The BBC's TV studios in London
(apart from TV Centre)
(BBC Elstree is covered on the ITV studios page under 'Elstree - Clarendon Road')
(Ealing Studios are covered on the film studios page)
Broadcasting House (and Portland Place)
(revised September 2019)
For many years Broadcasting House (BH) was the home of radio - and Television Centre the home of television. Of course things are different now and BH has many TV studios (used for news and weather) whilst TV Centre - the best designed, best equipped television studio centre in the country - was almost completely destroyed by ill-informed, discredited, overpaid managers - many of whom have now left the corporation. (*long pause whilst blood pressure subsides*) Anyway, a long time ago there was a small TV studio at Broadcasting House. More than one actually, at different times.
The first studio opened on 22nd August 1932, believe it or not. It was studio BB and was the home of the BBC's experimental television broadcasts using Baird's 30-line system. The picture and sound were transmitted on different frequencies and were picked up by engineers and enthusiasts all over northern Europe. At first, the BBC were extremely sniffy about all this television nonsense and didn't want anything to do with it. Then, after more than 1,000 TV sets had been sold and Baird had proved he was onto something they suddenly declared that they should be the ones in charge, not him. They asked him for all the equipment needed to equip their studio and without paying Baird's company a penny proceeded to take over the experimental broadcasts.
According to Roger Beckwith's excellent history of BH website, Studio BB was 29 x 18 ft and was unusual in being of double height, with a small balcony. The main floor was at sub basement level.
Strange but true - on August 22nd 1933 the world's first televised boxing match took place in this studio in a 12ft square ring - between Freddie Baxter and Bill Lewis. Heaven only knows how they could even have seen each other to land a punch in the flickering light of Baird's flying spot and indeed what it must have looked like. There was a running commentary of course - so one assumes that helped to make sense of the somewhat indistinct images that were being displayed on the tiny televisor screens. The commentators were Viscount Scarsdale and Jim Mollison. Jim was an aviation pioneer who happened to be married to Amy Johnson - also famous for her flying exploits. The couple returned to this studio a month later to be interviewed under the flickering light of Baird's flying spot. Producer Val Gielgud later commented that ''Amy Johnson retains a soft, restful charm, and though she photographs badly, she televises well.' What a charmer.
In February 1934 the BBC's TV experiments were moved up the road to a larger studio in 16 Portland Place where the broadcasts continued. Studio BB was then used by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra for many Empire Service broadcasts. (That must have been a tight squeeze!) It was later renamed S1.
By then, Baird himself had moved on and was working on a much more sophisticated 120-line system as well as other developments. He would be constructing a studio centre of his own at Crystal Palace by 1933 and commenced broadcasts within a couple of years using a 180-line system. Meanwhile, for reasons of their own, the BBC plodded on with his original 30-line cameras until 1935, the year before their new studios opened at Alexandra Palace. A bit like the RAF continuing to flight-test Sopwith Camels in the days of the Spitfire.
Ken Banwell informs me that Portland Place was also the home of a later TV studio around 1960. It was used as a news studio and was in the church hall where the record library was built later. It was used for interviews and was equipped with 2 Peto Scott vidicon cameras. In 1963 this closed and was replaced with a brand new studio (only 30ft x 20ft) in the basement of the newly built extension to Broadcasting House.
This new BH studio was equipped with 3 EMI Vidicon cameras - one of which was remote controlled and the other 2 were standard EMIs with fixed lenses. (It was colourised in 1970.) The studio was intended for interviews and news broadcasts but it also had another rather surprising use.
Astonishingly, It was used for Top of the Pops. Not the whole show, naturally, but it seems that they could just about fit one group in it - rather like Pres B was used for Whistle Test. The main show came from Manchester from 1964 - 1967 and to simplify the routing of the signal it was fed from Manchester to BH and then to the transmission suite at TV Centre. The BH studio appeared as the 'source' for TOTP to the presentation controller.
Some groups were unable or unwilling to make the journey north (enthusiasts for MediaCity in Salford please note) so they performed in this tiny studio as an insert into the main live programme. The show changed presenter from week to week (I think there were three or four original regulars from memory) and the following week's presenter usually did a piece to camera at the end of the show from BH.
