When television was in its infancy, it made its home in buildings associated with far older forms of entertainment. Alexandra Palace had been built as a sort of Victorian leisure centre, while later on, theatres and film studios were converted for the new medium. Of these conversions, the film studios were the most ideal, providing a flexible, soundproofed environment for producers, technicians and performers. They weren’t, however, built to accommodate the miles of cabling and the tons of electronic equipment that television required.
It was always the BBC’s intention to build its own state-of-the-art television studios, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Television Service was expanding rapidly, both in terms of the number and scope of its programmes, and Alexandra Palace could not keep up with demand. Consequently, the former Gainsborough film studios at Lime Grove and the Riverside film studios were acquired, in 1949 and 1954 respectively, as temporary solutions while the new Television Centre was being built. In the event, the Lime Grove definition of ‘temporary’ was stretched to 42 years.
The 13-acre Shepherd’s Bush site for the new studios, planned as the first purpose-built television complex in Britain, had originally been occupied by the Franco-British exhibition of 1908. The BBC acquired it just after the Second World War, and the plans were ready by 1950, when a model of the design was shown at the Royal Academy, making another appearance the following year in the television pavilion at the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank.
Graham Dawbarn of the Norman and Dawbarn architecture practice had designed the building, working with the BBC’s in-house civil engineer Marmaduke Tudsbery-Tudsbery. Born in 1893, Dawbarn was the son of a civil engineer, from whom he inherited what the Times called his “precise and mathematical mind”. Dawbarn was educated at Cambridge, and served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. Indeed, much of his professional life was connected with aviation, as he and his business partner Sir Nigel Norman became renowned as airport designers, producing buildings at Heston, Birmingham, Jersey, Guernsey, Manchester and Wolverhampton. After Norman’s death in a flying accident during the Second World War, Dawbarn was left to continue the practice on his own – and it was at this point that the BBC commissioned him to design its new home for television.
Dawbarn is reputed to have begun his design process by drawing a large question mark on the back of an envelope, indicating that he had no idea where to start. Soon, however, his “precise and mathematical mind” began to realise that the symbol of his uncertainty represented a good shape for the building, using the tapering site most efficiently, allowing the free movement of equipment, scenery and people and offering scope for further expansion as necessary. At the centre of the question mark was to be a courtyard with a fountain – the fountain is still there, but has been turned off almost since the building opened because the noise it created disrupted work in the surrounding offices.
Television Centre, as it became known, was always planned as a modular building, to be extended and expanded as the need became felt and the funds became available. The first part to go up was the Scenery Block, for which building work began in 1951, with the first staff moving in over the autumn of 1953. Unsurprisingly, the next block to be built was the canteen. The first four of the eight planned studios – two of them measuring 100 feet by 80 feet with a height of 35 feet, and two of 70 feet by 50 feet by 25 feet – were to be ready by 1960, with the remainder to be built by then, but not fitted out.
In the event, though, BBC Television Centre was not the first purpose-built television complex to radiate a programme. It was beaten to the punch by four years when Granada Television went on the air from its newly-built studios at Quay Street, Manchester on 3 May 1956. The four-acre site, surrounding a basin on the Manchester Ship Canal had been purchased from the City Council for £82,000.
The architect chosen for Granada’s studios was Ralph Tubbs, who had designed the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain exhibition, but again, he had guidance from someone within the commissioning firm, namely Granada founder Sidney Bernstein. “Anyone who witnessed Sidney at work in one of these [planning] sessions had to acknowledge his practical genius as an architect,” wrote Granada Television’s Sir Denis Forman in his memoirs, Persona Granada.
Granada’s complex was also planned in a modular way, opening with the bare minimum needed to get a service up and running. When the company televised John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger it had to decamp to the ABC studios at Didsbury, because studio 2 at Quay Street was regarded as too small. By 1958, however, Granada could boast a studio of 9800 square feet, at that time the largest in Britain, although soon outstripped by Associated-Rediffusion’s studio 5 at Wembley. Nonetheless, a bit of good old-fashioned showmanship (or subterfuge, if you’re feeling less charitable) always ensured that the place sounded bigger than it was even in its earliest days. Sidney Bernstein stipulated that the studios should take even numbers only. Thus the first studio to open was number 2, followed in time by 4, 6, 8, 10 (the old Chelsea Palace theatre) and 12.
This was a new type of architecture, and both Dawbarn and Tubbs approached it in very different ways. Tubbs was very much a modernist, and the main block of the Granada complex was very much of its time, an essay in glass and other non-structural facings. Dawbarn, in contrast, was a traditionalist, albeit one who eschewed ornamentation and frippery, preferring clean lines and curves.
Externally, then, BBC Television Centre was a much more sober, though subtly more interesting construction, largely in brick. The largest readily-visible expanse of this material was to be found on the side wall of the enormous studio 1, which faced Wood Lane. This was the last of the TC studios to open, emitting its first show in 1964, and even then being used only lightly when a vast production warranted the space. This wall was left blank for a year or so after the complex opened, eventually being relieved with a pleasing pattern of round electric lights and an illuminated sign proclaiming in serifed type that this was the BBC TELEVISION CENTRE (This sign – which became well-known to the viewing public through its frequent appearances in comedy programmes – survived until 1993, when it was replaced with a modern corporate version. This, in turn, was replaced with the current sign in 1997. Most of the original internal signage is now also being replaced, sadly). Granada chose to proclaim its presence with red neon and a lattice tower.
The first phase of Television Centre opened on schedule on 29 June 1960, and, much expanded, is now the BBC’s main production centre in London; Lime Grove, Riverside and the Television Theatre having been disposed of long ago. Tubbs’ original vision of the Granada complex was completed by 1962, although further development has taken place since. Unfortunately, it seems that the future of Britain’s first purpose-built television centre is in doubt, following the consolidation of the ITV network. Both buildings, however, are monuments to the expertise of two great architects who were navigating without a compass, but somehow managed to create elegant buildings that continue to serve their original function well, 50 years after they were planned.