About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Eras ain't what they used to be (RIP Marco Polo House)

Well, it wasn't much of grand era for the country I suppose - that rather shoddy two decades from 1984
Former HQ of both eh Observer and British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) is being demolished to make way for new luxury apartments
to the great slump of 2008. But to see the demolition balls cracking into that weird white building on the south side of Chelsea Bridge was to feel once again the end of a part of my own life.

When I first moved to south west London in 1985, my mother would often come and stay. As her train approached Victoria she would see this almost cathedral-like shiny white block just across the rails from the grand old Battersea power station. Being a fan of all things new and shiny, she rather liked it - but not as much as she liked watching Concordes roaring overhead  from my balcony.

As I was soon to discover, this building was to be the headquarters of the Observer newspaper, then owned by a businessman called "Tiny" Rowland. The Observer hacks didn't seem too keen on being transplanted south of the River, and the newspaper itself went downhill. Eventually Rowland sold it to  the Guardian and  Marco Polo House fell empty.

As luck would have it,  the first official satellite broadcaster in the latter days of Mrs Thatcher's reign, BSB, was due to launch soon and needed a suitably impressive HQ building.

BSB was a blatant attempt by the broadcasting establishment to neutralise the upstart Sky TV, which had taken advantage of this age of white-hot de-regulation to start beaming about 6 channels into the UK - and charging for some of them. The ex-BBC and ex-ITV people running BSB were spending vast sums of money in all directions (anyone remember the "Squarial?") - and this flamboyant building in its off-beat location seemed to chime nicely with their aspirations.

I got to see inside Marco Polo house quite often, as from 1990 to 1996 I was working for business magazines Satellite Trader and Cable & Satellite Europe, covering the emergent new media industry of the 1980s. It all seemed very modern and flash and lovely - how could a broadcaster based in such super hi-tech surroundings possibly fail?

Oddly enough, it did fail, about a year later, and Murdoch's Sky very generously allowed itself to merge with the hopelessly fat and now deflated BSB to form BSkyB.

Marco Polo House immediately lost its first tenant and any BSB staff kept on had to work in the much less glamorous HQ of Sky TV on an industrial estate near Heathrow airport. For a while it housed the shopping channel, QVC, but it was clearly falling into disrepair.

Now it stands on the western edge of the biggest re-development zone in London (see Nine Elms disease articles) and is being swept away to make room for what seem like equally flashy blocks of flats.

From the shoulder-padded early 1980s to the skinny-jeaned 20-teens, a pretty dismal era really. Bad taste in the mouth, bad taste all round.

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