The Television Centre – its significance for professional visitors 

3 July 2017 tbs.pm/12803

From the BBC Handbook for 1968

There are now 120 countries in the world transmitting television programmes. Some of these countries have more than one television service while others like the USA have several major networks and many local stations.

Ever since it was opened in June 1960, the BBC Television Centre has attracted a steady stream of visitors – professional men and women including producers, administrators, programme executives, technicians and engineers from nearly all of these 120 countries to the tune of many hundreds a year.

To the television engineer, for instance, it is a shop window – an important visiting point – because it has under one roof all the major practical developments in electronic television. When it was opened the American press described Television Centre as ‘The Electronic Hollywood of the World’. The only large production studio then in service was Studio 3. Now there are eight, including two big colour studios, and plans are well ahead for the progressive conversion to colour of all the remaining studios there, as well as six others in nearby buildings.

The Television Centre, opened June 1960. An aerial view.

It is for much the same reason that producers, designers, architects and administrators are also interested in the BBC Television Centre. They frequently remind us that the BBC’s reputation is second to none in the world and that the Television Centre epitomizes for them the BBC’s role in world television. This tribute is, of course, a very gratifying one, but it is Television Liaison’s job in particular to explain how this giant bowl of bricks and glass, concrete and mosaic was erected primarily to fulfil a function; that although it is the administrative headquarters of BBC Television, it is first and foremost a working building with its studios and facilities geared to meet the challenge of television and its complicated production problems.

To a greater or lesser extent all official visitors from other television organizations are specialists in their own fields. They may wish simply to see as much as possible during their visit and be given an opportunity to compare notes, or, while gaining a general impression of BBC methods and organization, to go through one area or several with a fine tooth comb.

The seventh floor roof walkway with its models of the building strategically placed at each end is a useful starting point. Here it can be shown, for example, how the round question mark design was adopted by following the basic idea of inner circulation for staff and artists and perimeter circulation for scenery and properties, also the planning needed to ensure that BBC television is conducted on efficient and business-like lines to eliminate wasteful processes and give creative talent its head in the best possible physical conditions. These are some of the features which have helped to inspire architects of television centres in several other countries. From this vantage point also the role of other television premises can be explained with special reference to the BBC Television Film Studios at Ealing, the BBC Television Theatre on Shepherd’s Bush Green, the Current Affairs Studios at Lime Grove and the preparations in the new spur building at the Centre for BBC Television News (in colour) which is to be transferred from Alexandra Palace. Other subjects frequently discussed with visitors are programme exports and overseas markets, the public service principles of the BBC, its independence of state control and freedom from advertising. And also, of course, the relation of the Television Service to broadcasting as a whole, the BBC’s External Services at Bush House, and its radio and administrative centre at Broadcasting House.

The Television Centre, opened June 1960. Main entrance.

In many parts of the building the accent is now on colour and the interest in colour is intense. The new colour studios 6 and 8, the Presentation Suite and the Videotape Recording area in the basement where several tape machines now record in colour, are perhaps the main focal points. Studio 8 is of special interest to engineers as well as production people for among other facilities it has a computerized memory system which can pre-set as many as one hundred light settings. The Presentation Suite is always of interest to serious students of television and this is certainly true of the International Control Room where Eurovision, Intervision and relay satellite transmissions have made global history and provided live television links between East and West. And the BBC-2 presentation studio was equipped some time ago for colour and was used for the introduction by the BBC of the first regular transmissions of colour programmes in Europe on 1 July 1967.

Some of the other areas that attract careful scrutiny from the point of view of colour as well as black and white television are the Scenery workshops and stores, the Scenic Artists Studio, Back Projection, and the Make-up and Wardrobe areas. In the main Wardrobe area, for example, professionals like to study our backroom methods as well as the production lines, the intricate but efficient indexing system and the double emphasis on colour provided by the new section for colour television in addition to the 25,000 costumes ranging through Tudor, Georgian and Victorian periods to the present day.

Television Centre Presentation Control Room – this desk is the focal point of production control during the transmission of the programmes

All visitors to the BBC Television Centre converge sooner or later on the production studios. The larger studios are provided with observation rooms so that visitors and trainees – including trainees from overseas broadcasting organizations – can observe what is going on in the studios and also the transmission picture on a monitor. Control rooms are similarly equipped so that visitors and trainees – including, of course, BBC staff trainees – can watch the production operation through a glass window. These observation rooms also make it possible for liaison staff to point out items of particular interest in the studios or control rooms and discuss any points that arise. And ‘discuss’, I think, is the operative word. For in the field of international broadcasting there is a very free exchange of ideas, production methods and technical know-how which the BBC does everything it can to foster and encourage. Television and Engineering Liaison also arrange further discussions with technicians and BBC experts in other fields where more detailed exchanges appear to be worth while.

I have mentioned so far visitors from overseas broadcasting organizations. There are many other ‘official’ visitors in cultural, social, educational and government fields who are not in the strict sense of the word professional broadcasters but whose influence on broadcasting is or could be quite considerable and who find it instructive to see our production methods and the organizational and administrative problems involved.

One of the thirty-six dressing rooms. Other dressing rooms can accommodate 600 artists

Work goes on throughout the twenty-four hours and, unfortunately, visits cannot be arranged for the general public without interfering with the many and complex production and engineering activities. Their interest is, however, met by the provision of tickets for audience shows where it is possible not only to enjoy the programme but also to see some of the activities behind the camera.

The little man – Arthur Askey – in Studio Three (100′ x 80′ x 44′ high)

A scenic artists’ studio at BBC Television Centre

BBC Television Centre in 2007, by R/DV/RS on Flickr. CC-BY-2.0

Bernard Forbes was Head of Television Liaison at the BBC.

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