Saturday 4 October 2008

BBC Tour

TV CentreThe 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.

Shepherds Bush MarketAround 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.

Media VillageMy 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...

Broadcasting HouseAnyway, 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 ?

DalekIt'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.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Tory Party Conference, in seach of John Major.

Tory Conference"You went to the Conservative Party conference ?"

I can hear the surprised cries of those who know me. As a bit of a lefty I'm hardly likely to be a fan of David Cameron and his happy gang. Since we've all seen reports on the news of the various party conferences I wondered what they were really like. Can you just pitch up and watch the speeches ? Do famous politicians swan around among the serfs ? Would I be able to punch John Major for screwing up the countries railway system and making trips between Leamington & Birmingham standing room only ?

With the Tories infesting Birmingham this year rather than the seaside it seemed a good day to find out.

The morning dawned bright and sunny. Weather forecasters predicted that this would be the same all day followed by rain of biblical proportions to follow through the week. Fortunately for my temper and the future of Mr Majors nose, the train was quiet enough for everyone to sit down. All that is, except the emo kid who decided to stand on his own at the end of the coach for angst and misery reasons. I bet he was really disapointed it even ran reasonably to time. No, hold on, being disapointed would make him happy. And that would make him sad. I dunno. He stood in the vestibule looking at his iPod miserably anyway when there were empty seats.

Things started to go wrong at New Street Station. The forces of oppression (TM) were obviously aware of my plans and started to harass me on arrival in the city. Testing a newly acquired 2nd hand camera by taking an nice arty shot of the railway lines disappearing into the tunnel at the end of the platform I was shouted at by a "platform assistant" for ignoring a non-existent sign and standing by a signal and not blocking the view of it. Of course if he'd enunciated rather than communicating in a series of shrieks and squeals I'd have put up a proper argument. As it was a colleague wandered up so rather than face down the gathering force I scarpered quick before they carted me off to some anonymous cellar to be interrogated by Michael Potillo (insert Spanish Inquisition joke). Make no mistake comrades, they were out to get me !

Wicker ShoeI don't really know what I expected to find in the city centre. Not a giant wicker shoe obviously. Perhaps some protesters as there had been during the G8 summit a few years ago. Or lots of blue flags and banners with pictures of Maggie (out, Out, OUT) and DC as his friends call him apparently. But no. Birmingham was ignoring the Tories as far as I could see. In fact I made it through Victoria Square, past the beach with empty deckchairs (calm down, coastal erosion isn't that bad, it's an advertising thing with sand around a fountain), past the threatened Library building and it's associated McDonalds, past the new Big Issue stand and as nearly to the war memorial before finding a sign of the event.

Anti Al Qaeda palmsTo be honest even when I found the first signs of conference it took me a moment to realise I had made it to the outer ring of steel. At first I thought, "The steel tube flower basket supports are interesting and new. " then looked again and saw the huge metal and concrete elliptical bases they stood in. These were no mere horticultural support, they were designed to repel anyone trying to drive a vehicle onto the plaza. I'm sure they would be very effective at this and keeping fat people out too as the space to walk through wasn't generous. Looking around, every entrance was protected with these fortifications except those off Broad Street which had been closed for the duration.

Approaching the ICC, freshly decorated with banners and coverings, it became obvious that I wasn't going to see any speeches. A huge tent obscured the entrance and out of this stretched queues of smart suited delegates sporting plastic badges around their necks. To get in you had to be checked by uniformed security guards before disappearing under canvas for indoctrination or security checks or something. Had I attempted to try and break in I suspect several of the army of police hanging around would have had something to say. That is if their colleagues on the top of the building hadn't stopped me first. Incidentally, when did the uniform stop being navy blue/black and become fluorescent ? Only the ones with guns get dark colours now - which makes them stand out more as they aren't dressed like builders ! Security was so tight that even the manholes had been sealed with something like black chewing gum to stop the communists using the sewers to invade.

