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Goodbye Pebble Mill

Sunday, February 1, 2004 by

When I think back now, it was the centre-point of a family visit to Birmingham (and is that the drabbest conceit ever with which to open a review?) Four of us kids packed into the back of dad’s company car, with all due reverence we very slowly approached the BBC Pebble Mill buildings. This was over 20 years ago now, and the memories are naturally faded, but the way I see it in my mind’s eye all of us got out and pressed our noses up against the glass, looking in at the studio where daytime legends Bob Langley (my favourite), Donnie McLeod and Marion Foster (“Marianne-dan” was the nearest I could get to her name as a nipper) strutted their stuff.

In our house “Pebble Mill” (never Pebble Mill at One for us, we were much too familiar for that) was an essential viewing appointment. A cornerstone of the shared family viewing experience up there with Basil Brush, Emu’s Broadcasting Company and The Phoenix and the Carpet, Pebble Mill was made to be watched accompanied by a tray of tea things and Marmite on toast. For mum it was an enjoyable magazine programme with light but entertaining features. For me it was safety, a pre-schooldays bastion. And then a few years later it changed to become something even more special: a lunchtime present to one’s self, a reward for persuading mum that you weren’t well enough to go into school today. Ah yes, munching on the Marmite and toast whilst Peter Seabrooke arrogantly upbraided an amateur gardener, in the full knowledge that your contemporaries and siblings were having to digest learn-to-read books featuring primary-coloured pirates, well, you felt like a god.

So huge was the impact of Pebble Mill on my young life that I well recall afternoons spent “playing” the show with my brother. I was always Bob Langley of course. He was so butch.

It was with all of these pleasant associations wheeling around in my mind that I switched on to Goodbye Pebble Mill. It seemed as though I wasn’t the only one who had fond memories of the BBC’s Birmingham outpost, and here networked for the whole of the UK to see (rather incredibly, I thought), was 30 minutes devoted to the output to come from the building. Right from the off, the programme hit a perfect note with the laboured and contrived conceit of slinging crap Midlands celebrity Toyah Wilcox in the back of a cab to listen to a cabbie’s “I’ve had them all in here” reminiscences. This was naff and na├»ve stuff, utterly appropriate for the subject in hand. The programme’s subsequent gosh-wow excitement at meeting the PM cleaner and security guard continued in the same vein, adopting the chirpy tone of an “and finally” bit of fluff at the end of the local news. This was how Pebble Mill at One had lived and died – poking around the world we live in with continual delight, from Paul Coia exclaiming “flip!” to Bob Langley bigging up yet another parachutist dropping in or military band churning up the gardens outside. Pebble Mill always celebrated people – it was a “people show” before the term was coined and then all spent-out – so it was great that this documentary let those “real” people on the periphery step forward for a bit.

On hand were Marion Foster and a rather ruffled looking Bob himself, both still pleasingly affected by and proud of their experiences on the show. The former, in fact, found it almost unbearable to talk about the final edition of Pebble Mill at One; it was all just too emotional for her. And that’s how it should have been. When Pebble Mill shut down in 1986, so did lunches in front of the telly. But then, by that stage I was 13 years old and lunch with mum followed by See Saw was perhaps a less appealing prospect anyway. Personally I blame my puberty for the death of Pebble Mill. Alongside Marianne-dan and Bob came the programme’s Producer Steve Weddle – appropriately seemingly wearing a death mask – and PM perennial, Cliff Richard. It was like a family reunion.

But there were other programmes to come out of the Pebble Mill studios, and this documentary couldn’t emphasise that enough. Thus Toyah took us on a canter through other, undoubtedly hearth and heart, programmes that had originated in the building. Sure, All Creatures Great and Small, Good Morning with Anne and Nick and latterly Doctors (“the hit daytime series” – there’s that chirpy tone again) also held special places in the TV landscape, but none of these shows ever really “felt” as though they had that Pebble Mill ethos; that special self-satisfied sparkle that comes when the regions are able to make as big a splash as London. But maybe I’m biased, because I’d have preferred the whole 30 minutes to have centred around the lunchtime show.

As the end credits rolled, Marion, Bob, Cliff et al popped up for one last time to wish well the memory of the Pebble Mill studios and godspeed to the new set-up at the Mailbox. And even though, for me, Pebble Mill had actually closed down some 18 years before, I still felt a slight pang that those large windows, for so many years the backdrop to happy memories, would no longer have noses pressed against them as a family day out in Birmingham reached its big climax.

That’s assuming that ever actually happened, of course.

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