|A New Englander Abroad
The BBC Television Centre Tour
One of the most respected broadcasters in the world
By Robert Lamm
The BBC says it's the largest broadcasting organization in the world and I believe it! It has 28,000 employees (including a correspondent in every state of the USA), and claims to be one-and-a-half as times as large as its nearest rival,CNN. It certainly aspires to more than any other broadcaster: Local, national and worldwide radio news and entertainment (worldwide service in over 40 languages), the mainstay BBC-1 and BBC-2 television channels, a premium 'BBC Choice' cable channel, two digital channels (soon to be three), two 24-hour news channels (we see the international one, which has advertising), a Parliament channel (similar to C-SPAN), two children's channels, internet portal with broadband streaming, magazine, etc. And did I mention the R&D operation, which has done pioneering work in things like interactive television, and HDTV? They even invented an early form of video-tape recording!
The program output is certainly impressive: Where would TV be without Monty Python, Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Wallace and Gromit, Yes Minister, Blackadder, Life on Earth, The Weakest Link, Antiques Roadshow, nothing to say of all the BBC-produced nature and history programs and Masterpiece Theaters. And then there's stuff we haven't seen, like Till Death Do Us Part - the series that All in the Family was based on, and Steptoe and Son, the model for Sanford and Son. The news operation produces thirteen hours of news every hour, 24 hours a day.
The physical facilitites are impressive too: The headquarters is in an art-deco masterpiece in central London, the World Radio Service is in a historic building near where Marconi (inventor of radio) had his offices, and the Television Centre in West London is a very distinctive complex, portions of which have been listed as historic/aesthetically significant.
There used to be well-advertised 'BBC Experience' tours of the radio facilities in the downtown headquarters - now discontinued - but few tourists realize that you can take backstage tours of the Television Centre - a far superior tour. You have to book in advance and the tours consist of mostly walking around the building, but it's delightfully informative and free of the theme-park atmosphere that people complained about the old 'BBC Experience' downtown.
The BBC Television Centre is a surprisingly compact facility for its size: Eight TV studios in a circle and topped with an office complex big enough for 6000 employees. The whole thing was laid out in 1949, although the most recent bit - a very impressive newsgathering facility - was completed just a few years ago.
BBC Television Centre when it was first built. You're looking at the front of a big circle. The studios are on the ground floor with offices above. Out of the picture is an additional wing and office skyscraper.
The new newsroom is the first stop on the tour: The guide explains the various stations on the floor - and the process used to take in pictures, media, etc. and distribute it to the various program services. British news watchers are familiar with the room - it's the backdrop to their news broadcasts - so there's quite a bit of discussion of how it ends up behind the news readers when it becomes obvious that they aren't really there. It turns out that the news reader is in a small studio down the hall with automated cameras and a picture of the newsroom projected on a screen behind them.
Naturally, this picture has been the source of a lot of problems: The camera had to be raised when a cleaner didn't realize it was live and dusted it off - the news reader was doing his schtick in front of a flying washrag. The newsroom curves, so it wasn't possible to show the room from a single angle: So, to give a better representation of its true size, the camera image was doubled. But the symmetrical movements of the people on the two halves would give the deception away, so one side of the picture was from tape. This was discontinued when the newsreader was seen to walk in the background of the scene she was reading in front of. Now one side is delayed by a few minutes.
Brits also get a thrill standing in the central courtyard of the building: It's the backdrop to several shows. Americans are more likely to be impressed by the institutional 'Ministry of Television' appearance of the building: It's a big 1950's building, complete with murals, fountains and statues, and lots and lots of offices...
It's a shame they don't spend more time discussing the technical design, it's one of the few TV facilities in the world to have been so carefully planned out (in 1949!) and the fact that the virtually-unchanged central core remains the center of production is a testament to the soundness of its layout. Basically, eight 8000-square-foot studios were laid out in a circle, with a doughnut-shaped office block on top of them. Each studio has a separate front entrance to the central courtyard for public access and utility doors in back opening out on a utility ring road for scenery and other deliveries. The studios are four stories high and have glazed galleries overlooking them for technical services, control rooms and even sound-proofed observation galleries that the tours use to snoop in on what's going on. Unlike the improvised layouts in many US facilities, these were carefully laid out according to the design rules in the books.
Tour-group participants' reactions are typical: They're disappointed in the smallness and roughness of the sets. The Top of the Pops set (an historic show - the Beatles played it), doesn't only have the usual dings and dents, it has complete footprints on it! Another fascinating thing: in order to allow cameras to truck across the floor smoothly, all wood floors, tiles and even carpeting are painted onto the floor instead of being real. They look very realistic, even to a person on the scene.
One thing that impressed me was the sheer amount of production traffic: Many of the shows are weekly, but the sets are struck right after the shoot in order to move the next production in. Next week, the whole thing is rebuilt, including a repaint job on the floor, and props are re-positioned according to photos taken before the set was struck.
And of course, it's thrilling to see the stars and sets of shows you might have seen on TV - even in America. When I was there, Absolutely Fabulous was shooting a Christmas special. (Advance hint: 9/11 figures in the plot.) And the pedigree is hard to shake: One single studio was the location of Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers and more. (It's square shape gives it a more theatrical feeling and is therefore preferred for comedy.)
But what impressed me most was the sophistication of the gear: Audience seating folds into the walls. One studio had lights that could be raised and lowered by remote control. Each light actually consisted of two pieces: A spotlight or a floodlight that could be individually rotated into place. The Top of the Pops studio had a chair suspended up in the lights (30 feet up over a concrete floor) where a man would climb a rope ladder and pull it up after him to operate a follow spot.
Now some of you might ask, how much does it cost to rent one of these studios? (I did.) It turns out that a bare room starts at $60,000 for a ten-hour day, including five cameras (worth $150,000 each) and a single BBC supervisor. High end of the scale is about $120,000. Incidentally, Tina Turner rented one of these for her 60th birthday. She taped it and sold the program, so she actually made money on it.
And now a note about the British national obsession: The weather. You get to chromakey yourself in front of a weather map and they play a tape about how they do the weather inserts. They may have 6000 employees, but the weatherpeople have to operate their own camera: They push a button which automatically positions it for their height, customizes the lighting and do their bit. Their chromakey screen is unusual: they project a faint image of the weather map onto it so the talent can see what they're pointing at. (They also have the standard teleprompter/composite.)
Unfortunately, the tour doesn't go to any of the post-production or prep departments, so you don't get to see any editing rooms, costume or carpentry, etc. But they do drop you off at the in-house BBC store, where the rich selection of videos attests to the prolific output of this operation.
BBC Television Centre Tours are limited to 20 people and must be booked in advance: Call 0870 603 0304 to reserve a few days ahead of time. (It fills up easily, especially when school groups sign up.) To get there, take the Central Line Underground line to White City. The entrance to the Centre is directly across the street. No picture-taking allowed, unfortunately. For more info, please go to www.bbc.co.uk/tours.
Note: You can also get tickets to the many shows that have studio audiences. Popular shows have long waiting lists, but the lesser-known and one-shot programs are easier to book. All tickets are free, but get there early to make sure you get a seat (they overbook) and allow time to pass through airport-type security. More information is at www.bbc.co.uk/tickets.
Intrepid traveler Bob Lamm never misses an opportunity to visit a television production site or museum. Read more about his travels to various Film and Video Museums around the World (June 1995) here on the SMPTE/NE web site. He can be reached at 617-277-4317, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2003 Robert Lamm