(revised March 2020)
London has dozens of spaces that are marketed as 'TV studios'. Some have been converted from existing buildings with an industrial past, or are simply rooms within office blocks. These range from those with proper lighting grids, flat resin floors and the latest HD or even 4K technology to those that are little more than a basic 4-waller.
However, this website ignores many of the smaller versions of the above and instead deals mostly with the larger studios that have a history that in many cases go back to the origins of ITV and the BBC. I have included independent TV studios if they have produced a variety of work, and film studios if they also have TV studios on site or have been used to make a number of television dramas and/or other programmes on their stages. (Hence Denham isn't included - I believe they only made feature films there.) I have also added the studios Gerry Anderson created for his TV series in the 1960s.
In order to put a limit on things I have left out the many small studios that can be found all over London - most of them making programmes for non-PSB channels (news, shopping, bingo, porn etc). Some others available for hire are often little more than a black-painted room with a scaffold grid, a white or chromakey cyclorama and maybe a couple of dressing rooms and a green room.
This website focuses on the buildings and facilities of the various studios over the years. I'm aware that too many dry facts could be very boring indeed so I also cover the programmes, the artists and some anecdotes associated with the studios whenever I am able to offer up a nugget of human interest. However, I would strongly recommend what might be considered a companion volume to this website - Louis Barfe's truly excellent history of British light entertainment - Turned Out Nice Again. It's a glorious wallow in all those performers who never seemed to be off our screens from the mid '60s into the nineties and in some cases well beyond. If you have worked in the industry you will also know many of the names behind the scenes that he mentions.
A television studio is a factory floor. It is simply the most efficient way a particular type of television programme can be made. If it could be made cheaper anywhere else it would be - and these days often is. However, don't believe those who say that TV studios are no longer needed because of the sophistication of current cameras and 'flyaway' technology. Using a warehouse or very basic film stage might at first look cheaper but once you have installed a lighting grid and all the lights, dimmers and cabling, paid for several days of rigging, booked a generator, laid a TV friendly floor, discovered that the roof leaks and the walls let in the sound of local traffic and aircraft, there is no local catering and you have to put most of the crew up in a hotel - many a line producer or production manager has discovered that the fully equipped TV studio looks incredibly good value for money after all.
Most of Britain's multicamera studio-based television is still made in or near London, despite the desire by Ofcom to force programme makers to be less London-centric. This is because for many years, talented people from all over the UK have moved to live in or near London. However, studio space in London is now very limited as it has lost many of its best designed, best equipped studios in recent years. This is mostly because the owners decided that the land they occupied would make more money having luxury flats built on it. Outside the capital are a few medium/large (6,000 sq ft and over) multicamera studios available - in Salford (2), Glasgow (1), Maidstone (2) and Norwich (1). The old Granada studios 8 and 12 in Manchester are due to reopen later in 2020.
The studio in the old BBC HQ in Cardiff (Llandaff studio C1) closed in March 2020. The BBC's drive-in studio in Belfast is mostly used for local programming but is now the home of Mastermind. The BBC drama centre at Roath Lock in Cardiff makes single-camera drama although it has been used to record one series of Only Connect using an OB unit for facilities. Wales currently has one independent studio in Cardiff - the 4,800 sq ft Enfys studio - mostly making local material but is also the home of Only Connect. The new BBC HQ in Cardiff contains a 3,500sq ft TV studio but this is intended for local programming only.
Setting aside those studios permanently making soaps, news, sport or daytime magazine shows - London's medium-to-large (6,000 sq ft and over) fully equipped production TV studios as of January 2020 are at TV Centre (1), BBC Elstree (1), Elstree Studios (2), Pinewood (2) and Riverside (1). TC3 at TV Centre is unavailable as it is permanently occupied by ITV Daytime, so only TC1 can be booked. Elstree's 'George Lucas' Stages 1 and 2 have no lighting grids or TV floors but they do have a suite of control rooms and cameras that can be used for either stage.
Pinewood's F stage has connections to the galleries for TV-three (the old Lotto studio) but it does not have a TV floor or TV grid so cannot really be described as a TV studio. There are long-term plans to convert either stage L or M into a TV studio (they are very similar to TV-one and two) but this is unlikely to happen for a while since Disney have now taken over all the film stages on the Pinewood site and are unlikely to give any of them up.
London lost 4 superbly equipped 8,000 sq ft studios when TV Centre closed in 2013 plus the excellent 10,800 sq ft TC1. However, TC1 is now available again. Teddington's 9,000 sq ft studio closed at the end of 2014 and Riverside in September 2014. Riverside's new 6,500 sq ft studio 1 opened at the end of 2019.
