Looking North in ’85 

1 December 2004 tbs.pm/2052

In the second of a two-part series on broadcasting in the North of England, Glen Aylett recalls the BBC North East studios of almost twenty years ago.

Before BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC Television North East moved to what is affectionately called the Pink Palace in 1986 – the pink coloured studio building in Fenham – the BBC relied on two cramped buildings in central Newcastle.

Radio Newcastle operated out of a overcrowded sixties office block shared with an insurance company, while BBC TV used a converted 18th century cottage hospital with a sixties addition on the back.

Chancing my luck one day, I wrote to Tom Kilgour, newsreader and unofficial PR man for BBC North East, asking if I could visit the studios to watch Look North being broadcast.

Three months later I received a very courteous reply from Tom, asking if I could come down one Friday afternoon to 54 New Bridge St. As I was travelling by train from Cumbria, he kindly enclosed a map of Newcastle city centre.

The BBC studios at 54 New Bridge St were typical of the Corporation’s facilities in its less glamorous regions: cramped and makeshift. You could probably fit the whole of BBC Newcastle into the cleaner’s cupboard at Television Centre and still have room for a couple of mops.

After being greeted by the great Mr Kilgour in a reception that was a shrine to BBC North East – a large photograph of Look North legend Mike Neville predominated – I was taken upstairs to have a look round the building.

BBC North East was essentially divided into two. The sixties extension was on two floors built over a car park, and the upper floor housed the canteen. I sampled the BBC coffee and was surprised when it tasted quite nice, contrary to what Terry Wogan would often say about it. On the floor below were the station manager’s office and the newsroom.

The newsroom was essentially where Look North and the two short morning and lunchtime bulletins were assembled, and where Kilgour, a team of reporters and an editor prioritised the features for Look North.

Unlike the present, where the programme has specialised reporters for politics, sport and economic issues, the core of the show was based around Mike Neville, the anchorman who could interview the Chairman of the BBC – who had visited the studios earlier in the day – and the manager of Hartlepool United in the same programme.

Kilgour read the two short bulletins and the news roundup at the start of the show, while reporters Alan Powell, Simon Willis and Ian Proniewicz raced around the huge BBC North East region reporting on anything from the miners strike, which was reaching its bitter conclusion while I was in Newcastle, to a beauty contest.

To say it was a hectic place would be an understatement, but the dedication and professionalism of the staff working in such a cramped environment was excellent. And to anyone who watched Look North from 1964 to 1996, the name Mike Neville was synonymous with the programme.

His contributions to the regional features on Nationwide were so highly regarded that he often spent two weeks every month presenting the London-based programme in the early eighties. But, he told me, he couldn’t stand London beer and Lime Grove, which he likened to a larger New Bridge St without the charm, and rejected an opportunity to host Nationwide permanently. Mike was – and is, as he now works for Tyne Tees – an all-round professional.

As I’ve mentioned, Neville could switch quite easily from a serious article to a lighthearted interview with no difficulty, and he was famed away from Look North for his renditions of Geordie folk songs and for his storytelling. Indeed, such was the popularity of Mike Neville that he was even given his own Friday night talk and light entertainment show on BBC North East.

But back to the studios themselves.

The other part of New Bridge St – the 18th century hospital – contained the studios, the editing suite, reception and the control room. New Bridge Street’s studio setup was simple: a small studio, which was used for the short bulletins and continuity, and the main studio, used for ‘Look North’ and regional programmes.

I was surprised how tiny even the main studio was and how such things as a judo display – for some reason ‘Look North’ in the 80s had a liking for judo – could be done safely in such a confined space without an accident.

At weekends, there were no regional bulletins at the time on a Sunday, and the studio was turned into a kitchen to film Tony Stoppani’s cookery slot. (Like Mike Neville, Stoppani was another local celebrity for decades.)

A solitary EMI camera attached to a monitor in the control room captured all this. (In case this broke down, another one of these EMI monsters was kept in a storeroom.) The control room itself contained a director and four technicians who oversaw Look North from a vintage mixing desk with a black and white monitor that looked like something out of Doctor Who.

Despite the control room looking ancient and liable to break down at any moment, the show ran as smoothly as a Swiss watch. I was not surprised when most of the staff, while feeling sorry for a building some had worked in since the fifties, were looking forward to the move to Fenham with its spacious new studios and state of the art equipment.

New Bridge St closed the following year, in 1986, and staff from Radio Newcastle and BBC North East moved to the ‘Pink Palace’ – officially called the ‘Broadcasting Centre’ – from their cramped studios. I was shown a model of the new studio complex and it was a huge improvement on New Bridge Street.

The studio complex where Look North comes from now contains two large television studios and a smaller studio for continuity, while Radio Newcastle, which is also responsible for the Night Network regional broadcasts, has four studios. One interesting result of radio and television sharing the same building is that you often find Radio Newcastle presenters such as Paddy Mc Dee covering news bulletins for absent TV presenters.

So what became of 54 New Bridge Street? The 18th century part of the studios is a listed building and is now used by an insurance company, but the sixties extension was demolished to make way for company offices in 1987.

Sadly, unless you are over 25 and can remember the old studios, you can walk down New Bridge Street and not realise this was the home of the BBC in the North East from 1923 to 1986, as there is no indication of what the building was used for before it became an insurance office. Surely some sort of plaque would be a nice reminder for people of the building’s more illustrious past before it became yet another office building.

· The same fate has befallen other, more famous studios. The east wing of Alexandra Palace, the birthplace of BBC Television, was allowed to fall apart for years until the Alexandra Palace Society decided to do something about it, but the saddest fate is that which befell Lime Grove, the most important television studios in Britain in the fifties and used by the BBC until 1991.

Since the studios were demolished in 1994 and replaced by anonymous flats, there is almost no trace of what stood on the site for nearly 100 years. (Before the BBC bought Lime Grove, it was the home of Gainsborough Pictures, one of the biggest filmmakers of the thirties.)

This famous building surely deserves some commemoration: at some stage in their lives, virtually every adult in Britain would have watched a programme from Lime Grove. Maybe a campaign should be set in motion to commemorate important broadcasting sites that have met their maker.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Anna Flowers 30 April 2013 at 3:52 pm

Newcastle Libraries (Tyne Bridge Publishing is part of the library service) is putting together a book of memories on 1980s Newcastle. Would Glenn be willing to contribute a short memory about the end of the old BBC Studios (just opposite City Library) and the move to the Pink Palace? I think the move of the TV studios was in January 1988, though Radio Newcastle moved in 1986 (according to Paddy McDee). And that’s almost 30 years ago! We’d love to include your memories in ‘Sweet Dreams! 1980s Newcastle’

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