Eighty years of Broadcasting House

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The BBC made the first official broadcast from Broadcasting House in London on 15 May 1932.

In this anniversary blog post, Head of BBC History Robert Seatter explains how the building was designed and constructed, and how it was received by critics at the time.

You can see more pictures taken during the construction phase and some showing how the building was initially used in an About the BBC Flickr slideshow here.

Eighty years ago a quiet revolution took place in Regent Street, central London.

The first ever purpose-built broadcast centre in the UK (and almost in Europe - Germany just pipped us to the post) was officially opened for business. The splash of royal pageantry had to wait until July that year, when King George V and Queen Mary formally opened the building, unveiling the plaque which is still there in the entry porch of Broadcasting House.

BBC Broadcasting House under construction in 1930.

Director-General John Reith had bid a sad adieu to Savoy Hill, the BBC's first borrowed HQ, which had seen the fledgling company mushroom from four employees to a couple of hundred in the space of ten years.

It's 'the new Tower of London' trumpeted the Architectural Review, others likened it to the brain centre of the modern civilization, a new Babel tower, and a resplendent cruise liner cresting the wave of Regent Street.

BBC Broadcasting House in London, complete in 1932.

Some years later, writer George Orwell was less complimentary, defining Broadcasting House as a cross between a lunatic asylum and a girls' public school!

It was primarily a monument to the exponential rise in radio's popularity. 'Listening in' had become the craze of the 1920s, and the building had a wonderful metaphorical richness about it, as the BBC's architects and designers struggled to capture this new pervasive magic. They plundered the Bible and Shakespeare, and on the front of BH (as it is often known in shorthand) is Eric Gill's naked statue of Ariel, from The Tempest, being propelled into the air by the magician Prospero. Shocking in its day - there were complaining letters in the Houses of Parliament about the naked boy, and the BBC myth is told that the notoriously puritanical Reith told Gill to reduce the size of the boy's penis - it is now one of Gill's best loved sculptures.

A BBC bespoke-designed mixing desk, created for the then new Broadcasting House in the 1930s.

But let's not forget that BH was also an architectural and technical triumph. There were 800 doors, 6500 electrical lamps, 98 clocks (all synchronized to the new control room), 22 studios, 142 miles of broadcast circuit wiring. Oh, and 840 radiators and some rather nifty hydraulic lifts! Even more impressively, this new temple had been completed in less than three and a half years. A feat indeed.

That the building was uncared for in later decades (especially the 60s and 70s when TV was on the ascendant), and actually considered 'moribund and obsolete' by the Royal Insitute of British Architects at the time, makes its current transformation as the creative hub of the BBC, even more astounding.

BBC Broadcasting House reception in 1932.

The building has been completely reinvented, while maintaining the important historical elements. Recently staff from the BBC World Service began moving into the new wing of Broadcasting House. And within a year or so, teams from Radio, News and Television (known as Vision inside the BBC), along with BBC London, will all be co-sited in the newly extended Broadcasting House.

I wonder what Mr Orwell would make of it now?

Robert Seatter is the the Head of BBC History

  • See more pictures of Broadcasting House under construction on Flickr
  • Watch a video tour of Broadcasting House presented by Robert Seatter.
  • More BBC anniversaries in May can be found on the History of the BBC website.

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