Once stars shone brightly, now only golden TV memories linger
From the spot where an elephant slipped up on Blue Peter to the studio Eric and Ernie filmed their shows, Steve Boggan pays a nostalgic trip.
I am standing on the exact spot where Lulu the elephant evacuated her bowels live on Blue Peter in 1969. I can't resist the temptation to point it out. "Look!" I say. "There's a mark on the floor – it looks like bleach. Is that what you use to clean up elephant poo?"
The man from the BBC is staring at me with something approaching pity, but I don't care. As one of the BBC's longest employees, rising from envelope stuffer to studio manager over 38 years, Mike Eaton has seen much weirder behaviour than this. "That's nothing," he'd say. "Lady Gaga asked for a fridge for her wigs when she performed here." Or, "Madonna insisted on a life-size picture of the Pope, so we got her a model from Madame Tussauds".
Mike is giving me a tour of BBC Television Centre in White City, west London, prior to its handover to developers this Wednesday. After being sold to Stanhope Plc for £200m last year, the building – with its eight massive television studios, 121 dressing rooms, set-making factory, two bars, three restaurants, Blue Peter garden and hundreds and hundreds of offices – stopped making programmes and was mothballed.
Another £400m will be spent turning the site into 950 homes and a 47-room Soho House hotel over the next couple of years. BBC Worldwide will be headquartered here and Studios 1, 2 and 3 will be saved, but the others lie empty, awaiting demolition. They are scary in their enormity, haunted by the ghosts of shows past, of moments and performers inextricably hard-wired into our collective consciousness. Who isn't happily endowed with memories of Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson or Tony Hancock? Of Gary Lineker, Graham Norton or Victoria Wood? Within the walls of these studios, these pokey dressing rooms, the blood and sweat from the cast of Only Fools and Horses are mixed with those of Steptoe and Son, Absolutely Fabulous and Fawlty Towers. Bruce Forsyth's will be there with Julie Walters'. And Jimmy Savile's.
Mike says that people who visited Television Centre in the old days often felt that they'd been there before when, actually, they hadn't. They saw the white BBC lettering and the 26 "atomic dots" on the façade of Studio 1, the circular courtyard at the centre of the building that staff called The Doughnut and the fountain with the statue of the all-seeing Greek sun god Helios, and they experienced déjà vu. Of course, they'd just seen it many times on TV.
The site was bought by the BBC in 1949 and officially opened by the Queen in 1960. Its architect, Graham Dawbarn, is said to have doodled a question mark while considering its design, then thought to himself, "Hang on, that looks good." Which is why, from the air, the building looks like a question mark without a dot.
In its heyday, more than 6,000 people worked here, producing half of the corporation's output. Radio shows such as the Today programme, The World at One and all Five Live programmes were broadcast from here, too. "It was a vibrant place to work, but it could also be tough," says Mike. "There were celebrities at the height of their fame, and they could be awkward."
This was the world's first custom-built studio complex for television, described at the time as the Taj Mahal of TV. The doughnut block was 500ft in diameter with walls 2.5ft thick. The basement covered 3.5 acres. At any one time, there were hairdressing and make-up facilities for 615 artists, and they were almost always busy.
On a typical day, more than 350 people would come along for the BBC tour, while another 1,500 watched shows being recorded. We walk along deserted corridors with peeling walls. Wires hang from ceilings and plasterboard lies in sad heaps next to old coffee cups. Green rooms have been stripped of furniture, dressing rooms emptied of everything.
The studios have the prefix "TC", standing for Television Centre. We go into TC8 first because it is being used to house hundreds of thousands of pieces of old equipment that will be auctioned off over the internet in the next few months. There are mountains of video recorders, computer servers, lights and audio mixing decks and hundreds of miles of cable. This is one of the studios where Morecambe and Wise made their Christmas specials. This was the first studio from which colour was broadcast.
"Doctor Who was sometimes shot here," says Mike. "And it was one of the studios that housed Top of the Pops." In all probability, this was the place where the Sex Pistols played Pretty Vacant.
In TC5 remains the curved backdrop to Match of the Day. TCs 1, 6 and 4 housed big productions such as I, Claudius, The Forsyte Saga, and The House of Eliott. Mike takes me to TC7 which used to specialise in programmes with a current affairs bent – BBC Breakfast, Newsround and Newsnight. It was here in 1997, in an interview about the possible dismissal of a prison governor, that Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question 12 times. It all makes me feel rather nostalgic but Mike remains positive: "The iconic parts of the building will survive, the BBC will retain a presence here and will still be making programmes in three studios." While some of the duller sections of Television Centre will be demolished, the Grade II-listed parts will remain.
