The BBC is an iconic organisation occupying several iconic buildings. We all know what Television Centre looks like from the outside - it appears on telly often enough during Children in Need and many other programmes. But apart from a few glimpses you don't get to see the inside, apart from the studios obviously, very often. I fancied peeking behind the magic curtain so booked onto one of the tours now available.
To get there the nearest tube station is Shepherds Bush Market, which is literally on top of the stalls. With time to kill I took a wander. Quite a fast wander actually as it's a lot bigger than I expected. A bit more permanent too with many stall extending their roofs with clear corrugated plastic to give an indoor market feel on the cheap. As befits this area of the capital the stallholders and their clientele are very cosmopolitan. Your larder can be stocked with food from around the globe should you have a sufficiently strong stomach.
Around every corner I expected to see a Del Boy trading in dodgy goods but I was to be disappointed. While it might look like an archetypal scruffy market, the quality and more importantly, variety of stalls is higher than most. For example there are only a couple dealing in mobile 'phones - Birmingham Rag Market can manage 3 times that and it's not as big.
Heading away from the market, a stroll up Frithville Gardens ends in a modest park complete with Japanese Garden. One of the joys of London is that you can be in the busiest, nosiest area and a few minutes later find an oasis of calm. The park curls around the back of the Beeb and affords a fine view of myriad satellite dishes and other aerials. At the end a sign announces a bowling club - but there is no sign of a green. Better news comes from a poster telling everyone that a missing dog has been found. Nice to see someone tidying up the end of the story, how many of the forlorn notices pinned to lampposts for missing pets ever bear fruit I wonder.
My group was to meet up the the "Media Village" which is a poncy name for a group of office blocks 5 minutes walk from TV centre. As far as I can tell the entire site is occupied by the BBC and I think they even use some of the buildings as studios. As expected you can buy coffee from Starbucks, drinks from a wine bar and eats in a couple of cafes where the word "organic" prefaces everything on the menu. I ate a mediocre tuna wrap and supped organic hot chocolate (nice but I couldn't tell it from the ordinary, pre-processed, chemical filled variety sold elsewhere) while struggling with a couple of Guardian crossword crews and trying to spot famous people wandering out to lunch. In both cases I failed miserably.
Having gathered our group we headed off to the Centre to meet up in the main reception. This isn't the one that appears on TV, this one is full of Daleks which are shorter than expected, terminals to listen to the radio and big TV screens. Our guides met us there and took us along back out along the street to security.
I'm a bit of a connoisseur of London security having visited several Government departments and the Buckingham Palace office suite. Suffice to say the BBC is by far the toughest by far. Think airport style with all bags x-rayed and a metal scanner to walk through. Gentlemen, please remove your belts so they can go through the scanner too and don't bring anything sharp or it will be confiscated. How they get an entire studio audience through this is beyond me as 15 people took nearly 10 minutes. Good job it wasn't raining either as there isn't much shelter space other than the small gatehouse.
Once past this the ground rules were laid down - no photography unless specifically authorised, leave people alone (no autographs), stay together (2 guides, one each end of the line so we couldn't get lost) and single file so the corridors don't get blocked. Oh, and yes you can take a picture of the Tardis over there, I didn't bother 'cos it looked a bit rubbish.
The tour starts in the newsroom. Or rather a glass walled room on the edge of the newsroom. To get there the party is led through a canteen where apparently there was a newsreader although we only saw the back of her head. Actually I'm a bit rubbish at spotting celebrities so this is going to be a bit light on name dropping. I did see the guy who was the chief correspondent at the Olympics in the lift...
Once a promotional DVD (Wow, the BBC is great. And it makes Dr Who...) had been shown to us we were talked through the newsroom. This IS like it looks on TV but of course we only got to look at the staffers not the stars. I certainly wouldn't have liked to have a desk backing on to our goldfish bowl - no messing around on the web instead of working as the visiting licence payers can see what you are up to ! Various views of studios were show, mostly involving Simon Mayo looking bored in a 5 Live radio studio. Sadly the room wasn't full of people running around in a flap. It was explained that 80% of the news is known about in advance which might explain things. Or BBC people take late lunches and were out.
The newsroom is huge - 5 floors of it. When asked what news you watch, don't say "Ceefax" as you get scowled at and marked down as an idiot. Actually, this isn't so bad as there is a bit of audience participation later and I think I escaped because they didn't trust me with the equipment. I don't think the BBC is proud of Ceefax any more...
Anyway, after the news we went to see a studio via the celebrity reception. That's the one you see on the screen with cars pulling up outside. The decor is apparently protected in some way which means they can't change it leaving a relic of the 1950's which is a bit fantastic. One wall has a huge tiled abstract mural. Apparently it represents waves or something, no one is really sure but it's definitely not just a way for the builder to use up some old tiles from various bathrooms he'd done in the past. Joking aside, it is very impressive as the few modern touches don't interfere with the overall design. I suspect the cost savings of not redesigning the place every couple of years are worthwhile too.
