Stage 2 followed on straight away and was the construction of the restaurant block. This overlooked a small area of grass and shrubs that soon would become the famous Blue Peter Garden.
The building was completed in 1955 and at first was used as rehearsal rooms and office space. I’m told by Ron Isted that the basement used to to house the Television Music Library (sheet music, not discs) between 1956 and 1960. It began its intended use as a restaurant block in June 1960, with cafeteria-style seating on the first and third floors and waitress service on the second floor. The kitchens were on the ground floor and connected with the main block via a tunnel and lifts, enabling food to be brought on trollies to the sixth floor hospitality suite. They thought of everything!
The waitress service floor closed in the mid-nineties, the top cafeteria reduced in size and some of the block reverted to office space as eating in the ‘BBC canteen’ was far less popular than it used to be. (Countless disparaging references to the canteen in comedy shows over the years probably didn’t help.) In fact, so much so that late in 2008 it closed at weekends. Food became available via tea bars and delis spread around the building – but at weekends when all the office staff had gone home and the only people there were the ones actually making programmes there was only one tea bar open for some of the time.
Incidentally – in November 2006, the old 2nd floor restaurant (what used to be called the ‘waitress service’) was turned into a huge hairdressing salon studio with hidden cameras for BBC Three’s Celebrity Scissorhands – a live reality show that somehow raised money for Children in Need. Apparently the ‘celebrity’ trainees were: ‘Eighties pop icon, Steve Strange; winner of The Apprentice, Michelle Dewberry; Radio 1 DJ, Scott Mills; actress and Dynasty star, Emma Samms; Right Said Fred frontman Richard Fairbrass; TV presenter Sarah Cawood; singer Rowetta (Happy Mondays, X Factor); actor and TV presenter Ortis Deeley (Kidulthood, Live and Kicking); and TV personality Darren Day’ it says here. I’m afraid I missed it.
Geoff Posner suggested a very sensible use for part of this building in 2007. As a seasoned producer/director of many comedies over the years, he pointed out how hard it was to find rehearsal space. The old BBC rehearsal rooms in Acton were no more, so sitcoms were mostly using draughty, cold and smelly church halls around London. He suggested turning a floor in this building back into a rehearsal room for the following few years until the BBC decided what they were going to do with it. Blow me down, but that’s exactly what they did and some BBC Comedy shows for a while used the old ‘Waitress Service’ floor to rehearse sketch shows and sitcoms. Glory Be!
(More on the rehearsal room saga a little below. Be patient!)
Before leaving stage 2, I should mention the small studio that was established there in 1996…
TC9 was created in a single storey building overlooking the Blue Peter Garden. This area, extending from the restaurant block, was originally designed as a ‘foyer lounge’ – hence the glass brick wall. It probably never had this use, being used initially as a builders’ canteen, then becoming a store for the make-up department. This department was closed in 1995 and the studio was subsequently created to be used by the Children’s department for continuity links and other short programmes.
TC9 was an irregular shape, about 30 x 30ft average dimensions with a very low grid. It also had a corridor and small seating area which could be used for interviews. It was fitted with Thomson 1657 cameras which had been in use in Pres A for a year or so. These could have the head separated from most of the electronics by an umbilical cable so that a very small camera was actually carried by the cameraman, enabling a great deal of movement.
This freedom from fixed shots was seen as very exciting by the young directors of the links transmitted live from here, who often could not understand why this introduced lighting problems. Since the LD was also the console operator and had only one electrician for assistance, relighting between sequences could be somewhat lively to say the least. Because of the way the links were shot, quite substantial relights were usually necessary. It has to be said that not every sequence that went out from this studio over the years demonstrated perfect portraiture and subtle balance of foreground and background from the lighting point of view. In fact, on occasions the fact that the presenter had any light on them at all was something of a miracle. And I speak from some experience.
In 2004 the studio ceased linking children’s programmes on the main broadcast channels and became the continuity studio just for the CBBC channel. From late 2006 it was decided that links between children’s programmes would be much shorter – often with no presenter in vision and the studio would no longer be required.
TC9 was still under a ‘service level agreement’ between BBC Studios (as it then was) and the Children’s department so it could not be used for general programming. It remained empty for about nine months but in September 2007 it became the home of two regular programmes – TMi, the Saturday morning show that had previously come from MTV’s studio in Leicester Square, and SMart. (Yes, that really is how it was spelt.) The latter programme was presented by Kirsten O’Brien, who in a way returned home as she was for a long while one of the regular CBBC continuity presenters.
The studio was mothballed once again in Jan 2008 as the cameras had become old and unreliable but it was brought back into use again in the autumn and again in 2009 and 2010 for further series of TMi, using TC2’s old Thomson cameras.
TC9 was decommissioned in 2011.
I have touched upon it already but of course alongside the Restaurant Block was the Blue Peter Garden. This had camera cable points linking it to the first floor corridor in the main block so that up to three cameras could be driven from the gallery of whichever studio was in use for the show that day. There was no actual ‘Blue Peter Studio’ – the programme used any of TC1, TC3, TC4, TC6 or TC8, whichever was available. The garden had a semi-permanent camera tower that was sometimes used for high wide shots and before hand-held cameras were available, one of the studio’s cameras would be mounted on a mobile camera crane and pushed around the garden, avoiding the steep slope and the pond.