Remembering Television Centre – TV Centre Series

For the next two months things at Beyond The Title are going to look slightly different. On Sunday 31st March 2013 BBC Television Centre in London’s White City, closed its doors for the final time. A crime against culture, political oversight or an example of external forces unable to find common ground which ultimately resulted in the BBC: a publicly funded organisation, selling off the greatest television production house the world has ever seen. This was where careers were made, dreams were realised and British television found its identity all in this bizarre looking spherical building which was designed by architect Graham Dawbarn in 1949. Built on the site of the 1906 Olympics, it wasn’t only the world’s first ever bespoke TV factory but also a feat of architectural genius never seen before. A completely spherical structure with easily accessible production galleries, a floor dedicated to office space for TV management and eight magnificent studios together with modern camera technology. This was where British television came of age.

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For anyone who loves shiny floor Light Entertainment, TV Centre was where it all happened. The lights, pazzaz and of course some of the biggest names in entertainment were all aspects which were synonymous with the place. For over half a century, this was where the kings and queens of entertainment shone, Eric and Ernie brought the sunshine and Bruce Forsyth told us that life was the name of the game. It’s impossible to overlook the significance of TV Centre on the entertainment landscape as a whole as with so much thriving talent in one place, it was hard not to see this period as anything other than golden. As soon as it opened its doors on 29th June 1960, it attracted the biggest names in entertainment. There was even a star studded television extravaganza to mark this occasion starring Arthur Askey and Leslie Mitchell. The opening of Television Centre heralded a new era in the corporation’s attitude towards programme-making and the public were about to benefit greatly.


The opening of TV Centre coincided with the appointment of a new director general who would bring the corporation into the modern era. Brother of the award winning novelist Graham Greene, Hugh Carleton-Greene joined the BBC as head of the German service in 1940 before becoming head of current affairs and latterly director of administration. In terms of TV, he was a visionary in every sense with a soaring passion to use television to its fullest potential. Just two years into his DG tenure, Carleton-Greene offered twenty three year old Cambridge graduate David Frost his own comedy vehicle which resulted in the groundbreaking That Was The Week That Was. This sparked a comedy revolution and TV Light Entertainment never looked back.


In terms of set design and visual effects these early attempts at television variety were extremely basic in their form. In an era before technicolour producers didn’t have to worry about what a typical TV studio would look like, programmes such as Face to Face or ‘That was the week that was’ merely relied on a spotlight and basic BBC furniture. Even throughout the 1970’s set designs were minimalistic and lacked the glitz and glamour of later television extravaganzas. However, this made little difference to the quality of the output and more often than not added to the enigma of the magic which surrounded the place. Yet it was still able to move with the times and as soon as TV demanded more glitz, glamour and creativity Television Centre was able to keep up with the fashion and fads of every generation.


Throughout the sixties and seventies, Television Centre became the vessel in which Bill Cotton’s Light Entertainment department thrived and hosted countless watershed moments in TV history.  Legend has it that when Michael Parkinson was honing the formula for his iconic chat show, he and the producer Richard Drewitt would stick pieces of paper to Bill Cotton’s office door to establish a blend of figures who would go well together. Therefore when Cotton walked past, he would frequently give his reaction to a formula with either an approving or disapproving response. Yet of course he never intervened or expressed an overwhelming opinion because that wasn’t his leadership style. In creating such a vibrant hotbed of talent, it’s important to understand when and where input is required and the genius of Bill Cotton was the art of putting people together to create a dynamic environment where people knew exactly what they were doing. Undeniably a golden era!


In this sense, TV Centre was as much about the genial executives who held the keys to Light Entertainment than it was about the stars who shone here. People like Tom Sloan, Bill Cotton, David Croft, Jim Moir and John Ammonds had all grown up on theatrical variety and became comfortable with the smell of the theatre. Therefore as soon as they graduated to television, they had a vision for what television entertainment could be and this was the vital key to maintaining a standard which was never lowered. It was always said of TC1 at TV Centre that it was like the BBC’s very own version of the London Palladium but this was only because the people behind the scenes made it so. Graham Dawbarn might have architected the building but the aforementioned figures made it into the magical powerhouse which it’s still remembered for today.


