Radio Times says goodbye to BBC Television Centre

Staffers at what used to be "the official organ of the BBC" share their memories of British TV's most iconic building

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To paraphrase the great EJ Thribb: So. Farewell then Television Centre… 

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Yes, the BBC’s staffers have moved out, the internal leaving party took place last night and this evening BBC4 will broadcast a special gig by Madness (7:30pm) at the West London landmark to bid a fond farewell to a building that’s been central to British TV for the last 50 years.

Excuse us getting a little teary-eyed about it, but until relatively recently Radio Times was “the official organ of the BBC” and, as a consequence, many of the tireless scribes at RT Towers harbour some very fond memories of TVC and the people who worked there.

So on the day this historic building shuts up shop and prepares to become a plush housing complex, here’s what we recall about good old TVC:

Patrick Mulkern: TV Centre means, for me, a place of work and play and happy memories. Hundreds of moments from Doctor Who, of course, from wandering around the sets of The Caves of Androzani as a teenager in 1983, and seeing all Peter Davison’s companions gathering for his regeneration scene. The story was destined to become the all-time fan favourite.

Spooling forward three decades to February 2013, I met the affable Brian Cox on the seventh floor balcony. He was in costume as Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman (for Mark Gatiss’s An Adventure in Space and Time) and looking down forlornly into TV Centre’s deserted central “doughnut”, he recalled how, 45 years earlier, he’d been in another huge sci-fi drama, Nigel Kneale’s controversial, The Year of the Sex Olympics.

I was in the studio audience for dozens of comedies now deemed classics: Ab Fab, Blackadder II, Victoria Wood As Seen on TV (with a then unknown Clive Anderson as the warm-up). Most memorable is the classic Bambi episode of The Young Ones (1984), with the bad boys appearing on University Challenge facing a team of toffs: Fry & Laurie, Emma Thompson and Ben Elton, again all virtually unknown, and an almighty, seamless one-off explosion ripping through the studio.

And I went to loads of Top of the Pops, the best being the rehearsal for the 1987 Christmas show, with Pet Shop Boys (I was a big fan of theirs), the Bee Gees, T’Pau and Rick Astley. Boy George was also there but was dropped from the final show because he wouldn’t take off a McDonald’s cap that was part of his outrageous Leigh Bowery drag. But I’d seen him perform about three feet away and was the only punter in the studio that afternoon.

Lastly, I remember sitting in a packed BBC Club bar with my younger sisters, waiting for the right moment to let them know that Duran Duran were lounging on the sofas right behind them. Happy days!

Jeremy Aspinall: A perk, if you like, of working in TV Centre is you can guarantee seeing the odd famous person. But ensconced in the lifts, you are at much closer quarters. However, sometimes be careful what you wish for as the most memorable – and exhausting – one for me was sharing a lift with the force of comic nature that was Frank Carson.

To say he was on in the brief time we went down to the ground floor is an understatement – a constant rat-a-tat-tat of Carson comedy carnage and you had nowhere to escape to. Sadly, the same joie de vivre was not always evident from other well-known comedy stars (who will remain nameless) whose mood would not have been out of place at a funeral. That same funereal mood dominated when I shared a lift with then director-general John Birt. Shunned and ignored by all the other suited souls in the lift, I actually felt sorry for our poor ex-boss.

Susanna Lazarus: My abiding memory of Television Centre is itself a little hazy. After landing a longed-for job on none other than the Radio Times website, the team decided a trip to the BBC bar was in order. It was packed full of Friday revellers; we settled on an outdoor table. Several hours (and bottles of wine) later, I staggered out of TVC’s gates to make countless joyful phone calls to all my friends and family, none of which I can remember!

Jack Seale: Round and round and round and round… my main memory of Television Centre will be getting lost in its quite literally endless corridors, often going right around the whole circle on a particular floor to end up back where I started. I didn’t mind, though, because everywhere you went there was something evoking the mess of creativity going on in there. Simon Mayo, or a door with COMEDY written on, that sort of thing.

But the real thrill was going to a recording, in my case of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. After the show, a contact on the programme took me to the green room, which proved to be a heroically crapulent oversized cupboard. Nevertheless, in shimmered Jonathan Ross and the night’s star guest, Nigella Lawson, still with thick orange make-up plastered on their delicious alien faces. The white wine was tepid and the crisps had run out ages ago. Still magic.

Tom Cole: I used to live in Kilburn but do my drinking in Shepherd’s Bush, so many of my fondest memories of TVC involve darting in to the place late in the evening on my way back home from the pub in a frantic search for a convenience. On one boozy evening, I recall Bill Bailey casually sauntering out of TVC’s front doors, before clocking me clocking him and then sprinting for a cab waiting to pick him up. Another time, I remember seeing Jeremy Paxman striding purposefully through TVC, bound for White City tube, and positively glittering.

But I wasn’t always sloshed. Oh, no. I used to head over to TVC fairly regularly during the day to shoot behind-the-scenes videos of Radio Times photoshoots (a lot more went on in that place than just TV production, you know) and vividly remember once, while attending a shoot in the building’s bowels, peeking behind a curtain and being faced with 12 suspended glitterballs, each the size of a small bungalow, and Dani Harmer shimmying around between them, filming a trailer for Strictly Come Dancing. And that was TVC all over, really: surprise and magic. It’s a shame it’s being closed down, but I’m glad I managed to have a nose (and other things) around the place before it shut its doors.

Paul Jones: In the years 2009-12, we worked up the road from TVC in the BBC’s Media Centre, where a soulless overpriced wine bar was the only option for a Friday night drink. Far better to head to the soulless, slightly-less-overpriced BBC Club bar on the 4th floor of Television Centre.

I’ll never know how they managed so accurately to recreate the combined ambience of a Student Union and an airport waiting room, but they did it. The highlight was the concrete roof terrace, which would no doubt have provided a breathtaking panorama of west London had someone not decided to surround it on all sides with corrugated metal cladding that entirely restricted the view. Good times!


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If those reminiscences have got you in the mood for another look at TVC, let Victoria Coren take you on a tour of the building in this clip from tonight’s Goodbye Television Centre documentary on BBC4: