OK, we’ll level with you from the off. We thought putting together a list of television shows filmed at Southbank Centre would be pretty easy going. After all, here we are slap bang in the middle of London, right by the Thames, just down the road from a television studio. But no, turns out we were wrong. Very wrong.
There are many rumours of our buildings’ appearance on the small screen, but very little by the way of concrete proof (pun intended). And so we’ve sadly been unable to include episodes from recent television series including, Spooks, Unforgiven, Defending the Guilty, and Temple, in our list. We’re fairly certain they did feature scenes shot here, but we can’t prove it, and we’d hate to be accused of peddling fake news your way. Still, we did at least manage to pin down eight examples from the last half a century. So, lights, camera, action!
We kick off our list with shouty 1970s special agent show The Professionals, and the third episode of its second series to be precise. Titled First Night, the episode begins here at Southbank Centre as an Israeli government minister arrives for a concert in our Royal Festival Hall only to be kidnapped as he does so. Cue gunfire, balaclavas, and a lot of screaming as two armed assailants (undeterred by blase continuity that sees the weather change from windswept sunshine to post-rain gloom in the space of 20 seconds) bundle the minister into a waiting hovercraft on Festival Pier and speed away along the Thames. The episode was aired in October 1978, and gives you a great look at the river side of Royal Festival Hall before its pedestrianisation and the addition of shops, restaurants.
From a four decades old Southbank Centre appearance on screen to a much more modern one and 2018’s Requiem. Though most of the series is filmed in Wales, episode one begins here at Southbank Centre, where lead character Matilda (Lydia Wilson), a leading cellist, is set to perform. However, unexpectedly, her mother Janice commits suicide, in front of Matilda, sparking a chain of mysterious goings on that leads the cellist away from the stage and back to her homeland. “Requiem was particularly impressive for conjuring menace and chills amid the brutalist modernism of London’s South Bank…” said The Telegraph, who’ve clearly never faced off with a bunch of pigeons beneath Queen Elizabeth Hall before.
Opened in 1967, the brutalist architecture of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery very quickly became the go to location of London-based television producers looking to portray a futuristic landscape. One of the first shows to do so was Doctor Who, for their 1973 serial Frontier in Space, using the stark concrete of our arts centre as a 26th Century Earth prison, which seems a bit harsh to us. Still, you can get some good glimpses of our site in its formative years as the Doctor attempts to escape whoever it is that’s holding him hostage this time (Orgons, Daleks, Draconians, we couldn’t keep up. Someone will write in, it’s fine).
Shut it! Time for another 1970s shouty police drama to make an appearance at Southbank Centre. This time it’s the turn of The Sweeney, kipper ties, flared trousers et al, and the eighth episode of their first series. Broadcast in February, 1975 Cover Story sees Regan (John Thaw; owner of the toughest paper round in Britain given he was incredibly only 32 when this episode was filmed) become romantically involved with a crime journalist. But when she becomes implicated in a major (and yet non-specific) crime, Regan and Carter (Dennis Waterman) must tail her to a very quiet Southbank Centre (seriously, where is everyone?), where she meets a mystery man by the water.
If you don’t have tweenage children, you may not have heard of The Next Step, but for kids of a certain age we’re told it’s a pretty big deal. Broadcast on CBBC since 2013, the Canadian drama series follows a group of dancers as they prepare for competitions, with a side order of typical teenage gossip and drama. Anyway, in series four, episode 33 (yes, 33, you have our sympathies, parents) the dancers compete in an international hip hop competition in London. Cut to establishing shots featuring the edgy exterior of our Queen Elizabeth Hall; brutalist architecture, metal yellow stairs, graffiti, the full works. Unfortunately this recurring shot is as close as they got to our venue, as the actual dance show scenes were filmed in Canada, and they would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for this blog. We’re on to you The Next Step!
Doctor Who’s use of Southbank Centre’s concrete brutalism to deputise for a futuristic earth prison, wasn’t the only appearance of our site in a popular 1970s UK science fiction series. In 1979, it was the turn of Blake’s 7, witrh a number of scenes in the eleventh episode of the show’s second series filmed here. Gambit sees Blake and his crew land in Freedom City, one of the last places not under Federation control. And which central London location could possibly fit the mould of the bleak streets of Freedom City? Yep, everyone back to Hayward Gallery again, as the stars repeatedly cower beneath one of our stairwells.
Remember, depicting brutalist buildings as dystopian futures is for life, not just for the 1970s; so say the makers of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. Broadcast in late 2017, this science fiction anthology series was based, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the work of writer Philip K Dick. Aptly setting the scene for what was to follow, the show’s title sequence featured bright futuristic animations on gloomy stark landscapes. And yes, inevitably the exterior of our own Hayward Gallery served some of those landscapes. See if you can spot it in the video below; minus points, and stern looks next time you visit, if you confuse the Barbican for us.
OK, we know what you’re thinking, but hear us out. Yes, this is an annual singing competition, but every edition of the contest has been broadcast on television, and it was originally conceived by the European Broadcasting Union as a light entertainment show. Plus, frankly, we were struggling for an eighth inclusion (see The Next Step) so we’re featuring it. In 1960, the contest was hosted right here in our Royal Festival Hall, and the whole broadcast can be found on YouTube. But we’ll spare you that… and the singing… and instead share with you the intro which includes some quite dark outdoor shots (with an optimistic commentator using the phrase “you can clearly see…”) but also a great look around the inside of the hall with boxes allocated to national broadcasters.
Much more than just a location to tail crime suspects, be held captive by Orgons, or hide under a stairwell, Southbank Centre is the venue for over 5,000 events every year, from live music to talks and debates and much more
by Glen Wilson