April 19, 2016

End of an Era

Landmark of BBC World Service history closes.


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This is Bush House in Central London – the building where George Orwell worked, and which is said to have given him the idea, when writing ‘1984’, both for the nightmarish Room 101 and the almost equally awful canteen at the Ministry of Truth. It’s the place from which General De Gaulle sent daily messages of support to the Free French underground during the German Occupation.

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And it’s also the building where the Bulgarian Service broadcaster Georgi Markov was employed, at the height of the Cold War, and where he came back from his lunch-hour, after being jabbed in the leg by an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge – he died three days later, and, it’s believed, the umbrella tip contained KGB poison.

For more than 70 years it has been the home of the BBC World Service, once known as the voice of the British Empire.

Noon on Thursday, July 12, 2012, marked the end of that era. This art-deco building was the beating heart of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s overseas service and a bastion of press freedom around the world. From here King George V addressed the Empire in 1932, and legions of emigres sent news in dozens of languages to the unmistakable introductory strains of Lilliburlero, its signature tune.

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Setting off a wave of nostalgia, the BBC has decided to move the operation under its New Broadcasting House roof in London to bring all of its broadcasting teams together in one place. With a warren of meandering corridors, soaring halls and marble stairs, the majestic Bush House has now been abandoned.

Marking the birth of Britain’s broadcasting tradition, the BBC’s Empire Service, as it was known at the time, was launched in 1932, helped by new radio technology that allowed it to send signals over vast distances.

Dissidents from the Eastern bloc still like to recall how they used to huddle in secrecy around their radios in tobacco smoke-filled flats in Prague or Moscow, thirsty for snippets of news from the outside world. For many of them, the BBC’s "This is London" – a phrase preceding news bulletins at the top of the hour – rang out like the echo of a world they thought they would never see.

Award-winning Guardian photographer Martin Argles covered the closure, and invited Paolo Black to tag along. Here’s the result: https://vimeo.com/45930326

(In the multimedia, all of the black and white images are Paolo’s and the 10 colour images are Martin’s.)