Clearly, there wasn't much room to have a fancy set or lighting - according to Ken Banwell you could always tell the BH performances by the fixed gobo projected on the wall. Lovely. He also says that it was a very fast turnaround between the regional news inserts between 18.00 and 18.30 and the insert into Top of the Pops.
The studio remained in use for 'down the line' interviews for some years, closing in 1986.
The 1963 extension to BH, in which the old TV studio had been located, was demolished in 2003 to make way for a new, very smart building which was completed in 2011. It cost over £1bn. That's one thousand million pounds. Television Centre was sold for £200m. Compare and contrast.
New BH became operational in March 2013, when BBC News and the weather department moved here from TV Centre, and the World Service from Bush House. The Egton Wing or Peel Wing opened in 2006 and contains TV Studios for the BBC's Arabic and Persian television services. The BBC London TV studio was also temporarily based in the Peel Wing before moving into another part of NBH. The One Show moved here from White City in January 2014.
The building was intended primarily for news and weather. However, long before it opened the BBC board of management decided to send several other departments there too. The building is therefore very crowded with very few dedicated offices - almost everyone has to 'hot desk' which is understandably very unpopular. If only they had moved to TV Centre there would have been plenty of room for everyone.
The weather is presented much of the time from a position on a balcony above the newsroom floor. Unlike a proper TV studio there is a lot of ambient noise from the journalists below who quite unreasonably do not wish to talk quietly during weather forecasts. This apparently was not a problem that had been foreseen. The sound quality on weather forecasts therefore proved to be a bit of an issue. Experiments were carried out with various solutions - in the end it was thought best to have the presenter wear a mic on a head-mounted boom so it looks as though they are performing in a West End musical. Part of the problem is that the BBC News department is unwilling to employ craft operators to carry out sound mixing but is convinced that automated systems (computers) can do the job just as well and a great deal cheaper.
There are currently 22 radio studios plus the BBC Radio Theatre that is now occasionally used to record music concerts and other events for television. It has a permanent well-equipped lighting rig but no TV facilities. Usually a flyaway kit is hired in when recording TV shows.
The TV studios in New BH are at the time of writing (April 2014) as follows:
34D - BBC Arabic TV
44D - BBC Arabic TV
54D - BBC Persian TV
A - green screen studio - HARDtalk, Newswatch, News at 9, News summary
B - Andrew Marr Show, Sunday Politics, Newsnight, BBC World News programmes including GMT, Impact, Global and Focus on Africa.
C - BBC News and World News - News at 5, The Film Review, Newsday, World News Today, Business Edition
D - BBC London News
E - News at 1, 6, 9 (weekends), 10, Weekend News, News Channel, Dateline London
F - 60 Second News
G - Weather (greenscreen)
H - Weather (greenscreen)
J - Weather - large plasma in newsroom
K - multipurpose - similar design to L (see below) but on the 2nd floor and half the size. It has a greenscreen or view of newsroom and capable of a 1 + 2 interview but has only 1 camera permanently rigged. Due to being open plan with no walls it is, I am told, an annoying source of disturbance to those trying to work nearby. Used by technology show Click using their own cameras. World Service's Tech Tent use K with extra cameras added.
L - This is the 5th floor 'Multiplatform Production Area'. This 'studio' helpfully has no walls either which I am told is like studio K in that it provides constant irritation to nearby production teams and studio crews alike. It is basically converted office space with all the attendant problems of a very low grid. It has 3 cameras and a set with a hard area and a soft area. This 'studio' is used for BBC Swahili and BBC Russian programmes. The soft area is occasionally used for a BBC Arabic discussion show and BBC News Channel's Meet the Author. It has also hosted Talking Business for World News.
M - CSO studio for World Service TV. Controlled by L's gallery so when in use L cannot operate. With a single camera it provides bulletins in various languages.
P - CSO studio, never used as a studio so often taken over as a temporary edit suite or for storage.
V - The One Show - in the area on the ground floor of the Peel Wing originally designed to be used as a BBC shop. BBC London was based here for a while.
