This blog post provides some of the background thinking to a 6 minute video I produced to bid a (temporary) farewell to BBC Television Centre in West London. You can see the video below in this post or on YouTube here.
Since the mid-1950s the BBC has occupied a site at White City, West London. In 1960, this site grew to become the largest purpose-built suite of television studios in Europe. The site became known as ‘BBC Television Centre’.
For many who work at the BBC, Television Centre is the reason they wanted to work for the organisation in the first place. I am one of those people. The Corporation selling the building and relinquishing large amounts of its now unusable space was always going to be a bitter pill to swallow.
It wasn’t that we were happy to throw money maintaining a memory of a moment in time when it inspired us, it was just that we couldn’t really imagine there would ever be a time when we’d be ‘OK’ with the idea of being denied unfettered access to it.
But that time is coming (or, if you’re reading this after 31 March 2013, it’s passed). Very soon, I will be denied the buzz that comes with swiping my pass at the barriers. That nervous moment when I try and anticipate the uncomfortable speed of the revolving doors. There will come a time when Television Centre belongs to someone else. That’s a little difficult to swallow.
As a kid, I had a similar experience. My parents owned a shop in the town I grew up in. It was like a second home that shop. I owned it as much as they did, only to me it didn’t come with worries over revenue, customer footfall or the competition other newsagents in town presented. Not surprising then that when the time came for my parents to sell the business on to someone else, I felt a mild panic to make sure I’d divorced myself from the familiar sights and sounds of the special access I was granted by virtue of my parents owning it in the first place. I made a point of ‘saying goodbye’ to every single room before my parents handed over the keys.
This in part explains why I ended up making the BBC staff tap-dancing tribute to Television Centre film published just a couple of days ago: it was an opportunity (maybe even an excuse?) to spend a long time pacing the many corridors and seemingly never-ending site to get unusual ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage of a building staff adore. This like that so many other colleagues have done over the past few months was an opportunity – forgive the morbidity – to pay our respects. To obtain some closure.
But there was another reason for making the film. One of my earliest memories of this building being referenced was the great Roy Castle enacting a record-breaking tap-dance around Television Centre for the kids programme Record Breakers.
This along with a whole variety of other very-nearly forgotten extravaganza-type shows made for kids, brought TV alive for me, an experience unexpectedly brought to dizzying heights of euphoria when a coach-load of cub scouts (of which I was reluctantly one) en-route back to Suffolk from the Royal Tournament in Earls Court, ended up getting caught up in a nasty traffic jam in Wood Lane. Rain pelting down against the window, the coach pulled to a stop and some boy near me said, “That’s it. That’s Television Centre. Doesn’t it look amazing.”
That was 1978, I think. It was cold, wet and all a little bit grey. But it looked stunning. And exciting. And utterly, utterly entrancing. And it also felt ever so nearly in reach. My Dad was a freelance cameraman at Anglia Television in Norwich (which was sort of like the BBC). In that moment, the BBC seemed almost within my grasp and yet incredibly distant all at the same time.
The tale of getting a job there, is out of the scope of this post, but it is those early memories which loom large. Little wonder they remained so potent when I found myself being offered my first job in the ‘proper BBC’ by my then boss Phil Buckley, both of us perched on the ledge in the middle of the Doughnut. “So we’d like to offer you the job Jon,” he said as I stared all around me, “Would you be interested?” It was the best present ever. He could have told me I was going to have to pay the BBC to work there and I’d have said yes. (He didn’t, by the way.)
Saying goodbye to the building isn’t such a strange thing to do after all. The opportunity to have free reign to wander around somewhere that has for the past eight years felt like a second home wasn’t just a pleasure, it was also necessary. To have a key relationship torn away isn’t good for the soul.
When I started at the Beeb I knew – rather cruelly, I thought – that the BBC would move out of Television Centre. It was announced in a speech given by then DG Mark Thompson .. on my first day. But from that moment on, one track had to be played whenever I walked off sight from the grim office block (where the toilets always smelled of sulphur) known as the East Tower where I worked in 2007. It was 42nd Street – the soundtrack to Roy Castle’s tap-dancing record attempt from 30 years before.
The idea of cutting a present-day ‘version’ of that famous TV sequence was too delicious to ignore. I spend endless amounts of time listening to favourite pieces of music and working out visual sequences which match my take on a particular subject. 42nd Street seemed way too obvious an opportunity. Listening to the track I had on my iPod – a particularly tight big band arrangement – made the big finale a no-brainer. In a warped retrospective and slightly tongue-in-cheek way, wouldn’t it make perfect sense to get BBC staff to play the ‘parts’ of the tap-dancers? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate tribute to the building we all love and the man who introduced us to it in the first place?
