The BBC's finest and funniest

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Laurence Alster enjoys a whirlwind tour of the corporation's new state-of-the-art museum

Many people know Broadcasting House as the traditional home of BBC Radio, but few would be able to name the two carved figures that hover over the main entrance. Prospero and Ariel, characters from Shakespeare's The Tempest, were completed by Eric Gill in 1932.

One result of The BBC Experience, the new, permanent exhibition on the history of the BBC, is that Prospero and Ariel are likely to become far better known. A few yards from the original sculpture, a scaled-down version stands in the museum entrance.

The tour - you are whisked around by a guide - feels a little like being on a moving walkway, with not enough time to examine the technical paraphernalia on show as well as read the wall displays. Several items merit lengthy inspection, not least John Reith's letter of application for the job of general manager of what was, in 1922, the British Broadcasting Company: "I am an Aberdonian, and it is possible that you know my family I" Good contacts were always important with the BBC.

The tour is all a little regimented, but with every stage more fascinating than the one before, one soon loses the sense of being herded.

In fact, later stages are best experienced in a group. After watching a punchy, seven-screen presentation of A Day in the Life of Broadcasting House, visitors are ushered into a fully-equipped studio and urged to try their luck with a radio play. It's enormous fun. The day's script was Shoot-out at Grizzly Gulch, and braver group members opted to read such parts as saloon floozie Crazy Maisie and Wild Bill Barton. More retiring types can tackle the sound effects and press console buttons.

But the BBC is, famously, a provider of information as well as entertainment, the one often disguised as the other. And this is the case in the history lesson that follows. In two screening rooms visitors are treated to a multi-directional barrage of sounds and images that recall the finest, funniest and most tragic moments brought by the BBC to the nation and the world over the past 75 years.

The first live wireless match commentary is played over a Radio Times drawing of a rugby pitch divided into numbered squares for listeners' convenience ("He's kicking for touch. Square 2. Oh, well done, Sir!"); Hitler fulminates against a backdrop of red swastikas and marching jackboots; Larry the Lamb bleats "Oh, Mr Growson. I'm only a little la-a-amb"; an audience gasps as President Kennedy's assassination is announced; blurred images and Kate Adie's voice evoke the terror of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Visitors then enter a hands-on wonderland. Ever fancy yourself as a presenter? Then try making your own commentary to Gareth Southgate's Euro 96 penalty miss, or direct a scene from EastEnders; sample digital television; present your own weather forecast; or listen on the headphones to some classic news mistakes, such as: "Lesbian forces today attacked Israel. I beg your pardon, that should be Lebanese."

Like the BBC at its best, The BBC Experience educates, informs and entertains almost without you realising it. More perversely entertaining are the teacher's notes, where too many roving apostrophes ("children's' follow up work", "It's services") make you wish a little of the museum's pound;5.5 million budget had gone on pre-publication costs. Not to mention an extra telephone line: I got through only after making at least 10 attempts (engaged), leaving two recorded messages (neither answered) and three complaints.

It seems that Lord Reith knew more about the need for good contacts 75 years ago than the BBC does today.

s The BBC Experience, Broadcasting House,Portland Place,London W1A 1AA. Open all week 9.30am-5.30pm. For bookings, telephone 0870 603 0304. Entrance pound;3 per group memberavailable for pre-booked visits only; one adult free with every five group members. Maximum group size 30. Free familiarisation trips available for teachers.

Stand PV9

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