Birmingham’s local millstone 

19 November 2018

From the Daily Telegraph for Monday 31 July 1972

It is now so long since it was decided to build a lavish BBC palace at Pebble Mill, Birmingham, that nobody can quite remember why the decision was made. The main thing seems to be that it exists and should therefore be used.

The building by John Madin is as well built as it should be for £6 million and it has been found over the last year that, with some minor reservations, it functions effectively. Last winter the studios were used to capacity and the phrase “white elephant” is now heard less frequently.

The site was once Pebble Mill Farm, located on the Bourne Brook, made famous by the nearby chocolate village of the Cadbury’s. There is something to be said for such surroundings, unless you happen to be working for BBC Radio Birmingham, which is supposed to be close to the pulse of the city, whatever that may be, and to be as accessible as any other local radio station to the citizens of its city.

The most valuable asset at Pebble Mill, apart from the large studio of 6,500 square feet, is an energetic, restless galvaniser of men called Phil Sidey. As manager of BBC Radio Leeds he showed that it is possible for a local station to make a name for originality and vitality outside its own area. He now has the harder task of repeating this success as Head of Network Production Centre, Birmingham. Having had production experience with “24 Hours” and “Nationwide” he knows the problems.

Accepting that Pebble Mill is not in the heart of Birmingham, Mr Sidey has been able, at least on his television quarter, to make an advantage of the disadvantage. His basic objective is to assemble a group of talented creative people who will reflect not a Birmingham or a Midland view but what he calls “a non-Metropolitan view.”

This philosophy certainly helped him to sell to Paul Fox, BBC-1 Controller, his planned “Pebble Mill at One” lunch-time programme to start on Oct. 2. This may not be the complete answer to the new range of afternoon programmes being introduced by Independent Television a week later, but it will show that the BBC has not completely rejected the idea of daytime competition.

The idea of using the lavish and glassy entrance hall as a studio for the programme is not as dangerous as it sounds. As I saw from the “dummy” programme, which sufficiently impressed Mr Fox, there is a great deal of flexibility. Because Pebble Mill is such a quiet backwater of the city there are not likely to be thousands of would-be performers pressing themselves into camera range and giving the proceedings too much of a parochial flavour.

Whatever else the editor of the programme, not yet appointed, may choose to do with it, he will not be able to employ a local link man. Bob Langley has already been appointed to this task, his “non-Metropolitan view” having commended itself to Mr Sidey, a Tynesider.

The problem for Mr Sidey is to persuade the networks to use programmes originated in Birmingham. In the past it has proved bitterly frustrating to be used only as a host for programmes selected for Midlands production by the BBC computer in London — whatever may be said for such successes as “Pot Black” and “Gardener’s World.”

Everybody knows that “The Archers” broadcast from Birmingham and, incidentally, I hear that their 21st birthday is being celebrated with a new five-year plan under which Jill will gradually become the village matriarch in succession to the ageing Doris Archer. Less is known about the increasing contribution being made to television drama from Birmingham.

David Rose, who made his name as the first producer of “Z Cars,” is now set up at Pebble Mill with the grand title of Head of English Regions Drama. His objective is basically to find and produce good plays, even if they do mention London, but the hope is that these will mostly be written by provincial dramatists using provincial themes.

A promising start was made last season. In the forthcoming 1972-73 season 12 plays in the “Thirty-Minute Theatre” slot will be produced from Birmingham, one third of the total, together with four contributions to the “Play for Today” slot all made with the Centre’s own film unit.

As another “Play for Today” contribution, Peter Terson is again using his three miners on the loose — Art, Em and Abe — who were seen in the final play of last season. “The Fishing Party.” This time, in “Shakespeare or Bust,” they are engaged on a canal trip from the North to Stratford-on-Avon.

Mr Rose also has a plan to work with regional theatres on particular television projects and this should help him to move towards the elusive recognisable Birmingham style which must be a vital aim both for him and the Pebble Mill centre as a whole.

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2 responses to this article

Richard Jones 19 November 2018 at 2:49 pm

useful link to the BBC Engineering description of Pebble Mill in it’s opening days.

Steve Gray 18 December 2018 at 9:49 am

‘Mr Rose also has a plan to work with regional theatres on particular television projects and this should help him to move towards the elusive recognisable Birmingham style which must be a vital aim both for ham and the Pebble Mill centre as a whole.’

I take it the ‘ham’ in question was supplied to the canteen, rather than to the Head of English Regions Drama !

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