By-ways Below Ground 

5 May 2017

By-ways of the BBC


When the building of Broadcasting House began, 43,000 tons of earth had to be excavated from the site to make room for the great steel grillages that support the building and for the three floors — lower-ground, basement, sub-basement — that were required below street level. So to-day, when one stands on the sub-basement floor the pavements of Portland Place and Langham Street are 34 ft. above one’s head, water in the subsoil surrounds one, and the trains of the Bakerloo Underground Railway run not far from one’s feet. In effect, also, one stands on the foundations of Broadcasting House, but the foundation stone — in which (in accordance with tradition) lie BBC documents of historical importance, copies of agreements relating to the building, copies of the first three issues of The BBC Year Book, and the first copy of The Radio Times and other BBC publications — is not in these foundations; following the practice of modern times, it is built into the superstructure at the main entrance to the building.

Interesting problems accompanied the construction of the foundations. Traversing practically the entire site is an old brick conduit in which streams from the suburb of Hampstead are carried. It is subject to considerable pressure during heavy rain, and in laying it bare during the excavations the possibility of its bursting had to be avoided. Foot by foot it was covered with a casing of reinforced concrete to resist the pressure of the water when it became surcharged, and to protect it from being affected by the weight of the building — and Broadcasting House weighs 24,000 tons.

But foundations and interred documents are not to be seen. What are to be seen on the sub-basement floor are the greater part of the installations that ensure the comfort of those who use the building — the air-conditioning plant, refrigerator, hot water boilers, lift machinery, Diesel engine for emergency-power supply, electric-power switchboards — and in the studio tower, two “double-decker” studios, known as BA and BB, which are used for light musical programmes, chamber music, and the Children’s Hour. Perhaps it should be added that a “double-decker” studio is a studio two floors in height. The space thus gained is sometimes devoted to an audience gallery, as in BA and BB.

The “White Coons” in studio BA. Doris Arnold and Harry Pepper are at the pianos; the late Joe Morley is seen with his banjo, and Tommy Handley is just behind

“A building within a building” — that well-worn description of Broadcasting House, with its studio tower made independent of the main structure by walls several feet thick, surrounded by offices and corridors and thus isolated from the fresh air and natural light, in itself adequately illustrates the necessity for the seven air-conditioning plants that have been installed. Every hour they wash and purify 260 tons of air (one can actually see the washing process), increase or decrease its temperature and humidity as the season may dictate, and deliver it to 180 rooms. If all these rooms were occupied there would be 1,700 people in the tower, who, in twelve hours, would give off moisture weighing one ton. So it is the duty of the ventilating system not only to circulate conditioned air, but to withdraw, without creating eddies, stale-air pockets, or draughts, that that has become stale. As a matter of fact, the air of a studio is normally changed about once every ten minutes.

Cleaning out one of the intake ducts of the ventilation system

Without special precautions for cooling the air in summer, the temperature in the studios would rise to about 12 degrees above the prevailing outside temperature, but that in the tower rooms is maintained at about 65 degrees F.; if the number of people in any one studio increases, and so causes a rise in the temperature of that room, a thermostat — there is one in every studio — restores the normal level. The refrigerator used for cooling the air is capable of freezing 200 tons of water a day.

Many miles of piping, over 100 tons of steel ducting (one of the intake ducts is so large that three men can walk abreast in it), fans, pumps, electric motors, are unceasingly in use to provide the twenty-four-hour service that the studio tower requires, but in neither the sub-basement studios next door to the plant, nor in any other studio, is there the faintest hint of the presence of machinery, the apparatus and ducts being so designed and balanced that noise has been conquered. It is possible for a full brass band to play in one studio without giving the slightest indication of its presence to occupants of other studios on the same ducting system.




From the sub-basement floor come the light, heat, and hot water supplies of the building as well as its “conditioned” atmosphere. Side by side, dominating the space allotted to them, squat the two fat, red-painted boilers that provide the heat for the building’s 840 radiators, steam for the air-conditioning and ventilating plants, hot water for the lavatories and the staff-restaurant kitchen. Oil burning — they call on the three twenty-ton storage tanks for about two tons of oil each day — these boilers evaporate 5,800 pounds of water every hour. Broadcasting House uses about 25,000 gallons of water daily, and 1,000 gallons of hot water are available to meet the peak demands that occur at lunch-time and when the offices close at night.

And also on the sub-basement floor — a total staff of twenty-seven men is permanently engaged in the maintenance of these essential services — is the room in which is the machinery operating the half-dozen lifts of Broadcasting House. Staff use a pair of 1½-ton lifts accommodating twenty-four people; artists use another pair, 1 ton each and holding eighteen. And there are two lifts for the conveyance of goods — one serving all floors up to the fifth, where, as a result of the unavoidable “cutting-back” of the roof on the east side of the building, it is necessary to change to the second lift, serving the fifth to eighth floors.

Once upon a time the passenger lifts were the fastest in London: as I mentioned in Chapter 2, they have a maximum speed of 400 ft. a minute — that is, just over 4½ miles an hour. The double “run” of these lifts varies from 203 to 224 ft., and in the course of a day they may cover a distance of anything from eleven to twenty miles.

Sinking the well at sub-basement level during the construction of Broadcasting House. The depth of the bore-hole is over 600 feet

There are about 6,700 electric lamps in Broadcasting House. All of them are fed from the switchboard on the sub-basement floor, whither six separate feeders — some exclusive to the building — convey the current from the generating station of the St. Marylebone Borough Council. In the ordinary private house of six rooms, the load on the incoming mains may be about 20 amps.; in Broadcasting House it is between 500 and 600 amps, continuously. In the private house the quarterly account for electricity may charge for a consumption of about 150 units; in Broadcasting House the daily consumption is about 5,900 units.

Though failure of the electricity supply is unlikely, precautions have been taken to ensure that the studios and associated rooms in the BBC’s headquarters will never be involuntarily plunged into darkness. A storage battery, situated on the floor above, ensures that illumination sufficient to enable the continuance of a broadcast performance is available until a secondary lighting supply, provided by a 100-kW generator, driven by a Diesel engine, can be brought into operation — which can be done within minutes. The emergency supply can, of course, carry the essential load of the building indefinitely.

There is one more feature of interest to be seen on the sub-basement floor: the external evidence of what has been called the BBC’s “artesian” well, sticking out of the concrete floor like a drain-pipe set on end. The BBC’s House Engineer — Ruler of the Sub-basement — will say that it is not an “artesian” well; that one sees the top twelve inches or so of a 600-ft. bore-hole, the sealed orifice 7¼ in. across. This bore-hole was sunk when the steel frame of the building was under construction to provide for an emergency water-supply. (Which it would if brought into service, a yield of about 1,000 gallons per hour of high-quality water being available.) To the top of the bore-hole the engineers of the Control Room have attached a lead, and in doing so have created a most effective earth-tube.

But the strangest fact of all is that you can spend hours on the floor above and yet be in complete ignorance of the activity beneath: there is no evidence of humming generators and fans, of clattering relays, on the basement floor. The House Engineer’s plant and staff are the “Silent Service” of Broadcasting House.




It is quite possible for a member of the BBC’s head-office staff to spend several months in Broadcasting House and still be uncertain of his way when he has occasion to visit the uppermost floors of the building. But there can be none who is ignorant of the geography of the first two floors below street-level — the lower-ground and the basement. For down there are places where members of the staff may eat — a full-course dinner if they want one; where, in off-duty hours, they may play chess or draughts or just rest; where, if they have an evening “date,” they may bath and change their clothes.

Service to the staff is oddly mingled with service to broadcasting on these two floors: walk round the studio tower in the basement, and you pass the staff restaurant, echo rooms, the storerooms, bathrooms, the stand-by battery of the studio lighting system; go up one flight of stairs to the lower-ground floor and, following a similar route, you find band-rooms, the staff lounge, cloakrooms associated with the Concert Hall (which occupies the studio tower at this level), the Green Room, the Housekeeper’s rooms, and “L.G.21” which, when it isn’t used for rehearsals, is a coffee-lounge for the staff.

