BBC TV will remain at Television Centre

An awful lot of terribly sentimental bon voyages have been directed at TVC (Television Centre) since news of the building’s demise was made public with the sale to Stanhope Plc in 2012.  An awful lot of crap has been said as well.  One of the most important aspects of the first world class television studio, Television Centre, was its separateness.  A television programme could be realised from its inception in the booze raddled brain of a wonderful imagination in the BBC bar, all the way to final broadcast without going outside.  It was its own organic microcosm.  No one is going to argue that the work that emerged from the ‘Doughnut’ wasn’t unparalleled, or that it wasn’t the BBC at its absolute finest.  We all loved it.  No one minded that Television Centre has spent the last 20 years looking decidedly old hat, that its 1960s windows, so full of bomb-proof glass and New Elizabethan promise, now look like the old-fashioned tired windows of a shopping centre.

But, wait.  Too often the reporting around this closure of Television Centre has been inaccurate.  Either that, or for the BBC, the story changed.  In October 2007, when horror struck into the heart of every BBC soft southerner employee when they were told they may have to move to Salford, the BBC confirmed that they would completely sell the building and that ‘This is a full scale disposal of BBC Television Centre and we won’t be leasing it back.”  Horror images filled the minds of people who love the BBC.  It is a 14 acre prime West London site.   For multiple use, it will contain retail, commercial and entertainment units.  However, back in 2007, a leading commercial property agent, who according to the Reuter’s website, refused to be named, pointed out that the building would have an increased value if it had a government backed tenant in it at the time of sale, who chose to pay a long lease.  (The article is called ‘BBC shuns headquarter sale-and-leaseback’ over at Reuters, if you want to read).

Perhaps the BBC took note of whoever this nameless commercial agent was.  The BBC is, after all, a government backed tenant.  When Stanhope Plc purchased the building last year for £200million, it was as a long leasehold.  Stanhope have in effect entered into a partnership with the BBC and the Corporation will continue to have a presence on site.  Not only will Stanhope own the building, but the BBC will be leasing back, (renting out) its own former space.   Do note, that the long leasehold only has been sold, meaning that the BBC maintain control of the freehold.   In 2014 parts of the BBC will move back in again.  BBC Worldwide will take up residence there as will a hearty collection of post production offices and facilities. The BBC will also benefit from a undisclosed percentage of the building’s complete profits.

This is what is known as a “sale and leaseback”.  It is when a company needs to sell its assets, but engineers to maintain access to those assets at the same time. “Sale and leaseback” contains tax advantages too, as monthly rental payments are off-set as an expense.   Any broadcasting corporation worth its licence fee paying salt requires constant cash injections, in its efforts to modernise, to develop and to keep on top of the game.  The BBC needs money.  The only thing it has is assets and the one time it does something eminently sensible by arranging a sale and leaseback the whole twitter world of actors and producers and directors go completely bonkers.  Oh, they all chorus!  How could they!  What idiots!  Selling our darling television centre.  Some quite intelligent people over on Twitter have gone barmy over this, because they haven’t really read the story, and they don’t seem to understand what will happen.  Stage 4 and Stage 5 will revert to BBC offices, with Stage 6 becoming the anchor home for BBC Worldwide. Studio 1 has fully listed status.  ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ will return to Studio 1 in 2015, whilst Studios 2 and 3 will also be leased back by the BBC. When they finally open, it will be after a vast cash injection from the evil, naughty, broadcasting killers – Stanhope Plc – who bought the place.  The studio galleries will be updated, there will be new dressing rooms, better green rooms and a brand new rack of production offices for 1,380 employees. Of TVC’s 14 acres, 130,000 sq ft has been separated out as studio space.  In other words, much of the BBC’s light entertainment and gameshow output will be based at Television Centre just as it always was.  And before critics point out that there is no room for drama, might I remind you that the last drama to be shot there was actually ‘The House of Elliot’ which closed its cloche-hatted doors in 1994.  The BBC drama output mostly comes from The Media Centre, a little further down Wood Lane.

Over at BBC Blogs, Anna Mallett produced an article the day the Madness concert was aired, outlining the future of the creative world at BBC TV Centre, because ‘some people think we’re leaving Television Centre’.  Perhaps the publicity material on this has been so woeful that no one realised?  Or perhaps the BBC chanced its arm, hanging on in there with Stanhope Plc until the pens were ready to sign the contract before demanding a revision of the deal?  But why has no one written about this?  Why are – and I can see that most of you are – readers looking surprised?  How could we not know this, and instead endure luvvie barrages on Twitter casting the BBC in the role of enemy?  Why are newspaper reports so damn stupid and inaccurate?  Do people enjoy being mawkish about the idea of the BBC leaving Wood Lane?  And why have a clutchload of well known writers and performers gone for the absolute jugular on this by casting the property company as the caustic, destructive, money-clutching force in this War of Art, when it is the same property company which is enabling the BBC to have a public profile, security and future at Television Centre ?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so the next update will be Thursday April 11th.  We hope to see you then.

13 Rivers Run Through It

Ahoy there, me hearties and warmest greetings to Londonists new and old.  Adorn yourselves with windcheaters and that tough lipsalve that comes in powder blue tubes, as we climb aboard the salty raft of the Good Ship Bluebird for this week’s tour of 3 of London’s 13 lost rivers.

I can hear the mocking giggles from here, dearest readers. 13?  Ma Bluebird been at the bottle of YoHoHo and a bottle of rum.  Again?  Poor foolish girl.  There is only one river in London and it is the one that snakes insiduously from east to west or even from west to east and which we only ever see in its televisual representation in the opening credits of Eastenders as we are too lazy to walk to the riverbank.   The Thames.  Whilst boats are female, the Thames is a hairy, furry male.  Old Father Thames launches his face out sloppily from a hardened crust of stonework down where the river turns east.  The Thames is the reason the city exists in the first place, from the day one Roman centurion lunched on Celts, scratched his brass battle helmet and thought: “Aha.  From here I can bring cocoa in from the Indies and we can make Maltesers.  World domination will be ours.”

But the Thames is, as we have pointed out, a Father.  His children are probably 13 street arab, mischievous streams that pulse and run under our city.  For you can build over a river, but a river will always be a river and it will always remain.  The 13 bastard progeny of the curly haired Daddy Thames include The Langbourne, The Wallbrook, The River Fleet, The Tyburn, The Westbourne, Counter’s Creek, Stamford Brook, River Brent, River Rom, Earl’s Sluice, The River Peck, The River Neckinger, The River Effra, The Falconbrook, The Graveney River, The Beverley Brook, Sudbrook, Hackney Brook, The River Moselle.  What wonderful words.  The River Moselle sounds like one of those floating restaurant cruises that sluice up and down the Thames nightly (“dinner and dance £60 per head river cruise…) whilst Beverley Brook sounds like a Transport for London secretary.  Most of the remaining offerings sound like public houses, but my absolute favourite has to be Earl’s Sluice.  I can’t work out whether it sounds like a racing horse or a venereal disease (Not tonight, darling.  I have a slug of earl’s sluice.  Been told to wash it in weak solution of tea tree oil and water and a dab of live yoghurt…).  No such sexual decadence for “River Brent”, however.  It smacks of office supply discount stores furniture and grey filing cabinets and muffin topped ne’er do wells bent on civic cruelty counting out the monies gained from parking permit violations.  You can only imagine the fun Dickens would have had with the name “River Neckinger”.   Oddly enough, parts of Oliver Twist, including the well-deserved violent death of Mr Bill Sykes, occur at St Saviour’s Dock, at Jacob’s Island, which is where the Neckinger met The Thames.

Where are these lost watery avenues underneath London?   Well, of all of them it is the Tyburn, the Fleet and the Walbrook that perhaps are the best known.  These are the ones I will tell you about today.  That is not because there isn’t information on the others, or that I cannot be arsed to find that information out, but rather the main three are the most interesting.  The Westbourne isn’t that interesting.   It ran through West London.  They built West London.  The covered up the Westbourne and dammed a section of it to make The Serpentine.  That is sort of the end of the story.  Counter’s Creek, which sounds like a Daphne du Maurier novel, is tiny – running only from North Kensington down to Chelsea. What interests us here at Bluebird Towers are the big players, those echoes and energies present in the history of these damned tributaries.  How do they pulse up and rupture through the paving of our modern city, and what have they ever done for us?  Souwester at an angle, rubber boots on to wander amidst the boats and trade avenues of ancient London, off we go!  Down we go beyond the sewerage system, and before the railway, into a city where the only sounds are the mewling of Roman slaves, the shoeing of recalcitrant horses, the chipchip sound of the Roman interior designer installing yet another modern villa style kitchenette and the ripple and surge and roar of the rivers.