...plus the newsroom is used for several programmes including Reporters, Click and Points of View
In December 2013 it was reported in the press that the BBC would be spending a further 'half a million pounds' on New BH, refurbishing the sixth and seventh floors after complaints from staff. According to reports, they were to be made 'more creative and vibrant'. The reports also said that witty signs indicating 'streets' are to be placed around the building helping staff to find their way round. Areas and meeting rooms would be named after well-known television programmes - none of which were of course made in this building. Viewers of the excellent sitcom W1A will be all too familiar with this kind of nonsense.
Decisions like this are a gift to the Daily Mail but seriously annoy television programme makers too, who are having to use over-priced studios that are not half as good as the lost ones at TV Centre. Margaret Hodge is quoted as saying 'None of us get everything right when we move into a new building but spending money on what sound like questionable improvements is inappropriate when money is tight.'
I gather that BBC World Service was originally allocated the 6th floor as well as the 5th. When it was decided to move 'Vision' from TVC, World Service was bumped (and squashed) onto the 5th floor only. However, half the WS radio studios remain scattered throughout the 6th floor. There was originally going to be a second 'Multiplatform Production Area' on the 6th floor like the one on the 5th floor. All the cabling was installed between what was to be the gallery (now the BBC3 controller's desk) and a wallbox in the middle of what is now the 6th floor office (near the BBC2 controller's meeting room). I am told that there is a chronic shortage of studio space in NBH but the chances of those controllers giving up their desk space is zero. There is after all an even greater chronic shortage of desks.
For an in-depth and scarily accurate view of life in New BH I can do no better than recommend watching the excellent sitcom W1A.
(revised September 2019)
Of course, everyone in the industry knows (or certainly ought to know) that the first regular 'high definition' television broadcasts in the world came from Ally Pally. The building is enormous with various halls and rooms and even a 2,000-seat Victorian theatre that was dark for decades. However, on 2nd July 2004 the first performance for 70 years took place in front of an audience of 200 - the structure of the auditorium being considered too unsafe for any more people to be allowed in. In 2010 the theatre was sadly closed to the public again because of safety issues but some work was done so visits could be made. Wonderful news! - the theatre has now been restored, preserving its patina of decay, and reopened in 2019.
AP was built in 1875 as a 'palace of entertainment' for the people. (An earlier construction had been destroyed by fire in 1873, only sixteen days after it had been moved to this site from Kensington.) The BBC took on a 20 year lease on the north wing of the building in 1936 and created two studios on the first floor (later known as A and B.) The rooms were originally designed as banqueting halls or function rooms. Studio A began broadcasting in 405 lines using the Marconi-EMI system and B in Baird's 240 lines in November 1936. The TV broadcasts used the different standards on alternate weeks.
The studios were 70 x 30 feet, so a reasonable length but rather narrow. Each had a separate control room and nearby were dressing rooms and a band room. It was planned that the terrace outside would also be used for performances and the cameras could be taken down in a lift and out via a concrete ramp. High shots would come from the balcony just outside the studios. These local 'OBs' happened on many occasions.
I mention the lift, but designer Richard Greenough recalls that when he joined in 1948 there was no lift - the scenery had to be hauled up by rope from the ground through a trap door. He says the lift was installed a couple of years later.
The transmitter mast was built on the north tower of the building and remains a landmark. Curiously, the tower is faced with windows of a completely different style from the rest of the building. One assumes that the BBC just went ahead and restyled it to make it look more 'modern'. Of course, compared with the Victorian splendour of the rest of the architecture it sticks out like a sore thumb. So much for planning permission.
Baird is often credited as the inventor of television but his system was of a lower resolution than the EMI system and very unwieldy. It was also rather unreliable in use. Studio B mainly used a technique called the Intermediate Film System. This involved a single fixed film camera that took a wideshot of the performance stage in the studio. The film passed out of the camera and immediately into a chemical bath - using cyanide - that developed the image. This image was then scanned using a flying spot system and turned into a television signal. The process took just under a minute to achieve. The sound was recorded onto the 17.5mm film using the com-opt technique - thereby maintaining lip sync. No close-ups were possible and in fact you couldn't even cut between cameras as there was only one in use. However, some use was also made of an electronic camera developed by the American inventor, Philo Farnsworth, but it was very insensitive - far less sensitive than the EMI cameras next door.
(See my brief history of who invented television at the beginning of the Independent TV Studios page for more about Mr Farnsworth and indeed Mr Baird's contribution to it all.)
