The Face of Broadcasting House 

21 April 2017

By-ways of the BBC


To the making of the face that the BBC’s headquarters show indifferent Londoners and neck-craning strangers alike went 2,630,000 blocks of Portland stone, three sculptured panels, one sculptured statue, three symbolic carvings, five balconies of flowers, a clock tower, about 500 windows, and a great deal of architectural ingenuity.

Ingenuity was necessary because of the odd shape of the site — on which, by the way, the second Foley House once stood. Wyatt, a distinguished British architect of the eighteenth century, and so a contemporary of the famous brothers Adam, built the second Foley House in the gardens of the first, which was ultimately replaced by the hotel that now faces Broadcasting House.

The clock tower, the sculpture, the great sweep of the west front (a side of the building that photographs must have made familiar to listeners everywhere), even the nature of the windows, are evidence of the architect’s success in his effort to marry art and exigency.

Exigency swept away many of the original hopes and plans. If some of them had come about, there would be a spacious parking garage where now there are studios and the staff restaurant, and the ground-floor windows on the west side would announce the existence of shops — “to let” boards were actually put up when building was nearing its end, but soon had to come down. There is only one shop now, and that the BBC’s, maintained for the sale and display of publications. All the rest of the space was wanted by broadcasting.

Necessary modification, however, by no means upset the, ultimate effect. Admiration was excited especially by the west front. Professional critics liked its long ranges of windows, because they satisfyingly emphasise the curve of the front; they liked the conventional shape of the windows, because such a shape is in sympathy with neighbouring houses; and they liked the use of bars in the windows, because they give a texture contrasting with the plain stone surfaces.

Broadcasting House with its terraces of flowers, lining the fifth and eighth-floor balconies. In the bottom left-hand corner can be seen the sculpture of Ariel

The sculpture, too, too, has given pleasure — and not only to expert eyes. All of it is the work of that famous master of the chisel, Eric Gill. Two of the three panels are on the west front, and the other on the east. In a niche over the main door is the statue, undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of the “B.H.” exterior, and representing Shakespeare’s Ariel being sent out into the world by Prospero. Ariel, slim and graceful, is seven feet high; Prospero, draped and bearded, ten feet.

The BBC’s adoption of Ariel as the subject not only of the statue, but of all the exterior sculpture, has nothing to do with antennae — could the British Broadcasting Corporation be guilty of so outrageous a pun? Shakespeare’s invisible spirit of the air has been chosen because it is so obviously the classic impersonation of broadcasting. (Incidentally, Ariel has also given the BBC staff magazine its title.) In the panels on the west side, Eric Gill has shown “Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety” and “Ariel hearing celestial music”; in the other, the theme is “Ariel piping to children.”

Decorating the west side, too, is a carving of the Corporation’s coat of arms, and others symbolising waves and the “birds of the air.” All were done by E. Armonier to the architect’s design. These carvings are unobtrusive and restrained, and their positions make it difficult for the passer-by to appreciate their full artistic worth. But any extra stretching of the neck is none too elaborate a compliment to pay to the artist who interpreted in terms of Portland stone:

“Azure a Terrestrial Globe proper encircled by an Amulet Or, and seven Estoiles in Orle Argent, and for the Crest, on a Wreath of the Colours, a Lion passant Or, grasping in the dexter fore-paw a Thunderbolt proper. Supporters on either side, an Eagle, wings addorsed proper collared Azure pendant therefrom a Bugle horn stringed Or.”

It must not be thought, however, that in exploiting the artistic qualities of Portland stone, the BBC has forgotten the advantages of colour. Colour to brighten the face of Broadcasting House is given by living plants — shrubs and flowers that turn the balconies into window-boxes. You can mark the changing of the seasons by the BBC’s flowers: in the spring there are daffodils; in summer, geraniums; in autumn and early winter, chrysanthemums.

Every year fresh conical bay trees appear on the fifth and eighth-floor balconies. The attention that the BBC gives to its “gardens” is a reflection of the importance that it attaches to floral decoration generally.

Inside Broadcasting House a woman expert Arranging floral decorations for the studios spends two days every week in decorating studios, green-room, entrance hall, and other places where the presence of flowers is calculated to soothe the nervous artist and reassure the shy visitor. The massed blooms and ingeniously arranged branches impress many visitors even more than the mysteries of the control-room.

Arranging floral decorations for the studios

All the flowers used in the building’s interior must necessarily be seen by artificial light, and are chosen accordingly. Outside, the colour in the window-boxes is lost when night falls, so, hidden among the bay trees and flowers on the south side’s fifth-floor balconies are floodlights. No other part of the building is floodlit, but restraint has proved its value, and at night Broadcasting House finds a new, strange beauty.

It is probably fitting that a building with a remarkable purpose should have a remarkable exterior. But only an architect could describe it with the eloquence that is its due….

Only an architect? Perhaps I should have done well to consult the men who periodically polish up those two and a half million blocks of Portland stone, or the acrobats who clean the five hundred windows….




Aerial masts and little huts and slender “H”-shaped erections help to distinguish the roof of the building from the uncountable roofs that surround it, and give tantalising hints of the interesting things to be found up there — 112 ft. 9 in. above the pavements of Portland Place. It is a roof that repays exploration — and roof-exploration is always a peculiar adventure: what house-owner hasn’t experienced the curious sense of discovery that comes when he first climbs on his own tiles?

