Cat-swinging out in Queen Street 

8 March 2021 tbs.pm/72488

 

A cartoon of an elephant crammed into a studio

From the BBC Scotland Newsletter staff magazine number 4, for Summer 1972

You can’t really include an elephant in the menage unless you have an elephant house, and stowage space for the howdah, living quarters for Gunga Din the mahout and, for preference, a nearby bamboo forest. This is one of the minor troubles at B.H. Edinburgh. There’s no storage space.

George admittedly has a cabinet for the mercies in a corner of his office, over-balanced diagonally opposite by the quondam Mr Reith’s magnificent jumbo-sized table. And the Schools tribe down at Abercromby Place have their commonroom, where they can drop their bags and files. But up at Queen Street there isn’t a nook for even a pack-mule let alone an elephant. (Pack mules are regularly used by the “Twelve Noon” Talks mob; and the daily scene in what’s still called the Conference Room, where they are accommodated, beggars description. You’re lucky if you can thread your way through the desks, the piles of papers, the steaming bodies and the littered litre bottles that mark the recent passing of Lynda Myles and Mike Shaw — Lynda to STV for the [time being] and Mike to remotest “North Beat” in the Oil Boom Town — whose places have been filled by Alison McLeay and Mark Rogerson; on whom the mule boxes now sit most prettily.)

This space problem in Edinburgh is a fairly recent development. There was a day when there was the Band Instruments Room, behind the stage in Number One. And a spare Conference Room and even a Waiting Room (where Harold Thomson and Watson Forbes in succession set up shop during the Festival and which is now the Mailing Room and Boys’ Retreat). And when the BBC bought out the Y.M.C.A. at No. 4 Queen Street there was space by the acre — including the thundering great Hall A and Hall B, in each of which you could have stabled an elephant. And there was the ante-room between the Artists’ Lounge and Number One, where the Canteen used to be before it moved up to the top floor of No. 4.

Now, although at a pinch you can heap stuff at the entrance to No. 4 for a little while if the house staff aren’t looking (nothing is heaped at the door to No. 5 except an occasional nest of police bollards, which come in useful from time to time), now there’s really only the Tunnel, under Number One in the bowels of No. 5, with one or two dark caverns opening off it; and secret lock-fast places, thought to be known of only to Sergeant Jimmy Henderson, a number of purposeful-looking men in brown coats, the Publicity Man and possibly Sergeant Bob Pape (welcome successor to the late, sorely-missed Charlie McCall). These secret caches are off the men’s lavatories in the No. 5 entrance hall and the No. 4 basement, and you need to know the right man and the password of the day before you can gain access.

As for the Tunnel, even that’s been claimed by Anne Stenhouse for some dubious administrative reason. (Our Arthur will remember the Tunnel well; that’s where he used to use the walls like a squash court and come in-off in play when the Club table tennis section were relegated to the depths for a while.)

 

 

This Clearing of the Tunnel operation has meant the removal of, among other things, Edinburgh B.H’s collection of newspaper cuttings dating back to the nineteen-twenties. This seemed to be a unique record of the day-by-day broadcasting scene. It had been founded when Edinburgh was, naturally, the Scottish headquarters of the BBC. It had grown to overflow from the Information Office, and to fill a huge cupboard in the Narrator’s Studio above Number One and a six-foot steel filing cabinet and sundry other receptacles in the Tunnel. When it was brought together it filled thirteen large cartons. And since neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow had room for this lot, the Publicity Man got permission to phone the Written Archives people in London and ask them if they’d like to take the collection over.

Miss Hodgson fell on his neck over the phone, for it seemed that Edinburgh had newspaper cuttings that London Archives didn’t have — years of them. She would love to give them a good home, she said. And in due course they were exported to the deep south by BBC trunker. So that if you wish to know what the Press were saying about broadcasting after the General Strike, or at the Abdication or whatever, you may find out by telephoning or calling on the Written Archives Centre, now at Caversham Park, Reading RG4 8TZ (top end, not the bottom, of the garden).

It’s all a matter of space, man.

 

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: The BBC remained in the cramped conditions at 5 Queen Street until April 2002, when they moved to The Tun on Holyrood Road to be nearer the Scottish Parliament.

The BBC moved into Queen Street in 1930, and the building was fine for broadcasting back then. But post-war, they were cramming in television interview facilities as well as the radio studios. The number of staff climbed as the output of broadcasting in general grew across the 1970s and 1980s. What had been a perfect office and studio facility in 1930 was, as this article suggests, pretty cramped and full by 1972, despite the Scottish HQ having long ago moved to Glasgow.

One of the problems of being the ‘first’ in anything is that you often have the oldest buildings and equipment while latecomers get the shiny glass offices and the state-of-the-art equipment purely because they are so new. A case in point would be Britain’s railways – the first in the world, with infrastructure (slim loading gauge, Victorian manual signals, tiny tunnels with no space for double-decker trains and so forth) that reflects that.

Queen Street is close to Edinburgh Waverley, the Scottish National Gallery, Princes Street and everything else; Holyrood, with the best will in the world, is a bit of a trudge from the centre of the action. It’s a shame to lose any broadcasting site from the middle of a city to the outskirts, especially if you think that broadcasting is important. But at Holyrood there is, I’d imagine, at least room for the staff to swing a cat at last.

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