Memories of working at Pebble Mill – Jane Green

My first job at the BBC was a dream.  It was so much fun I came in on my days off – even though it meant a train and bus journey.  And I wasn’t the only one.

Imagine having a job where Tom Jones or Naomi Campbell ask you if they look ok.  Seeing Bob Hope playing golf on the Pebble Mill lawn, or coercing scene crew to come and listen to this brilliant new singer rehearse.  Her name was Celine Dion.

It was 1986 and, after years of writing to the Beeb and getting a good degree in TV and Film production, I got a break, and came in as a trainee floor assistant.

First week – in at the deep end

I thought the Pebble Mill building and its location were a lovely place to work.  I’ll never forget being taken to my first job and having to stop my jaw dropping as we passed so many famous faces on the way to my new team office.

Hazel O'Connor - Fighting Back

In my first week I worked on drama with Hazel O’Connor – talk about in at the deep end – as well as other programmes like Ebony, Asian Magazine, The Little Picture Show and the famous Pebble Mill at One.  What a baptism of fire that was!

Of course it was all live, and featured the celebs of the day, who would sometimes turn up late.  Actually lots of them did, a lot of the time, but is was usually the minor celebs that did so.  The really famous ones were often wonderfully professional and courteous.

Tanks on the lawn

Every two weeks the floor team would get the rotas.  We’d rip them open eagerly to see what we were working on and who we were likely to meet.  Sometimes we swapped days so we could work with our favourite pop stars or actors.

A typical day’s running order would consist of a famous actress coming in to talk about her latest show, a minor celeb plugging a book (we often called the programme ‘Plug a Book at One’), chart topping pop band and an up and coming comedian.

There’d be a cookery clot (Fanny Craddock’s fried eggs were a nightmare) and a bit of gardening.  We might open the show with a display by the Royal Tank Regiment with their Scorpion tanks on the front lawn (try cueing those and getting out of the way quick) and end the programme with the presenters leaving by RAF helicopter and no one hearing the count out of the show because of the noise.

Pebble Mill at One

The poor staff gardener would almost be in tears on a daily basis as his manicured lawn was churned up.

Benazir Bhutto, David Hasslehoff and secret whiskies….

Of course being live, running 3 seconds over meant crashing the One O’clock News and we’d get told off.  Sometimes people missed their cues, or sometimes VT wouldn’t run and a presenter who’d gone to the green room for a break would be seen flying down the corridor to the studio to ad lib for 3 minutes.  Great fun.

The building, its gardens and its location all lent themselves to creative ideas for live programming, and programmes which were fun to make.  Which is why people who worked here during those times will be sad to see the building close.

I remember sitting on the floor of the small studio where Midlands Today is now broadcast, with a lady called Benazir Bhutto, chatting away about her dreams of becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan.

….David Hasslehoff of Baywatch walking into the canteen saying he was starving but not looking too happy with the breakfast offerings that day (sorry canteen but it’s true!).

…..A wonderful English actress, a big star in the 1940’s and working at the Mill in the 1980s, used to wilt at the end of a long day in the studios and would send me off to the BBC bar to fetch her a whisky.  I didn’t dare claim it on expenses, so paid for it out of my own pocket – even though I was a on a pittance and she was rather well orf!

Mink and bing bing

For several days on location in Stratford I go to work with Sir Antony Hopkins and John Hurt.  We were shooting the Richard Burton Drama Awards and I remember not so much being overwhelmed by these mega famous actors but of Sally Burton’s ginormous diamonds.

Sally had been a PA at Pebble Mill before she married Richard, and she had fond memories of working there.  I had to take her heavy mink coast and Louis Vuitton luggage to her dressing room and was sooo tempted to try the coat on.  Of course I didn’t….

The floor team were, along with make-up and wardrobe, the people who worked the closest to the stars.  Directors and producers were confined to the gallery, but we were the ones to meet and greet celebs before the sun came up (seeing them at their worst!), and get them ready for rehearsals.

Clothes Show ruled TV

We got them into the studio on time, checked to see if their ties were straight, then delivered them to the green room and into a taxi, and looked after their little whims in between.  Your quickly learned who wore a rug and who didn’t. who was deadly nervous before going on telly and all their little tricks of the trade.

We had many secrets. Including seeing famous relationships and affairs begin….and eng… sometimes with accompanying ‘exclusives’ in the press.  Of course we never told!

Roger Casstles was the director/producer to work with.  We all wanted to work on his shows because they pushed the limits and were exciting.  Abseiling paratroopers, explosions, dangerous animals, and pop videos – which were new at the time.  (Crikey, I’m ancient).

He and Jeff Banks started a fashion strand on the PM@One programme.  There was nothing else like it on telly at the time and it gave birth to the BAFTA Award winning – The Clothes Show.

The programme was compulsory viewing in the 1980s on Sunday afternoons.  Everyone talked about it and wanted to be on it.

I was probably one of the worst directors he ever hired – we all wanted The Clothes Show on our CV and very few made it.  I was lucky, but just couldn’t stick the models and their fawning hangers-on/  I could tell some stories but would probably get sued!

It really was a great time though, and Pebble Mill was an exciting place to be, producing some cracking programmes.  People liked coming here because the area was so green, and easy to get to compared to London studios.

A colleague told me the time Englebert Humperdinck came in to do a Christmas special and brought his family.  He asked it they could join staff in the canteen for Christmas lunch.  He ate his BBC Christmas dinner, and enjoyed himself so much he didn’t leave till 5.30pm.

Pebble Mill was that kind of place.  Friendly and fun

I shall miss the building, and miss the wonderful production centre it used to be, with its reception full of talented and well-known people.

But you know what? I’ve been here so long now, I’ve seen things go full circle many a time.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if one day in the future, a new BBC boss has the bright idea of making Birmingham a huge television production centre once again.  You read it here first …..

Jane Green