BBC Television Centre | History

The History of TVC:

On Friday 1 April 1949, Norman Collins, the Controller of the BBC Television Service, announced at the Television Society's annual dinner at the Waldorf Hotel that a new TV centre would be built in Shepherd's Bush. Transmissions at the time came from Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove Studios (from 1949), and had very few television transmitters. It was to be the largest television centre in the world.

It was planned to be six acres, but turned out to be twice as big. On 24 August 1956 the main contract was awarded by the BBC to Higgs and Hill; the building was planned to cost £9m.

When it opened, the Director of BBC television was Gerald Beadle, and the first programme it broadcast was First Night with David Nixon in TC Three.

• The White City: A Site is Chosen

A site of 13 acres, previously occupied by part of the Franco-British Exhibition was bought by the BBC shortly after the war. This 140 acre exhibition had consisted of several highly ornate pavilions all faced in white which came to give this area of London just north of Shepherds Bush the name 'White City.'

Following the original exhibition and the 1908 Olympic Games, the buildings hosted several other exhibitions and expositions. The last time the site was employed for its original purpose was for the British Industries Fair in 1929 although some areas were used for 'textile fairs' until 1937. During the war some of the buildings were commandeered for the manufacture of parachutes. In 1936 much of the site was taken over by Hammersmith council who built the South Africa Estate of flats surrounding the stadium.

By 1949 the remainder of the site was derelict and the BBC purchased 13 acres originally occupied by the 'court of honour' - although several councillors objected strongly and thought that the land should have been used for housing. The only thing that remains of this extraordinary, spectacular exhibition site is a 2m square of terracotta tiles on the ground outside TC1.

• A Question Mark on an Envelope: The story of Graham Dawbarn and his unique vision for the BBC

The story of how architect Graham Dawbarn came up with the design is well documented. Given a fifty-page brief he retreated to a pub for inspiration and with a plan of the oddly-shaped site in his head he pondered on the problem: how to fit eight to ten studios in this area, giving easy access to scenery and also to artists, crew and audiences. Gazing at it for a few seconds, he doodled a question mark on an envelope and the penny dropped. The shape was perfect. He would build most of the studios around a circular hub containing video recorders in the basement - so cable lengths to each studio were minimized. Around that would be dressing rooms in the basement and on ground floor level. The studios would be spread outside a circular corridor on the ground floor in a large/small alternate pattern, enabling crush bars or 'assembly areas' to occupy some of the space next to the smaller studios. On first floor level above the dressing rooms and assembly areas would be the studio control rooms and apparatus rooms - all with easy access to each other.

A concept plan was drawn up, a model made, and in 1951 construction began on the first building - the scenery block. However, the foundation stone for the main block was not in fact laid until 1956. There was a pause of a few years before building could commence on the studios. The government was going through financially straitened times following the war and they could not afford the huge capital investment that was required to be borrowed. As it transpired, the delay was to the good as the plans could be further developed and refined.

• The Hit Shows: From Steptoe and Son to Strictly Come Dancing, a look at the major shows recorded at TV over 50 years

• The Secrets of Television Centre

- In 1955, the same year that ITV was launched, the BBC held a glamorous showbiz ball one afternoon in the main scene dock of the scenery block of all places. This was technically, therefore, the first television programme made at TV Centre. Hundreds of celebs were invited and in fact those that weren't came anyway. No less than 2,500 turned up and shuffled round the dance floor. Two top bands played and the whole thing was televised by an OB unit. (Sadly of course, this was live and no recording exists.) The idea was partly to launch the new afternoon service of BBCtv but also obviously to prove to this new upstart ITV that the BBC still had the loyalty of all the top performers in the country. However, some things never change. The celebs were simply there for a bit of publicity and within a few weeks many of them were appearing on ITV shows.

- During the '60s, '70s and '80s, the Centre contained some extraordinary facilities, many of which most people working there probably had no idea existed. For example, Tim Dorney, engineer in News dept, explains that during the 1970s he discovered that there was a room at the base of the South Hall where grand pianos were stored. The door was never locked and he tells me that he passed many a lunch hour practising on one of several beautiful instruments, all of which were always in perfect tune.

- Children's TV in the 1980s still used on-screen continuity announcers, and the tiny area used for this became known as the 'broom cupboard'. After the great storm of October 1987 all power to TV Centre was lost except for the emergency generator that supplied this area. Therefore, BBC1 was kept on air with the news coming from the broom cupboard - a very serious looking newsreader backed by a brightly painted wall and the remains of children's paintings that had been sent in to Philip Schofield and his puppet Gordon the gopher.

- The Old Puppet Theatre: TVC once had its very own puppet studio and it had connecting doors to the studios either side so cameras could be wheeled in to make recordings. It had no sound or vision facilities of its own. It was intended to replace the old puppet theatre tin shed in the yard at the back of Lime Grove but was only used for a few years.

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