overview

tvc original plan
An early plan for TVC dated around 1960. TC8 was the only one of the planned three studios along the spur that was eventually constructed.
tvc under construction with olympic stadium 460p
TVC under construction. The White City stadium is in the background. This was used for the London Olympics in 1908.
 
Firstly, TC or TVC? From Television Centre’s earliest days it was known throughout the BBC as ‘TC’.  Hence the studio numbers – TC1, TC2 etc.  At some time it became TVC – not officially, not through some managerial decree but certainly by the turn of the century it was widely referred to by the initials ‘TVC’.  I was a member of staff from the mid ’70s and worked mostly in the building until I went freelance in 2002.  I can’t remember when the change occurred but certainly now I feel more comfortable calling it TVC so apologies to those senior to me who find that strange.
 

Now let’s get on with the history…

 

 

 

Of all the TV studio centres in the UK, Television Centre was by far the largest.  With eight medium to large production studios, four small ones and a further number of news and weather studios it dominated the industry from the 1960s right up to its closure in 2013.  The building itself was huge – only seven stories high (plus basement and the mysterious sub-basement), apart from the East Tower, but the area it covered was considerable.  As well as the studios, scenery block and restaurant block there were countless numbers of offices.  When they ran out of space in the 1980s they built even more offices on the roof of the scenery runway that encircled the main block.  Thousands of people worked there every day – most not having a clue what everyone else did.  There was a waitress service restaurant, two cafeterias and many snack bars, coffee bars, delis and tea bars all over the building, not to mention the BBC Club.  The Centre contained a travel agent, a hairdresser, a dry cleaner, a florist (called ‘Auntie’s Blooms’) and even a branch of WH Smith.

Its statistics are pretty extraordinary.  The main block was 500 feet in diameter and at basement level covered three and a half acres.  In the studios nearest the railway line (TC1 – TC3) the walls were constructed 2ft 3ins thick to provide sound insulation.  When opened, the building contained 85 dressing rooms, sufficient for 613 artists.  There were originally 43 lifts plus 2 escalators to the basement level.  The ventilation system was the largest non-industrial system in Europe with 19 air-conditioning plants, 22 ventilating plants, 8 extract plants and 2 ‘absorption refrigerating machines’.  Gosh.

tvc heat and vent control panel 450p
The heat and vent control – somewhere in the bowels of the building. This was where temperatures were adjusted when the TM2 phoned someone up to say that the studio was a bit too cold.  I do hope this wonderful old panel has been saved by someone.  Note that TC6 is divided into two – it was going to be two studios until shortly before it opened but they changed their minds.  Clearly, nobody thought to inform the heat and vent man.  I expect he was called ‘H.Tel. H&V’.  Everything and everyone in the BBC used to be referred to by initials.  Apparently, the actual adjustments were carried out elsewhere in the latter years of the Centre but this panel was left connected as nobody knew exactly what it did and they could hear relays clicking inside it so it was thought best to leave it well alone.

In 2015 I was invited to look round the area of TC1-TC3 that was in the process of being rebuilt internally, ready for re-opening in 2017.  The entire heat and vent system was being replaced – except for some of the giant fans, which were being refurbished.  It was astonishing to see all these areas in the sub-basement of which I knew nothing – huge chambers, labyrinths, ducts and rooms containing giant fans and heat exchangers.  A bit like the engine room of a huge ocean liner.

Below is one of the dozens of fans that were refurbed or replaced.

tvc vent fan 450p

 

The Centre was originally supplied with 2 separate feeds from the national grid, in case one went down.  Later, one of these was withdrawn by the electricity supplier when Battersea Power Station was closed and the one remaining feed did indeed fail on at least three occasions to my knowledge.  To cope with this, emergency generators were installed for vital areas such as news and presentation and the power plant that originally only heated the water was, during the 1980s, replaced with two gas turbines that were intended to generate electricity as well as providing hot water and cooled air as a by-product.  This system is known as ‘combined heat and power’ or CHP.  Unfortunately, the system never worked.  (Their history of unreliability is probably a suitable subject for another website or book.)  On this very subject I have been contacted by Andrew Prince…

‘Problem was they tried to be too clever and tried to extract the heat from either the main or the reserve generator.  Point of interest, I was tasked with testing them once overnight.  We advised the occupants of TVC that we were doing this and they should switch off PCs etc overnight just in case.  Come the night we powered the CHP up, disconnected TVC from the mains and tried to load the generator up. I went around all the studios and put on all the studio lights we could and surprise – we  could  not create the load we wanted. Just goes to show what power is wasted overnight by things being left on. 

