Tonight, the last news broadcast from BBC Television Centre went out. In common with a lot of people, I’m really sad that the news will no longer come to me from inside that curvy concrete palace of dreams. But as the day’s gone on and the feeling has nagged at me, I’ve realised that my sadness isn’t just nostalgic. It’s to do with a sense of opportunity lost, and a feeling that a ritual is being obliterated without all of its best aspects being carried forward into the new practice. And the reason why, even with the best planning and the most expensive management, that the new place and the new system won’t have these best bits? Because you can’t plan for them. You just had to leave space and hope, and only an old, comfortable institution breathes in a way that leaves gaps for things to just happen like that.
Let me explain. I do so only from my, naturally limited, perspective - others will have longer, better and more interesting experiences of the place, and the mere existence of all those mostly untold stories is partly why I’m so sad that there won’t be any more. If you’re interested, a rather good writer by the name of Alan White has written his own recollections down, and I recommend reading them. I, however, can only refer to my own.
I first went to BBC Television Centre about two and a half years ago to appear on the BBC News Channel as a guest paper reviewer. I’ve since done this about once every six weeks; sometimes a bit more often. Occasionally, it’s a weeknight, but usually it’s a Saturday, as it was that first time. I arrived at the stage door at about 10pm. There are a few chairs, pointing at a bank of television screens, each showing a different BBC channel with the sound muted and the subtitles on. There are a couple of desks, which occasionally have someone sitting at them who will call up an escort for you to your destination. Sometimes these people aren’t there, and you’re at liberty to wander (more on this in a moment).
One way or another, you end up in the BBC newsroom and are parked at a vacant desk to look at newspaper frontpages and to think of things to say about them. Right from that first time, though, I’ve always preferred surreptitiously to follow what’s going on - there’s generally only a small staff working on Saturday night at 10.30pm, so you can tell pretty much what everyone’s up to. Of course, a good deal of my time in the BBC newsroom is spent pretending I’m Bel from The Hour (as those of you who know me or follow me on Twitter will have no doubt already assumed). The rest of the time, I gawp at all the inexplicable, wonderful things you can’t know or learn unless you’re there. For instance, newsreaders generally only wear smart clothes on their top half. The bit that’s under the desk, especially on a weekend, will most likely be wearing jeans and trainers, or shorts and sandals. It’s disconcerting to receive advice on TV-camera-head-placement from Fiona Bruce (you should keep your eyes still but move your head, if you’re interested) while her top half is immaculate - smart jacket, jewellery, perfect make-up and hair - and her bottom half is wearing extremely comfy-looking old jeans and old trainers. But after a second you think - why not? Why should she dress up bits that nobody can see on TV?
Another example: for a few of my visits, there was a cardboard cutout of Huw Edwards’ face stuck on the wall at about shoulder height. No explanation - it was just there for a while, and then one time it wasn’t any more. Then there was the time last summer when the Williams sisters were winning the doubles final at Wimbledon, and as the clock crept closer and closer to the top of the hour the call came in from “upstairs” that they were to hold the news (and thus my segment) until they’d finished winning. A hasty conference was convened to agree that tennis was a very stupid sport (many reasons were given and debated) and it was decided that they had about 45 seconds from the final ball hitting the ground to needing to be on air with the “buh-dum” bit at the start of the news bulletin. I’ve never seen a group of people who dislike tennis watch a tennis match with such absorption, or move so quickly when that ball dropped. I, of course, sat there unhelpfully, taking it all in.
Another thing I always found fascinating about the BBC is how little they cared about what I looked like. I do the same job for Sky sometimes, and there I have to spend 20 minutes in the make-up room having a plastic newsreader face sprayed on (with an actual spray gun, no word of a lie). Once, I returned home afterwards to be told that I looked like “a robot prostitute from the future, and not in a good way”. Catching sight of myself in a mirror, I was forced to agree. At the BBC, a harrassed-looking woman with a bum bag full of brushes would usually walk past, dab you a bit with a tissue, make you comb your hair, and that was it. Only once did I go to the make-up room, and that was when I was really early and said lady and I fancied a cup of tea and a chat. Since no one at the BBC ever complained about how I looked, I’m forced to conclude that it really isn’t very important if what you’re saying is interesting.
