New Broadcasting House

The BBC began to consider proposals for a TV and radio headquarters in Manchester in 1953. In 1967, Manchester Corporation suggested the All Saints Oxford Road site and obtained a compulsory purchase order but didn’t settle with all former owners until 1971.

On the site were a number of semi-derelict buildings of various types and ages from back-to-back, two-storey houses of the early 1800s to four-storey warehouses and shops. There were a number of minor roads traversing the area, paved with cobblestones and covered with tar paving.
BBC Engineering March 1976

Meanwhile, architects began work on the project in 1967 but, due to cost concerns, responsibility was moved in-house to the BBC’s Architectural and Civil Engineering Department in 1970. The Chief Architect was R.A. Sparks.

Construction was planned in three stages:
1) Network Production Centre, local radio station and outside broadcast base;
2) Large music studio for BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra;
3) Regional Television Operation.

The management contractor began work on-site in December 1971 and the first phase of construction was complete by mid-1975 allowing New Broadcasting House to become operational by September of that year. The Northern Symphony Orchestra’s studio and the Regional Television Centre were added subsequently.

I worked very briefly in New Broadcasting House in the mid-90s… it was another cupboard job… or another wasted networking opportunity perhaps. Doing short shifts on the minimum wage, alone in a small upper room, with no prior experience of the BBC, I answered the phone to members of the public. Incredibly I was their first and principal point of contact. I would field their enquiries and complaints, armed only with a long list of site-specific internal numbers (mostly London-based) and strict instructions not to put anyone through to real BBC employees, but to take their details and promise to ring back.

God forbid that BBC employees should be directly answerable to license fee payers.

There was a reception desk downstairs near the front door; the people there had phones… but clearly they were not speaking to the general public… I was. Which begs the question, which phone number did they respond to? Apparently one which wasn’t in the telephone book.

Two phone calls stick in my memory. One was from a woman who couldn’t remember the next line of a hymn but she was sure the BBC would know. Like many callers, she thought the BBC was the fount of all knowledge, and that I, as a BBC phone-answerer, enjoyed instant access to this wisdom. She was way ahead of her time… her false notion of the BBC morphed into what Google and Wikipedia have since become.

The other phone call I remember was from a local man who had just received news from his relatives by telephone of a horrific massacre… I think it was the Srebrenica massacre. He could not understand why it was not being reported by the BBC and other media. I rang the central news department in London, without much hope of a positive response, and was surprised when a senior editor agreed to ring the man back herself. She explained that there was a news blackout imposed by the government, and that the man deserved a personal explanation.

Two phone calls at the opposite end of the spectrum, both with insights to offer into the bizarre relationship between the British Broadcasting Corporation and those who fund it.

I remember very little else about my brief time in New Broadcasting House apart from general impressions of magnolia walls, heavy wooden doors, long corridors, low ceilings, fixed windows… institutional, functional, dull. Even so, I’ve been affected by its demolition. The BBC building seemed like an immovable object on Oxford Road and now it’s gone… which is why I took photographs and asked my friend who worked there for years to write something about the building as she remembers it…

I worked at New Broadcasting House from 1981 to 1995. My brilliant career began as a trainee secretary, on £3000 per year.

I worked as a Radio Production Secretary, Radio Production Assistant and Station Assistant plus a stint in the Press Office. But back in 1981, the deal was, you moved around departments, filling in wherever someone was needed. Basically, internal temping, and a great way to find out about Auntie’s nooks and crannies.

In early 1982 I got my dream job – Radio Production Secretary in Popular Music. I mucked around with stationery and filing systems to my hearts content, drove fast hire cars on recces, bashed out bits of scripts for trails and quizzes, booked session bands, got on first name terms with pluggers and increased my personal record collection. I couldn’t believe my luck.

But feelings were complicated. It was an image-obsessed, middle class world that was completely and utterly outside my experience. Working at the BBC did not align easily with my punk politics. I was shocked, proud, embarrassed and high as a kite on adrenalin. In certain company, June from Ramsbottom and I would cover our hard-to-name discomfort by lying about where we worked. Peter Hook mocked me, the BBC employee, on an outside broadcast at the Hacienda. Out in the real world, it was not cool. Inside, I knew I was the luckiest person I knew. I was glad to get off the bus at Amigos and run between the traffic on Oxford Road and into the building.

