Visiting the BBC Television Centre

As mentioned recently, it was my birthday, so I did something to celebrate. Not being a drinker, I don’t gather a group of friends in a pub to poison ourselves to the point of vomiting and spending the next day in bed; instead, I try to something a little different. This year, it was the tour of BBC Television Centre in the White City area of west London.

I’ve considered doing this tour before but, because the maximum number on a tour group is small (22), Saturday would be booked up several weeks in advance, and I’m really not that organised (as is evident on this blog). However, to circumvent this difficulty, we went during the week – genius! – and the early-morning slot (10 am), which meant that I was able to book with ease and there were far fewer people on the tour than later in the day; there were only seven of us in total, which is a very cosy number.

It was a lovely sunny day when we arrived in plenty of time at the reception building of the Television Centre, a smaller building closer to White City tube station. Even though it seems obvious thinking about it now, it was really busy – there was a constant stream of people queuing at the reception desk to get their day passes to enter. Of course it was busy – it’s the BBC, for goodness sake. We didn’t have to do this – the tour guides came to meet us in the seating area and had our passes ready for us.

We were taken down the road to the audience gate for the Television Centre itself – we had to go through security to ensure we weren’t from ITV. This area is in front of the visual that is associated in my mind’s eye (and I would think most other British people) when considering the BBC, seen in many a broadcast and opening credits for various programmes (such as one season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie). Rather than start with the original building, we were taken into BBC News, which is housed in a new extension completed in 1998. Of the 8,000 people who work at Television Centre, 2,000 work in BBC News – the BBC is the largest provider of news in the world, providing the most accurate news (if not necessarily most immediate – accuracy is the watch word) for everyone who isn’t Sky or CNN. We were taken into a small meeting room behind the open-plan offices of the people who do the behind-the-scenes work: the fact checkers, the travel agents (to directly book a news team onto flights), the people who work on the online news site, the people manning the phones. Not exactly sexy but they couldn’t take us into the studios, could they? It was also here that was the only place I saw somebody from the visible side of the BBC – Nicky Campbell, presenter of Watchdog. We were told at the start to play it cool if we saw someone we recognised, whether we liked them or hated them, which was a nice touch.

The next stop on the tour was the original reception area, where nowadays the famous people who are going to be on television arrive so they can be taken to the dressing rooms. Because it was so early in the day, we didn’t see any of this, although I assume the later tours might catch glimpses. There is a beautiful mosaic behind the desks, and it was here that we also learnt about the design of the building – the land to be used was a triangle in this area of west London and, after much thought into how to make use of the space, the designer came up with the question mark (which you can see if you look up ‘BBC Television Centre’ on Google maps and use the Satellite version).

Just outside of the old reception area is the middle of the circle of the question mark – in there was a working fountain but they had to turn it off because it was so noisy due to the acoustics (and, as our tour guide joked, because the people in the offices constantly needed the toilet). There is a statue of Helios on top, representing the electromagnetic waves of television broadcasting, with two statues of women at the bottom with masks and a lyre, representing sound and vision, the two basics of television. You might have seen these in the background of outside location segments of studio shows, but maybe not.

After this outside interlude, we were back indoors for a look inside a studio – a large, tall square room with 500 lights, a dark floor with grid markings and a black curtain around the outside to dupe the cameras into thinking that the studio has no ending. It was strange to be inside these empty rooms that have provided so much entertainment, because the reality is so different from the illusion created by television. It was also strange to discover that it’s not just the BBC who make programmes there – they rent them out at £50,000 a day (12 hours) to companies that make programmes for other channels (The Paul O’Grady Show on Channel 4 used to film here). They also rent them out to the likes of Tina Turner, who had her 60th birthday party there.

After the deceptive ordinariness of the studio, our next stop was outside the weather studios – these are small rooms where everything is automated and only the forecaster can fit. These only cost £65 to make a 2-minute slot, so it balances out, but they do a lot of them. I learnt that all forecasters on the BBC are trained meteorologists who work for the Met Office, i.e. they are not employees of the BBC, although they get training and a dress allowance, and are therefore effectively civil servants. We were given our own demonstration of the blue screen presenting, as we stood against a wall and could see the projection opposite (and learned that blue and green screens are because nobody has blue or green skin, and why presenters don’t wear blue or green on television); it was a cute little touch that probably works well with a younger group than our slightly older group.

An observation booth for a different studio – prepping to make The Alan Titchmarsh Show – was the next stop on our tour. The younger of our two guides was happy that nobody had watched the programme because it is on ITV; we had to DVR an episode just to see how the studio looked on screen. Unless the sets are being used for a daily programme, they are trashed (or recycled) – it is more expensive to store than to build anew, something the Beeb discovered when Fawlty Towers became popular after the repeat viewing of the first series and they were commissioned another series and had to build the sets again. Another interesting fact related to this was that, even though they may look like carpets on set, they are hard floors that are painted to resemble carpet (so the cameras can move around easily) – if you listen to Prunella Scales walking on carpet, you can hear the acoustics of heels on hard floor.

We had seen where they make the programme, so we were allowed to see where people prepare for them – a dressing room. The one we saw had eight mirror/seats, with a small lounge area and sink (toilets and showers are communal, apart from the dressing rooms for the stars). The elder tour guide regaled us with an anecdote of Madonna wanting a life-size photo of the Pope in her dressing room (and ending up with the substitute waxwork model from Madame Tussauds, much to her surprise) and how Jennifer Lopez’s record company paid for the extra dressing rooms for her enormous entourage (the BBC only provide one free per special guest) and to redecorate a conference room to be her dressing room because the others were too small, which she only used for 45 minutes.

The final stop was an interactive studio specially kitted out for the tour – there was a control room for one of our group to operate the controls with one guide, while the other guide had one of us read the news and then three of our number play a quiz game – I was one of the three, and we were shown a Little Britain sketch (Lou and Andy at the swimming pool) before answering questions on it. My over-competitive streak surprised me by emerging in full flight – of the seven questions asked, I was the first to buzz and answer correctly five of them. I am such an attention whore … Still, I won a BBC Breakfast mug for my display of short-term memory recall, so I’m not too embarrassed. It was also the end of our tour – for just under a tenner each, 90 minutes of wandering around an historic building that has provided years of formative entertainment and which may be sold off in the near future. I’m very glad we saw it.

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