Then there’s the wandering. Most of the time when I arrive, there’s nobody at the stage door. This is when I try and find the newsroom on my own, but just to add interest, I never go the same way twice. Did you know there’s a WH Smith’s somewhere inside there? There’s also a great big art deco staircase with a balcony, and a lot of slightly curving corridors that all look the same. Once, I went up too many floors and confidently marched to the point where I knew I was supposed to be, only to find it was small cupboard, not a large newsroom. I very nearly lost it, believing that I’d ended up in some very dull reverse-Narnia kind of situation, before I thought to check the floor below. And how was I able to go on these nocturnal wanderings around the BBC, I hear you ask? Don’t they have security guards or electronic passes? Why yes, they do, but part of the magic of the place, I found, is that there’s always somebody friendly (or at least disinterested) working nearby, no matter what time it is, who you can follow through a door or who will respond to a knock on a window and let you through. Unsurprisingly, BBC Television Centre is the most British place I’ve ever been, in the sense that everyone I’ve ever encountered there has been far too polite to ask me what I’m doing or why I’m there.
Sometimes, though, there are people at the stage door. Like the time when I arrived during the filming of the early stages of The Voice, and got unwittingly swept up in a classic reality show scene as the successful contest came out of the studio to tell his anxious family, who then started embracing everyone in sight, including me and a couple of confused taxi drivers. Or when I arrived as the stars of Strictly Come Dancing were leaving, and you get to see the car hierarchy - black Mercedes for Bruce Forsyth and (some of) the celebrity contestants, Fords for the less famous celebrities and the dancers, and your common or garden Prius for the rest. Once, when I was leaving at about midnight, the Olympic gymnast Louis Smith was waiting at the stage door. Just waiting, hanging out. I caught his eye, awkwardly, like people do late at night on the tube, and then left.
What does it all add up to, then, this parade of tedious anecdotes? My point, which I hope is buried in there somewhere, is it was precisely because BBC Television Centre was old, unwieldy, strange and impractical that it was so brilliant. Maybe it was because none of the corridors went in a straight line - there was a kind of freedom about the place that allowed the likes of me to slip in almost unobserved and learn from people much cleverer and more experienced than me. I was virtually gibbering with terror the first time I had to talk on television, but the mere fact that you have to walk quite a way down a curving corridor from the newsroom to the studio, and you go past hilariously old photographs of BBC journalists on your way, calmed me down miraculously. There was a measured, ritualistic quality about the way everything happened, even when it wasn’t planned or usual, that was calming and instructive.
It reminds me of something an old music teacher of mine once told me. Before starting a performance, he said, always take a big, deep breath and let it out slowly. You should only start once your exhale is nearly finished - make the audience wait for you. The first time he told me this, I thought it was stupid (he was teaching me to play the piano, after all, and I couldn’t see what my breathing had to do with my fingers). So I ignored his advice, and mucked up the performance utterly. The next time, I did exactly as he’d said, using the last vestiges of the deep breath as the impetus to push the music into motion. Magically, miraculously, the same piece that had gone so wrong the last time came out perfectly. And it wasn’t just a perfect replication of what I’d practised - it was better. Getting the breathing right meant I’d been able to find new things about the music even as I was performing it.
I think BBC Television Centre is like that. Its very architecture encourages you to take a breath and let it out properly before you embark on anything, meaning that more often than not what came out was better than what you planned. And while New Broadcasting House is certainly very shiny, and will probably save a lot of money and all that kind of thing, my limited experience of it so far doesn’t suggest that it really has a lot of breathing space built in. But as I said at the start, the kind of negative space that allows you to breath easily isn’t really the kind of thing you can manage and organise into existence, or pack in a box and transfer to a new venue.
I just hope it finds its way there anyway.