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Farewell Television Centre; and Meglos!

June 13th, 2011 (02:02 pm)
current music: John Baker: Oranges and Lemons

The BBC announced today that the sale process for Television Centre has begun. Whatever the commercial arguments, this is a sad day for a generation who grew up with Television Centre at the heart of their collective popular imagination, though part of the existing structure is likely to survive as part of the broadcasting business in some form. The retreat of the BBC sprawl from Wood Lane has already begun, with the move of BBC Worldwide from Woodlands, just north of Westway, where the flags of Radio Times and Doctor Who once flew, and one wonders if the BBC logos have already been removed from the road signs further down Wood Lane.

In the meantime, this film is a record of the construction period made to inform BBC staff; it has a haunting, concrète soundtrack from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (John Baker?), provides glimpses of the buildings demolished to allow Television Centre to be built (mainly associated with White City stadium, I think, but including the old Wood Lane station on what was then the Hammersmith branch of the Metropolitan Line), and shows those curved corridors (built, it's said, because in those convivial days few BBC employees could walk in a straight line) taking shape, as well as the statue of Helios being elevated into place.

Last night, not being able to sleep, I put on the first part of Meglos, picked up on DVD in Sainsbury's sale. I hoped to be able to challenge conventional wisdom and like the story, remembering being mildly impressed when I last watched it about sixteen years ago; but my tastes and expectations have changed. Edward Underdown's Zastor is meant to be impressive, but the actor seems faded and unwell and is unable to convey the charisma of leadership the script requires of him, or the insight needed to animate Zastor's description of the Doctor as someone who "sees the threads that bind the universe together, and mends them when they break" - there's barely any sense of understanding there, just an actor saying lines. As it is Zastor, supposedly the authoritative mediator between factions, is overshadowed both by Crawford Logan's Deedrix and (of course) Jacqueline Hill's Lexa. Furthermore, given how central the Dodecahedron is to the story - the Deons and Savants argue over its origin and function, Meglos wants it - it's practically a character in its own right, and it's a colossal omission that we don't see it early in the story. The marginalisation of the Doctor and Romana, stuck in the TARDIS for the entire story, is difficult to assess without taking into account one's prior knowledge of the producer's and script editor's antipathy towards the characters; at times the camera seems at war with Tom Baker, panning away to avoid Baker's visual gag indicating that he last met Zastor when the latter was a lot younger, and picking up every frailty.

It's by no means all bad, though. Scene-Sync is used well to depict the arrival of General Grugger's spacecraft on Zolfa-Thura. Christopher Owen's Earthling is someone in whom the audience should feel they have a stake. His lack of a name decharacterises him, though I suppose this reflects Christopher H. Bidmead's interest in the Everyman figure to whom things happen rather than who controls events, a model into which he tried to force the Doctor. Terrance Dicks's move in providing him with a name and backstory for the novelisation was well-judged, though. Similarly Owen's credit in the closing titles distracts from his performance as Meglos, condescending, vain, glorying in his absurdity; there's something eerie still about the cactus-skin of the Meglos-possessed Earthling, and I found the effect the most disturbing aspect of the episode back when I watched it aged nine (nearly ten!) in 1980, seemingly the only loyal viewer in my class as everyone else had defected to Buck Rogers. From part one, I suspect that there's nothing wrong with Meglos that a better sense of how to write dialogue, how to structure a story, and how to cast guest actors couldn't cure.

Comments

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 02:46 pm (UTC)

What is this "Television Centre" of which you write? Surely you mean the World Ecology Bureau?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 03:35 pm (UTC)
Tom

Of course! How could I be so mistaken? Another sad sign of Britain's withdrawal from involvement in world affairs...

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
Rum!

Interesting film, if only as a document to changing ways. Fags galore. No 'youcanseeme' fluorescent jackets, although boots seem standard, and chaps working shirtless around hot-pitch for waterprooofing.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 11:52 pm (UTC)
salmon

The demolition methods seen too are comfortably direc; nowadays the scaffolding would go up as the old buildings were demolished piece by piece, with one eye looking out for asbestos...

Posted by: Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary World (ogew)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 11:19 pm (UTC)

What effect of any will this have on Dr Who?
(Not dismissing what's been lost, but as an American fan who really doesn't understand what this post means, my first concern is for my beloved show.)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 13th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)
RegenGirl

Don't worry - it won't have any direct effect on Doctor Who beyond the environment in which some decisions are made. Currently although Doctor Who is commissioned from London, by the controller of drama commissioning and the controller of BBC 1, Doctor Who is made by BBC Cymru Wales (one of the BBC's 'national regions' with devolved network production capability both for the UK itself as well as specifically for Wales) at Upper Boat studios outside Cardiff. Upper Boat is a converted warehouse, but will be moving in the next year or so to a much larger studio complex currently being built for the BBC at Roath Lock, a little to the east of Cardiff Bay. So a lot of Doctor Who's heritage might be lost in the sense that some of the studios in which the classic series was made might be demolished or converted (though for most if not all of the classic series' history the production office wasn't in Television Centre itself, but about half a mile to the south in either Threshold House or Union House on Shepherds' Bush Green), but the existing production facilities are comfortably 124 miles to the west of London and won't be affected. Indeed, it's the construction of more modern facilities in Cardiff and in Salford in northern England, as well as new offices just to the north of Television Centre and expanded modern studio facilities in Central London at Broadcasting House which have contributed to Television Centre being deemed redundant.

ETA: Fixed link!

ETA2: A lot of what Television Centre means to a generation or two of Britons can be learned from this episode of Doctor Who Confidential, presented and directed by a certain chap who is a few months younger than me.

Edited at 2011-06-14 12:09 am (UTC)

Posted by: wwhyte (wwhyte)
Posted at: June 14th, 2011 03:51 am (UTC)

I do like Episode 1 of Meglos -- Meglos himself gets some wonderfully fruity lines and there are good bits for everyone, as you'd expect from a show written by two actors. As you say, Edward Underdown lets the side down a bit, but the story's real weakness is that they can't bring episode 1's energy through into the rest of the story where plot points need to be resolved rather than opened up.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 14th, 2011 01:32 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure that I agree with you on episode one having energy, though I think it could have done had the setting been better realised and the actors given a greater sense that they are working together. The Savants versus Deons tension is presented rather leadenly, though it might be that the concept of two polarised aspects of one society arguing fundamentals all the time has just dated a lot in the last thirty-one years.