BBC World Service
Thursday 12 July, 12 pm and the last World Service broadcast from Bush House is about to happen: a simple, six-minute news bulletin. “We were planning a small, quiet gathering,” yells a senior producer wedged in the door of the rammed production room.
The atmosphere is of a benign 1980s party – dancing round a record player and paté. The feeling that one might at any minute be buried alive in cashew nuts.
On the way up, through the 90-year-old lobby with its polished rosewood panelling, all the World Service paraphernalia is being removed – banners and posters trolleyed out by Lithuanians from Facilities in high-viz jackets. A screen remains, broadcasting BBC World News. Rain in Melbourne. Footage of 50 years of Mick Jagger vigorously corrupting the camera. Staff and ex-staff keep on arriving with their children and their children’s children for a broadcast that has now become a bit of a rave-up, the clamour at one minute to midday verging on hysterical.
Behind me, a woman who organised the presenter roster in 1978 remembers the glory days of the building’s 42 different language services (there are now 27). Fantastically weird food in the staff canteen, she says. The broadcast itself, when it comes, is nothing fancy – floods in Japan and controversy over the assailed foreskins of the infant circumcised – but is concluded with a florid, John of Gauntish pre-recorded message from Mark Thompson: “This benign tower of Babel . . . this building that brought freedom to the world . . .”
Off air, Peter Horrocks, head of the World Service, more sensibly stands up and promises “a gleaming new digital centre” at Broadcasting House up the road and praises the old studio manager (“Bob is also a very talented photographer and has taken some lovely photos of
Someone reads a poem they’ve written especially for the event that ends, “The World Service goes on/just not from here”. It’s an exquisitely modest do. A school prize-giving. Even with its regular 180 million listeners, the World Service is an institution that has – so coolly, so admirably but one could argue at a cost – refused to beat its own drum.
Outside, the corridors are convincingly silent. Polished marble walls and small, elegantly suspended brass clocks. “The most expensive building in the world,” it was called in 1923, when it opened as an American business hub – it was never built for making radio and only ever meant to be a temporary base during the war when the service was forced from its first home, a converted ice-rink in Maida Vale. Until now, the World Service has never operated from a place actually constructed to broadcast, its staff making do in subterranean studios that smelled vaguely, I used to think whenever I occasionally went into one, like a really good margarita: sweat and old carpet.
Later, in the deco-petite lift down to the exit a blonde woman pushing a child in a stroller stands next to a blind man with a large Alsatian guide dog and an Angolan in a brown and cream kaftan carrying a mysteriously stuffed briefcase, like a blazon of busyness. The scene is so touchingly World Service I have to pull an earring until it stings, trying to force my sad face into some rational shape.