Yesterday, thanks to the kindness of Wanda Petrusewicz in remembering me, I was able to look inside Bush House, straddling Aldwych and the Strand in London.
It was the home of the BBC World Service from 1941 until 2012, and I worked there from 1991 until 2010 – most of my BBC career. But Bush House was never owned by the BBC; it was built by an American Irving T Bush as a world trade centre in the 1920s. It was the most expensive office building of its day, and (I think) one of the first steel-framed buildings of this type in London. The building has now been redeveloped into offices, currently empty but it may be leased by King’s College across the road.
So, with so much of my working and personal life tied up in the concrete, marble and steel, what did I make of its renovation?
It makes an interesting comparison with the current debate about the future of Alexandra Palace: how much of the BBC’s changes to Ally Pally in the early days of TV should be retained? Well, in Bush House absolutely no trace of the BBC remains. The developers have successfully stripped the building back to its shell – no mean feat, as I know from cabling in risers and weird cubby holes in Bush just how much crap the BBC added to the building.
As you’d expect, the splendid marble staircases and strange old letterboxes on the landings are retained exactly as they were:
The eccentric, but beautiful, old Italian-made lifts have been replaced with modern ones, lacking that familiar World Service voice, though you may be pleased to learn that one tradition has been retained: we got, briefly, stuck in one.
The main Aldwych reception in Centre Block looks better than it ever did in my BBC career, having opened up the glass balconies above, although I am disappointed the (original?) dark wooden booths labelled ‘TELEPHONE’ and ‘PORTER’ by the revolving doors have vanished without trace:
Almost all internal walls have been removed, meaning that as soon as you step off a landing, it’s very hard to get your bearings. Entire studios – which once seemed so important and immovable – have been swept away, as if they never existed. Here’s the site of S46, home to countless World Briefing / Newsdesk / Radio Newsreel broadcasts:
And here I am pretending to sit at the mixing desk in S39, the studio I helped redesign and redevelop for BBC News:
Not so long ago, it looked like this:
Studios S36 and S38 (can you spot Kofi Annan?) broadcast most of the BBC World Service English language current affairs programmes for decades: Newshour, The World Today, Europe Today and more:
Today this is what remains:
So, if you’re sentimental about BBC radio’s history, the redevelopment may upset you. I thought I’d get emotional about it, but the renovation allows the beauty of the original architecture to shine through. Amazing details, like this window, which were hidden by studios, ducts and whatnot now sparkle:
I must have walked past this window a thousand times (it’s behind where C21 was, close to the really old Studio Manager common and quiet rooms on the 2nd floor Centre Block South) without ever knowing it was there.
Most areas have been opened up and look the same now, so it can be hard to know what floor you are on. The floors are shiny metal, ready to be carpeted, the heating ducts that ran round the windows have been stripped out giving more space and allowing you to get closer to the windows. Even on a cloudy day there was a great sense of light, helped no doubt by the total lack of furniture and people.
This is what the newsroom, once bustling 24 hours a day, looks like now:
Hardly recognisable from the late 90s:
Or even the 2000s:
I do wonder if whoever inhabits the new Bush House will pick up on any sense of the building’s history and past. The dramas, literal and metaphorical, that played out in the spaces workers will sit. The breaking news stories: the end of WW2, Cuban missile crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11; the days when millions of people in Eastern Europe tuned into the Polish/Czech/Hungarian ‘sausage’ programmes I and others made in a basement studio in the early hours of the morning; the laughter, anger, sheer panic of live radio, the tears and love affairs that filled the corridors and canteen. Does a building, the stone and steel, soak any of this up? The builders swear that the old library (‘News Inf’, short for News Information) is haunted. Perhaps the ghost of an old cutter & sticker (the people whose jobs were to cut out newspaper cuttings and file them accordingly) stalks the lower ground floor, across the landing from the BBC Club?
Ah, the Bush House Club. Famous for its fishtank, which legend has someone smashed one night (perhaps when themselves smashed), causing water and fish to spill out across the room, drinkers picking up fish and chucking them in pint pots and G&Ts to keep them alive. It’s just an empty space now, a buidling worker oddly watering the spot where the fishtank once stood, and where Neil Sleat introduced me to my wife.
I leave you with my favourite tribute to Bush House. Thomas Hannen and Owain Rich’s beautiful film incorporating clips from this programme. Four and a half minutes that perfectly sum up 80 years of extraordinary multi-lingual broadcasting, in a special place; part United Nations, part university, always – until the end – apart from the rest of the BBC.