THE HISTORY OF THE PEBBLE MILL FOYER (and everything around it).

This post was originally published in the Blake’s 7 blog ‘Watching Blake’s 7’. Here it is, in expanded form in a predominantly Doctor Who blog! Hopefully this explains the frequent references to UK telefantasy.

As a child, there was something quite exciting about the occasional moments on a Saturday morning childrens television programme, where the camera was turned the other way around, and we got a behind the scenes tour of the rather dystopian looking television studio. As I recall, these revealing insights into how live television programmes were made could not function without some disparaging reference to the food at the BBC canteen.

 The BBC series ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (1971 – 1987) contained some of the music that has stuck with me over time.  This was another opportunity to cement my fascination with those bleak bare walls, cables and acoustic panels. The empty studio had its own peculiar aesthetic – a cross between garden shed and industrial space age container.  I saw these studios so many times, that I started to recognise whether they were broadcasting from Oxford Road in Manchester or Television Centre in London, simply by the design of the wall panels. Generally speaking the formula was as follows; if the studio had lots of notices attached to the wall, it was recorded in London, if the studio had long vertical strips it was recorded in Manchester, and if the studio contained a ton of squares it was filmed in Birmingham. Yes, my OCD was rampant even then! 

Whistle Test was ripe for parody. When the world’s first ever ‘dead’ rock star appeared on Eric Idle’s ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ (BBC 1975 – 76) it was a seamless fusion of those presentation styles and, thanks to the use of video feedback, sci-fi trappings.

On a DVD compilation of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, T.V Smith, the lead singer of the punk band The Adverts, talks about a momentous occasion where the programme finally embraced punk.   With a wry smile, he recounts how the group were a last-minute booking, travelling up to Birmingham to record at the same studio complex where the “really conservative Richard and Judy type show” was being recorded at the time.  The resulting performance includes two very differing statements of how punk had arrived on Whistle Test.  There was the sneering “At last, the 1978 show” uttered just before the performance of ‘Bored Teenagers’, and the wonderfully BBC representation of punk – the safety pins stuck to the lens of the camera. 

The ‘conservative’ show that T.V. Smith refers to, is a series that really sticks in my mind as having a connection with television I love, even if it wasn’t a ‘must see’ television programme when I was younger.  I’m talking of that bastion from Edgbaston – the genesis of live daytime television, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ (BBC 1972 – 86).  

For those not familiar, this was a BBC lunchtime magazine programme, broadcast in the foyer of the BBC’s studios in Birmingham.  It’s the thing you watched when you were unwell, not at school, a student, or if you worked from home.

When I look at Twitter or various television forums, it appears to be fondly remembered by the people who were in a position to watch it.  I reckon there is an interest, or at the very least an unbridled love for this show which no one fully owns up to.  I know I’m fond of it.

Twitter has also taught me facts and not so facts. I discovered, to my joy, that Pebble Mill could easily be used as Cockney rhyming slang “Are you feeling a bit Pebble?” Pebble Mill = ill.

Or that ‘Pebble Mill at One’ was a term used by truckers to describe a road traffic accident. ‘A Pebble Mill at One’ = An accident so nasty you can’t stop yourself looking at it. (Apparently coined by ‘Not the 9 o’clock News).

I believe it all.

‘Pebble Mill at One’ conjures a load of memories.  Being off sick from school was a key ingredient.  This wasn’t a series that I would choose to watch – no, I wanted Chock-a-block or ‘Play School’.  

Yet there was a strange curiosity. It was live, which made it interesting to watch, and it stood apart from other live TV programmes, because it wasn’t your traditional television studio. There were no walls containing soundproofing panels, strips of metal, plug sockets and ‘No Smoking’ signs.

On the contrary, the humble Pebble Mill foyer was shiny, with marble and glass. Pure glam! And there was a world going on behind those foyer windows, a tree in the middle, and behind it were taxis and people wandering past. For such as small space, it didn’t feel claustrophobic, in fact there was so much to view.

It all came flooding back when I watched the Doctor Who ‘The Three Doctors’ DVD extra. It came from a Pebble Mill at One broadcast in Christmas 1973. I feel sure you know the one I mean. It’s charming, delightful, awkward, slightly prickly and has a feeling that it could all go horribly wrong. It’s everything I want from live TV.

We kick off with David Seymour talking monsters with visual effects maestro Bernard Wilkie.

It’s all very amiable, and it’s lovely when Matthew Jones (son of Paul Jones) steps on to the set and makes the connection between memories and monsters. But the real fun is happening outside.

This is where I get that wonderful feeling inherent when watching live TV. Is the left hand talking to the right hand? I can just hear the production gallery shouting down to the AFM.

“Cue Cyberman! Stick a cigarette in his mouth and tell him to not look so bored.”

