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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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