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Backstage at the BBC: A studio tour at MediaCityUK, Manchester

BBC tour in MediaCityUK

It’s as British as tea bags, Marmite or the Queen – for almost 100 years the British Broadcasting Corporation has been creating radio and TV programmes that are seen and heard by millions across the world. And most of it was done from London. But in 2013, the corporation’s flagship Television Centre was sold off and the BBC’s production facilities were split up, with a chunk being moved up to a new development in Salford Quays called MediaCityUK. Formerly part of Manchester’s docks, the area is now full of gleaming steel and glass buildings where all sorts of broadcasting magic takes place. Normally the only way you’d get a look inside is by getting a job, getting famous or getting an audience ticket. But you can also take a behind-the-scenes studio tour, so we signed up to see what goes on backstage at the BBC.

MediaCityUK, Salford Quays

The MediaCityUK development in Salford Quays

MediaCityUK isn’t owned by the BBC, but is leased to various media companies. The BBC have three buildings but share the site with rivals ITV as well as satellite broadcasters and the University of Salford. After collecting our passes the first stop was in Dock House, home to radio programmes for stations like 6 Music. As it was empty we got to take a look around. Most studios now are self-operated so the DJ does everything themselves and doesn’t need a studio manager. They do have an impressive array of computer equipment to help though, including the ultimate MP3 player with over 29 million pieces of music. Each has data on how long the intro is so the DJ knows when to stop talking, and it automatically records every time a piece of music is played so the BBC know what royalties they need to pay.

Radio 6 Music studios

Inside the 6 Music studios

Some Radio 4 drama series are also made in the same building, so our next stop was inside a sound studio. It was a big open space, with room for an entire cast as well as some clever features which help make it sound true to life. There’s a real flight of stairs for the actors to walk up, but it’s split up into different textures so you can make it sound like you’re on carpet, wood or tiles. We also got a demo of how some of the sound effects are made for radio, with some impressively low-tech use of household objects. You hear the clinking of ice cubes in a cold drink? They’re actually Lego bricks in a glass. And that flock of birds flying by? It’s really a couple of pairs of rubber gloves being waved about.

Radio props

A radio mike and the textured staircase in the studio

We also got taken into the dead room. Back in the early days of radio these soundproof rooms had their walls covered with egg boxes, but these days it’s spikes of foam that soak up the noise. We got to experiment with trying to shout from one side to the other, and it’s amazing how the sound gets swallowed up. It’s used to make it sound like people are walking away into the distance as well as for outdoor scenes so you don’t get any echo. So when it sounds like people are having a lovely picnic in the sunshine on The Archers they’re probably sitting in a stuffy foam-covered room with a glass full of Lego and a backing track of summer sounds. But it’s amazing how real it feels when you’re listening to it.

BBC radio studios

Inside the dead room in the radio studios

Creeping past the live sound stages, our next stop was in Bridge House at the studio for one of the BBC’s classic programmes – Blue Peter. The show’s part of the childhood of anyone growing in Britain since the 1950s. It was started by Biddy Baxter to introduce children to different cultures. In those post-war days people didn’t travel far, so it was the only way child growing up in London would see how people lived in other countries or even in other parts of the UK. The show gets its name from a ship’s flag – you’d hoist up the Blue Peter if you were heading off on a voyage of adventure. Like another BBC classic, Doctor Who, you can measure your age by which Blue Peter presenter you grew up with (I’m Janet Ellis and Peter Duncan). Generations of us learnt how to make things from sticky back plastic, sold rubbish at a bring and buy sale and sent in our dodgy artwork in the hope of winning a coveted Blue Peter badge.

Blue Peter BBC TV studio

Inside the Blue Peter studio

The show is still going strong, though it’s only shown once a week these days. In 2011 the studios moved from Television Centre to a new home in MediaCityUK. Even parts of the original Blue Peter garden were dug up and rebuilt just outside. The inside of the studio seems tiny, and it’s a quarter of a size of the original studio in London. Not that you can tell when you’re watching at home as they use wide-angle lenses and jump cuts to make it look bigger. You can only do so much though with camera trickery though, the celebrity guests do still have to wait in a cupboard on set to make their big entrance. The studios are a lot more colourful these days but they still have the familiar theme tune and logo – drawn by artist Tony Hart.

