BBC Television Centre: the fairness was what made the magic

At BBC TV Centre everyone was equal - equally lost, that is.

No doubt the encomiums for BBC Television Centre will gush forth from the Great and Good over the next day or two. And no doubt for most non-media types the outpouring of grief will be completely inexplicable. Why churn out thousands of words over the loss of a hunk of bricks and mortar - and an ugly one at that? 

Well. I'm no television grandee, nor am I a celebrity who presided over the studios. I'm just some bloke, who worked there every now and again. And actually, I think that's quite important.

As a child growing up in the sticks, I remember the opening credits of Wogan's chat show, "Live from Shepherd's Bush"; the opening picture of TVC, perhaps illuminated by searchlights, as if The Shepherd's Bush was a huge donut-shaped slab, there simply to accommodate Terry and his immaculately-coiffured hair. I remember the mischievous insurgent Kenny Everett attempting to scale the side of Terry's fortress, though I can't remember the context for this sketch. And I remember, of course, all those intriguing little occasions when the shroud would be ripped away - Children In Need skits where the cameras would pan out of the studio and follow our stars down the corridors. And I remember, of course, the Blue Peter garden.

And from that distance at that age, The Shepherd's Bush seemed a mysterious magic factory. And then I remember finally visiting the place as a young teen because the Record Breakers host Kris Akabusi had for some reason invited some kids from our school, and he took us to the Blue Peter garden, which I'd assumed was a sort of rolling, verdant Capability Brown job at the back of The Shepherd's Bush but was in fact a tiny allotment behind a studio made to look an awful lot bigger by deft camera work, and I remember thinking: "Is that it?" 

And to cap it off I was then in the audience for Record Breakers (Shrove Tuesday edition) and Mr Akabusi said, "I'm in the biggest room of tossers the world has ever seen" and the camera swung on to my 14-year-old face but not the frying pan and pancake I was holding, thus failing to provide a vital piece of context, and I believe my mother still has the VHS of this.

The whole place was underwhelming. It just seemed like a grubby collection of corridors conjoining some similarly shabby studios. The only bits that appeared in any way tidy were the bits you actually saw on the TV. The News At Nine 'O' Clock desk was immaculate. The studio around it looked like Miss Haversham's living room after she'd been dead for a couple of years. 

And then a strange perception hit me, as I was watching the TV some days later. Yes - that is it - and isn't that rather magical in itself? All these fantastic programmes you're watching - they're being churned out by some rather panicked fellow humans, tripping over each other and swearing, in a building reminiscent of your local A&E ward. 

Everything about the building is stupid, and no doubt our right wing commentators who love to lay into the institution would see much that's telling (on this subject, I always feel those who moan about left-wing bias have never worked here, where everything is chaotic, last minute - the very notion the corporation is organised enough to insert systematic prejudice into its reports is hard to swallow).

There's a fantastic gift shop full of hard-to-acquire DVDs and tapes, but for some reason they've dumped it in the middle of the building so the only people likely to go there on any given day are staff and a few people on walking tours. No one gets to use it, and that's fair. Every room looks the same (which is fair), and they're all laid out on pretty similar corridors (which is fair), which means when you work there for the first time you'll spend half your working week trying to find the way back from the toilet. And then you notice half the people walking past you have a sort of concerned look on their face, not wishing to give away the fact they're also entirely lost and ten minutes late for a meeting. Fair.

The catering is pretty terrible but if it's any consolation, Bruce Forsyth is probably eating the same crappy sandwich you are. The wrap party for one show I was working on had a load of cheap booze, which ran out at about 9.30pm. Fortunately, I was able to pinch a load more from the party a few doors down from me. It turns out the Eggheads (I think it was, anyway), didn't need quite as many beers as the show full of hellraising celebs. But they got the same amount, because that's fair. 

I got my parents a pass to see the show on which I was working. My mum popped to the loo. As she passed him in the corridor, Lord Sugar held a door for her, after which she talked about him for two weeks running. The place is emphatically state-funded, egalitarian, and it's fair, fair, fair. Call me a handwringing, socialist blowhard, but in this instance I think that's part of the magic.

You go into the centre of the Donut for a fag and to think about life. Standing opposite you is a famous actor or comedian, also having a fag and thinking about life. Then some woman in Strictly Come Dancing, replete with ballgown, joins you both. And for a moment, you want to remark on this slightly surreal situation, but you don't, because what's so odd about three humans having a fag and a think about life?

Later on, I write a book, and the BBC gets me on every now and again to talk about it. At one point they phone me on a Saturday after I've been in the pub for four hours and ask me to go on Newsnight, which I do, somewhat rat arsed, talking about a subject about which I have absolutely no idea. But it doesn't matter, not really, because nothing really works in this building, least of all me, and we sort of muddle through without too many disasters, and even though I've not exactly covered myself in glory and I'm pretty sure Stephanie Flanders has clocked that I'm hammered and directed her questions away from me before I pull my Christmas jumper off, tie it round my head and start singing Jerusalem, the media savvy, smooth Paddick, the militant Claire Soloman and I are all treated politely and are deferentially escorted back through the shabby to our taxis home, because that's fair.  

And all this is just the experiences of some bloke who spent a bit of time there. If you want more, then find yourself an evening to watch this.

 

BBC Television Centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle