Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Bidding adieu to the BBC's old Paris bureau

Removal men take Cocteau painting out of the office
The painter Jean Cocteau left his artistic mark on the bureau wall

After more than 40 years, the BBC's Paris office is moving to new premises and Emma Jane Kirby, the last correspondent in residence, is finding it an emotional experience.

There is something strangely prurient about wandering round an abandoned television studio.

Spliced cables and cut wires splay inelegantly from walls and skirting boards and the carpet, no longer able to hide its modesty behind the heavy bookcases of the tape library, reveals dark stains and a thick dust.

Stripped of its camera - that all-seeing eye into which I have stared so many times - I feel at an unfair advantage, as if I am exploiting this room's sudden weakness.

Already harvested of anything of worth, the studio can only hint at its history with the litter that has been left behind: a small plastic ear-piece, a broken biro and a crumpled paper sign warning guests not to fiddle with the volume knobs.

Reporting history

Sitting on my desk, among all the boxes, is a yellowed copy of Ariel, the BBC in-house newspaper, dating back from December 14, 1988.

Bureau staff in 1989
Bureau staff photographed in 1989

PARIS BUREAU OPENED! reads the triumphant headline.

A two-page story follows, boasting of the hi-tech, expanded office with its new, "very exciting" camera, making BBC Paris the first television-capable bureau on the Continent.

Its radio history, of course, goes back far further.

At one end of our newsroom is a huge wall painting by Jean Cocteau.

Ten years ago, a former colleague here discovered the bureau's considerable archives.

Each time the artist visited the bureau to do an interview, he brushed in a little bit more, a thank-you present he said, for the BBC's role in the Second World War.

The painting is still as good as new today, despite a cleaning lady's zealous efforts to scrub away what she believed to be disfiguring graffiti.

Ten years ago, a former colleague here discovered the bureau's considerable archives.

The type-written despatches tell stories of a post-war, hard-up Paris, of the student riots of '68 where the correspondent dutifully reported he had just been kicked in a most sensitive place and of the time the British ambassador had to vouch for an indignant correspondent who had been locked up in the cells after demonstrations over the Algerian war.

Host of stars

There were legendary personalities too.

The formidable French woman who was the backbone of the bureau for nearly 35 years, the colleagues who despised each other so much that they would only speak through an intermediary, and an impressive number of gin-and-whisky-soaked staff who, by day, reported on France and who, by night, drank it dry.

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Famous visitors included Jane Birkin, former lover of Serge Gainsbourg

I am quite sure this bureau itself is infused with the energy of these extraordinary tales and their tellers.

When we switch on the lights here, the sockets crackle and spark, alive with a wild voltage which no electrician has yet been able to tame.

This may be the shabbiest building on the smartest street in Paris but its clientele have made sure it has never been socially outclassed.

Up the sharp stairs have come hundreds of famous feet - political heavyweights like Jacques Chirac, Valery Giscard D'Estaing, Lionel Jospin.

During the 1995 presidential elections, two former prime ministers are said to have bumped into each other going out of the studio door. "Ah, the BBC," remarked one to the other, "The last political salon in Paris."

And the bureau has played "green room" to a host of stars from Serge Gainsbourg's Jane Birkin, to Charlotte Rampling, Jarvis Cocker and Sting.

Final transmission

Living life at such a full and fast pace has taken its toll on the place.

She is slightly tatty now, sagging a little at the window frames and decidedly rusty at the joints.

Empty radio studio
Before dusk tonight, the engineers will come to sever the transmission lines

A couple of years ago, the French economics minister Christine Lagarde paid her a visit and declared her to be looking "positively Third-World".

But she is fighting her retirement with everything she has got.

Three years ago, when the rumours first started that we planned to move premises, she reacted by bursting her pipes.

For months she dripped her resentment onto our heads, boiling over one day with a biblical flood.

Then she began sealing unwitting guests inside the radio studio, spitefully vacuum-packing them inside a sound-proofed world.

One little old lady, an expert on French cooking, went in to do a live broadcast for Woman's Hour in the morning. By the time she managed to get out, the PM programme was broadcasting the early evening news.

And when major construction works began in the building next door, rather than repel the noise as she had been built to do, the bureau chose to absorb and magnify every shake and shudder so that, every time we went on air, it looked and sounded as if we were on the front line.

Before dusk tonight, the engineers will come to sever the transmission lines.

And so I suppose this is the last broadcast from BBC Paris at Rue du Faubourg St Honore.

I should like to tell you, for posterity's sake perhaps, at precisely what time the red "on air" light was finally switched off.

But removal men are zealous workers. The clock has already been packed.


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SEE ALSO
The archives of Our Man in Paris
31 May 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
France country profile
12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

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