The Walbrook runs through the old Roman City, going south from Finsbury and ending up just outside Cannon Street Station.  It was the second most important river to the Romans, after the Fleet, as it brought fresh water in and shunted waste water out towards the Thames.  The Temple of Mithras, unearthed during archeological digs in the 20th Century, was on its banks.  We do not know much of The Temple of Mithras but at Bluebird Towers it’s our educated guess that it was a nightclub dispensing dancing treats and cheese sandwiches to the higher echelons of Roman political aristocracy.   What we don’t know is what the Romans called it, as its name of “Walbrook” is Anglo Saxon, so probably got named in the 6th century AD well after the Romans had hopped it.  The Lord Mayor paid for the River Walbrook to be covered up in 1440.  But the Walbrook continues to be a hard worker. In 1860 it was incorporated into the sewer system, where leaks from the Walbrook by The Bank of England can be meted out to adjust the local water table levels when required.  Bits of it also branched off to be utilised in different areas ; a branch of the Walbrook that stretched up to Islington was used to power a lead mill as late as 1830.  The Bluebird has decided that it really should not be known as a “lost” river at all.  It isn’t lost, merely unable to see daylight for 550 years, but, like a vision of a Wellsian dystopia, toiling away under the surface of the city, working all day and all night where us inhabitants of the upper world will never see in.  Silent, stalking, resourceful river, marking out the filth, flushing through the sludge and stench, oblivious to the plague, fire, Luftwaffe bombs and capital equity funds raining down on top of it since it last saw light. In 1999, various members of “Reclaim The Streets” staged an extraordinary attempt to liberate the river from the capitalist city around it by opening hydrants all along its route, perhaps in the desperate hope that some bankers might fall into it and drown.  Fascinating photos of the Walbrook can be seen from the website of intrepid underground explorer, Steve Duncan at http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/steve-duncan.

The Tyburn comes from the Fitzjohns Avenue. After that it essentially follows the route of the No 13 bus, through Swiss Cottage, St Johns Wood, skirting the Park and from there into Marylebone.  It is a narrow river, far smaller than the Fleet or the Walbrook.  An idea of its movement can be gained from Marylebone Lane, which directly follows its course.  At Gray’s Antiques Centre, at the top of South Molton Lane, tenants moving into the basement a while ago found that basement below three feet of water.  The Tyburn had gone nuts, slipping its way up from the nether world.  Being a very chichi antique trading depot, Grays Antiques have stated they have successfully dammed a small amount of the Tyburn in its below ground level antiques mall and instated a healthy cluster of goldfish, which you can visit yourself if you wish to see this ancient river surrounded by over-priced art deco teaspoons and grumpy, old men who repair watches.    Those interested in the Tyburn should peruse this video of Walking the Tyburn here http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=qspO6UtpCOg but of course, walking the Tyburn in the late 17th Century would be very different from holding a hand-held camera through the tight, classy streets of modern day Marylebone.  The recorder is less likely to have tripe in his belly, the walk is unlikely to be fettered by vast splats of horse shit under foot and the local populace are unlikely to be wearing bonnets and exhibiting herpes sores (probably).  In the early 13th century, the Tyburn was used to supply water to the local communities, but with three and half miles of leather piping, it must have tasted like the upholstery of an expensive car .  In the seventeenth century, they thought ‘Fuck it’ and moved the water supply out to Hertfordshire, whereupon the Tyburn became fetid and obligingly filled itself up with poo.

The River Fleet is the largest of these subterranean tributaries, reaching a width of 100 yards in Roman times.  If it had a Twitter hashtag it would be #ginandmoney.  I have decided it is my favourite.  The Fleet was like the M1 to the Romans – a large river, for major trade movement.  Wells were built along its banks and streams, particularly in Clerkenwell, which was so famed for its local streams (Clerk-en-well) that three gin distilleries chose to set up business there in the 17th and 18th centuries, to use Fleet water for distilling purposes.  It is dammed at Highgate Ponds and Hampstead Ponds and casts its route southwards through Camden Town and into The Thames.  (Roman enthusiasts among you will know that Boudicca met her grisly end at Battle Bridge, on the site of the modern day Kings Cross Underground Station.  Battle Bridge was a bridge over the Fleet river.)  By the end of the 13th century it was essentially a sewer, thereby following the Tyburn’s example of filling itself full of shit by about 1350.  Sir Christopher Wren’s suggestion of widening and enlivening this river were rejected in the late 17th Century.  And quickly and silently the great Roman river got annexed and cut down.  In 1737 the top half north from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was enclosed, although it took nearly 150 years to brick the whole river over.  A million of us pass over it every day and don’t know.  Check out the sloping side streets off Farringdon Street.  Many of these were once Fleet river banks.  Read the story over at The Londonist for a great description of a modern day trip down into the Fleet with a film crew, lead by senior ‘flusher’ Rob Smith : http://londonist.com/2010/08/a_trip_down_the_fleet_river.php   The river hasn’t seen daylight since Hampstead was developed in the later half of the 19th century, covering over the last portion of the Fleet in about 1870.  A commemorative tube line was to go ahead – The Fleet Line – in the 1970s, which would very roughly follow the route and end up in Fleet Street.  But then the Queen reached her Silver Jubilee, so they terminated it at Charing Cross and named it The Jubilee instead.  And that, as they say, was that.   Until of course they decided it wasn’t enough to terminate the Jubilee at Charing Cross after all, and extended it in a riot of millenial fever to North Greenwich in the late 90s.  I don’t know what the Fleet had to say about it.  The Fleet won’t stay invisible or silent.  Wait for very low tide, take the Thameswalk exit at Blackfriars Station, and look for the ladder by Blackfriars Bridge that descends into the water.  You can also hear the roar of The Fleet in front of The Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, EC1.  Stand in front of it and listen to the power of carbon dioxide and H2O that helped make London the gin capital of the modern world.