Footnote, when it came to re-connect TVC to the national grid, the breaker would not go in. It took several attempts before it held.  Phew, there were a few white faced people there that night.’

 

Despite best intentions, not all the original design choices were good ones.  The official 1960 BBC book about the building proudly states that the roofs of the studios were covered in asbestos tiles and that the trusses supporting the studio grids were ‘fire-proofed, their members being covered with sprayed-on asbestos fibre.’  Guess what.  In 1988 asbestos was unexpectedly ‘discovered’ in TVC’s studios and they were all shut down for examination.  Perhaps the BBC managers should have read the BBC’s own 1960 book and they would have known some time before.  Anyway – each studio was closed for detailed examination and after a few weeks depending on the seriousness of the risk was brought back into service.  In the case of some, the asbestos was removed and with others it was encapsulated, with an intention to remove it at some later time.

The removal or containment programmes for each studio lasted for many months or in the case of TC1 – years. 

Almost inevitably, this problem re-emerged in 2006.  It was then announced that further work would be necessary on three of the studios – TC2, TC3 and TC5.  This was subsequently carried out, one studio at a time, beginning with TC2 from late summer 2006.  The studio reopened after a very expensive process of removal early in 2007 when work on TC5 began.  This was complete by the summer of 2007 when TC3 was closed, reopening early in 2008.  Seven of the main studios had their original soundproofing stripped to the brick walls and new panels installed – making them look like new studios.  Only TC8 remained as it was originally built since no asbestos was used in its construction.  Following this process, all eight of the main studios remained free of asbestos – or any that was left was well encapsulated.

 

Rumours persisted to the end however that the building was still contaminated.  To an extent, this was true (some remained in cable ducts) but huge amounts of work had been done in the studios at vast expense over the years and they were constantly monitored for any trace of contamination.  My guess is that the three remaining studios are probably now amongst the ‘cleanest’ in the country, particularly following the internal rebuild during 2015.

It’s hard to say for certain how many other studios and film stages in London have been affected.  Any built before the late ’60s are likely to have asbestos somewhere in their walls or insulation. Even ITV’s studios on the South Bank, built in 1972, had ugly black plastic sheeting stuck to the walls for the final few years in order to contain it.

Within the TV industry, the BBC certainly took this issue seriously – they spent literally millions of pounds removing or encapsulating the asbestos in this building.

Construction and alterations never ceased since building commenced in 1951.  The sound of distant drilling disturbed countless transmissions and recordings over the decades. In fact, it was such an extraordinary building that there literally can’t be a person alive that has been in every part of it.  I was based there for 26 years and often worked there as a freelancer over another 11 years right up to its closure but only ever saw a fraction of the building.  Its unique circular design meant that many people, myself included, often exited a door onto a corridor and had to pause for a second to work out the best route to where they were going.  Many is the time I said cheerio to someone as we went off in different directions only to meet them again a minute or two later, slightly embarrassed as we bumped into each other – having taken completely different routes to arrive at the same place.  It happened so often that people barely remarked on it.  Or perhaps it was just me.

I wrote at the beginning of this project that TV studios were factories.  That rather trite description probably applied to this building even more than most.  (Indeed, the then head of BBC Television described it as such on the day it opened.)  The sheer scale of its operation made this inevitable.  However, it was also a corporate headquarters and a news centre and anyone entering the reception area that faced Wood Lane in its latter years would be hard pushed to get any sense that this building contained television studios.  Compare it with the reception area in ITV’s headquarters on the south bank, or Teddington or Fountain or Pinewood TV.  It’s almost as though from the 1990s the BBC’s senior management was slightly embarrassed at the fact that inside this building were studios still making television purely for entertainment.  As far as they were concerned, the BBC was first and foremost a news organisation.

 

Of course, some things did change in its later years and many aspects of the Centre became nothing like it was when I began to work there in the late 1970s.  In those days the offices in the main circular block were taken up with the various departments of make-up, wardrobe, cameras, sound and lighting.  Above them were the production offices of the drama department and the light entertainment department.  The design department occupied the upper floors of the scenery block at the back of the building and dozens of designers and assistants had their offices there.  All production was in-house – nothing was made by independent companies or freelancers so these departments were considerable and employed many of the top people in the country in their respective fields.