I ask Mike if we can take a look at the Blue Peter garden. The pond has been filled in and the flowerbeds are overgrown.
I suddenly recall a sense of outrage at the memory of John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves looking upset after thugs had vandalised their garden in 1978. Then come waves of emotion at the loss of various pets, Petra and Patch and some of my own. Every year, I'd follow their instructions for hibernating a tortoise, and every year theirs would live and mine would die. I'd like to say the memory of these deaths was what filled me with sadness as I left, but I think it was something else entirely.
What our Eamonn, Gloria and others remember about TV centre
The 54-year-old Belfast-born presenter has fronted many BBC programmes. He says:
Working at BBC Television Centre was the holy grail of television presenting. When I left Northern Ireland in 1986 to work for the BBC I lived in Manchester for five years, but I got to go down to London for the occasional visit. I didn't get to present there until 1990, though.
The first time I visited Television Centre was in the mid-Eighties, around 1986/87. It was really amazing. You'd be standing in reception and all these famous faces would pass you by, people like Selina Scott, Frank Bough, Esther Rantzen and Noel Edmonds. You'd hear them ask 'What room am I in?' as they all rushed about their business.
I also remember those iconic circular corridors, where you could bump into people all the time. It was like a Polo mint building.
Something that stands out about that building, for me is that there were a lot of firedoors and I was always holding them open for people and saying 'Good morning' as they passed through. Coming from a friendly place like Northern Ireland, that's what I was used to doing. But in Television Centre, people just looked at you with a certain coldness, as if to say 'Sorry, who are you?'
I was lucky enough to present a phenomenal amount of programmes in Television Centre: National Lottery: Jet Set for five years, BBC Breakfast News for two years and other shows like Have I Got News For You? When I was presenting Jet Set, I got my own star dressing room, the type that was reserved for guests like Dolly Parton. It had a bed, a shower, even a plasma screen television in it.
All the big sitcoms were filmed there too, shows like Only Fools and Horses, The Two Ronnies and It Ain't Half Hot Mum. I remember I used to go and have a wee nosy into all the studios, 'Oh look, that's where they film Grandstand', 'That's where they film Open All Hours'. And there was a massive props set where you'd see things like Dr Who's Tardis. It was unbelievable, an amazing gathering of television production all under the one roof and I'm mystified as they why they closed it down and moved on. It should have been preserved.
BBC Television Centre was a sight to behold in its day, there'd be doors swinging open, people rushing everywhere, forklift trucks carrying sets around ... I could've stood there and watched it all day.
The 74-year-old from Portadown, presented many BBC shows on TV and radio. She is now on ITV's Loose Women. Her daughter Caron Keating, who died from breast cancer in 2004,was a Blue Peter presenter during the Eighties. She says:
I have such fond memories of the Doughnut, as everyone used to call BBC Television Centre. I can still remember how excited I would feel, pulling up to security at Shepherd's Bush. That was always a special moment. I felt sad when it closed down.
Television Centre had a very unique design. I remember the first time I saw it, it seemed enormous. But because it was in the round, it didn't really matter where you walked, you'd eventually get to the place you were supposed to be going to. Of course, that didn't stop me getting lost in the early days but I learned that if you just kept walking, you'd get there in the end.
I did a lot of programmes from there, most recently Strictly Come Dancing. That was a fabulous experience. We had to be there on a Saturday morning at 8 o'clock, which was quite different, as the day-to-day workers were not there. By that time the dressing rooms had been done up, which was great. In the beginning they were quite dull and mundane. The Alan Titchmarsh Show used to come from Television Centre, too.
"One of my favourite memories is doing the programme Family Affairs with my daughter Caron Keating and my son Michael appeared on it too a few times, so it really was a family affair for us. I also remember doing Children In Need with Terry Wogan, when we had to perform I Got You Babe as Sonny and Cher.
"To be honest, half of my life was spent at Television Centre. They were very exciting times. It was such a wonderful, buzzy place, where you could bump into Roger Moore or Shirley Bassey. Doing Strictly was also very special for me, seeing all the dancers, the sequins, the feathers and costumes. That was a special time too, memories I'll always cherish."
