The final few years

Stage 6 had since 1998 been occupied by Television and Radio News.  This department moved to New Broadcasting House in central London in March 2013.  The weather department also moved to BH at the same time. 

During 2011 and into 2012 Sport and Children’s departments transferred to Salford.  News, Sport and Children’s departments were occupying the small studios TC5, TC7, TC9 and TC10.  Blue Peter used to book a large studio one or two days a week almost since the building opened but from summer 2007 it used the much smaller TC2 – and then only occasionally.

Thus, between 2011-2013 a considerable amount of activity using the small studios moved from this building.

The main studios however remained very busy right up to the end of 2012.  TC4 and TC6 were then closed to remove their kit – although TC4 was used for some shows in 2013 using an OB unit because of the shortage of studios in London.  The other two main studios were fully booked up to the end of March.  By main studios I mean TC3, TC4, TC6 and TC8.  These four studios are the most popular size of about 90 x 70 ft.  Most comedy and entertainment shows are made in studios this size.

 

 

So – What was going to happen?

 

The final five or six years of TVC saw its fate go from seemingly inevitable complete disposal and demolition to something that has at least preserved a minimum amount of programme-making capability.  I shall attempt to sum up the various changes of fortune below…

 

In January 2007 the BBC heard that the licence settlement for the following six years would be below the rate of inflation.  The planned move of Sport and Children’s departments to Salford from 2011 was to be ring fenced as was the commitment to pay for digital switchover.  The BBC Trust stated that it did not intend to see programme standards eroded.  Thus, they had to make some significant savings elsewhere.

One area where the BBC hoped to make savings and also raise some cash was through the disposal of surplus property.  They announced on 18th October 2007 that the BBC Trust had agreed in principle to the sale of Television Centre by the end of financial year 2012/13.  A spokeswoman is reported to have said ‘This is a full scale disposal of Television Centre and we won’t be leasing it back.’  This unequivocal announcement was either not noticed or perhaps simply not believed by many people working in the industry as it seemed utterly preposterous – certainly, when the building actually did close on the predicted date it appeared to come as a great surprise to many.  It is my belief that if influential people working in the industry had reacted strongly in 2007 to what had just been announced then more studios could have been saved.  (Compare this with the Hat Trick/Avalon campaign to save BBC3 in 2015).

 

The closing of TV Centre was justified to the press by various announcements including one allegedly from a senior BBC manager who claimed that Television Centre is ‘an analogue dinosaur in a digital age.’  If this ill-informed comment did indeed come from someone senior in the corporation then the BBC truly did have serious problems.  The eight main studios were then and remained right to the end the best equipped and many would say the best designed studios in the country.  If these were no good then heaven help the rest of the industry.

The BBC hoped to raise a relatively modest £300m from the sale.  (In fact they sold it for only £200m.)  After the announcement was made, there was an assumption from some in the press that this meant that the building would be demolished and replaced with offices, housing or an extension to the Westfield retail park that had recently been built on the other side of Wood Lane. I even heard that the owners of Queen’s Park Rangers might have been interested in building a new stadium here.  Of course, these were all whispers of rumours.

In fact, whether the sale of the building would be to a developer who would simply demolish it, or to a company who would keep the studios open and redevelop the rest of the site, was never made clear.  The fact is that from January 2007 until the beginning of 2013 – nobody, including the Director General, was actually in a position to be able to confirm exactly what would happen to Television Centre. Back in 2007, the future of the building in any case rather depended on the sale of BBC Resources – in particular, BBC Studios: the business that operated the studios themselves (not the current ‘BBC Studios’ – the commercial arm of the Corporation.)

 

The attempted sale of BBC Resources…

 

A separate plan, hatched in 2007, was indeed the intention to sell off BBC Resources.  This consisted of three divisions – Studios, OBs and Post Production.  The Costume and Wig department, popular though it was, was simply closed early in 2008 and the BBC left their purpose-built rehearsal rooms in Acton, where Costumes and Wigs had been located.  The three remaining divisions of BBC Resources were due to have been disposed of by April 2008.

