In our teens, in the 1980s, Richard Marson and I used to hare around BBC Television Centre (TVC) like it was a fun palace – and Thursday night was always the best time to be there.
“In one studio you could watch Judith Hann falling ass upwards on a live Tomorrow’s World,” says Richard. “Next door, the Top of the Pops crowd would be gyrating to T’Pau and Rick Astley. In another, Colin Baker and Kate O’Mara might be corpsing over some terrible Time Lord dialogue. In Studio Four, the Blue Peter set was being dismantled, and round the next bend there’d be an audience roaring at Blackadder.”
Back then, TVC was indeed a temple to entertainment. Now, sadly, it’s more like a mausoleum, echoing with past glories, as the BBC remorselessly abandons it.
When Richard told me he’d been asked to produce and direct Tales of Television Centre – a nostalgic, ribald homage – I knew instantly that rarely was a subject better suited to a film-maker. He used to eat and breathe TVC.
His career trajectory wasn’t exactly tea-boy to director-general, but after Durham University, he started as a scheduling clerk and, in the best BBC tradition, became a floor assistant and steadily climbed the ladder (through That’s Life, Going Live! and Top of the Pops) to become one of the finest editors of Blue Peter.
His 90-minute documentary Tales of Television Centre is a triumph. I doubt anyone other than Richard could have enticed such a roster of talent (nearly 50 actors, presenters, executives and staff) or coaxed out such revealing “tales”. The treatment is affectionate, saucy and – wait for it – expert.
Almost everyone agreed to appear. “There was so much affection. That’s why so many people said yes. Their faces lit up because they had personal, emotional memories,” says Richard, who acted as an off-camera interviewer. “It was daunting, though – the likes of David Attenborough, Terry Wogan, Esther Rantzen, Barry Norman and Jeremy Paxman. People who for decades have been the leading interviewers. That was the biggest personal challenge. And you could tell very early on they would test you, like, ‘Um, who was that controller?’ and if you hadn’t done your homework...”
He’s a TV historian who knows where the bodies are and where the tapes are. No one else would have had the nous, anal retention or contacts to source so much rare behind-the-scenes material. So we see true BBC classics in production – 1960s: Z Cars, Adam Adamant Lives! and Vanity Fair; 1970s: Top of the Pops, The Good Life, Doctor Who…
He’s also resisted using one of those tooth-gratingly arch commentaries that stymie so many documentaries. With judicious editing, the clips and quotes tell their own story, as the film wends its way around the 14-acre site – from the dragons on reception, to the heat of the studios, to liaisons in the BBC Club bar and pot-smoking and nooky on the premises.
Of course, these revelations have grabbed the headlines. Good for Johnny Ball. Something interesting to say at last after decades in the business. His story of people being stoned on Play School has generated tabloid heat. But for anyone who remembers all the superannuated hippies who fronted children’s TV in the 70s, it’s no massive shock. What’s really amazing is that the edition in question survived the BBC’s cavalier tape-junking policy, so we can see what Ball’s talking about.
Three former Doctor Who actresses Janet Fielding, Katy Manning and Louise Jameson screech with laughter about “people bonking all over the BBC”, but it’s rather innocent really. And Sarah Greene seizing her moments with Mike Smith… I’m sure no one other than Richard, her friend and former colleague, could have teased out that confidence.
He isn’t surprised by the media jumping on these revelations. “Obviously in a programme talking about showbiz in the 60s and 70s, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll were a big part of that,” he says. “The point they’re missing, and this is what the Doctor Who girls get right, is that the shows came first. These things may have happened but they didn’t get in the way of making some fantastic telly.”
I love Robert Powell’s more romantic story about how, when he was starring in Doomwatch in the early 70s, he hooked up with Pan’s People in the BBC Club bar, took them all out for the evening but homed in on blonde Babs Lord. They’ve been a couple ever since. Of dozens of hilarious anecdotes, I have two favourites… I shan’t spoil them, but one involves a dinosaur costume from a 1970 Doctor Who and the other takes place in the ladies’ lavs in TVC’s grim East Tower.
The film pins down quality actors like Susan Hampshire, Nigel Havers and Penelope Keith. Former executives Greg Dyke and David Attenborough laugh about getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors. Sarah Greene, Peter Davison and Philip Glenister fondly recall being taken to TVC as kids. Matt Baker wanders forlorn around the now-filled-in Blue Peter garden, and Jools Holland is still trying to forget having to wave a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree as a punter on Top of the Pops.
Which anecdote surprised Richard the most? “I nearly regurgitated my coffee when Barry Norman told me he was almost sacked for wearing a wig. [He was actually just having a bad hair day.] It seemed so fabulously random and shocking that someone thought they had the power to say, ‘I don’t like the way that man’s hair looks. Sack him!’ And then we talked to former BBC1 controller Paul Fox who supposedly did that, and of course he says he doesn’t remember it – with a twinkle in his eye.”
Roving camera shots show the almost deserted building at its best. For anyone who recalls what a hub of talent it was in earlier decades, stuffed to the gills with production staff, engineers and designers, it’s a sorry sight.
And the final reel, as the contributors are asked for one word to sum up what TVC means to them… well, I found it really moving. It’s not often you’ll see Terry Wogan, Joan Bakewell and Barry Norman looking choked on TV.
It may be hard to get worked up about bricks and mortar – or 1950s architecture – but this film rams home the brilliance of TVC and what a vital role it’s played in Britain’s cultural life for more than five decades. It should leave you questioning why on earth the Corporation is so keen to let it go.
Tales of Television Centre premieres at the BFI on London’s South Bank on Tuesday 15 May and will air on BBC4 on Thursday 17 May. (Richard has also edited a pre-watershed version, replacing some of the saltier anecdotes.)