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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.