It was assumed, when the announcement was made that TV Centre would be sold, that the studios would by then no longer be operated by the BBC but by a private company.  However, the attempt to sell the business during the winter of 2007/2008 came to nothing.

It therefore appeared that at some point in the future the BBC would be faced with an interesting choice.  Either sell the building to a developer who intended to clear the site (and be presented with the considerable problem of what to do with the Studios business and its staff) – or sell it to a company who would keep the studios open as an independent business – or keep the Studios business running as part of the BBC and sell off the rest of the site.

The first choice would probably have raised more cash but it would have meant that the profitable (and much needed by the industry) BBC Studios business was simply closed down and the staff left with nowhere to go.  This would hardly be a popular decision with programme makers, let alone the staff. 

 

Just to be clear – ‘BBC Studios’ at this time was part of BBC Resources and was the business that ran the actual studios unlike the version of ‘BBC Studios’ now, which is the programme making and commercial arm of the BBC.

 

Simply closing the studios without an alternative arrangement for the business would certainly not have been in the best interests of the BBC anyway, since they would still need London based studios for their own production teams and for the independent companies who make programmes for the BBC.  The five large studios here represented almost half the available fully equipped TV studios of that size in the London area.  If simply closed then the shortage of studio space would mean serious scheduling problems and inevitable increased costs for programme makers.  (Which of course is exactly what happened from 2013.)

Back in 2007 it had been assumed that the new owners of BBC Studios would have used the following few years to build new studios elsewhere (probably Pinewood) or convert film stages into studios so the staff – and existing programme contracts – could move there.  This of course partly happened when BBC S&PP (see below) took over a couple of stages at Elstree in 2013.

 

Just for the record, it seems that one company was interested in purchasing the whole of BBC Resources but their offer was not acceptable.  The decision was made to sell the divisions separately and BBC OBs were sold off – to SIS Live.  This company took over the existing contracts with BBC Sport but in the summer of 2013 when they were due to be renewed, not a single one was retained.  All the contracts to supply OB facilities for the various sports went to other OB companies.  Perhaps not such a good buy for SIS after all.  They decided to close their OB business in March 2014 – so, very sadly, what remained of the BBC outside broadcast department is no more.

 

On 5th June 2008 it was announced that BBC Post Production would remain a wholly-owned commercial subsidiary of the BBC as a suitable buyer had not been found. The facilities were retained in TV Centre until its closure in March 2013.  The division was drastically slimmed down and facilities were taken over in Charlotte St in Soho. However, within a matter of months it became clear that the business model was not working and in the summer of 2013 S&PP announced that they would leave Charlotte St at the end of the year.  They now only have a presence at BBC Elstree providing post for EastEnders and Holby City – the latter due to be axed in March 2022 – plus for a while they had a relatively small unit in South Ruislip that specialised in digitising old videotape recordings.  Quite a contrast to the vast post production department of only a few years before.

 

As for the Studios division – although ITV were said to be in discussions, it would appear that only one company – Pinewood Studios Group – made it through to the final stages in the negotiations.  According to the Guardian, one of the sticking points was the pension liability of BBC Studios staff.  Whatever the reasons, the sale did not happen.  On 7th March 2008 Mike Southgate, CEO BBC Resources, declared ‘business as usual’ for BBC Studios including the upgrading of TC4 to HD in the summer of 2008.

With the sale of the business having come to nothing due to the financial crisis and recession, the value of the site itself continued to plummet during 2008.

Early in 2009, the old Studios and Post Production divisions were merged to form a new company, snappily named ‘BBC Studios and Post Production‘.  (S&PP)

Although it seemed unlikely that there would be another attempt to sell the business in the following few years, the ‘Delivering Quality First’ document issued by the BBC in September 2011 did include an interesting statement.  It said that the BBC would  ‘seek new ideas and potentially external investment for our resources business.’  The then chief executive of S&PP, Mark Thomas, issued a statement to staff which said  ‘We must accept it is very unlikely the BBC will be able to fund all our ambitions, including remaining at Television Centre or moving to a new location.’

The biggest problem in selling off the business in 2008 was said to be taking on the pension liabilities and conditions of service of all the staff.  During the early part of 2011, many staff were offered redundancy.  There were then no staff cameramen (apart from one), sound crew or lighting directors remaining and only the bare minimum of staff engineers.  The number of resource managers was also reduced to a handful with freelancers running most shows day by day.

This reduction in overheads helped the profitability of the business and also of course made it much easier to sell it off at some time in the future, although to be fair this now seems very unlikely.

 

In the spring of 2016, BBC Studios and Post Production was renamed BBC Studioworks.  This was to avoid confusion with ‘BBC Studios’ – the new name for the BBC in-house production department which was now operating as a separate company, wholly owned by the BBC.

 

 

To list or not to list…

 

Perhaps the clincher that ensured that at least some parts of the building would be around for a while is its architectural merit and its place in the nation’s cultural history.  Possibly familiarity bred contempt but in declaring an intention in 2007 to simply dispose of it, the BBC’s senior managers seemingly failed to look around at the property for which they were the current custodians. 

Selling the building for it to be demolished was always likely to be somewhat problematic.  The local council had made it clear in the past that they wished to preserve the building and would have taken a very dim view of any major modifications to it, making the granting of planning permission for any new development highly unlikely.  National organisations interested in preserving the country’s heritage too were likely to protest strongly at any attempt to lose this rare icon to late 1950s architecture.

In fact, one of the BBC’s architects who was heavily involved in the design of Stages 5 and 6, including the abandoned TC9, wrote to me in 2006 to clarify the situation at that time regarding the listing or otherwise of the building…

 

‘…it is not currently listed grade 2 but just on a local authority list of buildings of merit, also sitting within a conservation area, the aim of which is to preserve and enhance the setting of TVC and White City Station.  I have argued on behalf of the BBC not to have it listed as the nature of television operations is such that we are constantly altering the building inside and out and to have to obtain listed building consent each time would be very inhibiting.  However, I have no doubt it would be spot listed should any radical future site proposals surface.’

 

When the announcement was made of the intention to dispose of the site there was a petition to No 10 signed by large numbers of people.  English Heritage subsequently looked into its status with regard to giving it a Grade II listing.  Perhaps rather surprisingly to some, they came back with a very strong recommendation on 30th June 2008 to preserve not just the façade of the building – but to keep it as a working television centre.  Not only did they want the main studio block preserved but also the scenery block and the restaurant block!

Rather depressingly a BBC spokesman immediately began to argue their case but they did issue the following statement…

 

‘The BBC has announced that it does not intend to occupy the whole of TVC after 2012 but any reference to detailed development plans for the building and site is premature.

We recognise the historical importance of the building and will be looking for a solution that best preserves the interests of the BBC and licence payer but there are no firm plans currently on the table.’

 

It is worth noting that by the summer of 2008 they were no longer saying that they planned to wholly leave the site and abandon it to its fate.  The tone was certainly different from the original statements made some months earlier.  To see what the fuss was all about, the statement on the English Heritage website is worth quoting in full…

 

Peter Beacham, Heritage Protection Director for English Heritage, said: 

 

“This building is not just architecturally important.  As one of the first purpose-built television studios in the world, it represents the moment when Britain led Europe into the television age. The BBC itself is an important part of our British identity and Television Centre has acquired an iconic presence.

“The nation has an immense fondness for this building and what it represents for our culture. We all feel we know areas such as the Blue Peter garden and the studios where people have watched significant moments in broadcasting over the last 50 years: from early Doctor Who to Top of the Pops, Terry Wogan and Children in Need.

“We know the BBC is rightly proud of their building and their heritage, and we are enthusiastically working with them to make sure that marking TV Centre’s national importance will not affect its ability to adapt to changing technology or new uses.  We are glad that, following the current Heritage Protection Bill, we will be able to put in place a modern type of designation that involves a Heritage Partnership Agreement.  This will make sure that the site remains just as flexible, despite being of undeniable national interest and one of very few monuments to television history.”