“If he wants paying, tell that Draconian to face to the right”

“Watch out for that tree, Spiridon! Oh, never mind. Too late”.

The most lovely thing is observing the people in the background. A security guard whose steely, hard nosed persona has broken down upon the sight of a Cyberman. There’s the young TV executive who quickly hops over the wall to grab a sarnie. The sight of children and reassuring parents. It’s a reminder to me that Pebble Mill felt closer to the public than fortress TVC.

And then they all line up for the awkward, immobile, wet, family photo.

Then it’s time for Marian Foster to take to the stage, and interview the elusive Patrick Troughton. It’s a fascinating discussion, conduced in a heap of cables. Remember this is warts and all live TV. Troughton treads the finest line between mischievous, playful child, and rude, reluctant guest. It’s part interview, part contest. And the surprise is that no one thought it would be. At the beginning, Foster’s mask almost slips, as she tries to bring him into line, or at least get him to look in the right direction. Troughton mutters under his breath “I think what we mean here…”, hinting that Foster hasn’t done her research. Once again, it’s a fine line between a light jape, and a barbed dig at interviewer. Troughton’s skill is that we are not sure which it is. Foster handles the interview very well, laughing to cut the tension, and keeping things moving forward, but Oh My Giddy Aunt, she is having to work hard. It’s an interview that leaves me confused about Troughton the person. Perhaps he is right to avoid interviews, as he once claimed. I’m left feeling slightly less warm towards him, and then I think of some of his interviews for Nationwide and Breakfast Time in the 1980’s which feels the right side of playful.

Finally we return to the unflappable Wilkie. David Seymour proudly announces a special demonstration of Cyber power. Oh, and the aforementioned tree is still standing.

When the Cyberman walks through the pane of glass, it immediately brings back memories of Christopher Trace trying to sound impressed by a War Machine on the set of Blue Peter. David Seymour on the other hand tells it like it is, with a underwhelmed “Oh!” Magical.

This edition of Pebble Mill at One is wonderful archive television. The real selling point is the connection between what is taking place in the magical world of a TV studio, and the everyday happenings in the outside world, and how sometimes they collide delightfully.

So here is the story of Pebble Mill – the show, the foyer and the studio complex.  It’s a personal account, so it contains connections to my favourite UK telefanstasy. At the very least, it’s an entry in the television encyclopaedia that I hope someone will find interesting. And if you do, please check out Vanessa Jackson’s exhaustive project documenting the history of the place. It’s a lovely website – http://www.pebblemill.org

It’s 1971, and the BBC opens its new Broadcasting Centre in Birmingham – Pebble Mill.  It contains two television studios, including a medium-large television drama studio (A), a smaller news studio (B) and a range of other broadcasting facilities.  

Designed by John Madin, who was responsible for a large chunk of Birmingham’s exciting modernist post-war future, it is designed to house the production areas at the front of the complex, in the face of the public.  The administration is tucked away at the back.

Like many buildings of the era it contains an impressive foyer, with large glass windows, leather bucket seats and marble reception desk. There is also a steel canopy above the double doors. It’s the epitome of 1970’s chic.

And best of all, there is an exciting bridge taking you from the Tudorbethan surrounds of Pebble Mill Road, to the showbiz reception.

1972.  A new daytime series is launched to rival ITV’s drama ‘Crown Court’.  This lunchtime offering is suitably entitled ‘Pebble Mill at One’. It was originally called ‘Drop In’, suggesting that guests drop into the foyer for a natter.

The decision is made not to record this live magazine programme in the large television studio available on the complex.  The controller (Phil Sidey) who devised the series, makes the decision that the foyer will be a good idea.  A lighting rig is installed, the cameras move in, and the foyer will eventually become known as ‘Studio C’. 

But it is a battle. According to Roger Casstles (later to achieve fame for ‘The Clothes Show’) Pebble Mill was only allocated seven cameras across the studios. Therefore the EMI’s used were nicked from the regional news studio, and returned by late afternoon, just in time for them to warm up once more for the Nationwide opt-out – ‘Midlands Today’.

The early editions are recorded while the foyer is used for its original purpose.  The receptionists and visitors to the building appear in the show.  There are ongoing challenges with sound and lighting – after all this isn’t your traditional studio. 

Soon after, the reception is moved, and the series settles into a popular mix of ‘light conversation and features’ – derided by critics, but enjoyed by many who watched it.  One week Morrissey will be reviewing video releases, keeping the same seat warm for Su Pollard, who will talk about Hi-De-Hi or something.  Music will be supplied by big hitters such as Dionne Warwick, or anyone who is passing through the Midlands, and itching for some television exposure. Oh, and there are a lot of Harrier Jump Jets and Helicopters.

Throughout, the series is building an archive of material that will be plundered by fans of UK telefantasy for decades to come. 

