Now a symbol of London’s ever-changing nature as new development takes over; Television Centre was once home to the UK’s most beloved dramas, comedies, and cultural programs. It was constructed specifically to be the BBC’s first dedicated television broadcasting studios and would oversee the news and such memorable shows as Blue Peter, Doctor Who, Top of the Pops, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Casualty, among others. The history of the building is just as fascinating as the shows that were made within, so let’s have a look behind the camera at the history of one of London’s greatest buildings—BBC Television Centre.
Before Television Centre, most of the TV broadcasts were made from Alexandra Palace, and while it purchased Lime Grove Studios and other properties as homes for its programs, the BBC knew that they needed a central hub for it all. In 1949, it purchased the former White City site in Shepherd’s Bush with the intention to construct the nation’s first true home to television. At the same time, the BBC tapped architect Graham Dawbarn to design the new structure. Given the fifty-page brief he was given on what the Corporation required and the triangular shape of the site, it’s said that he retreated to a pub to ponder it over. Drawing the shape of the property on a pub napkin and truly stumped on what to do, he drew a question mark inside the shape, and that’s what inspiration hit. He then drew a more complex design on an envelope that is still in the BBC’s possession.
While the design may have come easily, the actual construction was more problematic. Work on Television Centre actually began in 1950, but government restrictions on building made the process a lengthy one. The sanctions on building and the licensing of materials stopped the construction until 1953, and in the meantime, the BBC opted to renovate its studios at Lime Grove, Hammersmith, and Shepard’s Bush Empire. Stage One including the TVC scenery block was the first part of the center built, while Stage 2 and the canteen block followed in 1954. The next year would see work begin on the circular office block that composed Stage 3. Today it might seem s a little confusing as most people would think “stage” means “studio” when it really referred to that point of construction. By the time the building opened in 1960, studio TC3 was the first to be completed.
For over fifty years, Television Centre really was the center of television in the United Kingdom. It housed everything necessary for any program, including studios, offices, a staff cafeteria, editing bays, scenery workshops, costume design studios, etc. Most work was able to be kept successfully in-house with only limited television production going out to the BBC’s other studios around London. Moving into the 20th Century as the area around the studios began to fall under the sway of development, English Heritage pushed for the building to receive listed status for the scenery block, the main building, and the cafeteria block. The Ministry for Culture, Tourism, and Sport would grant Grade II listed status in 2009 for the Central Ring and Studio 1, but determined the other buildings were not of sufficient interest.
At the same time, BBC Television Centre’s days were becoming numbered. By 2007, the BBC had a £2 billion funding shortfall and opted to divest itself of some of his property holdings. Selling the building in 2012, production of various programs was moved to studios around the UK, a process begun several years before when shows such as Doctor Who moved their production offices to Cardiff’s Broadcasting House, while BBC Sports and BBC Children’s moved to MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. BBC News moved into its new home in the updated Broadcasting House in London, originally constructed for BBC Radio but now incorporating BBC Television and the BBC World Service.
Now destined for mix-used by developer Stanhope, demolition began in 2015, and the building is readying itself to be the home to corporate offices, restaurants, and more. The BBC still leases some studio space there for its use as well as ITV’s. While television may no longer be the main business of Television Centre, it no doubt still has a home here and will continue to be the historical center of BBC Television if only in spirit.