Stage 1 was the construction of the scenery block (officially called the design block) which was completed in 1953. At the back of the building a scenic artists’ studio was constructed enabling backcloths to be painted. This extraordinary construction was 65ft from basement floor to roof beams. A platform half way up the room enabled the artists to paint massive cloths 30ft high and to reach all the parts of the cloth simply by raising or lowering the canvasses which passed through a slot between the platform and the wall. When finished, the cloth could be rolled up and stored in the basement or slid through a slot in the wall into the ground floor area.
This space still remained during the final two decades, hidden behind a locked door, and was occasionally rented out. There was a small dirty window between a staircase and the platform area which I discovered early in 2006. A few flats were leaning against the wall but there was no sign of any cloths having been painted recently. Large flexible tubes hung from the roof – one assumes to improve the ventilation and draw the paint fumes out.
On the ground floor was an area originally used to manufacture and store scenery. A carpentry and machine shop created the sets which were then assembled in the setting space before being disassembled and stacked on trucks to be towed round the scenery runway to the studio. The scenery would then be brought back and taken down in a huge lift to be stored in the basement or repainted and adapted for use in another programme. In another part of the basement was a large prop store where items for dressing sets were kept.
Props were later stored in the area on the ground floor of the East Tower building. The old prop store in the basement of the Design Building was rebuilt as a climate-controlled secure storeroom for what looked like orchestral scores (not that I went snooping about or anything) – for the last years of the Centre the rest of the basement was used for general storage – although during the early 2000s a kids gameshow used this area to build a huge set.
Geoff Posner (for it is he) recalls that the curiously named ‘Movement Control’ used to be on the ground floor of the Design Block. He also recalls that the prop store in the basement…
‘…had thirteen artificial legs in the Artificial Legs section, not to say M******t Q***t. Now M******t’s job was simply to book the musical instruments needed for all the shows in TC. Nothing else. Needless to say she went home at 3.30 most days.’
I probably ought to make it clear that such practices ended many, many years ago! I have protected the lady’s name to avoid any possible embarrassment. No doubt her manager was fully aware what time she went home. I’m sure the 1970s camera managers in my department were equally aware that when a six-man camera crew was scheduled to a studio with only four cameras, one or two of us usually went home after the morning rig. I can imagine how this reads to most people who thought that this was the sort of thing confined to British Leyland – yes I am now just as appalled as you are at what went on in those days but I wonder how many other British companies turned a blind eye to similar practices.
During the 1980s a large open-sided shelter running around the outside of the ring road surrounding the main building was constructed to store scenery in trucks. From the early 1990s all scenery was made by private companies and nothing was manufactured here any longer. The only scenery stored on site was for shows whilst they had a regular booking in a studio. Sets were destroyed when they were no longer needed, whereas before the changes imposed in the 1990s, flats and other items would be saved if they could be, repainted and used on many different programmes. Thus, rather than ‘the BBC’ owning the scenery, it was and still is is now bought or hired by each individual programme department or independent production company which naturally does not have the budget to store it afterwards unless there is definitely going to be another series of the same show. This was one of the many changes brought in by John Birt.
Actually, there is one exception to this. Paul Hayes has informed me that the original Dr Who Tardis fell apart in the 1970s and was replaced with another that was used until the final Sylvester McCoy episode in 1989. Despite the official policy of not storing scenery, this Tardis was never destroyed but over the years was quietly moved from place to place and hidden around the building. I suppose nobody could quite bring themselves to give the order to load it onto a truck for disposal. After all, it hardly took up much room. (At least, on the outside.)
Of course, the new 2004 series was made in Wales with its own new ‘machine’ but the original (extremely tatty) Tardis was still on site in 2005 and was used for a spoof opening to Jet Set on the day in April when the new Dr Who was first transmitted. I had the dubious honour of lighting this sequence. Spookily, I also lit the same thing in 2006, with Eamonn Holmes exiting the Tardis in the Blue Peter Garden on the day the next Dr Who series began. Curiously, a while after this website revealed the fact that it still existed, it was dug out of its hiding place, the dust blown off it and for a couple of years was proudly displayed outside the audience foyer entrance. (See below.) I’m not claiming any credit for this but I’m certainly glad to see that someone had the sense to make the best use of it.
