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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.