Throughout the 1980’s TV Centre continued to remain on the cutting edge of broadcasting when it became host to the British Telethon. Following the success of the 1978 Christmas Day appeal, controller of BBC1 Bill Cotton proposed the concept of a seven hour extravaganza to be broadcast live from Television Centre. This was something unheard of for British television and was only made possible by the fusion of expertise all housed in this big TV factory. However, things didn’t always go to plan and five minutes before the inaugural extravaganza went ahead, Dame Esther Rantzen vividly remembers a huge power cut throughout the whole of White City, forcing every autocue to cease working. For a moment, Esther and the legendary Terry Wogan faced an incredibly long and stressful seven hours of live television with no script or autocue. Luckily the power was quickly restored and Children In Need was a hit thanks in part to the ease in which technology could be executed inside this TV factory and for thirty three years TC1 became its official home.


If it could cope with a seven hour television broadcast then TC1 could cope with anything and in the succeeding years, the BBC’s very own London Palladium became an obvious jewel in the corporation’s crown. While rival networks such as ATV and Granada may have been forced into hiring external premises for their more elaborate programming, TC1 never failed in its purpose to house memorable nights of Light Entertainment. Slightly more modern than the theatrical offerings of the Palladium, this was a variety hall for the contemporary era. Music stars, comedy heavyweights and titans of broadcast journalism all were equally comfortable here simply because it could adapt to almost every form of television. It’s virtually impossible to think of any other entertainment venue that could cater for all kinds of television audiences and disciplines and in the coming decades, this building encouraged the evolution of entertainment as we knew it.


Of course the place didn’t just perfectly execute Light Entertainment, it’s television infrastructure also made it possible to host a whole range of large scale broadcasts. From 1964 until 2010 every election night was presided over within the walls of TVC pioneered by the legendary Grace Wyndham-Goldie. Although it was cutting edge factual journalism, the BBC election results were treated in the same manner as making a mammoth Light Entertainment show with flashy graphics, a vast studio and the infamous swingometer. Over the years, a plethora of heavyweight political broadcasters from Robin Day to Huw Edwards via a brace of Dimblebys would preside over the incoming results live from the home of the BBC with analysts, journalists and celebrities on hand to provide insights into the unfolding drama. In terms of politics, a general election is the equivalent of the Olympics and with TV Centre, the BBC always had the perfect hub in which the action could unfold.


If factual and current affairs television could learn from the televisual experience of Light Entertainment then children’s programming could follow suit. On Saturday 2nd October 1976 former Blue Peter producer Rosemary Gill’s creation Multicoloured Swap Shop first aired on BBC1. This was the first children’s show to make use of its presence in Television Centre and used roving reporter techniques to provide the viewer with a unique insight into programme making. In the era before television’s interest in itself, this was radical and groundbreaking for its time. To think that viewers could now be taken behind the scenes of their favourite shows in such a relaxed and cavalier manner was something brand new for the medium. Having such scope to deviate to areas of the BBC which would otherwise remain hidden was revolutionary for the time and inspired a whole generation of content creators.


Multicoloured Swap Shop may have closed its doors in 1982 but this style of pioneering children’s entertainment inspired every Saturday morning children’s show for the next thirty years. Whether it was Saturday Superstore, Going Live, Live and Kicking, The Saturday Show or Dick and Dom In Da Bungalow, Saturday mornings were always reserved for an elongated entertainment show which captured the imagination of children throughout the country. Not as formal as Blue Peter, these shows charted the changing face of youth culture throughout Britain with the biggest pop stars dropping in for an interactive interview with their fan bases. In the era before social media, this was one of the only ways in which fans experienced direct contact with their idols and was considered revolutionary for its time. This was the very first roots of interactive television which was only made possible from the enormity of TV Centre.


So almost every Light Entertainment show, every music show, every election night coverage, every children’s programme and every studio based situation comedy came from this enigmatic building. The certified home of BBC television for over half a century, it may be merely bricks and mortar but TV Centre represents so much more than a dated feat of architectural design. In Britain, we very seldomly celebrate the things which make us unique and in today’s politically divisive society, patriotism seems a concept which is further away than ever. Yet the history and legacy of TV Centre remains a tidy reminder that there was a time during the sixties and seventies when Britain was a world leader in televisual entertainment and that’s something that we can always be extremely proud of. Happy birthday TVC!