It later dematerialised and was replaced with a rather smarter version, which I suspect was constructed purely for visitors to TVC to examine and be photographed with. I don’t believe it was ever used on any Dr Who episode. The original spacecraft’s whereabouts once again became a mystery. However, I’m informed by Mark Johnson that in 2011 it was spruced up by Mark Barton Hill and put on display in a Dr Who exhibition in London, from where it shifted in space to rest in the ‘Dr Who Experience’ in Cardiff. It also re-appeared on the One Show’s closing programme from TVC on 22nd March 2013.
Meanwhile, the ‘visitor attraction’ version vanished and in 2012 appeared proudly displayed in the foyer of Peel’s dock10 studios in MediaCity Salford where it stands to this day. Bloody nerve if you ask me since those studios are not owned or run by the BBC and Dr Who has absolutely no connection with the place.
The photo below shows the interior of the scenery block. Adam Tandy has written to let me know that he understood that the original Dr Who production designer (Peter Brachacki) got the idea for the treatment of the interior of the Tardis walls from this roof. I see what he means. In fact, I think even the David Tennant ‘Welsh’ version had an echo of it. (This unique design, incidentally, impressed English Heritage so much that they recommended a grade 2 listing for the building in 2008. They were ignored of course.)
However, as with so many ‘facts’ to do with TVC this story, widely believed, is probably not true. I have been contacted by Jan Vincent-Rudzki who interviewed Peter Brachacki in the mid ’70s, specifically about his design for the Tardis. He told him that he got the idea for the Tardis walls from the ‘pop-out’ dispensers pills come in. In fact, early black and white episodes used actual photo blow-ups of pill containers stuck onto the walls. Mind you looking at the scenery block skylights, that’s exactly what they look like too.
For the first thirty-five years of the Centre, above the scenery workshop were the drawing rooms (no, not that sort of ‘drawing room’) and offices where all the designers used to work. It was very handy for lighting directors, costume designers, producers and directors to be able to pop over one of the bridges and meet them informally, look at the plans, drawings and samples of materials to be used and discuss the progress of the set design for a programme. Nowadays this is is mostly done on the phone or via email which isn’t quite the same.
Geoff Posner recalls ‘the track down the corridor of designers and their assistants with numerous bottles of wine balanced precariously on the tilted drawing boards…’ amongst many other happy memories of the good old bad old days.
As soon as the building was complete it was used to construct scenery which was then loaded onto lorries and transported to the studios in Lime Grove, Television Theatre and Riverside Studios. The offices were occupied by the team designing and constructing the main block and the head of the television service was also based here.
In 1955, the same year that ITV was launched, the BBC held a glamorous showbiz ball one afternoon in the main scene dock of the scenery block of all places. This was technically therefore the first television programme made at TV Centre. Hundreds of celebs were invited and in fact those that weren’t came anyway. No less than 2,500 turned up and shuffled round the dance floor. Two top bands played and the whole thing was televised by an OB unit. (Sadly of course, this was live and no recording exists.) The idea was partly to launch the new afternoon service of BBCtv but also obviously to prove to this new upstart ITV that the BBC still had the loyalty of all the top performers in the country. However, some things never change. The celebs were simply there for a bit of self-publicity and within a few weeks many of them were appearing on ITV shows.
From the 1990s the design block had no designers in it – nor was any scenery built in it. It later officially became the ‘drama building’ as it contained the offices of the drama department. No drama was actually filmed here of course. However, I guarantee that if you had asked almost anybody working at TV Centre where the drama building was they wouldn’t have a clue. Ask where the scenery block was and quite a few would certainly know where you meant.
In 2011 the ground floor was vacated by the Studios and Post Production business (which was owned by, but not part of, the BBC.) I gather that the BBC were charging so much to the company they owned that they could not afford the rent. The studio stores moved over the road to a warehouse in Ariel Way in the summer of 2011 and the scenery store was occupied by the old Blue Peter set, which was shown to visitors until the building closed.