What goes on behind the scenes at the BBC NI – #OHBelfast

A friend of mine is a huge fan of PLACE and it’s thanks to her that I was alerted to Open House Belfast which occurred over the weekend. Numerous buildings all over the city opened their doors to the public and offered free guided tours, so I grabbed the chance to visit the BBC Broadcasting House at the end of Ormeau Avenue.

I have to confess that despite having passed by it numerous times, I’ve never really paid much attention to the BBC Broadcasting House. It is an art-deco building with a beautiful curved front and windows unique to its era which are also an essential part of its listed status. The BBC’s studios are located in this building, while the admin block – which is much derided for its unattractive facade – can be seen to the right of the water-colour below.

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The tour started with a interesting summary of the building’s history and vision, illustrated with the aid of several paintings commissioned by a local artist (sorry, I’m hopeless with names) before he got really famous. Those paintings also became the cover of the BBC NI’s annual reports for the respective years. We were then taken on a walk down memory lane through a corridor of photos, before being ushered into one of the smaller studios.

This studio is where BBC One’s The View is filmed. Before entering, we were warned that despite the saying that ‘the camera never lies’, it actually makes sets appear brighter, newer and cleaner than they actually are. Those familiar with the programme can see for themselves – the studio is actually less well-lit during filming than it was here: 2015-07-18 12.22.31

Next was the larger studio where BBC News Line is shot. There are 3 sections to it: the couch, the desk and the weather screen. The studio really doesn’t need much lighting during filming – this is how it’d look like when a programme is being shot:

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Notice the tiny black ‘T’ on the floor in front of the weather screen? That indicates where the presenters should stand so that the light falls on them.

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While the smaller studio had about 30 lights hanging from the ceiling, this studio has about 115 in total. They’re all clearly numbered and work in groups to illuminate different parts of the studio. Each of these beasts weighs about 20 – 30kg!

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There’s no such thing as an attractive tele-prompter, is there? I’m not sure how new the tele-prompter is, but the lights in the studio are actually from 1984, which is pretty darn old. The guide admitted that they would love to update the equipment, such as switching to LED lights, as the current running costs of those lights are quite high.

However, cash-flow seems like an issue and the challenge is in getting money for the huge initial capital outlay. That said, it’d only take several months before savings are likely to kick in, so they should really go for it! If only BBC NI would get more money. The BBC is, nonetheless, in the midst of converting to digital backdrops, hence we couldn’t be brought to see some parts of the studio.

Our next stop was the radio section of the building – up 3 flights of steps, down a corridor and there we were: the studio of The Stephen Nolan Show. Under strict instructions not to touch any buttons, we learnt – well, I learnt, rather, as I think many others on the tour already knew this – that there’s team of staff who support Stephen Nolan in producing this show, so that he can concentrate on what he says and engaging the listeners.

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In contrast, most music programmes on radio are pretty much one-person operations, with the presenter solely in charge of picking up calls, tweeting, queuing music, etc. Our tour was supposed to end at 12.45pm, but as you can see, we were still here – thank you BBC!

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We were even brought into the room where radio stories are recorded. I don’t have any pictures of the studio, but it was full of props to create sound effects – old drawers, an entire kitchen sink and cabinets with glass and other crockery, a set of stairs, gravel, all sorts of furniture and even four different doors to create a variety of sounds.

It was a far more interesting tour than I’d expected, as I’ve been inside a couple of other TV studios in the past and wasn’t too enthralled by them. Credit goes entirely to our wonderful guides – one of them has been with BBC NI for 13 years but is actually still considered a ‘newbie’ – who brought the entire tour to life.

I was happy to discover as well that BBC NI actually runs regular – and longer – tours, entirely for free! If only I’d known this earlier, as I would’ve brought my family on the tour, which is conducted in the evenings. Perhaps I’ll sign up for it one of these days, as I thoroughly enjoyed today’s tour and would love to take a deeper look behind the scenes of the broadcasting house.

Interesting fact: Did you know that that more than 600 staff are housed in the BBC Broadcasting House? I’d like to know where all of those who drive to work park their cars!

Next stop on #OHBelfast: insights to the design of space at The MAC.

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