-billion beans.  Yet, they carried on, with blinkered determination.  Comedy gave way to complete farce when it was announced that the BBC, who had vowed never to return, would need to lease back three of the studios they had just sold.  At last, it seemed, they were admitting that they had got their sums wrong.  It would only be a matter of time before they realised that they would need all the main studios.  But no, they steamrollered on with their pathological obsession.  Then the Trust finally stepped in.  Thompson and Thomson were paid to leave, followed rapidly by their successor.  Now the destruction that they had begun seemed certain to stop.  Yet, it blundered relentlessly on: a now headless and pointless juggernaut.  BBC Television Centre closed its gates on 31st March 2013 – one day before the new DG took over.

The unbelievable had actually happened, despite all the evidence that it couldn’t possibly.  This, for me, was a tipping point.  Another was watching the Goodbye Television Centre programme, and hearing a succession of celebrities condemning the sale.  We ‘Techies’, who work behind the camera, always thought that closing TV Centre was a stupid idea.  But no one has ever listened to us.  Now, however, I discovered that the on-screen talent was of exactly the same opinion.  These were people who had only seen TV Centre from the ‘front’.  They had never experienced the behind-the-scenes magic of the ring-road operation, or an overnight set and light.  Yet they felt the energy and atmosphere of the place.  Nor was it only the mature celebs who spoke out.  The youngsters, who had far less reason to be nostalgic about the place, were equally vehement.

I suppose that is when I ceased to be sad, and became very, very angry.

 

Roger Bunce – April 2013