The closure of Fountain at the end of 2016 along with the superb facilities at TLS in April 2018 have presented the industry with real problems all over again, just when it looked as though things were looking up with the re-opening of studios at TV Centre and Riverside.
So, in March 2020, there are only 7 London studios available for typical TV comedy/entertainment. 4 are run by BBC Studioworks, 2 by Pinewood and 1 by Riverside. And astonishingly, that's it.
Other small but still useful studios available for general use are to be found at The Hospital Club (aka 'h Club London'), Cactus Clapham and IMG. The old 'Richard and Judy' Cactus studio (now called Kennington Film Studios) is open again but is relatively small and has very basic facilities. The RADA studio (formerly the Drill Hall) has been used to make some TV using flyaway facilities but is a very basic studio theatre, not a TV studio. The BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House has televised some radio and red button concerts and hosted a couple of stand up comedy series for BBC 3. However, despite having excellent sound facilities and a well equipped lighting grid, the studio has no permanent television facilities - it all has to be hired in for each booking.
The smaller studios at TLS were of course lost in 2018 along with the main ones. The Princess studio also closed at the end of 2018. Teddington closed all its small studios in the summer of 2013 and TV Centre's small studios were also lost in the same year. Although TC2 at TV Centre has reopened it is permanently booked by ITV Daytime, Peston and Sunday Brunch so is unavailable for other bookings. Between 2008 and 2011, a number of other small but very useful studios closed including 124, Capital, Molinare, MTV, Technicolor (Disney) and Stephen St.
Sky's studio centre in Osterley contains a number of small studios used for news and sport plus a long and narrow 5,500 sq ft 'double' studio that opened in 2011 in their Sky Studios building. This is very occasionally used for making entertainment shows but is mostly filled with sport programming.
There are a handful of very large TV studios in England that are much in demand, mostly making big shiny-floor shows. TC1 rejoined this list in September 2017 but at around 10,800 sq ft it is quite a bit smaller than the rest of these. NB - Elstree stages 1 and 2 ('George Lucas' stages) are technically film stages but are often used for TV as they share a well-equipped suite of control rooms and cameras that are owned by BBC Studioworks. Stage 1 is semi permanently booked by The Crown, so only stage 2 is currently available for other shows.
On 12th January 2016 it was announced that Fountain had been sold to a property developer. The 13,400 sq ft studio closed at the end of 2016. (It remains in use as a theatre.) However, LH2 - a large building originally designed for rehearsing rock music tours - was brought into service as a TV studio in 2017 and has effectively replaced it for some shows.
In 2018 ITV constructed a stage at Bovingdon airfield primarily for use by Dancing on Ice. It was also used by The Masked Singer. It has no technical facilities or lighting grid - these are hired in but it is very large at about 220 x 106 ft.
Most multicamera comedy/entertainment studio productions are designed to fit into a space around 90ft x 70ft. Although the BBC converted two stages at Elstree Film Studios for TV use, they are not able to turn productions round as fast as they could at TV Centre. It is only really practical to have two different shows per week in those stages (although three have occasionally used the same stage within a week using overnight re-rigs) and standing sets are preferred. BBC Elstree D is also a slow studio to turn round from one show to the next. The 3 studios of this size lost at TVC have thus not been replaced like for like and along with the closure of Teddington and TLS there is a serious studio shortage of the most popular 90 x 70ft size. It is worth noting that BBC Glasgow and MediaCity Salford (dock10) each have only one studio of this popular size, although the old Granada studio 12 will be available again in 2020.
Although TC3 has reopened, it is now permanently booked by ITV Daytime so despite being the magic 90 x 70, it is unavailable for anything else.
These 90 x 70 studios are used for entertainment programmes of all kinds including music shows, gameshows, panel shows, chat shows, sitcoms, sketch shows, standup shows, magazine programmes, kids shows, quizzes, current affairs debates etc. Of course, they are no longer used to make TV drama. The last example of this on the main channels was probably The House of Eliott, made at TV Centre from 1991-1993. (The exception in London is EastEnders, which is still made using traditional techniques in multicamera studios at BBC Elstree but those studios are purely dedicated to that programme.) Sky, however, briefly broke this trend - producing a season of live multicamera dramas from their studios in the summer of 2009 and again in 2010 for their Sky Arts channel. Good for them!
