BBC Infrastructure

By Glenn Aylett

Whatever else Greg Dyke will be remembered as when he retires as BBC Director General, apart from replacing the unloved John Birt and attempting to breathe some new life into the Corporation, will be the impressive legacy of new BBC buildings that he will leave behind.

Already a huge new rebuilding project costing over 200 million pounds is underway at Broadcasting House, the media village is being expanded at White City, and new studio complexes are being built in Birmingham, Hull and Glasgow.

The last time I visited London, with an eye to seeing the exteriors of as many studios as possible and taking some photographs, was in 1986. The BBC facilities were not in a good condition, as was the Corporation in general which was under attack from politicians from all sides and was under threat of losing its licence fee.

Broadcasting House, which was supposed to be replaced by a new complex at White City by 1990 that never happened - the new radio studio building became a rather ugly office block built in a no man's land, was a grey forlorn looking building that looked like no one cared about it anymore, though the foyer with its Latin inscriptions and art deco lighting were still impressive.

After obtaining the autographs of Mike Smith and Gary Davies at the Egton House extension, that was then the HQ of Radio One and now demolished, I decided to check out the television end of the BBC.

Lime Grove and a street of houses that served as offices for the building were my next port of call. Lime Grove has been described as a kind of punishment placement for BBC staff, it was coming to the end of its days and was on borrowed time, with the BBC unwilling to invest in a building that was built in 1896 and wanting to close it when funds allowed.

By this time LG was mainly used for current affairs and “Breakfast Time”, TVC taking all the more glamorous programmes. Not surprisingly, the building looked like it was on its last legs and it was hell to work in from what I've been told, but like Broadcasting House had so much history, as it served as the BBC's television headquarters in the fifties and was still important in 1986.

A few snaps later - I think I spotted Herr Flick (Richard Gibson) walking out of the studios, but he never acknowledged me - I decided to have a half mile walk up Wood Lane to see the most famous television studios in the world.

The Television Centre is impressive and vast, even though I never managed to get inside. (An old university friend, who grew up in Shepherd's Bush, told me the security was quite lax and you could climb the fence outside the Blue Peter Garden and wander into the building, thanks Rod, where were you when I really needed you.)

However, for all its vastness, and worldwide reputation, the BBC's W12 edifice looked cold and monolithic, rather like a public building in East Berlin. Stuck among an eerily quiet A40 Wood Lane, A Tube depot, and some rather grim public housing, it's no wonder BBC Radio News staff were not happy when they were decamped from the top of Regent St to a harmless environment that was stuck in a part of London that was not the kind of place you would hang around after dark.

To me, looking back, it was the kind of joyless place that Birtism would thrive in; I was glad to head back to the city centre after catching a glimpse of Jan Leeming driving into work and my fame hunting coming to an end in a snow shower.

Unlike the Checkland and Birt years, when Broadcasting House was downgraded, the world famous building has now seen a massive lease of life. Greg Dyke has recognised that Broadcasting House, not Television Centre, is the true heart of the BBC.

After all, BH has been the BBC'S headquarters since 1932 and has survived every attempt from Hitler to Birt to destroy it. At the moment the BBC, particularly its radio output, in London is disjointed.

Birtism saw BBC Radio News and Radio 5 Live moved to an extension in the Television Centre. Radio 1 and 1 Extra are based in a building in Great Portland St, leading a separate life to the rest of the BBC's music stations.

This means that BBC Radio, run from more or less the same building 10 years ago, is split between three sites. This would mean if Tony Blair, for example, wanted to appear on the Radio 1 breakfast show, Jeremy Vine and the World at One, he would need to travel between three sites instead of just using Broadcasting House.

No wonder BBC Radio News staff complain that politicians are unwilling to appear on shows that involve a tedious trip to West London.

The plans for Broadcasting House are the most radical since it was built in 1932. While the existing listed building will remain, it will be radically revamped inside. Greg Dyke has referred to this as a “new era for Broadcasting House”.

The ugly sixties extension at the back is being demolished to make way for a new headquarters for BBC Radio, which will bring all BBC Radio, including the World Service from Bush House, into one building 2008. Dyke plans to turn the area at the top of Regent St into a huge new broadcasting complex, opening up a building that few people will have seen beyond the foyer.

I was actually stopped by security staff during my visit in 1986 from photographing the foyer. Unlike TVC, which understandably since the IRA bomb attack and the threat of Al Qaeda has become covered in security cameras and fences, Broadcasting House will be, as far as security allows, more open.

The BBC states in its press release, “The new development aims to enhance the northern corner of Oxford St, positioned between the commercial centre of Regent St and Oxford St. Within the W1 centre there will also be genuine public spaces providing performance zones, cafes, exhibition/art installations, a children's media workshop and space for general interaction. For the first time, the BBC will have a public face accessible to all.”

What the BBC is planning is totally new in broadcasting and also a major break with tradition, as television news will be moved to BH by 2008. A huge two - storey newsroom, with light drawn in by an atrium, will be the centre of BBC News operations.