Blue Peter badges

An impressive haul of Blue Peter badges

The final stop on our tour was the BBC Breakfast sofa at Quay House. It’s not the real one, which is a few floors higher, but it looks just the same and we got to try our hand at reading the news and presenting the weather. Originally the real studio was going to be on the ground floor but they were worried what people might do outside the windows. The local news uses the same set and used to have a camera showing what was going on outside until a spider crawled over the lens and made it look like there was a giant arachnid invasion of Manchester. So now a loop of pre-recorded film of the quays is played so they don’t get any nasty surprises. Random facts and stories like that were what made the tour so interesting – and goes to show TV might look glamourous but there’s a lot going on backstage to get there.

BBC Breakfast studio

My dad and I try out the BBC Breakfast sofa

The details

Tours at BBC MediaCity normally run on Saturdays–Wednesdays in the mornings and afternoons. They do sell out so it’s good idea to book in advance. Tickets cost £11.75 for adults, £10.75 for over 60s and £7.75 for children aged 8–15. The tour takes around 1.5 hours and they’re all slightly different as it’ll depend on what’s being recorded at the time. There’s also a special children’s tour at MediaCityUK concentrating on the CBBC studios as well as other BBC tours at Broadcasting House in London and other TV and radio studios across the country, including Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Cardiff and Glasgow.

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Discovering what goes on behind the scenes at the BBC with a studio tour in Manchester's MediaCityUK, from radio sound effects to the Blue Peter set.

Gary Malliber

Thursday 21st of March 2019

You seemed to have a much shortened tour than usual so there must have been a lot going on that day. When I went on it, we went into the Match of the Day studio, The Jeremy Kyle studio, The BBC Breakfast studio (the real one upstairs) and the 8 out of 10 cats does countdown studio as well as all the ones you did. We also watched Craig Charles covering the 6 Music afternoon show through the glass too. The dead audio room is fascinating isn't it ? I suggest you do it again as you'll most likely get to see different things.

Lucy

Friday 22nd of March 2019

Ours was a way back and early in the day so I imagine they're all different depending on what's being filmed – would love to try one of the other location tours sometime too!

thebritishberliner

Friday 23rd of January 2015

Awwwww Blue Peter! I would love to go on this tour when next I'm in Manchester...! I remember trying to finish my clarinet lesson as soon as possible so that I could watch it and John Craven's Newsround. I'm an addict of Dr. Who but I was always afraid of the musical score and the Daleks. I still am!

Lucy

Saturday 24th of January 2015

It was a great tour, loved the Blue Peter studio (though it's way more trendy these days and not enough making things out of washing up liquid bottles and sticky back plastic any more for my liking!). There was a TARDIS in the entrance too, but for proper Doctor Who geeking out you have to go do the tour in Cardiff!

Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

Tuesday 20th of January 2015

This is so cool Lucy! I had no idea you could do behind the scenes tours - I used to think it would be a lot of fun to be a broadcaster (probably a lot harder than people imagine) but it'd be nice to try sitting in the chair in any case :)

Lucy

Wednesday 21st of January 2015

We go to have a go at reading the news autocue and presenting the weather and it was a lot tougher than it looks – you don’t know where to look first! Good fun to have a try though and a really interesting tour.

Vlad

Tuesday 20th of January 2015

It looks so good! That textured staircase is really interesting and I've always been curious what it would be like to go into a dead room. Perhaps my neighbors could use one....

Lucy

Wednesday 21st of January 2015

It's so clever how they used the different textures to make it sound like a totally different staircase too. The dead room was weird, though a good one for noisy neighbours definitely!

Maddie

Monday 19th of January 2015

This is very cool, love all the backstage info. It's not a bad price either, will have to check it out.

Lucy

Wednesday 21st of January 2015

No it's it's not bad at all, and we were there for a couple of hours so it's pretty good value.