Is it too wild to suggest that this is not a City paved with gold or built on lime so much as it is built on water?    Rather than having become obsolete, London’s lost rivers form the backbone of our modern sewage system, adapting and shifting silently under our streets, oblivious and unconcerned as to what we’re up to.  There we go, strutting, preening, agitating and endlessly stressing on the marked paved streets above over the unceasing, flow of  the ancient rivers, as they peer up at our old Empire and previous incarnations with that weary, jaded glance of a citydweller who has seen it all before.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every two weeks, so our next instalment will be on March 28th.  See you then!

Up for a brew?

Monday afternoon took me to the new Bill’s on Brewer St, which takes over the site that used to be inhabitated by Zilli Fish.  Just as Zilli Fish represented the marble-topped finesse and credit card-charged dining of the 1990s in Soho, Bill’s represents the Soho that has tumbled down from the dandy, French-inspired distressed awnings of Soho in the late noughties.  When it was Zilli Fish, Freddie Mercury once set fire to the kitchen when he tried to cook chips at 4am without using chip oil.   Zilli also accidentally locked Prince Edward inside its loos.  Unfortunately, Prince Edward got out, but you can’t imagine anyone getting locked in the vast cavern of Bill’s.  We have shabbily-chic round teapots in primary colours with just a bit of scuff and tin showing through, we have a cod-Parisienne waitress with obligatory New Wave-ish short lunatic fringe and we have no varnish on the tables or the patron’s nails.  Bill’s is half storage room, half brasserie.  Great globules of garlic hang from the ceiling in a purple haze and there are six sorts of tea.

Brewer Street has always been a stubborn little darling.  Whilst the western side of Soho launched itself into fine dining splendour about twenty years ago and left sun dried tomatoes and discs of goat’s cheese spiked through with cocktail sticks onto European bread, Brewer Street stuck to it’s sticky sex-riddled guns.  It has a decidedly filthy bookshop.  It has several of those circuses of sluttery, where thin strips of silver tinsel cover the doors and DVDs within contain ominous acts involving sports accessories.   It has the brazen swimming trunk tomfoolery of “Prowler” and – until very recently – it had the left-handed shop, full of a riot of household products that were as queer as some of the bazaars in the rest of the street, with its scissors a mirror image of what we were used to, of left-handed cutlery, telephones and stationery.  It is a street that refuses to reinvent itself, possibly because it’s foundations and so very very unsavoury and so very very deep.

It is so unsavoury that, prior to the early sixteenth century, most of Soho was probably owned by The Provost and College of Eton,  which is when its assocation with gay love and spanking truly began.  As so many things were in England in the 1530s, this patch of Soho that contained Brewer Street was surrendered to the Crown.  The Crown at this time was that bovine lover of decapitation and thrilling badminton player, Henry VIII, who probably brandished a roast chicken leg high in the air, marched down Wardour Street and demanded Soho surrender – and be sharpish about it.  Then he popped into Linas for a swift cappucino and some pasta with salsa verde for that night’s supper before departing for monastery-smashing and much merry making.   In the 1570s, part of this land was leased by Thomas Poultney, who took the rent of the area one morning on his way back from Ronnie Scotts.  In the late 17th century, the canny and wry Pulteney family were granted reversionary leases of what is now more than half of Brewer Street, naming a road after themselves on the way (Great Pulteney Street) in the centre of this land.  Before the 18th century breweries moved in and gave the street its name, the area was known for homing bricklayers and kilns, and a massive rubbish damp of shit.  The massive rubbish dump of shit was in a patch of land known as Laystall Piece, in Knaves Acre, which was eventually incorporated into Brewer Street.  At some point in the late seventeenth century they cleared away the massive rubbish dump, as full of dust and forgotten London detritus as Mr Boffin’s dust mounds in Our Mutual Friend, and started building houses over it.