The World Service, which has never been broadcast in its current form from London W1, will also be moved to Langham St, on the old Egton House site, when the lease runs out on Bush House in 2008.

Architects McCormack, Jamieson, Prichard also plan to have the new extensions to BH to be made of Portland Stone, glass and steel which will change colour between day and night and radically change what they call the “cyclorama” at the top of Regent Street.

Sir Richard McCormack describes his development as “a tripartite conversation engages Broadcasting House, the new development, and our neighbour the church.”

So much different from what I saw in 1986, the faded glory of Val Myer's Broadcasting House surrounded by ugly sixties office blocks. However, the decision to have public access to BH is nothing new as Val Myer did originally plan to use part of the ground floor for shops, and part of the building was used as an exhibition centre during the Birt years when the future of BH seemed very much in doubt.

This time the decision to have part of the new development visible to the general public is a brave one, though I wonder if the BBC will start selling Greg Dyke rock and Terry Wogan approved BBC coffee in its cafes.

This redevelopment is, of course, a huge task. The front of BH is now covered in scaffolding and Radio One anoraks like myself are a bit sad to see Egton House go, though ironically the current Radio One building Yalding House is much nicer.

When the new media centre is completed, the BBC state in their, downloaded, press release that the “W1 project” will have taken six years and 64,000 tonnes of debris will be removed from the site, while 10,000 miles of cabling will be installed in the new building.

All BBC News, Network Radio, the World Service and senior management will be based on one site. Britain will now have a broadcasting centre of which we can be proud.

Meanwhile in the mean streets of White City, the BBC has decided to do something worthwhile after building what Jonathan Glancey, the Guardian critic, calls a “ tin pot freighter” in 1990 on the site of the old White City stadium.

This ugly building, positioned beside a motorway and not far from Wormwood Scrubs, would have become the new Broadcasting House, but fortunately never did, and became a hated office block.

Luckily in recent years the BBC has attempted to build up the area between TVC and White City and create a media village in what was two disconnected structures. The BBC will now occupies a space that is probably three times bigger than when I was last in W12.

White City now includes TVC, Centre House, the 1990 office block, and buildings that include offices for BBC Broadcast, BBC Resources, and, eventually, a supermarket and bar for BBC staff.

Yet the most culturally important building has now been approved by the BBC in an area that often resembles a cultural desert and has never been mentioned in guides to the capital's cultural life.

The BBC has now approved the construction of the Music Box, built by the acclaimed architects Foreign Office Architects. The Music Box, which will look very impressive to commuters on the packed Westway, will consist of two studios, surrounded by trees, that will house the famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop - probably apt that Doctor Who is coming back in 2005, and the theme music is their most famous creation - and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

BBC Director of Finance, John Smith, states the new studios will, “focus on openness with an emphasis on open space,” and The Guardian mentioned that skateboarding teenagers could now mix openly with concertgoers, as the building will be used to host concerts and the area between the Music Box and the Corporation's other buildings will be a broad thoroughfare.

Whether or not Eminem will perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to a packed house of skaters remains to be seen. However, the new building will show that White City is more than a collection of television studios, council estates and grim infrastructure as has previously been the case.

Even the TVC is undergoing some modernisation and I read online that their dressing rooms - notorious for being utilitarian - now have pony skin walls and multi channel televisions. Probably J Lo and her notorious demands have made some impact on the BBC managers.

Outside of the bright lights of London, Greg Dyke's new approach has seen the planned studio centre in Hull become more people friendly, with public access being the buzzword for BBC Humber.

Although it will be sad to see Pebble Mill go, as this was the most famous BBC building outside of London in the seventies, the days of Donny MacLeod entertaining an invited audience in the foyer of Pebble Mill are long gone, and the reduced role of BBC Birmingham, now mostly famous for the Archers and Points of View, will be more suited to the smaller Mailbox complex in central Birmingham.

With the acclaimed Quayside development in Glasgow, and the other developments, the BBC has now moved on from the clapped out and rundown facilities they occupied in the eighties and nineties. Jonathan Glacey in “ The Guardian” has stated the BBC has moved on from being the “ bureaucratic yawn” it was in the nineties to something more creative and exciting.

Sadly the same can't be described about what ITV occupies these days. Unlike the glory days of the old regional ITV, when impressive purpose built studios abounded, the third channel now seems quite keen on centralising everything on the South Bank of the Thames and steadily reducing everything else to the level of a local radio station.

The Thames studios that you saw coming out of Euston station are now gone, similarly the ATV Centre in Birmingham is derelict and the Lepton Lane, Nottingham, studios of Central might as well be turned into a housing estate, as they produce so little. The plans for the famous Quay St studios of Granada, while hidden in the bureaucratese of ITV worthy of John Birt, seem to suggest time will be called on this Manchester landmark before long.

A shame, but media enthusiasts will probably have to rely on the BBC to provide them with interesting buildings.

Wonder how long the impressive, for its size as an ITV station, Border Studios will survive until Carlton - Granada decides that people in Cumbria should have their local programmes made in a cupboard in Carlisle.

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Article ©2005 Glenn Aylett

Compilation ©2005 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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