Anyway, with a blue sky and interesting outdoor photographic exhibition to look at I decided to hang around and see what happened. Every so often someone would force a leaflet into my hand for a fringe event, more out of desperation to get rid of them than a desire to have me involved. Even smart jeans weren't exactly de rigueur amoung the crowds who preferred dark grey or black suits. Mind you there was a distinct lack of twinsets and pearls too so fashion has moved on in the Tory heartlands, for the conference anyway. Everyone walked around purposefully frequently gabbling on mobile phones. It was like a little bit of the City of London had moved to the middle of the country. Of course they could all have been desperately trying to offload stocks and shares as the economy melted down !

Forces of oppressionUndoubtedly the highlight was a lone protester with a small placard. His method of persuading the delegate to adopt his point of view was to shout at them. A lot. And loudly. Mostly the messages involved banning the tobacco industry which he accused of genocide. My particular favourite though was his oft repeated question, "Who likes nuclear power stations ?"

Most people simply ignored all attempts as engaging in debate which wasn't surprising really. Much as I like a discussion, I prefer not to start when one party is already at shouting point. In fact, so hopeless was he at protesting, I wondered if he had been brought in from "Rent a Trot" to confirm everyones opinions about the opposition. I suppose he gave them something to talk about inside, even if it was more likely to be along the lines of "Did you see that idiot..." rather than, "You know he's right about tobacco..."

At one point the the rhetoric revolved around Article 10 of some EU directive which protects out right to free speech. There were a larger number of police around at that point and our hero decided that they needed a refresher course in the law covering this area, specifically why it meant they couldn't arrest him. At one point half a dozen were looking on and an inspector went over to have a quiet word, I think he was pointing out that they had no intention of arresting him no matter how much it would make his day (Go on officer, do the handcuffs. And a tap with the truncheon too. I love it !) to which he bellowed that if they tried he would be happy to have his day in court. Talking to one of the dayglo stormtroopers it seems that he does attends all the conferences and would keep up the shouting all day every day. If nothing else that shows commitment and stamina.

My own hopes of protest were not going well. I hadn't seen a Major, Thatcher (out, Out, OUT) or Cameron all day. In fact the only person I'd recognised was Matthew Parris who is a lot less shiny and quite a bit taller than he appears on the telly. After looking around it became obvious why. Next to the ICC is the Hyatt hotel where the politicos stay. There is a glass walkway between the two over Broad Street. Quite simply the "stars" didn't go in through the tradesmans entrance, so we didn't get to mingle.

That wasn't the only reason though. Chatting to another conference tourist it seems I had missed shouty protesting man chatting to Ian Duncan Smith. A proper leader and I hadn't spotted him ! The main problem is that had the entire shadow cabinet walked amongst us wearing badges that read "I'm a Cameroonie" I wouldn't have recognised them. This is despite the fact that according to the web site there are enough to fill a reasonable sized bus (I know they wouldn't be seen dead on a bus but you get the idea). Lets be honest, most people could probably recognise DC, Billy Hague maybe, possibly George Osbourne at a pinch 'cos he's been on TV a lot recently, and then all they have left is Boris Johnson who isn't technically on the front bench any more.

Eventually the crowds thinned. The guys from Shelter recounted their woes to each other - they couldn't give away T-shirts to the attendees. In fact one delegate had explained that crashing property market would solve the homeless problem as "everyone will be able to afford a house". The Oxfam people had better luck with canvas bag freebies but not as well as the Telegraph with their plastic versions. The prize for handouts must go to the Spectator magazine whose attractive staff distributed many copies as people walked past. Their star though was a slightly scruffy bloke who wore his sash like a necklace or lose scarf and had plainly been told to go and do this. He did for the absolute minimum time possible and then retreated to go and do something useful I suppose.

Golden figuresWhat the ghosts of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch whose gold clad statues look over the closed streets would think of this I can only wonder. In their day they were real powerhouses, men who made things happen. Now we have sharp suited people strutting around thinking they are the new masters of the universe - which in a way they are. But none will ever come up with anything as revolutionary as these great men who drove the industrial revolution and fundamentally changed Britain so many years ago.

More pictures on Flickr.