As it happened, I put the notion out of my head. It all seemed a little too ambitious. Castle had 499 schoolgirls. I have pretty awful influencing skills and saw no prospect of a budget for such a ‘major’ production. And anyway, wouldn’t someone else beat me to it?
So until a month ago (and this is important) I had put the whole thing out of my head. But when a BBC pal tweeted that the interior of TVC was being ‘gutted’ in advance of the corporation vacating the building, I knew I had to make the thing I’d wanted to make for years. I grabbed my Panasonic Lumix TZ7 and a cheap tripod and started wandering around … everywhere.
What I found was astonishing. Vast empty spaces devoid of desks. Offices in nooks and crannies. Evidence of a cavalier approach to building additional capacity in spaces not previously thought necessary when TVC was first built. It was exciting (in that nearly everything seemed like a new discovery) and also scary (given that it bore a resemblance to a number of nightmares I had over the years about houses purchased but never ever refurbished because we’d never got a handle on how big the property was in the first place).
It was this process of seeing the scale of the site which helped not only say goodbye to the place but also help understand why it was necessary for the BBC to move away from it. How was it possible that an office space in West London which took me fifteen minutes to walk from one side to another was a cost-effective space for so many people to work? I remember from the 6 months I worked in the building, that everyone was shut off in smaller office spaces – this didn’t aid collaboration in any way. The building was designed for something else; working practises (and the way in which content is created, distributed and consumed has changed beyond the recognition of those who had original designed TVC). As much as I wanted to hang on to my past, it wasn’t right to do so. It had to go. Or at least it had to be used for something else. Explaining that to others was the tricky part.
What you see in the film is the documenting of a 4-week production process. In research terms I started with experimenting with shots and steps (I’m no tap-dancer, hence my desire to test out some simple steps in the basement on my own), teaching those steps to a colleague (the lovely Hannah) who later joins other colleagues from the office I work in to give them confidence (the three-woman studio sequence). With my confidence increased, I call on Ian, Emily & Eliza to do some steps in the old TVC canteen. From that moment on the momentum has built sufficiently to get a group of six people together (the stairs/basement sequence).
The solo sequences with me padding around desolate offices are meant to illustrate not abandonment, rather how spaces previously perceived as powerful are – once the people have gone – bland, non-threatening spaces. Memories of power struggles, ill-thought out ideas and shameful insecurities do still linger, but we can laugh at them when the space has been disenfranchised. (In case you’re wondering, it was BBC Four controller Richard Klein’s office I was lording it up in.)
A wider group of staff saw the sequence in which I pull open the doors to Studio Four (the same studio Castle tapped his way out of in the famous ’77 sequence) – the excerpt was posted on the staff intranet and interested individuals asked to register accordingly. This was the ‘call to action’ was for a lunchtime filming session in the Doughnut on Thursday 14 March. (Interestingly, it was this action which prompted The One Show production team to call me to ask me what I was doing and to check that my work wasn’t going to impact on the similar tap-dancing tribute they were mounting the Saturday after. Great minds think alike, it seems.)
In truth, I had no idea whether anyone would turn up. When I heard that 150 people had signed up, I began to worry. I’d never directed anymore than 6 people in one go before. Upwards of 20 was going to cause a bit of a headache.
As it turned out, the appearance of Pudsey (and a loudhaler) made the process a whole lot easier. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was the enthusiasm everyone in the final sequence had for the process. Conscious of time, I explained what it was I needed them to do in what turned out to be in itself a highly-choreographed 45 minutes. First a group shot which would be the end-shot. Next, a demonstration of the steps they’d need to do, followed by everyone lining up in pairs to dash in to the Doughnut. We did two takes. That was it.
The event itself was a touching affair. Everyone gave of their time willingly it seemed which surprised me given that I had no real previous experience of directing and I was nervous as hell. Not only that, people seemed quite happy to participate in what was quite a strange experience for them on paper: “Stand there, jog in, wave and then go.” Such was the enthusiasm that we were able to get the additional ‘wheel’ shot by getting every other person on the ledge to stand on the ground and move in the opposite direction. When you see two human-formed wheels move in contrary motion a bell rings in your stomach, believe me.
Four cameras (thanks to Dualtagh Herr, Jen Macro for camera work, not to mention ‘assistant directors’ Gill Clydesdale and Nancy Smith), one of which was my trust Panasonic Lumix. Total equipment cost, £60. Yes, that’s right.
The edit of the final piece was done as I gathered each sequence’s footage, such that by the time we’d gathered the Doughnut footage, the last remaining edit of an hour’s material took no more than 48 hours. A real result.
It has been a joy to work on. It’s not without good reason I explained to the final cast of 108 that ‘Today is like Christmas Day and .. frankly .. this is the best Christmas present ever.” It is exactly the fitting tribute I’d dreamt I could make 8 years ago.
And a very special nod to Jon Plowman. We did his sequence in one take.