Mill Power

An affectionate look back at a studio which provided television with some of its most magical - and unexpected - moments of the past 30 years... 

To the casual observer, it's just a seven-storey box of a building in the heart of Birmingham. But the BBC's Pebble Mill Studios has been a place of magic for the past 32 years. 

Remember Skeldale House, the isolated Yorkshire Dales home of the vets in All Creatures Great and Small? You'd actually find it here in inner-city Birmingham. And the waterside boatyard of the Eighties yachtie soap, Howard's Way? That was here, too, about as far from the sea as you can get in Britain. 

Pebble Mill is the village of Ambridge, home of those radio country folk The Archers. It's the soapland surgeries of Mac and Kate and those other daytime Doctors. And it brought us the programme that revolutionised daytime viewing Pebble Mill at One. 

Now there's trouble at Mill. The BBC is leaving, heading off to an ultrasmart new Birmingham studio called The Mailbox. But at least it's not going without a last affectionate look back at the studios in this Sunday lunchtime's farewell show presented by Toyah Willcox. 

'I was born a mile from Pebble Mill,' says Toyah. 'It was where my career started when I was 18 with my first professional job, in BBC2's Second City First series, as a girl who wants to be on Top Of The Pops.' 

The Mill was soon to have an even bigger effect on Toyah's life. 'In 1977 I was interviewed by magazine show Look Hear! about a film I was in called Jubilee,' she says. She clearly made an impression. 'A few weeks later, I was back as a presenter - and I was there for three years. Look Hear! went out live on Tuesdays and gave local bands like Duran Duran their first TV appearances. But Pebble Mill has always set trends...' 

Back in 1972, the new studios had first come to national fame with the launch of Pebble Mill at One, the bright and breezy lunchtime magazine show presented from the entrance foyer. It was the Beeb's first attempt at a popular daytime show, and it's still perhaps the best. 

'It was pioneering in its time,' says Marian Foster, one of the original presenters alongside Bob Langley. 'A live programme with an audience is real life, warts and all. It's more fun and more risky but you get more out of it.' 

Bob Langley remembers the time a Hollywood stuntman was on the show. 'Someone had the bright idea of opening with him standing on a fourth-floor ledge and then falling into a pile of cardboard boxes. The stuntman had told me, "The secret is in the way I land. I've got to land on my back - if I go in feet first I'm dead." So we started the show, and I watched him plummet in feet first, like a bomb. There was dead silence. 

'I thought, what do I say? "Welcome to Pebble Mill at One. I'm afraid our first guest has just died, but here's a catchy little number from Kenny Ball..." To my immense relief, he climbed out - and not only did he do the interview, but he did another fall later. What a pro!' 

Pebble Mill at One - and spin-off Saturday Night at the Mill - attracted major stars. Sophia Loren came. As did Charlton Heston. Bob Langley fulfilled his ambition to dance with Ginger Rogers. And Cliff Richard was always turning up - making around 20 appearances in all. 'I liked it because it was so busy, the place was alive,' recalls Cliff. 

Sometimes it was alive in unexpected ways. Christopher Timothy, now starring in the daytime soap Doctors, remembers when he played vet James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small, 'One day I walked in to the studio and noticed a strange smell,' he says. 'They'd actually built a cow byre in Studio A - with real cows and the real smell! It probably lingers still...' 
Radio doesn't have to produce smells but it does have to make the right noises, as Jacob Hickey, producer of Sunday's programme, discovered when he poked his cameras into a recording of Radio 4's The Archers. 

'This poor studio manager was dragging huge sackloads across the floor to give the sound effect of grain being moved,' he says. 'The actors were puffing into the microphone while the studio manager did all the work! 

'Some sound effects are real. Veterans Norman Painting and Patricia Green - who play Phil and Jill Archer - told us that in their day if a kiss was needed, they kissed the back of their hand. Now, young actors actually snog on air.' 

Everyone seems to love the old studio. Telly chef Ainsley Harriot got his first TV break here, cooking on Good Morning with Anne and Nick. 

'The first thing I did was pancakes and I heated up the pan really hot,' remembers Ainsley. 'Anne Diamond grabbed the handle and cried "Aaaargh". I thought I was going to get the sack for burning the presenter.' 

The less famous will be equally heartbroken to see Pebble Mill close, from Muriel, who's been cleaning the star's dressing rooms since the beginning, to the autograph-hunting brothers who have waited outside the reception doors for the best part of 30 years. 

'We're all very sad,' says Toyah Willcox, who has appeared in just about every area of the studios, from presenting Children In Need to appearing in Doctors. 

'I think Pebble Mill should be a listed building. It's really special.' 

TV Times
January 2004