When BBC Television Centre in White City, west London, was opened by the Queen in 1961, it was described by then director general Gerald Butler as “the largest, best equipped and most carefully planned factory of its kind.”
Rather than goods, this building would manufacture culture and, at the time, it was the most ambitious television facility in the world. The structure itself, designed in its entirety by one architect, Graham Dawbarn, became an icon, despite numerous anecdotes describing just how slap-dash the design process was.
Legend has it Dawbarn literally drew the iconic question mark-shaped building on the back of an envelope and its famous ‘atomic dots’ were a happy accident. The BBC asked for a design feature next to its logo on the main building, so the space was held on the cardboard model by a series of drawing pins. Execs at the BBC mistook them for the design feature and loved it.
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Many of these quirks are protected now by a Grade II heritage listing, which is just as well because the BBC sold the complex to developer Stanhope in 2012 in a bid to reduce its property portfolio. For many of the employees who left a year later, it was the end of a golden era of British television.
As the home of Top of the Pops for years, everyone from the Beatles to Britney Spears walked through the famous courtyard containing the circular ‘doughnut’ building, crowned with a statue of Helios, the Greek god of the sun, chosen because, like the BBC, his influence ‘radiated’ out across the globe.
“When it was a public corporation, it was a private site,” says Peter Allen, Stanhope’s sales and marketing director. “It was gated and you couldn’t go in. The irony is that it’s now a privately owned estate that’s open to the public.”
We’ve got one guy who bought the flat that was originally his office
As I walked in, a brunch of millennials were queuing outside to get into Sounds Like Friday Night, BBC One’s new live music show, and it didn’t seem as if much had changed. In fact, three out of eight original studios remain, some leased by the BBC and, temporarily, ITV Studios Daytime, while BBC Worldwide currently employs 1,200 people in the building next door.
Everywhere else, though, it’s all change. Two basement levels and an upper level have been added to the round Helios building, the Crescent on the outside has been rebuilt and 950 new homes will be spread across the site. The Helios used to house the stars’ dressing rooms – one built specifically for Beyoncé when she agreed to do TOTPs, we’re told – while the rooftop offices belonged to ‘the gods of television’ Sir David Attenborough and BBC chairman Michael Grade. Now, they’re premium penthouses that are selling for at least £3m.
A 255,000sqft office complex is also planned, a new Soho House members club and hotel, a plethora of restaurants – all young franchises like Kricket, Bluebird and Homeslice – and a host of top-end amenities. Regular Joes will get their first look inside when the landscaping is finished on 8 December.
“It’s the biggest project we’ve ever done,” says Paul Monaghan, from Clerkenwell-based architect AHMM, one of three Stirling Prize-winning firms working on the 14-acre site. “That was blue,” he adds pointing to the red glass section housing Soho House’s new hotel.
“We found an original picture where it was red, but then Harold Macmillan’s Tory government came in and they changed it to blue. We think that’s why it happened.” Half-remembered stories like this are all a part of Television Centre’s mythology, seeping into the fabric of its listed features, from the original 1960s clock that gleams incongruously on the construction site to the glittering mural by artist John Piper created for the reception.
In addition to the Helios and the Crescent, there are plans for a 25-storey tower competing on site for landmark status, and a series of family townhouses, providing “cradle to grave” living. So far, 26 different nations have bought into this exclusive club, with one bedroom flats starting at £725,000.
“But the majority are UK buyers from west London,” says Allen. “We’ve got one guy who bought the flat that was originally his office. There are good memories here for a lot of people.”
With actors, presenters and producers on the purchasers list, Television Centre may not be owned by the BBC anymore, but it’s still home to the stars.