And it’s live, so there are wonderful moments to enjoy, such as a drunken Molly Parkin telling her life story to Donny Macleod, and Owen Paul enjoying his favourite waste of time – without hearing the soundtrack.

From the mid 1970’s to early 1980’s, the challenges of lighting a foyer are taken to the next level, as a late night entertainment show is concocted.

Its name? ‘Saturday Night at the Mill’.

Sure, it might host Matt Munro, Kate Bush, and Dusty Springfield, but as sci-fi fans, we’re more interested in Peter Davison making cocktails, Matthew Waterhouse making a quick appearance, or David Prowse wearing a frilly shirt, and generally looking big.

These are golden days for the complex.  Apparently 10% of BBC output is coming from Birmingham.  The Asian Unit is producing groundbreaking television. Producer David Rose is behind the English Regions Drama department, designed to give a voice to many new writers. He declined to attend London drama meetings, giving the unit an independent edge, and is responsible for many culturally significant television productions such as a number of ‘Play for Today’ dramas, the ‘Second City Firsts’ strand, and later, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’.

The main ‘Studio A’ is well used, from ‘Poldark’, to ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, from ‘Howard’s Way’ to ‘Telly Addicts’.  Even ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, ‘K9 and Company’, ‘Rentaghost’ and ‘The Adventure Game’ tick the telefantasy box. 

Bit by bit, the foyer is spruced up, and the leftovers of its days as a reception are cleared out.  The ceiling is removed, heightened and painted white.  Gone is the marble desk, replaced by an increase in pot plants, and Japanese shoji screens, and that huge mental canopy above the doors also disappears in the mid 1980’s – a vile and grotesque act of architectural vandalism if ever there was one!  There is also an increase in space for the usual audiences shipped in from Conservative clubs and social groups around the Midlands, who delightfully fail to clap at the right places.

And even the railings outside are given a lick of paint. It’s important to keep your house in order!

And still there’s a familiar face or two dropping in.

Like Doctor Who, Pebble Mill at One was on Michael Grade’s radar, and in 1986 it is given the boot, even though the viewing figures are pretty healthy.  The presenters appear genuinely sad to see it go, not to mention 30,000 viewers who wrote to the BBC about its cancelation – presumably including sewists up and down the land, and the man who wanted Marian Foster to get her tits out in that final live edition. 

A year or two later, it returns.  But only the format.  It’s no longer ‘Pebble Mill at One’, as it is broadcast after midday.  New titles appear, such as ‘Daytime Live’ and ‘Scene Today’ which are very much of its time.  There is a new presenting team, who seem to work well together, and for a few years it retains its topical mix.

And familiar faces continue to drop in.

Following the mid 1980’s ‘hiatus’, the foyer has been further extended, with the glass windows being moved back towards the railings.  There is a bit more room for everyone.  The ceiling is painted black, perhaps to make it look more like a TV studio…next to a front garden.

By 1990, the competition with ITV is hotting up. Pebble Mill is linking all daytime programming under the banner ‘Daytime UK’, but it is stopped in its tracks by the Gulf War and a decline in audience. The jangly chiming synthesiser in successive theme tunes since the mid 1980’s, have been replaced by soul saxophone. The topical magazine format used since 1972 is finally ditched.

Live entertainment is the fashion. Music, performance and chat is in, cookery, topical discussion and fashion is out. There’s more familiar faces to be seen and heard: Gareth Thomas, Jacqueline Pearce, Tom Baker. Hell, even Bill Hicks drops in!

Over the summer of 1992 the foyer is transformed again. We see the familiar glass windows one last time in June.

By the start of the Autumn, the windows are partially boarded up, as the space is home to a proper set for ‘Good Morning with Anne and Nick’ (1992 – 96), which went up against Richard and Judy in the battle for daytime. 

A conservatory is built towards the rear of the foyer, extending out into the courtyard. An extra ‘bay window’ extension is constructed at the front.

Meanwhile, Studio A is still busy.  Studio drama may have dwindled, but it still hosts a ton of entertainment. Standing out for me is the first few series of sketch show ‘The Real McCoy’, and the fabulous make-it-up-as-you-go-along drama ‘What’s Your Story?’, hosted by Sylvester McCoy.

‘Pebble Mill’ (the programme) is apparently recommissioned. In fact, the format is now completely different. It’s a chat show in the studio, with all the garish colour schemes of the 1990’s.

Occasionally I would recognise someone who had appeared in Doctor Who or Blake’s 7.  ‘Pebble Mill’ is professionally produced, but lacks any of the joyous unpredictability of a live television show recorded in a glass fronted foyer. 

