By the time that the legendary writer and comedian Johnny Ball had stepped foot on the hallowed ground of Television Centre, he was already a star. A former Butlins Redcoat, the young comic served his apprenticeship in the working men’s clubs of northern England alongside future comedy legends such as Les Dawson and Ken Dodd. Unlike many of his contemporaries, a flair for writing made Johnny one of the most valuable performers on the circuit and it wasn’t long before he was asked to contribute material for others. This was the era when northern England was at the epicentre of the universe and thanks to a certain four men from Liverpool, working class Britain could finally dream big. By the end of the sixties, Johnny was on BBC Radio Manchester on a panel show alongside Freddie Davies and Les Dawson but an offer from the BBC children’s development would change the course of his career forever.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
Or watch the unedited zoom call on youtube
Having writing acquaintances who were already working at TV Centre, Johnny had long since heard about the creativity of Television Centre from his contemporaries Spike Mullins and a brace of Barrys Cryer and Took. Therefore before his domination within children’s television, he was already part of the British comedy elite and was seen very much as one of Britain’s best performers. Still very much in the golden age of the comedy writer, Johnny found himself within an elite group of performers with the ability to write their own material. Frequently contributing material to some of the best Light Entertainment shows of the day, he had heard so much about the pull of Television Centre but still saw himself as a jobbing writer and performer. The children’s series Crackerjack had gained a reputation for being a reliable testing ground for some of Britain’s best loved comedy stars from Leslie Crowther to Ronnie Corbett and Johnny was eager to join such a team but the corporation had alternative plans. Having thought that he was the obvious choice to join such a free flowing series, he was slightly disappointed not to be offered such an opportunity.
Narrowly missing out on Crackerjack put Johnny on the radar of the BBC’s children department and in 1967 secured a presenting role on the new early years programme Play School. Having severe doubts about whether he would be able to appeal to the desired demographic as a result of a lack of experience with entertaining children apart from his own, Johnny was close to declining the role. However, a born communicator with a passion for education and learning in combination with his talents as an entertainer encouraged him to realise that children don’t want to be talked down to. Instead they require entertaining in the same way and with the same respect as the general audience. This was something that really appealed to Johnny and for the next twelve years Play School became his home.
Recorded from TC7 of Television Centre, Play School offered Johnny the opportunity to use all the tools available in order to make the show the best possible viewing experience. When accepting the role, Johnny was concerned about his ability to interact with the show’s toys Humpty and Little Ted. He wasn’t a broadcaster or a fundamental children’s entertainer and therefore had no idea if he had the ability to engage with children on this level. Yet with a natural ability to communicate with an audience, Johnny quickly tuned into the wants and desires of the preschool demographic. Being at TV Centre made it easier to utilise the huge resources available and Johnny frequently reused and recycled old props from a whole host of BBC shows. With a limited budget, the crew of Play School were required to be incredibly creative and resourceful with decorating the studio and often borrowed props and scenery from other studios. This could have only happened in a television factory as TV Centre where it was possible to have up to eight different shows being recorded at once. A unique time.
Throughout the 1970’s, Johnny split his television career between TV Centre and the corporation’s studios in Bristol where the hugely popular Think of a Number was filmed. Bristol Television Studios was also a venue which became significant in his career and was the home of the BBC’s Points West. It was here that Johnny discovered that there was so much more to the corporation’s entertainment output than the London centric TV Centre. While the corporation’s flagship headquarters may have been synonymous with the very best in Light Entertainment, Johnny maintains that there was so much more to the BBC than purely the output of White City. Spending a large part of his BBC tenure at the Bristol headquarters, it’s clear that these studios hold significance for him and the direction of his career.
Despite making Bristol television studios his spiritual home, Johnny still found time to return to TV Centre on a number of occasions in the succeeding years. A regular guest on the Saturday morning extravaganza Multicoloured Swap Shop, he would often take daughter Zoe along to be a member of the audience which helped to spark her passion for broadcasting. Therefore the building holds extra emotional significance for the entire Ball family despite him being currently unaware of Zoe’s future plans. It seems incredible that in just a few years Zoe too would benefit from the unrivalled apprenticeship at TVC when she presented the children’s series Fully Booked alongside a whole host of future broadcasters who would go onto dominate British television for the next quarter of a century including Vernon Kay.
In contrast to the majority of the fantastic guests who have appeared in this celebration, Johnny Ball remains highly pragmatic about the closure of Television Centre and maintains that it was necessary for the corporation to reduce its real estate. Despite the building occupying a significant part of his career, he’s still able to understand the financial implications of the corporation selling one of its biggest assets in order to maintain its sustainability in the future. Nevertheless Johnny remains extremely grateful for the part which BBC Television Centre played in his career and the bizarre building in the heart of London’s White City shall forever be remembered by all who worked there. It was fantastic to obtain the thoughts of the legendary Johnny Ball surrounding the famous landmark and just like him, TV Centre’s contribution to British television shall never be forgotten.