Now of course, more than half the BBC’s output is made by independent companies.  Even its own in-house production company (confusingly now called ‘BBC Studios’) uses freelance crews. The BBC no longer has its own make-up, wardrobe or design departments.  All were made redundant in the mid nineties and these people and their successors are now freelance.  Around that time the camera, sound, electrical and lighting departments became staffed to a minimal level and began to employ freelancers on a daily basis.  Following a round of voluntary redundancies in 2009, there were even fewer staffers on the books.  By 2011 almost all the technical staff had gone.  From the 1990s, some shows were crewed entirely by freelancers whilst most had a mix of staffers and freelancers on the camera and sound crews.

Many independent production companies booked studios at TV Centre to make their programmes for the BBC.  Also, some companies used TV Centre to make shows for other channels – in particular Channel 4.

 

From early in the 1990s – and this became the most significant difference to the nature of the building – the kind of programmes made in television studios began to change.  In the ’60s, ’70s and well into the ’80s the studios were full of drama: series, serials and single plays.  Entertainment was variety-based with big showbiz music and comedy spectaculars occupying studios on a regular basis.  Some have suggested that the Centre went into decline at this point and its closure was inevitable.  However, the evidence suggests that its use evolved as programming tastes and fashions changed and right to the end it was often very busy indeed.

 

So – for its final couple of decades what was made here? Well – sitcoms like  One Foot in the Grave, I’m Alan Partridge, Only Fools and Horses, Miranda, Ab Fab and Not Going Out; sketch shows like The Fast Show, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Catherine Tate, Dead Ringers and Little Britain; gameshows like Jet Set, Pointless, Goldenballs, Hole in the Wall, In It To Win It, Eggheads and Who Dares Wins (although some of these had to move in 2009 to Glasgow for political reasons);  panel shows like Mock The Week, Shooting Stars, Buzzcocks, Big Fat Quiz and 8 Out of 10 Cats; chat shows like Parkinson, Jonathan Ross,  Alan Titchmarsh, Piers Morgan, Alan Carr and Paul O’Grady, features programmes like Watchdog, Crimewatch and 10 o’Clock Live; cookery shows like Britain’s Best Dish and The Hairy Bikers’ Cook Off; news, weather, kids shows like Live and Kicking, Friday Download, Show Me Show Me, Dick and Dom and Blue Peter, music shows like Later With Jools and Top of the Pops, entertainment shows like Noel’s House Party, Friends Like These, Strictly Come Dancing, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do, I’d Do Anything, Last Choir Standing, So You Think You Can Dance?, Let Me Entertain You, Tonight’s the Night, Harry Hill’s TV Burp, Genius, A Question of Sport, Room 101, Live at the Electric, The Voice  and… well, you get the idea.

 

At one end of the building was TC1, which still is a very large studio.  In the ’70s it was used for major dramas like I Claudius, The BBC Shakespeares, various operas, and big variety shows like  Morcambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies.  It was ideally suited in the latter years not only to Saturday night spectaculars like Strictly Come Dancing or The Voice but also the big one-off events such as Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief and of course every four or five years – the general election.  It’s worth pointing out that in the final decade, six of the main production studios were busy for most of the year making programmes that were not sport, news or children’s programmes so were unaffected by the disappearance of those departments to Salford and W1.

 

Despite the relentless misinformation put out by senior BBC managers (who had never actually made a TV programme there themselves) about the Centre being ‘ill-equipped for the digital age’ it remained very busy right up to the end.  Its studios were not only the best designed in the country but were refurbished and refitted for HD between 2006 and 2011.  They were very efficient to run, not the most expensive to hire and were popular with many independent programme makers as well as the BBC’s own production departments.  Its location directly opposite two tube stations and a short walk from the Overground made these the easiest studios to get to for audiences and all the people working on the programmes.  It was no coincidence that most of London’s scenery, prop hire and lighting hire companies were based only a short distance away.  The opening of Westfield just down the road in 2008 made the Centre an even more popular place to work.

TVC also of course had a unique place in the culture and shared memory of almost every adult living in the UK.  The building itself was as easily recognised as Buckingham Palace and somehow felt like home to millions of viewers who had never even been there.  It was destroyed by people with no personal experience of the process of making television who relied upon consultants for advice – but they of course were not directly involved in the television industry either.  By the time everyone woke up and realised what a calamitous decision had been taken it was too late.  Those responsible moved on from the BBC to well-paid jobs in other industries and indeed in other countries in some cases.

 

Of course, when it was first being planned nobody could possibly have imagined that a future Director General would one day decide to sell it off to raise a few million quid.  In those days, decisions were taken based on well-researched facts by people with direct programme-making experience.