By 1996, Paul Shane sings ‘You’ve lost that Loving Feeling’ in the club style, and the show is axed (not connected – probably).  While there is more daytime pre-recorded programming from the Mill, the days of live daytime broadcasting is at an end.  The end of the series appears to mirror the fate of the Pebble Mill studio complex, which has slowly diminished in favour, thanks to John Birt’s ‘Producer’s Choice’ policy, and a slow, looming strategy to turn Manchester into a major BBC hub.

Despite a multi million pound refurbishment of studio A, bookings decline, and both the studio (A) and the foyer (C) are closed as a broadcasting resource in 2001.  Staff are whittled down. Only the small regional studio (B) remains.

By the time I visited Pebble Mill in 2003, the decision had been made to close the entire complex and relocate to smaller premises in the city centre of Birmingham.  Around this time ‘the Mill’ was using the former ‘Studio A’ as a cheeky sound stage (until the accountants found out) and the foyer as the principal location for the daytime drama ‘Doctors’.  The windows had been completely boarded up, and blacked out – but in the very first scene of the very first episode, you know exactly where the surgery is. 

Finally in 2004, the cameras roll for the last time.  The foyer is blown up dramatically in ‘Doctors’ and soon after the bulldozers move in for real.  The complex lasted less than 35 years. 

The thing about ‘Pebble Mill’ – both the show and the building – is that it had an intrinsic relationship between the what was broadcast from the complex, and reason for watching television in the first place.

The programme makers at Pebble Mill always seemed to open up the complex to the viewer, making it a fascinating site for anyone with a growing interest in television production.  Often the courtyard would stage a concert, and corridors would feature in promotional music videos.  This combined with the use of the foyer made Pebble Mill ahead of its time, eschewing the traditional studio for other locations.  It’s just that those locations were often Pebble Mill itself.  

So ‘Howards Way’ needs to film in a glitzy boardroom, and impressive corridor? No problem. Just take over one of the conference rooms in the tower block, and then take a walk along the glass panelled corridor outside studio A itself.

To me, there is an unfortunate irony between how well utilised the entire building was when making television, and a key reason given by management for its demolition – the under utilisation of its main studio due to the decrease in multi-camera television production. 

Pebble Mill at One is also the series that is revisited the most when it comes to archive interviews and features to do with Blake’s 7, Doctor Who and other series of interest.  It even seems to eclipse ‘Blue Peter’ in this regard.  Gareth Thomas features several times, notably alongside Jacqueline Pearce in the early 1990’s, and there is the Radiophonic Workshop feature from the late 1970’s, which features on the DVD’s. 

And let’s not forget, interviews with Rod Lord, and Alan J.W. Bell for Hitchhikers fans, and a ton of content for Who fans, notably the peculiar tension between Doctor and interviewer when Patrick Troughton was interviewed in the early 1970’s and Sylvester McCoy in the late 1980’s.  

To be honest, if you wanted a good supportive sci-fi discussion, the interviewer really needed to be the late Donny MacLeod, who, whether facilitating ideas from the public about how Peter Davison should play the role, or cheerfully passing by Tom Baker’s more eccentric bi-play, always seemed to enjoy talking about this particular realm of fantasy. 

It’s easy to be snooty about ‘Pebble Mill at One’ – critics were at the time, and indeed ‘TV hell’ countdowns will include examples of the show because its was perceived by some as being low brow, low budget, factory level output – thousands of editions were screened.  Interestingly, I have memories of quite serious subjects being discussed, alongside ‘Five Star’ gyrating their way around the grounds.  Of course, it reflects the times, so I’ll happily gloss over circus bears rolling around or black and white minstrels, in favour of memories of the BBC being particularly ‘Auntie’ which, when you are poorly, is just what is needed.  In fact I can’t think of many shows that had such a close connection between programme and audience.  And lets face it, the television landscape of today owes a debt to this slice of metropolitan fare, even more so when you consider the series that followed also started their lives outside of London – the view outside the glass windows of ‘This Morning’ being the Albert Docks in Liverpool, and the pilot series of ‘The One Show’ was Pebble Mill’s replacement building – The Mailbox.  In short, Pebble Mill reminded me that there was more to television than London.

These days, the site is healthcare complex. Where the foyer once stood, there is now a gym.

But the next time I’m in Brum, and I pass Pebble Mill Road, I won’t see the gym. I will still see, between me and a big glass window, Gareth Thomas licking a Liberator gun, a Cyberman knocking over a glass window of its own, that walkway, a couple of taxis, and those railings facing out to a green lawn.

Oh, and the tree is still there!

In addition to the excellent Pebble Mill archive, you can find a frivolous collection of chairs from Pebble Mill at One here.

Picture credits

http://www.pebblemill.org – PM@1 rehearsals (c) Robin Sutherland

Google Maps

http://www.bfcaa.uk/projects/9332/

youtube.com/watch?v=kFzOw_Q0K3A – Ukulele Orchestra footage.

vimeo.com/417116714

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