Below is a table showing the 90 x 70ft (approx) studios in Britain in September 2019 and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Elstree Studios stage 8 is the same as 9 except that the galleries are on the first floor. Pinewood TV-two is the same as TV-one (they share galleries). I have included the old Granada studio 12 as it is due to reopen in 2020 as part of 'Manchester Studios.' I have also included Riverside 1 even though it is slightly smaller than the others but it will be doing a lot of the work that would have been done in the old 90 x 70 studios. Some people may disagree with me on some individual categories below - they are purely my opinion. After all, how do you define when a toilet is 'near' or 'far' from a control room? (I think when you need to go, you probably know.)
green = good, red = not so good, black = neither good nor bad.
All the above studios have the following: flat TV floor, at least 6 HD or 4K cameras, fully equipped galleries, lighting grid (bars or monopoles), green room, production office, make-up room, wardrobe room, audience handling facilities - but some are much better than others. (NB, exact technical fit-out of refurbed Manchester Studios yet to be confirmed.)
Many sets are designed to fit into a 90 x 70ft studio so a studio that is even a few feet larger is very handy as it provides extra room. The two Pinewood studios are particularly useful in this regard. Any with a width less than 70ft can create problems if a set was previously designed for another studio. BBC Elstree D is relatively narrow at 64ft but it has audience seating along one wall which more than compensates for this.
Only having 1 scene dock door slows down rigs and derigs as all scenery, steeldeck, props, hired lights, LED screens, prompter kit, camera cranes etc. have to pass through the same door. Having easy access to the studio for deliveries is essential - a door opening directly to outdoors where large trucks and smaller vehicles can unload is ideal. The worst studio for this is MediaCity HQ2.
Dimmers mounted on lighting bars or in the grid are difficult to access for fault-finding or resetting tripped circuits so this is not good. They are much better in their own dimmer room.
Monopoles are preferred by most LDs over motorised bars as they enable lights to be positioned closer to where they need to be. However, a rig with many dual-source lamps on bars is sometimes quicker to cope with short-notice production changes on the day. This is known as a 'saturated rig'. Bars usually have DMX and/or ethernet data points too, which speeds up the rigging of automated lights.
The big fully-equipped and fantastically expensive TV studio is still very much alive and well, despite numerous attempts over the years to declare its imminent death. However, several studios have closed in recent years as their owners considered that the economic return on them was not worth keeping them technically up to date. Simply put, the land they occupied was more valuable as a building site.
As a result, production companies have found it very difficult to find available studio space at busy times of the year. In Maidstone a large studio opened in 2005 and has since been attracting a number of bookings. However, an old Anglia production studio in Norwich (Epic) re-opened in 2006 as an independent facility but has picked up very little TV work, probably due to its remote location. One of the two larger stages at Wimbledon Studios was converted into a TV studio in 2011 with the intention of attracting entertainment shows with a studio audience and a standing set but they couldn't make the sums add up and it closed in August 2014. It is now simply a 4-waller again.
As for the future, the new Riverside Studios building opened in November 2019 and contains two TV studios - one a little larger than the previous 6,000 sq footer and the other about 5,000 sq ft. During the years of construction, its very useful (and busy) studios were lost.
Several years ago the BBC declared that by 2016, half of its output would be made outside London. The question is - are London-based entertainment productions prepared to make their shows in Salford or Glasgow? The answer is - yes, because they are made to do so by Ofcom's regional production policy. 'Producer Choice' no longer exists as it once did since several London-based programmes have been forced to move to Glasgow or Salford whether they liked it or not.
Paying for travel and accommodation for heads of department and artists adds a cost to the budget that doesn't apply when making a show in London. However, a number of gameshows and several sitcoms have been made in BBC Glasgow's excellent studio - this seems to be a popular and successful arrangement with those involved. In contrast, Peel Media's dock10 studios in Salford still appear to struggle to attract a lot of work from London-based production teams.
Most shows made in Salford are Manchester-based such as the BBC shows Match of the Day, A Question of Sport and Blue Peter and the ITV/C4 shows Countdown, Cats Does Countdown, University Challenge and Judge Rinder. The Voice audition rounds are made in Salford and Citizen Khan and Porridge were based there but it is hard to think of many BBC entertainment shows that have been recorded in Salford in the past few years other than All Together Now and Pitch Battle. (The Voice is now of course shown on ITV.)
The Goes Wrong Show was made in Salford for BBC1 but the production was rehearsed and based in London so moving everyone up to Salford for the recordings was an additional cost. Pinewood is usually the preferred choice for a 'regional' production as it sits just outside the M25 so ticks that box but is near enough to London that accommodation and travel do not have to be paid to most of those working on shows made there.