Not surprisingly, studio A's electronically scanned EMI-Marconi 405-line system with its moveable Emitron cameras and clearer pictures was preferred and the Baird system was abandoned after only three months, ending in February 1937 - both studios thereafter being equipped with 405-line cameras. In fact, shortly before the decision was made, Baird's Crystal Palace base had been destroyed in a major fire in December 1936 when he lost all his spares. Thus the poor man really was unlucky. However, his development work continued for another eight years and he produced a system for broadcasting TV newsreels to cinemas and even a 3D high definition colour system.
(The story of Baird's Crystal Palace studios is covered in the Independent TV Studios page.)
You might think that I am suggesting that Baird was not the father of television after all and that all his work was wasted. Not so. Through his life's work he proved that it was possible to create and maintain a television service. True, without his work it is likely that others around the world would have come up with their systems but it is arguable whether EMI and Marconi would have worked so hard on their system without the local competition from Baird.
There is an interesting little story relating to Marconi's involvement here. Baird recalls in his memoirs that back in 1923, when he was beginning his television experiments, he went to the manager of the Marconi company. The gentleman, a fellow Scot, was asked if his firm would consider providing support. He was curtly told that Marconi had "no interest whatsoever" in television. Clearly, something made the company change its mind as in 1934 Marconi went on to forge a strong link with EMI. However, this cooperation didn't last long and within a short time the companies were great rivals again when they began to market competing television cameras. A rivalry that lasted until both ceased camera manufacture several decades later.
So, arguably because of Baird, the UK was in the lead in the development and provision of a television service. A lead that was to last for decades.
It was clear even in the early days of television that these two small studios were insufficient for a full television service. The old Victorian theatre within the building which had not been used for years, was also acquired by the BBC and detailed technical plans were drawn up as to how it might become another studio. In the meantime it was used as a rehearsal room and to store scenery. However, history intervened with the approach of war and all plans were put on hold for many years. A third studio was never built at AP - the BBC's designs for expansion would eventually be made elsewhere.
These plans were quite advanced - I have been sent copies of minutes for meetings where the proposals were discussed in some detail. The minutes are dated from Oct 1937-March 1938. The plan was to create 5 'stages' or performance areas around the theatre (3 main and 2 subsidiary). The theatre's existing stage would become one of these and the BBC planned to remove one side of the proscenium arch to improve visibility from the control room! The theatre's balcony was to be removed and a number of supporting rooms were to be created outside the auditorium. The plans were made public on the Alexandra Palace site of Google Cultural Institute in 2019.
The control room was originally to be constructed in the centre of the auditorium but this was later changed to be in the centre of the north wall. No less than 8 studio cameras were envisaged, plus 2 film cameras and an epidiascope camera.
What is particularly interesting is that throughout all these minutes the two existing studios are referred to as studios 1 and 2, not A and B. The proposed new studio is referred to as 'the Theatre Studio', rather than studio 3 or indeed C. However, they are marked as A, B and C on the architect's plans and those who worked in A and B always called them that. Very curious.
Incidentally, according to the minutes, studio 1 was equipped with 6 camera channels. I find this very surprising, having assumed that it would have been 3 or at the most 4. Certainly, the studios at Lime Grove when they opened in 1950 only had 3 or 4 cameras each and photos and plans of the AP studios post-war suggest that only 3 cameras were in use. This certainly seems wrong to me so I've no idea why they refer to 6.
On 1st September 1939 the BBC ceased television broadcasting. Although the instruction had gone out to close down at noon it seems that an OB from 'Radiolympia' overran and this was followed, believe it or not, by a Mickey Mouse cartoon which began at 12.05. Perhaps those on duty wanted to delay the closedown for as long as possible. Mickey's Gala Premiere was thus the last television programme broadcast in Britain for seven years. There was no closing announcement - just a test card for a quarter of an hour, then nothing. The transmitter was switched off at 12.35pm. The studio doors were locked and the staff moved on to new careers in the services or working in radar.
When the Second World War broke out, television broadcasts ceased as it was feared that the German air force would use the transmission signals from its tower as a navigational aid. In fact, ironically, it was used for quite the opposite purpose...
