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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.