Outside in the donut part of the building the only design flaw was demonstrated. A single person clapping their hands echos off all the concrete walls terribly. So when the designer placed a large fountain in the middle it lasted about 6 weeks before being turned off to stop the staff needing the loo all day !
The fountain area was the best place for star spotting. I copped, Miranda Hart, Christine Bleakley and the one with dark curly hair from Strictly Come Dancing. There were others but since I don't watch Strictly (if I keep repeating this it will improve my Google ranking) they all look the same to me. Oh and quite a lot of BBC employees having a fag in shelters that we were told weren't for that purpose at all as it's a non-smoking site.
Anyway, the dancing is taking place in Studio 1 which meant that all we saw from the viewing gallery was the inside of a black curtain. A screen showed the feed from the cameras during rehearsal which meant we saw Jodie Kidd and Cherie Lughi limbering up but it's just like watching telly so seemed a bit pointless. There was a little to see at the bottom of the blackout, but only odd lights reflected off the back of the scenery.
Next stop, the weather corridor. It's got pictures of each of the presenters currently working plus some black and white shots of "The Good Old Days". In the middle of this is a wall mounted camera and a blue panel. This means one "lucky" person can have a go at presenting the weather complete with chromakey background of maps etc. For those who don't get it, the guide gets someone to wear a cloak of invisibility - or blue cloth that makes you vanish when the system replaces all the blue it can see with background. What larks ! And this takes place in an office block corridor - how Glamorous !
Studio 3 was much better. From the viewing room we could see the set of the ITV (yes, ITV, they have to rent out 30% of the studio time) daytime quiz, Goldenballs. Our view was right up in the gods so we looked through the impressive lighting rig at the crowd being warmed up. Apparently Goldenballs isn't very popular, that combined with a daytime filming meant the audience was about 25 people. The warm up artist was struggling to whip them into a frenzy.
In this studio we actually learned a bit about how telly works. The floors for example are resin coated concrete and get re-painted regularly. They have to be perfectly smooth for the cameras to move. Like (proper) Daleks they don't do rough or soft surfaces. Therefore if you see a carpet in a comedy show, it's painted on the floor. Dramas are shot on location but comedy's and game shows need an audience, hence they happen in a studio.
The studio was surprisingly small, especially since it was the same one used years ago for Top of the Pops. Think tennis court and you get the idea. Studio 1 (the biggest on the site)is the size of half a football pitch. They all look bigger thanks to wide angle lenses on the cameras - which have also make the people on screen look wider. People who have visited Chelsea Flower Show report that the same effect works on the show gardens there which are little more than postage stamps but look sumptuous on screen.
Next stop was a "green room". This is where those appearing on a show are corralled before they get to the studio. We went into number 2, which is the one used by the Strictly judges according to the sign on the door. Inside it's nicely laid out with soft furnishings and, surprisingly, red walls. There was no sign of the food, drink or other substances that rumour has are laid on in these places but I'm sure they are cleaned out before tour parties arrive. I'm not sure this is officially on the tour but our guides seemed to know the place inside out and wanted us to get the most out of it.
Further along the corridor and things went downhill. In a special room we could try out some of the facilities. This means one person gets lumbered with trying to read the news on an autocue while three others play a quiz. For the three positions on offer, only one person volunteered. The news reading looked the worst. Stuck on your own reading from a screen in between some automatically played film clips of "news". Still our victim did a good job which means I'm sure she's about to be snapped up for a newsreaders £250k salary...
The quiz was just as rubbish. The contestants watched a film and then answered questions on it. They all had buzzers but normally you'd expect that when the first person presses the button, the others wouldn't work. Apparently this is beyond BBC technology so our host had to guess who had won. To be fair there was a prize, a BBC Breakfast Mug, but I'm not sure anyone would have missed this bit of the tour if it hadn't been there. We'd have preferredlook in more studios or perhaps the place they make props.
Finally the party arrived at the BBC shop. Selling DVD's and branded tat it's the last stop in the journey. I wanted to know why it existed inside the centre at the side of the canteen. Only BBC employees and tour parties can get in there. Why not put it on the street ?
It's not the only retail opportunity either. We'd already passed a branch of Costa Coffee and a WH Smith on our travels. A hair dressers didn't seem so daft except it wasn't part of the TV make-up service but a private salon that anyone who worked there could use.
After about an hour and a half we were back in (non-celeb) reception It's an enjoyable tour and you certainly learn a bit more about the Beeb. The guides are excellent and seem to know and care about the organisation. Those not happy with the licence fee won't be happy about the extravagantdecoration and displays in some of the areas but then they probably wouldn't bother with this tour anyway. I'd have liked to see more behind the scenes stuff and less hands on, although if they'd let me have a go with a camera perhaps I'd change my mind...
More on BBC tours
More pictures here.