x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The BBC jumps on the bandwagon headed out of London

The BBC's "decentralisation" of production by moving some departments out of London seems sad, silly, and doomed to fail.

One of the sadnesses of middle age is when things and places you took for granted start to disappear. The park where I first played as a child is now a housing development. The toy shop where I used to spend my pocket money is a fancy bistro. Even the house I grew up in is now the site of a convenience store.

But if there was one institution I thought would be immune from changing times and fashions, it was the BBC. This much-loved organisation has always been synonymous with London: firstly through the medium of radio at its HQ in Broadcasting House, the impressive Art Deco building near Oxford Circus with its sonorous motto: "Nation shall speak unto nation"; and then, with the advent of television, on the steep slopes of Alexander Palace.

In more recent decades "the Beeb", as it's affectionately known, has occupied a building in the west of the capital at White City. Many of the finest British dramas and news programmes were produced there - I've even appeared in one or two myself.

But then someone in the corporation decided it would be a good idea to shift the entire organisation - or substantial parts of it - 200 miles up the road to Manchester, including much of the radio output, sports department and breakfast news.

The reason? Well, it's something called "a decentralisation strategy". As the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, explained. "The BBC exists to serve the whole country, not just the capital. We live in a creative country that is bursting with potential. Those who believe the only place where you can find great talent is within the M25 really should get out more."

The project, which involves moving approximately 2,300 staff members and their families to a new site with the garish title of MediaCityUK, costs between £200 million (Dh1.1 billion) and £1 billion. But that's just the start.

The consultation fees alone for this almighty project have reportedly racked up a further £1 million, and with so many employees expressing dismay at having to uproot their families, the corporation has been forced to entice them north with hefty relocation packages.

The irony is that no sooner will have most of them waved goodbye to the furniture vans than they will be sent back to London to cover the Olympic Games, which takes place next summer. One BBC insider has suggested the corporation will fork out a further £1.5 million on trains, planes and hotel accommodation in the process.

Unsurprisingly, some of the best known presenters and journalists currently under contract have chosen to throw in the towel than make the move, secure in the knowledge that their services will be snapped up by rival media companies which are less geographically demanding.

Yet the real issue facing the corporation is one that doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone yet. The reason the BBC worked so well in London was because that's where things tended to happen.

Any politician, movie star or visiting dignitary who needed to be interviewed live on TV was only a 20-minute cab ride from central London to Studio 1. Whether the prospect of a 360-mile round trip on the UK's congested motorway system or creaking rail links will prove so enticing to the movers and shakers is another matter. Of course there's always the live video link, but as anyone who has used such technology will testify, it tends to lead to insipid debate.

For an old luvvie like me, the saddest aspect has been witnessing the gradual destruction of the old infrastructure I knew and loved. The battered tower block, where so many outstanding drama programmes were planned and rehearsed (known by all and sundry as "The Acton Hilton"), has been demolished and replaced by flats, while the magnificent old costume store nearby is also long gone, its entire stock purchased by an independent costumier. Needless to say, their biggest customer is now the BBC, which has to rent back its own outfits every time it makes a drama.

Most upsetting of all, the TV centre itself is already being advertised for sale as office space, with the entire site expected to be fully vacated by 2015. "Our aim is to maximise value for the BBC and the taxpayer," explained a spokesman.

Which is perhaps just as well. Because with all those train fares, airline reservations and hotel rooms to pay for in 2012, the BBC is going to need every penny it can get.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London