TV broadcasting returned in 1946 and both studios were busy producing live television again. Oh - and by the way, the continuity announcer didn't say 'as I was saying when we were so rudely interrupted' as the urban myth would have it. It's a nice story but completely untrue. She actually said 'Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?' Boring but true.
The country was financially on its knees and could hardly justify such frivolities as television but it was felt that it was important for two reasons. Firstly, to raise morale and secondly to provide a market for electronic manufacturers who could export their television sets to the USA and other emerging markets. Companies like EMI, Marconi and Pye could also draw upon their wartime research to develop new television cameras, transmitters and other equipment. From this time and for the next forty years, British television equipment would be found in studios all over the world and a valuable source of export income to the UK.
Richard Greenough was one of the set designers working at AP in the post war period. One of his memories is that when he designed a set for a play which took place in a magistrate's court they had a problem getting close-ups of the magistrate. The cameras had one fixed lens so any change of view was achieved by tracking the camera in or out. However, the court furniture made this impossible, so he had to incorporate another desk for the magistrate with nothing in front of it to the side of the main set. The flat behind him was of course identical to the other position. When another camera was cut up, the actor nipped across the studio to sit in the other chair ready for his close-up. At the rehearsed moment, he dashed back so a wide shot of the court could be taken. This happened several times throughout the play. Remember - all of this was live so you can imagine the possible disaster if the actor made his move at the wrong moment! Below is the photo from Richard's scrap book showing the two chairs:
Richard remembers the challenges he and and his colleagues faced, working on so many productions and with these early generation cameras...
In the early years, by today's standards the television images were relatively soft and the screens they were displayed on at home were quite small - usually no more than 9 inches diagonal. Only a couple of inches bigger than the iPad you may be reading this on in fact. Place your tablet 2 or 3 metres away and you'll get an idea of what watching TV was like in those days.
This did have some advantages in that studio sets did not have to have quite the finish and fine detail of today's scenery. Some 'cheating' was also possible. For example, see the photo below with a cigarette stall used in a scene from London Town, a magazine programme about stories from the capital. The items displayed on the shelves and the adverts are simply photographs, taken from the real thing. Sometimes, large prints of photos were used as backings. Later, when the BBC moved to the bigger studios at Lime Grove, the designers were able to employ moving backgrounds as there was room to have film projectors behind screens.
Despite the technical limitations of the system, the sets were often of very high quality and finish. This, of course, gave everyone involved some good training for when cameras became sharper and television screens bigger, which was only a few years away. By the 1950s, all the camera and TV manufacturers were working hard to develop better and better equipment and there were improvements to the picture quality almost month by month. By the time ITV was launched in 1955 the live pictures being produced by the new companies and of course by the BBC were remarkably good.
The picture below gives a sense of a typical comedy or drama studio set from 1949 - certainly as good as you would see on any professional theatre stage at the time. It is in fact from a musical comedy and is also drawn on the studio plans shown above in this section. This set was in studio B, although there was another set in studio A for the other act of the show. The orchestra was also in A. There had to be an interval during the transmission when the performers, crew and production team moved down the corridor to the other studio. Large scale productions involving both studios were not uncommon.
The range of programming that came from these two little studios at AP is astonishing. Most was of very high quality with some of the best actors, musicians and dancers in the country. One of the high spots of 1948 was the Paris Lido Show - a spectacular involving the cast and crew of one of France's premier cabaret shows, brought all the way to London and crammed into studio A. According to the Daily Mail...
Of course, not every production hit the spot and some actors had difficulties working in this strange new medium. There were cameras involved so it was something like working in the world of cinema, except of course it was completely different in that the whole show was performed live from beginning to end with no breaks. Rehearsals were short so hitting marks and remembering lines were skills that not every actor found easy. Richard Greenough recalls...
Directors (or 'producers' as they were then called) became ever more ambitious with their productions. After all, they were truly breaking new ground and there were no rules - beyond the natural rules of what was acceptable for the BBC to transmit. Occasionally, they bit off more than they could chew. Here's another memory from Richard Greenough...
I have myself worked on the occasional sitcom where the studio audience is being held outside because we still haven't finished rehearsing all the scenes in the show - but at least we didn't have to do it completely unrehearsed and live. What a nightmare!
