Now and again a sitcom gag lodges in the public mind. In 1974, Ronnie Barker, in Porridge, was reminiscing about Top of the Pops and its all-girl dance troupe, Pan’s People. ‘There’s one special one — Beautiful Babs,’ he says. Beat. ‘Dunno what her name is.’
Her name was Babs Lord. She attracted the attention of a young actor called Robert Powell, then in a long-forgotten thriller called Doomwatch, so he met up with her in the celebrated and notorious BBC Club at Television Centre; after 36 years they are still married. She also became an explorer, described as the only housewife to have visited both the North and South Poles, which is an impressive feat, though a patronising title, since it sounds as if someone felt they needed tidying.
Babs — now looking like a well-preserved librarian — appeared on Tales of Television Centre (BBC4, Thursday), which is one of those shows the BBC does well, because it involves praising itself. The Beeb has always been good at that. All professions are, to some extent, self-obsessed and the outcome can be lethal. Imagine a similar show about chartered accountants. ‘Bill was a real accountants’ accountant! He could get completely pissed at lunchtime, come back to the office and do the VAT for an £8 million turnover company without one wrong figure! Those were the days…’
To be fair, Television Centre produced something more exciting than tax returns. It was opened in 1960, and was, we were told several times, the biggest dedicated television studios in the world. For some reason it is to be sold off next year, as part of the BBC’s continuing obsession with buildings rather than programmes. The list of the shows filmed or broadcast live from there resembles a cultural history of Britain over the past half-century. Z-Cars often went out live, which seems inconceivable now. Doctor Who, Top of the Pops, Morecambe and Wise, Grandstand, Fawlty Towers, Steptoe and Son, The Good Life, The Two Ronnies… the list is almost literally endless.
Of course they spent less time on the programmes of which they might have felt less proud. That’s Life, Adam Adamant, ’Allo, ’Allo, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and the ineffable Jim’ll Fix It, which I always thought should have been titled Jim’ll Fix It Provided the BBC Can Get It for Nothing. On one occasion, Jim was being shown a collection of Victoria Crosses by the veteran who collected them. ‘Now then, general, are any of these ’ere medals any more different from the rest than what the others are?’ he inquired.
TV Centre being part of the BBC was built to reflect the class system. Studios were on two floors: ground was where the proles and workers toiled, and the first floor was reserved for the producers so that they never needed to meet. The same applied to the three food outlets, topped with the waitress-service restaurant reserved for the brass, who had offices on the sixth floor. That’s where the BBC suits had their being, most of them tasked with preventing the talented people from being too creative. In this part of the building, ladies’ and gents’ lavatories were on alternate floors. Since it is impossible for anyone without Theseus’ ball of string to find the stairs in TV Centre, persons with bursting bladders could be in a terrible pickle. One male executive had to make a mad dash into a ladies, where he slammed himself into one of the two cubicles and let out an enormous fart. From the next cubicle came a woman’s voice, ‘Is that you, Maureen?’
The class system operated for the stars, too. Most people had basic dressing-rooms, but the Bruce Forsyths got a suite that looked like a New Orleans brothel. But from miniature palace to ill-lit rat-hole, the place heaved with sexual activity, a fact that was supposed to shock us but which was roughly as unsurprising as David Attenborough having to ask the rock stars to be more discreet when smoking their joints.
‘It was like shelling peas from a pod — excellence came as standard,’ someone said, and it’s true. Even the dross was of astonishing technical quality (like the old joke that ends, ‘This is shit — but beautifully cooked’). Even as a very occasional visitor I shall miss it, too: the tangled corridors, the motherly make-up ladies in their tiny cupboards, the green rooms like upholstered condemned cells, with their weird array of semi-strangers — I once thought Rod Laver was there to talk about the crisis in psychiatric care funding — Sunday breakfasts in which you talked through your hangover to Joan Baez, or Lang Lang, or John Major. It is a weird, cherishable place, a televisual British Library, so no wonder it has to go.