Even its shape is interesting — because on the east side, of the building it is cut back from the fourth floor upwards. Floors 5 and 6 are stepped back; then comes a steep slope, patterned with skylights up to the maximum height. This strange design was necessary because of the existence of “Ancient Lights,” an old law that protects the rights of neighbours to perpetual enjoyment of light falling on their windows — in this instance, the windows of the buildings facing that side of Broadcasting House. In consequence, the roof area of the BBC’s headquarters is far from being the measure of the ground-floor area.

Looking northwards from the roof towards Hampstead. This photograph was taken on an infra-red plate. which gives clearness of detail at great distances. It also has the effect of showing green objects, like the trees in Regent’s Park in the foreground, as dazzling white

It has always been a popular fancy to liken Broadcasting House to a vast ship sailing majestically down Langham Place, and the roof, as the passer-by sees it, emphasises the illusion: its levels are unequal; the little huts and ventilator-outlets might be hatchways on a vessel’s deck; and if those were insufficient, there are the three 25-ft. lattice masts : one surmounting the “nose” of the building, one in the middle, and one at the extreme north end.

These masts, by the way — and this is contrary to popular belief — have nothing to do with the transmission of the programmes that come to life in Broadcasting House. The aerials supported by the middle and northern masts are connected to a small transmitter, installed on the seventh floor, which is used for experimental work on the ultra-short waves — in other words, for broadcasting on 10 metres and below. The third mast is a spare. Between the three are the “slender, ‘H’-shaped erections,” which are the special aerials for the building’s television receivers.

Sharing the roof with the aerial masts are two flagstaffs, 28 ft. 6 in. in height, one at each end of the building. (There are two others on the opposite side, but at fourth floor level, where the roof begins to recede.) The Union Jack is flown from the north flagstaff, and the BBC’s house flag from the other. This flag — a familiar sight to Londoners — obeys heraldic convention in that it is a rectangular version of the shield in the Corporation’s coat-of-arms. The BBC describes it thus: “On an azure field representing the ether, the Earth is floating among the seven planets, broadcasting being represented by a golden ring encircling the globe.”

Both flags — the Union Jack measuring 18 ft. by 9 ft. and the house flag 12 ft. by 10 ft. — are run up at 9.30 in the morning and struck at 6.0 p.m. But sometimes the house flag is replaced by another — an indication that some eminent personality is visiting Broadcasting House.

At 1 p.m. on a day years ago, people in the neighbourhood of Portland Place stopped in astonishment — for the first time in history they were hearing the chimes of Big Ben in a part of London two miles away from Westminster. Many looked up suspiciously at the roof of Broadcasting House….

Nowadays, though Big Ben’s sonorous voice is heard daily in West-End streets, it checks the progress of few, because suspicions have been confirmed, and it is known that on either side of its chimeless clock the BBC has placed two large loudspeakers that, at one o’clock each day, rediffuse the chimes from Westminster at their natural strength.

Imposingly aloof though it seems, the BBC’s roof doesn’t hesitate to thrust itself on the senses of those who explore it; it offers not only interesting things to see and Big Ben to hear, but an interesting smell to sniff at — the smell of cooking. That comes from nearly 150 ft. below, from the kitchen of the restaurant, and it is conveyed, of course, by the ventilation ducts that have their outlets on the roof.

The East side of the building, which is cut back from the fourth floor upwards. The steep slope above the fifth floor makes the roof small in comparison with the ground area occupied

One cannot write about a roof without referring to the view spread out below it — and certainly not about the BBC’s roof. Higher than most of the surrounding buildings, the top of Broadcasting House is an excellent place whereon to confirm the fact that London is large. London seems to sweep against the building’s walls in waves of roofs that roll up from the far horizon on all sides. Only to the north does a green island push its way up through the grey, yet fascinating, monotony of roofs — and trees prevent one from seeing much of Regent’s Park. Of course, there are dozens of landmarks to be picked out: the home of Big Ben, the towers of Westminster Abbey, silvery glimpses of the Thames, the hills of South London matching the heights of the North.

And there is one thing further that the roof reveals at close quarters — the BBC’s chimney stack. Until recently, few people realised that the BBC had one, so cunningly had it been hidden away; yet it is over a hundred feet in height. But now demolishment of the adjoining houses to clear a site for the forthcoming extension of the building (it will ultimately be more than double its present size) has revealed the chimney in all its naked glory.

That the roof of Broadcasting House, because of the building’s purpose, has a part to play in the business of providing your programmes is obvious, but within the last year or so it has been called upon to undertake more work in the listener’s interest. It is a trial ground of would-be commentators. They are taken up there to describe what they see from that lofty vantage point; the description they give is recorded, and on that, in large measure, their merits are judged. And the strange thing is that not one in ten remembers to account in his description for the sound of the chimes of the clock of All Souls’ Church, just across the street, though he stands — probably for the first time — on a level with its spire.

There has never been a sound-broadcast from the roof, perhaps because those descriptions, immature though they may have been, have thoroughly tested the idea’s entertainment value. It is through the eye that interest is excited and, so far, mechanical difficulties have prevented the BBC’s television camera from putting the roof on the screen of the London viewer. Yet it was not of the London viewer that I was thinking as I descended “below deck.” …

Truly, were television for the overseas viewer a possibility, the BBC could find good programme material just by looking up.



About the author

Wilfred Goatman began working at the British Broadcasting Company’s station 5WA in Swansea, where his was the first voice heard on air. He later worked in the Public Relations Department at Broadcasting House in London. These articles were originally written as features for BBC Empire Broadcasting magazine under the pen-name “J. C. MacLennan”, and all nine were collected into the book By-ways of the BBC, published in late 1938 by P.S. King & Son.

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