As soon as broadcasting resumed after the war it was clear that more studios would be required (pre-war plans to convert the theatre into studio C had been shelved), so in 1949 the BBC took over some film studios in Lime Grove, Shepherds Bush whilst they began to plan their own purpose-built Television Centre. However, programme making continued at AP for the next few years while the stages at Lime Grove were converted into studios.
Television was slow to be taken up by the public - mostly due to the cost of TV sets. It is widely acknowledged that the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 was the turning point. This OB was the first time many people saw television. Many sets were sold leading up to it - specifically so that people could watch the ceremony - and people with televisions invited friends and neighbours in to watch. Immediately afterwards, sales of TV sets soared and additional transmitters up and down the country brought television to a greater part of the population.
One of the most famous dramas to come from AP was the sci-fi thriller The Quatermass Experiment. This was transmitted live on Saturday nights from July 18 to August 26, 1953. In fact, the first two episodes were simultaneously telerecorded - using the improvised system that had been built for the coronation. Sadly, the picture quality was poor and there were said to be questions asked about artists' contracts (some things never change) and the remaining episodes were not recorded.
Ian Hillson has pointed out the following, regarding later telerecordings made here...
Of course, why telerecord the first two Quatermass episodes at all? According to Andrew Pixley's collectors' booklet that accompanies the DVD release, there seem to be two possible reasons. One is that the director Rudolph Cartier was keen to have some material to use for recaps and trailers, and the other is that the sale of the serial had provisionally been agreed with the CBC in Canada. For whatever reason, only episodes 1 and 2 have survived and can still be seen.
It seems that very few if any programmes were subsequently telerecorded here although the practice did increase in later years at Lime Grove and Riverside and even for a few years at Television Centre, when that opened. However, in the early years it was the live 'repeat' that was recorded - as described above.
Quatermass was arguably the first mass audience drama serial to be transmitted on television and had the nation gripped.
The BBC's lease for Ally Pally was due to run out in 1956. However, despite purchasing Lime Grove in 1949 and converting four stages there into TV studios, it appeared that they intended to hang on to AP as well. Imagine their surprise when they expected to simply sign to renew the lease and discovered that one of the big new ITV companies was planning to take over not just the BBC's area but the concert hall and exhibition halls too, providing sufficient space to create 6 studios!
Norman Collins, former head of BBC Television, had snuck in the day before and obtained an option on the lease. Collins had already purchased Highbury Studios in 1950 and created the High Definition Films company there. In 1953 he was working for the Associated Broadcasting Development Company. They would later merge with ITC to become ATV. Anyway, it seems that his bid was unsuccessful (possibly due to lack of funding) and the BBC did indeed hang on to their two studios at AP.
In 1956, once Lime Grove was fully open and programme making had transferred there, one studio at AP became the base for BBC TV news. The other was already being used for early experiments in colour TV (The first 405 line colour test broadcasts began in October 1955.) The colour experiments moved to studio H at Lime Grove in 1958.
Later, both studios at AP were used for news when BBC2 started up in 1964. Roger Tone has sent me this amusing little story concerning Robert Dougall, one of the BBC's best known - and clearly unflappable - newsreaders of the day...
Dan Cranefield tells me that the news staff here also serviced three other small studios around London - one at All Souls Church next to BH, one at Heathrow and one at St Stephen's House in Westminster. Each was fully equipped but left unmanned. When required, one or two AP staff would jump on their scooters and ride to the studio to fire it all up ready for an interview. Not exactly the kind of thing that could be done at short notice, I'm guessing.
Studio A became one of the first of the BBC's colour-equipped studios when it had Marconi MkVII cameras installed in February 1968. These later made the move to the new purpose-built news studios in TV Centre in September 1969. Roger Wilson has pointed out that BBC2's Newsroom, which went out at 7.30pm, was not only a full 30 minute slot but was also the first news bulletin in colour. The first transmission was in March 1968. Apparently, those working on this show were a bit peeved about all the publicity for the first ITN News at Ten which was a couple of months later - as they were claiming to be the first half hour news programme. If you took into account the commercials, this programme was not only first but also longer. These things do matter to some people.
Ian Hillson contacted me and he recalled...