But though there is much that is concerned only indirectly with the actual business of broadcasting, you can never forget that you are in a “temple of the arts and muses.” A notice in black letters on a red disc enforces the fact immediately you reach the basement: “Quiet,” it states, “must be observed in the vicinity of this echo-room.” And, if anything is, an echo-room is a distinct product of broadcasting. It is the answer to the demand of dramatic producers for echo; and it is a most uninteresting place, consisting of a microphone and a loudspeaker placed in an otherwise empty and undecorated room. But it plays a vital part in broadcast productions. With its aid the producer of a programme can “wrap” echo around any voice, music, or other sound under his control. He does so by feeding the sound for which a background of echo is required from his control panel to the loudspeaker in the echo room. There it is reproduced, picked up by the echo-room microphone, and sent back to the control panel. It comes back accompanied by the natural echo of the room to which it was sent. The warning notice speaks of “this echo-room,” but actually there are five available.

“The listener sits in a comfortable armchair… and the current programme comes to him from a jet-black loudspeaker”

There are other notices in the basement to remind you of the nature of the place you are in. That, for instance, on one of two adjacent doors in the east corridor. It reads: “Silence is requested from the users of this Listening Hall.” Those words are a clue to the importance that the BBC attaches to the quality of listening conditions. Certainly the Listening Hall is an eye-opener — or should one say “ear-opener”? The listener sits in a comfortable armchair — or, if he wishes, at one of those modern writing desks that the BBC likes so much — and the current programme comes to him from a jet-black loudspeaker. It is a small room, and might be overwhelmingly so but for the background against which the loudspeaker stands: a seascape, roughly painted on canvas, that cunningly counteracts the effect of being “shut-in.” A telephone is provided — in a booth the door of which is cunningly merged with the decorative scheme of the walls. Moreover, though the occupant of the booth can see into the Listening Hall, the glass window through which he looks is of “one-way” design — those outside the booth cannot see in.

In the room behind the adjacent door you look as well as listen: what was once known as “Listening Hall No. 2” has become an official viewing-room, where a pair of television receivers reproduce the transmissions from Alexandra Palace.

Sometimes, in the corridor between the Listening Halls and the wall of the studio tower (the balconies of the “double-decker” studios, BA and BB, are on the other side of that wall), your nose will bring you evidence of the proximity of the staff-restaurant kitchen at the end of the corridor.

On the lower-ground floor is the Green Room, perhaps the most attractive room that Broadcasting House has to show. It is the retiring room of the artists who use the Concert Hall. Though not an unusually large room, the Green Room is given an effect of spaciousness by a horizontal mirror that covers half of one end wall. Opposite, at the other end of the room, black glass interrupts the green-and-pink colour scheme and aids the illusion of distance.

Curtains can be drawn to divide the room into two; then, on one side of them are delightful armchairs, four of those streamlined writing desks (duly equipped, be it added, with ink, pens, and stationery); and on the other, more armchairs, a telephone booth, music cupboard, and the Green Room clock — a remarkable piece of horological work. It has white spots for figures, gold feather-shapes for hands, the whole being mounted on black glass. The soft, indirect lighting, the nature of its colour scheme, make the Green Room independent of orthodox decoration, but — in just the right place — its walls bear one original painting of a vase of flowers, the work of S. G. Adamson.

The staff of the Corporation do not use the Green Room. The staff go further along the corridor to the Lounge, where chessmen, draughts, dominoes, and playing cards can, if wanted, be served with light refreshments, cigarettes, and chocolates.

There is only one thing that prevents the lower-ground and basement floors of Broadcasting House from being the complete “home from home.” And yet, after all, an excellent night’s rest should be possible in the Green Room !



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.

You Say

1 response to this article

Christian Beier 10 November 2021 at 2:17 am

I was a member of the audience on Tuesday’s 9 November 2021 Russell Howard show. I am a consultant building services engineer. I found that Studio 1 was remarkably well air conditioned and maintained temperature levels at consistent comfort conditions throughout the performance. This is an interesting achievement. At ceiling level there appeared to be chilled beams which if I am correct are probably the ‘active type’ ie fan assisted. I would be very keen to learn more about this from your Engineering Department if you would care to share this with me.
Many thanks

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