Tales Of Television Centre

Affectionate and absorbing documentary pays tribute to the BBC's iconic home.


4 and a half stars



The Who girls starring in Tales of Television Centre


UK air date: 17 May, BBC Four, 9pm


It must have been a deeply sentimental and barely ambitious exec who said yes to a documentary on the history of BBC's Television Centre. It has around a year left before the last BBC-ers trickle out and it becomes, I dunno, Help Hire's HQ, as the ghosts of Dennis Potter, Sydney Newman and Morecambe and Wise waft around the call booths. But at the moment, it's only the industry thousands and archive TV geeks who seem aware of the sell off and thus give a shit. As of 13 May, Facebook's Save Television Centre page boasts only 207 Likes. But check again after next week, because in its own mellow-mannered and old-time BBC way, Richard Marson's Valentine documentary to TVC is a call to arms - a big, shouty BBC Four fuck-you to the Sixth Floor arsonists.


To anyone who loves the BBC, the decision to jettison their Shepherd's Bush home next year is akin to your parents selling off the house you grew up in. It's always been there - a bricks and mortar link between the worlds of Hancock's Half-Hour and The Thick of It, between The Generation Game and The Voice and Harold Macmillan and David Cameron. To the average Briton, it's as familiar a structure as 10 Downing Street or Buck House, as the BBC were never shy of showing off their modernist marvel. But that was then. And this is now.


Tales of Television Centre - Jonathon Powell speaks

Given its iconic glow, it's a mystery to most what goes on inside. Whether you were David Attenborough or Kenny Everett or John flipping Levene, you knew who Vic, the one-armed commissionaire, was. Only those who worked in that building knew that the important people ate in one restaurant, the middle-ranking somewhere else, while the oiks ate their bangers and beans in another. For those of us who only ever saw Television Centre on our TV screens on Record Breakers or Blue Peter, Marson's documentary is a mixture of the cosily familiar and the strikingly new, as a rollcall of living room friendly names line up to lay bare the building's licentious secrets.


One-time DWM-er and latterly Blue Peter editor Marson has assembled a starry-eyed, love letter documentary that glistens with a nostalgic shimmer. Everyone here seems fizzed to be asked to talk about something they genuinely care about and there's a cheekily indiscreet palliness to the anecdotes. I'm pretty sure Sarah Greene has never admitted on I Love 1984 how she shagged Mike Smith in her dressing room (with Wogan next door) and I've never heard Barry Norman let slip the time he presented the Film programme pissed off his head after a long, wet dinner. You've certainly never heard Katy Manning say that "everyone was bonking" in the special features for Colony in Space.


There are some great titbit tales, from Philip Glenister's trip to the TARDIS set when he was a kiddie ("My abiding memory of that is, God, this is cheap!" he puffs, like someone who has to point this out) to a typically blustering Brian Blessed who tells the story of when Huw Wheldon asked him to climb up to the statue of Helios to tie a condom to the Greek God's cock. "Now we hope people look at the bloody thing!" Wheldon and DG Hugh Carlton-Greene bellowed from below. From then on, Blessed tells us, the statue was known as Golden Bollocks.


It's not hard to imagine the BBC's MD and DG of the mid-60's enjoying a particularly brandy-drenched lunch prior to ordering a Z-Cars cast member to risk his life for a bit of frat boy fun. This is very much a celebration of a certain era of BBC culture. It's just not going to happen now that Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson get sloshed in the afternoon, and no-one in 2012 is likely to get hired if the floor manager has to comb their dressing room for booze before he or she goes on (as happened with Adam Adamant Lives! and probably countless other shows in the 60s and 70s). It's Just What Happened Then. (Burp)


Timid valley-girl, Nerys Hughes, had never even drunk alcohol before she arrived at the BBC, until Blessed (yes, him again) got the drinks in. What with the liquor and the fucking, Marson's doc makes old-time Television Centre sound like a West London version of Warhol's Factory, only with more tailored waistcoats and Old Holborn.


Peter Davison is interviewed for Tales of Television Centre

Every splendid, modernist inch of the building is covered in exhaustive detail, from the front gate, through reception, the studios, the restaurants, the meetings rooms, the lavatories, and its dizzying, circular corridors (both Greg Dyke and David Attenborough talk of getting lost before important meetings). But it never once feels as though it's talking to itself. To anyone who's only ever known TV Centre from Record Breakers, Swap Shop or Tom Baker publicity shots, it's like you're being granted access to the rooms previously off-bounds, and there's a certain illicit thrill of peeking inside those bars, those restaurants and those dressing rooms where so many deals were made, fights were started and babies conceived.


It's not hard to spot Marson's Doctor Who leanings. Within the first four minutes, we've sneaked a look behind-the-scenes at The Five Doctors and The Visitation, and it's a confident mainstream documentary that can push Janet Fielding forward as the second on-screen interviewee. For Who nutjobs, there's plenty to relish, from a clip of the terminally charmless Jon Pertwee having a Christian Bale "get out of my eyeline" ego moment to Tom Baker's Christmas Tape jape with John Cleese, to Graeme Harper's story about being needled by Eric and Ernie.


Relying on his own knowledge of the Beeb archive, and not the work of some young researcher who wouldn't know their Whicker from their Wogan, Marson's doc is peppered with juicy clips. From a fleeting appearance of Clive Dunn dolled up as the First Doctor from It's A Square World, through to the clip of two Play School presenters (plus a sober Johnny Ball) performing after a long session on the puff, to Peter Davison's Doctor gatecrashing the set of Captain Zep: Space Detective, it's a trove of dusty delights.


Television Centre may be sold off next year, but the BBC stopped letting us in a while ago now. Noel Edmonds walking off the set of Swap Shop, through those double doors and into another studio to surprise the It Ain't Half Hot Mum cast seems a lifetime away, as does Blue Peter cutting to a brass band walking through reception. The Voice is just too uptight to do anything like that.


If there's not a tear in your eye by the end, you've either a heart of stone or you watched ITV too much in your youth. After this, you might just want to make a citizen's arrest on Mark Thompson. Can we do that?


Steve O'Brien



Tales Of Television Centre
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