If there is one television-related building that has been seen on-screen more than any other over the past forty years, then BBC Television Centre would be it.
Whilst some ITV regions – most notably LWT – used their headquarters as often as possible to promote the station, none were able to on a national scale.
Most people would recognise the exterior of the White City building from the various programmes it has appeared on through the years – whether as an establishing shot in Children in Need or an awards ceremony, or on many Saturday morning shows which used it as a place to conduct items that perhaps wouldn’t fit into the studio, or simply as a change of scene.
Indeed, for seven years Live and Kicking had a title sequence featuring Television Centre as a kind of giant pinball machine, with a silver ball bouncing in and out of the various sections.
The BBC now offers tours of the building for those wishing to see what goes on inside the concrete doughnut for themselves. These have never been promoted greatly – at least, not in the same way as the now defunct BBC Experience was for a number of years. But they are consistently well attended, and Chris Bowden-Smith and I were present at a full-house tour one Saturday at the end of September.
Our tour started at 1:30pm, and our arrival seemed to coincide with the departure of The Saturday Show’s audience from the building. Dozens of twelve year-olds were duly herded into the reception area and given signed photos of the show’s presenters.
Since the Real IRA detonated a bomb outside the reception of TV Centre nearly two years ago security has been visibly improved, although perhaps too much in some cases. One audience member was having her photo taken by her mother in the reception area only to have a burly security guard rush over and yell not to take the photo. Clearly the terrorists are finding ever more ingenious ways of examining the premises. Maybe they’d find it easier to just look through the window instead.
The security was once again shown as we were given temporary passes for our stay in the complex. First stop was a café and shop area where we were talked through the basics.
One of the most interesting aspects of this was the warning given not to talk to anyone we might recognise. Clearly this might have had some meaning had it been a normal working day but on Saturdays the building is unbelievably quiet, odd considering the large amount of live output still going out.
The closest we got to celeb-spotting was witnessing Darren Jordon buying a chocolate bar, although I’m reliably informed the S Club Juniors were around a few hours before. Perhaps it was them leaving as we arrived?
The tours differ each time depending on what is happening at TV Centre, but our particular tour began with a trip to the news centre. This area – known as "Stage 6" – was described to us from a conference room at the edge of the main news area that can be seen behind the newsreader on the main BBC News broadcasts.
However, the shot is duplicated and reversed on the right hand screen, and the red colours that adorn the walls on the TV version were long since painted out (apparently due to making it a bad working environment), so it takes a second before it clicks as the background to a thousand news stories.
Next, a trip to the circular centrepiece of the complex where many offices are located. We were told that the fountain originally installed in the centre area had to be turned off after only a few days because the echoes created made it impossible to work. After this, a trip to one of the many dressing rooms that border on the centre area.
Our particular room had been inhabited by Johnny Vegas the previous Thursday to record Shooting Stars, but slightly more glamorous tales of Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez’s stays in the rooms were relayed to us. It turns out J-Lo wanted 15 dressing rooms, so the BBC gave her one and made her pay for the rest. And quite right too.
The viewing galleries of three different studios were next on the schedule. Studio 8 was first, and the group was asked to guess the set in place from recording the previous night. One group member shouted "Corrie", and I sincerely hope they were joking otherwise there really is no point in going on.
Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps was the answer and, following this, Studio 6 was visited, which had the last remains of The Saturday Show being wheeled out. One thing that hits home is how small these studios actually are, but clever camera work has ensured that programmes like the aforementioned appear to be filmed in a vast warehouse. Similarly, Top of the Pops, still in Studio 3 from Thursday’s recording, appears like a crowded bathroom compared to the club atmosphere of the programme itself, although the two feelings are not mutually exclusive.
More wandering around endless corridors eventually led us to the weather centre, where the studios are so small and busy we are not even allowed in. Instead a blue cloth on one side of the corridor is filmed by a camera on the other and the resulting weather map and whoever-is-walking-past is shown on a plasma screen nearby. Although many people reading this article will probably be familiar with the concept of CSO nothing can prepare you for the weird feeling as you appear to be in front of something that is not actually there.
Finally a special room was home to some old game show podiums which played centre stage in a mock-quiz set-up where three people (including me) chosen from the tour group are shown a film clip and answer observation questions. I won, although sadly the prize wasn’t a trip to the presentation suite. We all got a free copy of Radio Times.
All in all the tour was a well-conducted way of seeing behind those famous walls that have graced our screens so many times. Much of this was down to our tour guide, Tom Aldwinckle, who managed to convey the information with enthusiasm but without patronising those with a deeper interest than hoping to catch a glimpse of Gaby Roslin.
Clearly a weekday might be a better time to take a tour, as on Saturdays the building is like a ghost town (no wonder there’s no tour on Sunday), but whenever you go you can be sure to find out something you didn’t know or see something you’ve never seen. You might even get to buy a green Boost bar – top newsreaders recommend it.
To book a tour of BBC Television Centre, you can call 0870 603 0304 (in the UK). Prices start at £7.95 for adults. Find out more at the BBC Tours website