The lifts were so slow – Radio was on the fourth floor, past all the technical stuff on the first floor, admin, HR, and the canteen on the second floor, operational departments on the third, television and senior management on the fifth.

Or I just ran up the stairs, two at a time. Every floor had different coloured carpets, long straight corridors, fire doors, brightly lit loos with theatrical style mirrors and windows looking out over the car park at the back, stairs at each end of the long building. The offices were cocoons. I remember every detail of the interior, but can’t remember the view from the window.

Allegedly, the atmosphere was so artificial that an apple left on the windowsill would wrinkle up in 24 hours. People were obsessed with the air conditioning, calling technicians from the third floor daily to check the temperature, adjust the air flow. We just wanted to open a window, but it felt like you would be sucked out.

Those cocoons housed geniuses, many from an about-to-be-bygone age. Men, mostly, who learned their trade in the second world war, who wore blazers, had foul mouths and dirty minds and kind hearts, some of them anyway. Every office held treasure of some kind. And those long corridors meant you could run from office to office, office to lift, office to studio, office to Reception, on the deep pile carpets.

God, I loved running up those corridors, all that energy to burn. And anywhere you could come across a famous person behaving perfectly normally. Les Dawson chatted to me in the lift. Rory Gallagher ate chips with me and June in the canteen, I answered the phone, it was Mitch Mitchell. Tony Wilson called in for a cup of tea, I was awestruck. Every day, down to the canteen for lunch, but all I can remember eating is quiche or mashed potatoes and peas. Why did they have mirrors on the walls in the canteen?

Every Friday, from lunch time, drinks in the club, people-watching, then a lift home, driving on the wrong side of the road through Hulme. In the newsroom, drinks all round every day, taking orders as the programme began, off to the bar as it ended. Ancient old hacks, as old as I am now, whiling away the day flirting with secretaries, leaving everything till the eleventh hour then springing into action, shouting out the news stories while you bashed away on a two-ton typewriter. High on adrenalin.

I drank cans of lager left over from a party in the office while I typed letters. I smoked 20 cigarettes a day, minimum, in the office. I set the waste paper bin on fire. I cannot have been the only one; the fire brigade was always arriving or leaving.

During a fire drill, I couldn’t get my colleague’s wheelchair to the assembly point between the vehicles in the car park. It had to be lifted through by stage hands, and the news editor got the story in the MEN. PR genius.

One morning, after being up all night taking acid, I jumped out of bed, cycled to work, got chased by a pack of dogs through Hulme. All day, my heart pounded and everything was pink and purple.

Why, oh why, oh why did I do that? Why didn’t I take the day off?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The BBC sold off New Broadcasting House last year, having moved their operations over to Salford’s Media City. Local property developers, Realty Estates (no website), purchased the site at auction with a shock high bid of around ten million. At the time, Manchester Evening News reported that Realty’s development plan would include a hotel, a supermarket and student accomodation; there was also mention of car parking and leisure/arts facilities.

Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley unveiled a proposed design last summer, but the artwork looks extremely vague. Realty appears to have paid Feilden Clegg Bradley the smallest fee possible for some hastily produced artist’s impressions (and association with the practice’s good reputation.)

Meanwhile, Corridor Manchester, tasked with co-ordinating efforts by the major stakeholders along Oxford Road, has no working relationship with Realty at present, and so is unable to comment on the project’s progress. (Corridor Manchester is a partnership between Manchester City Council, the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and property developers Bruntwood.)

Last week, a spokesperson for architects Feilden Clegg Bradley commented:

We are working on the Masterplan with Realty and further details will be available in the near future but at the moment there is no public information.

Realty own the old Boddingtons Brewery site opposite the MEN Arena, which operates as a carpark.

Since January, the BBC site has been completely levelled, creating an upper and lower flat area, accessible via a wide gate. The effect is carparkish…

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  1. I’ve found an old image of buildings which predate New Broadcasting House here:
    Manchester Metropolitan University has archive images on Flickr as well.

  2. These are great – thanks – MCC were obsessed with demolition in the 60s and 70s… but so much of what was built instead has since been demolished or partially rebuilt or disguised. They have such an embarrassing record, it must make it difficult for them to lead with confidence today.

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