Belfast-born (71) began working in the Met Office in 1962 and was a BBC TV forecaster from April 1987 until January 1993. He also broadcast on BBC radio from 1991 until 1993. He says:
For six years, I worked at BBC Television Centre, from 1987-1993. I joined just after the start of BBC Breakfast Time, when they increased the number of weather presenters to five. I was on a rota alongside Bill Giles, Michael Fish, Ian McCaskill and John Kettley and we worked from a small studio, as well as the main one.
One of my strongest memories of that time is the October storm of 1987. Luckily, I was off for a few days and managed to escape it. It had been flagged up from the week before but in the last 24 hours the storm was played down and viewers were told it was heading towards Northern France. But it crept up the English Channel instead, causing havoc. Everyone got a roasting over that, so I was glad I was off. I remember waking up that morning and watching John Kettley and Nicholas Witchell doing the news by candlelight.
I found the building itself quite imposing. I remember feeling rather nervous entering the bowels of Television Centre, especially when you knew you were there to do live television. After the system became automated, you would be in the studio on your own, watching yourself on the monitor, preparing to begin your report, keeping an eye on the digital clock reaching zero. It was easier when you had someone to play with. When we started doing weather reports 24 hours a day, that could be hard, too. Even at 3am, in a very quiet building, you had to appear bright and breezy.
There were other times I was in the building, appearing on shows like Children In Need or Blue Peter. That used to happen quite a bit. I remember working one Christmas Day and being dragged down to Top of the Pops to appear and say a few words, alongside its presenter, Anthea Turner. And then, of course, they started doing radio from Television Centre as well.
I met a few famous faces there, people like Terry Wogan, Moira Stewart and Jill Dando. But I didn't frequent the bar too much. To be honest, I was too busy. We could do up to 13 broadcasts within one shift and there was always a lot to be done, preparing reports, showing people around.
I suppose it's just progress that the building is being sold on to developers. Things change. But I have a lot of good memories of the place. They were fun times. I still have dreams though, in which I get everything wrong, that I'm totally unprepared, my computer's broken down, that type of thing. But I enjoyed it at the time. For me it was a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained."
It was one of those surreal, star-studded nights that comes hand in hand with being a showbiz journalist. During Christine Bleakley's 10-week spell as a contestant in the 2008 series of Strictly Come Dancing, I was invited along to BBC Television Centre to be a guest in the audience of the popular show. I was accompanied by my Belfast Telegraph colleague and Strictly superfan Claire Harrison on my one and only visit to the iconic building.
On our way in, our mobile telephones were taken from us and placed out of harm's way in a large plastic bag.
We were guided through circular corridors, lined with hundreds of photographs of well-known celebrities, to the now-legendary BBC bar.
Once inside, we spotted a few familiar faces, including Henry 'The Fonz' Winkler and Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington.
Professional dancer Brendan Cole was doing the rounds, showing off his new fiancee Zoe Hobbs, (the pair have since married). Before the show started, Claire and I headed to the ladies to freshen up our make-up and tidy our hair. After all, there was a good chance the studio cameras might pick us out, so we wanted to ensure we were looking our best. In our excitement, however, we went into the men's loos instead, only realising our error when Claire spotted the urinals in the mirror's reflection. Thank goodness Bruce Forsyth didn't need a last minute toilet break.
What struck us most about the Strictly Come Dancing studio was its compact size. I'd expected it to be much larger and our seats were just inches from the dance floor. Lionel Blair came on first and did a quick dance routine before Brucie took over as the warm-up act.
The judges and band got themselves into place, the cameras start rolling and then we were on live television. At one stage, much to Claire's delight, the camera zoomed in on us and our smiling faces appeared on the screen. The quick pre-show freshen up hadn't been in vain.
When the show ended with Christine's unfortunate elimination, her former One Show co-host Adrian Chiles bounded over to us, introduced himself and spirited us away, once again, to the BBC bar. It was buzzing with people by this stage, the exhausted contestants, the judges, the professional dancers – and The Fonz. When Christine and Co headed off to exclusive nightclub Mahiki, Claire and I declined the invitation to join them.
My last memory of BBC Television Centre is getting lost on the way out and ending up very disorientated. Our time spent in the bar was a mere coincidence."