By the 1690s there were 130 small houses built on Windmill Fields, but these were mainly inhabitated by poor people and those who dealt in glass bottles, so the whole area was only yielding £67 a year in rent.  (Modern Day Soho Currency Converter : 4 DVDs, some poppers and a hand job.  Or, one rabbit, pearl barley and wild garlic orzotto, two grilled kid goat’s liver skewers and a decent bottle of red wine in La Bocca di Lupo).  In 1691 Sir William Poulteney dropped dead and the tenants danced on his grave and had lemonade and crisps.  Alas, the glass bottle keepers of Glasshouse Street or the victuallers setting up home on the corner weren’t a la festa for too long, because shortly afterwards the trustees of the land sold the leasehold interest of the land to a Yeoman of the Guard, and the freehold passed to the naughty, dark, merciless crown again.

A whole rash of leases were granted in around 1720 for Great Pulteney Street, all of which were supposed to adhere to the rebuilding of the City Act in 1667 which instructed how to build houses that wouldn’t burn down like they did in the Great Fire.  This included having gutters that were not made of straw and trying not to set fire to your own feet.   The majority of these leases were in fact not taken by brewers but by carpenters. In 1721 Pulteney hit the jackpot, when the Crown granted him the Freehold of the Estate and he celebrated by an evening in Raymond’s RevueBar which the eldest ladies of the world’s oldest profession still remember with fondness.

If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, we cannot imagine that beer brewing was very far behind it.  By 1700 Brewer Street’s two main brewery houses (now demolished) were in business; Ayres’s Brewery and Davis’s.  But the most interesting building in the street at the time was undoubtedly Hickford’s Rooms (which stands on the modern site of The Crown pub).  Hickford’s fame was at its height in the mid-1700s, when it was, astonishingly, the only concert room of any note in the West End.  The high water mark of it’s cultural and musical history was in May 1765, when a 9 year old Mozart gave a recital with his sister,  which Hickford’s advertised at five-shillings a ticket:

‘For the Benefit of Miss MOZART of Thirteen, and Master MOZART of Eight [sic] Years of Age, Prodigies of Nature. HICKFORD’S Great Room in Brewer Street, Monday, May 13 will be A CONCERT of MUSIC With all the OVERTURES of this little Boy’s own Composition’.

But alas, some cow called Mrs Cornely opened her own concert rooms in Soho Square, and it was the beginning of a decline in Hickford’s popularity.  Success in showbusiness is only assured if you can claim you’re the only person in your field of speciality playing the halls in your district.  Once Mrs Cornely entered the picture with her violin-playing ladies, spinning plates, folding dogs and performing dwarfs, the kid Mozart didn’t stand a chance.  Hickford’s tried operatics, pantomime, lectures, poetry readings and miniature theatre but eventually the landlord ran away and did a bunk in 1791.  He was last seen in Bar Italia, raging about the 1780 window tax bill after three espressos.  The concert hall was turned into a school for a short period in the 19th century but then, in a move that angered architectural historians, it was mown down to be incorporated into the Regent Palace Hotel in 1934.

The history of Brewer Street in the nineteenth and twentieth century reads like a hymn to the marriage of commercialism and filth.  At some point the brewers and the glass and brickmakers were usurped by specialist cinemas, open doors leading to linoleum covered stairs and goodness knows what pleasures at the top of them, cheap barbers and possibly London’s worst ever Italian restaurant (La Perla).  But Brewer Street has had a backwards glance to its fertile history.  Mrs Kibble’s Olde Fashioned Sweete Shoppe with it’s propensity of unnecessary “e”s in the title, acts as a prim, Georgian fantasy of an ancient London confectioners, all curved, ancient windowpanes and gummy sweets in large glass jars.  The delightful Lina Stores erupts like a 1950s dream of Italiana in eau-de-nil tiles and baskets overflowing with panettone. Randall & Aubin is a burst of Edwardiana, a riot of oysters, belle epoque half light and post-theatre champagne bubbles.  The DVD shops remain, despite DVDs becoming more or less obsolete.  The devastating twinkle of the lightbulbs into Green’s Court herald a deeper, darker sort of Soho lechery and perhaps, behind the purple velvet drapes and the Lithuanian door dolly, a sideways glance offers Sir William Pulteney himself, walking graciously towards Wardour Street, winking at the models whose eyes pore through the window of ‘Prowler’ and marvelling on what a man can do with one lonely 16th century farm and a massive rubbish dump.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be 14th March.