Monday, 13 June 2011

The Doughnut Ain't Carleton Greene's House

As the long-mooted news of BBC Television Centre's great sell-off finally hits home, I find it hard to join in with the cries of anguish. It's hard not to feel that the BBC – the BBC represented by the quixotic, imposing brutalist question mark under threat, at least – moved out long ago.

I've been to TVC plenty of times, but only from the 1990s onward. Thus, I never really saw the place firing on all cylinders. Even from the first visit, two things were apparent: that this was a mad, wonderful building you could wander aimlessly around for days, like a Victorian West End theatre writ large; and that like those theatres, it that had seen better days. It soon became two buildings – the shiny, glass-fronted news centre, symbolic of the New Beeb (as was), while children's programming was relegated to the upper floors of the notoriously Soviet East Tower, a draughty, seemingly forgotten annexe where a few rather sad Swap Shop Eric awards huddled together for warmth in the sort of old trophy cabinet you'd expect to see outside the staff room of a badly-maintained secondary school. If the ghosts of Saturday Night 1978 were about, they were being very quiet.

The last time I was there was for one of those BBC Four documentaries about old telly that cause such immense vexation amongst people on both sides of the pro-/anti-Beeb debate. The folk making it were, I should say, polite and professional to a fault, and apologised more than they needed to for the fact that they had to film in a room that, while not technically a broom cupboard, certainly was no studio and certainly contained many items of cleaning equipment. Filming had to be periodically halted as a tea trolley rumbled periodically past the un-soundproofed door. I smiled to myself, revelling in the atmosphere of the Beeb as we used to know it, of totalitarian car park attendants, pissed producers and dodgy canteen rissoles. If this had been an independent production company, I'd no doubt have been grinding my teeth and wondering what a once great British industry was coming to. Television Centre increasingly existed in the Wood Lane of the mind.

All TV and film locations work like this, of course. I worked for a year at Elstree Film & TV Studios, which was shot through with the TVC malaise in its most virulent form. Posters of classics like Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Let's Get Laid adorned the corridor walls, but apart from the remnants of the Children's Film Foundation (one large man in a partitioned office smoking like a train opposite a never-ringing telephone) and a doleful blue plaque donated by the On the Buses Appreciation Society, it could have been any out-of-town industrial unit. Films were still being made there, but only of the Hollywood ilk. Other than that, the studio's lifeblood was provided by Big Brother and Who Wants to be a Millionaire – shows that will doubtless swell the breasts of future generations with nostalgic pangs, but had no sentimental value for me. There was nothing more than the indefinable, sad air of something great, but so long gone that nobody was really left to tell how great it once was.

It's too early to know if this relocation and further dispersal will weaken the BBC at a faster rate than it's already going at. At worst, it's like hearing of the death of a much-loved but long-retired TV favourite. A shrugging acceptance of the inevitability decline is an ingrained, and none too healthy, part of television life these days, so mourning is appropriate. But the idea that this is some kind of tipping point in the fight to keep the BBC is an exaggeration. The real vandalism started some time in 1987, and has been going on ever since. The BBC was a cottage industry that straddled the globe. Now it acts like a multinational looking for loose change under the sofa. We'll miss the cottage itself, but right now there are more urgent items on television's endangered list than the country's most quotable postcode.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose the disposal could serve as a useful lens to focus general cultural discontent, but it's surely better to let Television Centre go now, in relative peace, than to condemn it to a future of ever more cynical defilement at the hands of what I will, without wishing to sound alarmist or reactionary, describe as a SLAVERING BARBARIAN HORDE.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again - we could all learn a few lessons from the On the Buses Appreciation Society.