English Heritage has assigned special interest only to the very best parts.  These are the scenery workshops, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and rows of circular rooflights; the light and airy 1950s canteen that overlooks the Blue Peter garden; and the distinctive circular drum that houses offices and the main studios.  This has some very good 1950s design and architectural features including dazzling mosaics, a gilded sculpture of Helios in the centre of the drum and the familiar pattern of atom-like discs on the front.

with thanks to the English Heritage website

 

It was announced that the final decision on the listing of the site would be made by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) later in 2008.  However, by the end of the year there had been no such announcement.  In December, I wrote to the Culture Secretary to ask whether he had made his decision. 

On January 15th 2009 I was sent the following email by a representative from the DCMS:

 

‘I can inform you that the decision on this application has not yet been made. Officials from DCMS and English Heritage visited the site in November 2008 and DCMS officials are still in the process of gathering expert advice. A thorough assessment of all the evidence, including reports from English Heritage, will be carried out and we aim to put recommendations shortly.’

 

In fact it was not until 10th July 2009 that the announcement was made. A letter was sent to the BBC from the DCMS that stated that TV Centre would be listed at Grade II.

 

Barbara Follett, the architecture minister, was quoted as saying “BBC Television Centre has a special place in our shared history and heritage.  The home of BBC television news since 1969, and the place where Blue Peter, Doctor Who and Fawlty Towers first came to life (well, one correct fact out of three isn’t bad for an MP I suppose), it has been a torture chamber for politicians and an endless source of first-class entertainment for the nation – sometimes both at the same time.  I am delighted to be able to give it the extra protection that listing provides.”

 

However, as with all these things, it was not quite that simple.

 

Despite the recommendations of English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the government decided to award special grade II status only to the central ring of offices, the courtyard with its statues and fountain and the exterior walls of TC1.  They declined to include the scenery block, the restaurant and studios 2 – 8.  Indeed, they also said that the interior of TC1 is not covered by the ‘special’ status.

However, the announcement also stated that while other studios in the building, as well as the scenery block and canteen, did not meet the level of architectural or historic interest needed for special listing, they will nevertheless gain grade II status because of their “structural attachment” to the more notable parts of Television Centre.

I subsequently sought clarification of this rather confusing situation and my understanding was as follows:

 

The whole building was listed giving a measure of protection but only the central ring and TC1 – i.e. not the other studios – were described as being of SPECIAL interest.  Excluding parts of the building from ‘special’ status removed uncertainty for incomers and made conversion/partial redevelopment easier to apply for.  However, I was told that to demolish ANY part, even the appallingly ugly East Tower, would require listed building consent and therefore a demonstrable improvement to the setting and use of the heritage areas.


 

So – Where did that leave us?

 

In November 2008 an interesting email was sent to BBC staff by DG, Mark Thompson.  In it he stated that due to the financial crisis and large number of empty offices across the UK it was unlikely that the Centre would be sold by 2013. In his words – ‘We’ll need to review this timetable.’

As it turned out, the timetable was (for the moment at least) set in the late summer of 2010 when the BBC Trust, hoping one assumes to keep the government off their backs, volunteered to freeze the licence fee for two years.  This in effect meant a reduction of millions of pounds in the income of the BBC so it was essential that savings would have to be made wherever possible. In September 2010 the BBC declared that they would ‘definitely’ leave TV Centre in 2013.  They even announced an evening of live TV to be held one day in 2013 to mark their departure from the building.  (They didn’t mention that it would be hidden away on BBC4).

In November 2010 property consultants Lambert Smith Hampton were appointed to oversee the redevelopment of the building.  The BBC were said to be intending to sell the building but – some partially good news – rent back  some  of the studios to continue making programmes at the site.  They also said that they might move BBC Worldwide into the building and base one of the BBC orchestras here.

bbc_tv_centre future
This ‘artist’s impression’ was released by the BBC in May 2010, indicating how they saw the future of TV Centre once they have left. It’s worth pointing out that the exciting buildings in the foreground are in fact the Westfield Shopping Centre. TVC can just about be made out in the background – or at least what’s left of it, with what appears to be a bonfire burning in the central courtyard

 

 

In the summer of 2011  events moved on yet again.

