One of the true pioneers of factual entertainment television, Dame Joan Bakewell joined the BBC as a radio technician during the 1950’s before spearheading the cultural affairs format with the groundbreaking Late Night Lineup which helped to launch BBC2. Being the first member of her family to attend university, Joan took full advantage of the heady days of the social mobile post war generation. After university, she moved to London to take a role as a junior technician for BBC Radio which was based at Broadcasting House. During Joan’s early tenure, word began to spread about the corporation’s plan to build a purpose built television centre equipped with the latest camera technology, production equipment and the best studios Britain had ever seen. As part of the radio community, Joan and her colleagues were slightly disgruntled that this newfound enthusiasm was being invested into this new medium with little thought for radio. Yet as soon as she stepped through the famous double doors of Britain’s leading TV factory, Joan knew that she had found her spiritual home.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
Or watch the unedited zoom call on youtube
With the now infamous staff canteen, BBC bar and enough room to house the majority of the BBC’s entertainment content, Television Centre became a creative hotbed for anyone working in television. An idea could start in the bar over a drink before making it up to the fourth floor and on to the desk of a commissioner before the day was over. The curved corridors proved the biggest hurdle for any newcomer to quickly get their bearings and more often than not would end up exactly where they started. It’s these elements and more that went into making Television Centre one of the most desirable places to work in entertainment. Unbeknown to Joan, this would be the setting of some of the best moments of her unprecedented career, transforming her from part time radio broadcaster to one of the most prominent television broadcasters in Britain.
In 1964 the BBC extended their television dominance following the substantial competition from Lew Grade and ATV which had ended the corporation’s monopoly just nine years previously. Launched on 21st April 1964, BBC2 was seen as the corporation’s brand new platform for a mixture of the Arts, landmark documentaries and the best in sports action all together on one nightly channel. In the days before the advent of the TV guide, having three channels added the novelty of choice perhaps for the very first time and it was sometimes impossible for the audience to be aware of the schedule for that evening’s TV. Lineup was a live nightly show broadcast right at the start of each night’s viewing which previewed the selection of scheduled programmes, informing the audience of what was in store. As a young broadcaster fresh from radio, Joan Bakewell was chosen to front this new nightly show live from Television Centre alongside fellow broadcasters Dennis Tuchy, John Stone and Michael Dean. Cultural affairs had never been given such a platform on which to be discussed, debated and analysed and in doing so Lineup helped to cultivate Britain’s collective cultural conscience.
Ironically Lineup regularly pulled in a nightly average of 20 million viewers, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network. This prompted BBC2 controller David Attenborough to move the show to a later time slot and extended its scope to cover entertainment as a whole. Suddenly Joan and the team were able to tackle hard hitting issues which television documented and had the time to discuss, debate and analyse them. Being at Television Centre offered the added bonus of gaining instant access to cast and crew of the programmes in question and Joan clearly remembers being able to rush into studios in her quest to invite someone on to the show for a live interview. This gave the programme an air of unpredictability which seemed radical for the time with its seemingly improvised approach to the celebrity interview Joan was given free reign to approach anyone of note who was in the building to appear on the live programme which was seen asa radical attitude for the time.
The newly titled Late Night Lineup was the first of its kind: a live, uninterrupted programme which ran each and every night of the week only to break for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Never before had television looked inwards on itself to produce lively, interactive debate and Joan proved the perfect linchpin. In 1966 Late Night Lineup devoted the show to discussing the role of the television scriptwriter alongside comedy heavyweights Johnny Speight, Marty Feldman and sitcom writing partnership Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. In light of the controversial issues surrounding Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part, Joan gave him the opportunity to explain the satirical message behind the series in exposing and challenging bigotry and prejudice in society. A very intelligent, well read individual, Speight had written Till Death Us Do Part as a satirical commentary about the prejudice and bigotry which surrounded everyday life in the sixties. This remains a watershed moment in the story of satire and Joan was responsible for drawing out the true motives behind the series which was totally revolutionary for the time. Sixty years on Till Death Us Do Part remains the subject of great controversy amongst TV audiences and debates still rumble on as to Speight’s political philosophy.
Late Night Lineup ran for an unprecedented eight years on BBC2 and was instrumental to the popularity of the cultural affairs format. When the series came to an end in 1972 Joan became a freelance broadcaster working on programmes for Granada at their headquarters in Manchester. She then realised that there were TV centres all over Britain in: Plymouth, Norwich, Southampton and many more. Like BBC Television Centre, a great deal of these studios have fallen victim to financial streamlining and have long since been active. However and perhaps more significantly, unlike Television Centre, none of the aforementioned buildings occupy such a sentimental place in the hearts and minds of those who worked there. TV Centre was the original dream factory!
It’s a common belief that austerity never serves the Arts and at a time when the BBC was constantly under threat from the changing political landscape of the post millennium age, Television Centre was seen as an outdated, unnecessary expense. An ardent supporter and contributor to the Arts, Joan joined a national campaign to save Britain’s television Hollywood. Sadly, this was to no avail as on Sunday 31st March 2013 BBC Television Centre closed its doors for the final time, leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of pioneering broadcasting which defined a generation. It wasn’t the setting of significant international history, nor did it set out to radically change the world. Yet for over fifty years inside a bespoke twentieth century feat of architecture, something extraordinary happened which changed British popular culture forever.
While Television Centre perished under political forces which on this occasion worked against the corporation, Joan Bakewell’s career has continued to thrive. Still in demand as an accomplished radio and television broadcaster and at the respectable age of eighty-nine, her experience and natural delivery makes her one of the most trusted and enduring broadcasters Britain has ever produced. It’s clear that BBC Television Centre is sadly no more but it lives on in the memories and anecdotes of the pioneering generation of television who each set the benchmark for British television thereafter. To interview the legendary Dame Joan Bakewell was a dream come true and to celebrate the history and legacy of Television Centre was the ultimate icing on a very large cake. TV Centre may be gone but never forgotten.