This rule that certain programmes have to be made outside the M25 is imposed by Ofcom - many have questioned its fairness and even its legality but it does appear to be legitimate. It does seem very unjust that you can or cannot work on a production depending on whether your home happens to be one side or the other of a motorway but believe it or not, this is the case. If you live in Manchester you can work on any show in London but if you live in London, you may not be permitted to work on a show in Manchester.
The industry has now completed its move to making every programme in high definition (apart from a few regional news studios.) This development has technically been as big as the change from black and white to colour.
Of course 4K UHD is the next big thing - almost all TVs sold now are 4K capable. However, the only TV channels transmitting 4K in real time are for sport on BT and Sky. Films and dramas can be watched in 4K but they have to be downloaded or streamed on the Internet from companies like Sky, Netflix or Amazon Prime. So, currently there is no great demand to convert TV studios to 4K. However, when studio cameras are replaced due to their age the new ones are usually 4K capable. So far, only a handful of studios are officially 4K. However, when a show uses an OB truck for facilities this is now invariably using 4K cameras.
Before the Second World War there was only one television studio centre in London - Alexandra Palace - but there were 21 film studios, each with several stages. By the early 1960s the number of film studios had dwindled to a mere handful but on about half a dozen sites around the capital television was thriving. The decline in the film industry coincided with the dawn of television so a number of studio sites were ready and available to be converted to the new entertainment medium.
The film studio capacity had exceeded the demand and many closed - either to become television studios or to be lost to redevelopment. Amongst the most famous was Denham, which in its day was the largest studio in the country with 7 stages. It closed in 1951. (Apparently, the BBC briefly considered siting its new Television Centre there, rather than at White City. I gather that the Post Office couldn't guarantee to get the necessary sound and vision cables laid in time so it had to be rejected.)
Many film studios had been built to accommodate the system of quotas introduced by the government in 1928. This stipulated that at least 20% of all films shown in cinemas in the UK must be made in Britain. The Hollywood studio companies therefore made hundreds of 'quota quickies' in studios all round London - usually very cheaply but crucially giving invaluable experience to actors and crew members. After the war the quota was dropped and a tax was introduced on cinema ticket sales. These two things combined to create a rapid decline in the UK's film industry and the inevitable result for many studios was closure. A contributing factor of course was television itself. People were not so inclined to go to 'the pictures' once or twice a week if they had a TV set in their own living room. This was particularly true from about 1955 when the ITV companies began broadcasting.
Those old film studios that found a new life with television included Lime Grove (Shepherds Bush), Riverside (Hammersmith), Teddington, Highbury, Wembley Park and National Studios in Elstree (which in 1938 were owned by Joe Rock).
The arrival of television...
The table below shows the year each studio opened. The chart only covers London's TV studios. It is interesting to note the two main clusters of construction - around the launch of ITV and then during the early to mid 1960s. News/presentation and small studios are not included unless they have special significance or are part of a larger complex. Studios marked in red are no longer in use.
Studios marked 'TC' are at BBC Television Centre, 'LG' were at Lime Grove and 'TLS' are at The London Studios.
Studios marked with an asterisk* were converted into a TV studio from previous use as a film stage.
It is worth mentioning that although HDS Studios closed as TV studios, they were kept on as dry-hire 4-wallers. They have now been taken over and are marketed as West London Film Studios. Also, Capital closed for redevelopment in 2008 but in 2010 the studios were reopened by an Iranian TV channel (Marjan TV Network) and were used by them. The studios closed in 2014. Then, Marjan moved to Wimbledon Studios and refurbished the site - they occupy most of the offices and studio 3. Stages 1 and 2 are now available again as 4-wallers. Capital Studios have yet to be redeveloped and are now a cinema and entertainment venue.
Incidentally, if you are wondering who actually invented television - I have written a very brief history at the start of the Independent TV Studios section.
Finally, I have taken the liberty of copying a superb sketch drawn in 1995 by Dicky Howett. Dicky is a very knowledgeable expert on the history of British television cameras. He owns dozens of them - most of which he has returned to full working order. He and a colleague, Paul Marshall, run Golden Age Television Recreations - a company that rents out period television equipment for use as working props in films and TV programmes. Their expert knowledge has been called upon several times by me in the writing of this website.
Anyway - below is a drawing of the principal monochrome television cameras in use in London's studios from 1937 to the beginning of colour in the late '60s. Despite at first glance looking like a rough sketch it is in fact incredibly accurate and I have often found it invaluable in identifying camera types. It was originally printed in 405 Alive magazine and I hope the people associated with that publication and Dicky himself won't mind me copying it here...