 

The Centre was put on the market on 13th June, with purchasers having to register their interest by 1st July.  This caused a flurry of unfavourable comment in the industry and the press, with many reacting as though this was a huge surprise – even though the BBC’s intentions had been pretty clear since 2007.  Let’s be honest, this was the last time any serious campaign to halt the disposal of the studios might have had some success but the majority of people in the industry were too busy working on their own programmes and paid little attention to the impending disaster.

 

The BBC spent the next few months considering the various options and choosing a winning bid.  They needed to maximise the amount raised from the sale as the BBC was now even more broke than it was when this process was started.  This of course was due to the licence fee being frozen by the government until 2016 – which represented a significant cut in real terms.

Confusingly, within the BBC’s press release of 13th June 2011 was the clear statement that the BBC ‘will now remain in the Centre until 2015, suggesting that the leaving date had been postponed by two years.  This date was still being quoted in the press well into 2012.  However, all departments were soon back on a timetable to leave by the end of March 2013.  It seems that the ‘Delivering Quality First’ document, issued to staff in October 2011, brought the date forward again.

‘Delivering Quality First’ was the Orwellian BBC name for cuts of around 20% across all departments.  This has meant that the BBC has also vacated most of the White City/Media Village buildings – and more people than were ever originally planned are now working in New Broadcasting House in W1.

 

However, when they said that they would be leaving in 2015 (or in fact 2013), the BBC were not including S&PP.  Part of their press statement made this clear.  It stated that ‘the existing Studios and Post Production business will continue to operate following the sale of Television Centre, either remaining on site or in a new location.’   It would all hinge (as it always did) on who was to buy the Centre.  TVC was either to be sold outright to a purchaser with their own development plans or to a company who would work in partnership with the BBC to enable the studios (or at least some of them) to continue in operation.  The BBC also stated that they would like to see a ‘visitor destination’ on the site and they reportedly saw the benefit in creating a hub for creative businesses.

 

This was now a missed opportunity for a developer to take on the whole site but retain all 8 main studios within the scheme.  The BBC should have made this a condition of the sale.  The redevelopment by Allied London of the old Granada Studios in Manchester is an excellent example of how this could have been achieved here. They have kept on all the old TV studios as well as the two large sound stages previously used by Coronation Street.  The surplus buildings around the site have been demolished or refurbished and are fully integrated into a major scheme involving offices, flats and a new performance venue.  All this could and should have been done here at White City.

 

 

In September 2011 a couple of interesting bits of news emerged.  One was that most of the 11 companies shortlisted to purchase the building were looking to form a joint venture arrangement which would involve keeping some of the studios in operation.  One of the interested companies was said to be Internet giant Google.  Others were reported to include property development companies Argent, Delancey and Stanhope.

The other news was that the BBC had for a while been in secret negotiation with the Olympic Park Legacy Company over occupying the International Broadcast Centre building after the games. This, it is said, would have included moving EastEnders from Elstree to that site and may also have been seen as a location to construct some studios to replace those at TVC.  However, this plan was abandoned.  The BBC said it was not able to commit in the medium term to the Olympic centre so it became available for other companies to occupy.  In fact, BT Sport built their new studio centre there – which at that time nobody could have predicted.

In November I heard that the shortlist of purchasers had reduced to five – four of which planned to keep ‘most’ of the studios open.  In December this list was said to be down to 3 contenders and rumour had it that all planned to keep some studios in operation.  The announcement of the winner was due to be in March 2012 but this deadline came and went.

It transpired that the BBC was now intending to hold on to 51% ownership of the building, thus guaranteeing that some studios did remain open.  It is not clear exactly when this change happened – or if indeed this had always been the intention.  However, the shortlist was said to be down to two companies and an announcement of the winner was due in the early summer.