Ian also recalls an event during the final news transmission that a certain individual has almost certainly tried to forget. It seems that the occasion had been celebrated by the crew spending a perfectly understandable amount of time and money in the BBC Club during the day. Now, as we all know - some can hold their liquor better than others. The vision mixer - whom Ian refuses to name - was perhaps not what you might call an experienced drinker. I'll let Ian tell the story...
Since it was the last day, once can't help wondering if anyone bothered to clear it all up before the next incumbents moved in. I have been contacted by Roger Tone and Roger Wilson, both of whom were also in the gallery that fateful night of Friday 19th September 1969. They have confirmed the story. Apparently, the guilty party subsequently went on to become a very well-respected engineer with Channel 4. Tea-total, no doubt. Don't worry sir, your secret is safe with me.
In the spring of the following year, the Open University took over the studios at AP and began making programmes - the first ones were transmitted in January 1971. Studio A was equipped with monochrome cameras (and possibly a new vision mixer) together with associated telecine and videotape facilities. In the spring of 1975 the studio was colourised with three, plus one spare, Link 110 cameras.
Following the colourising of the studio it was equipped as follows:
The videotape area was contained within a prefabricated building on the floor of the nearby exhibition hall. There was a fire during 1980, shortly before the BBC left, in which the exhibition hall was badly damaged but the BBC wing was left relatively unscathed. Following the fire the telecine and slide scanner were moved into studio B for the last few months. John Aizlewood was there at the time and recalls that they must have produced the last flying spot pictures from the old Baird studio!
The last actual programme made in B was probably a news bulletin in 1969, shortly before the news department moved to Television Centre. However, Graeme Wall informs me that the studio was also used by the OU to produce animations for OU programmes...
I remember working in studio A on two or three days as a young and inexperienced cameraman in the late 1970s. Some of us based at TV Centre worked at AP from time to time as 'sick and holiday relief'. I think I was sent there as a bit of training - and for the experience of seeing something rather different from the Centre. It was indeed a world unto itself and in many ways it felt as though one had gone back decades. This studio had become the home of awkward-looking bearded presenters wearing sports jackets standing in front of beige Hessian backings. Marvellous stuff!
These programmes made for the OU were broadcast at all kinds of odd times and shown on BBC2. They were effectively televised lectures given by university professors and other experts and were not intended for 'normal' viewers. Unless you owned one of those new-fangled VHS recorders you had to get up very early or stay up very late to watch them. Let's be honest, some of the presenters were not exactly television naturals and so these programmes became the butt of jokes from various comedians. However, they did enable thousands of ordinary folk who were holding down a job or looking after kids or caring for someone to have a similar experience to students at a conventional university and gain a degree that otherwise would have been impossible for them to achieve.
Some of the programmes made for the OU did gain a wider audience. For example, I remember seeing an outstanding production of Waiting for Godot with Max Wall and Leo McKern recorded in 1970 - it was repeated in peak time on BBC2.
The images below were kindly sent to me by John Aizlewood, who took them on the last day of operation - 3rd July 1981. The last actual programme was a Nationwide OB with live links back to Lime Grove.
The following photos were taken by Nigel Finnis on the last day of the BBC's occupation. I hope he won't mind me reproducing them here. All the equipment has been stripped - including the lighting hoists and already everything is looking sad and very old.
The BBC's lease ended in 1981. The Open University moved their operations to Milton Keynes.
For a number of years the studios at AP were looked after by a trust. However, there was very little money available to maintain the building and the BBC areas were left in varying structural condition. An account of a visit around 2010 is rather depressing:
'Studio A is said to be relatively sound and a few items are displayed in it. The control room for A is, however, revealing signs of decay. This gets progressively worse the further down the building you go. The ceiling of Studio B has fallen in - revealing the roof space. The Baird 'Spotlight' studio has signs of rain and pigeon damage and plaster has fallen off the walls in several of the rooms and spaces. Some small rooms off studio B are apparently very bad - with rotten wood and rain dripping in.
The following photos were kindly sent to me by Simon Vaughan, archivist from the Alexandra Palace Television Society and were taken in April 2014. Sadly, there are no images of studio B as that area was declared unsafe at that time. There is also a photo of a re-creation of the original EMI/Marconi studio during the production of a typical play - it was a programme called We Take You Back To The Studio and was recorded by the OU in 1990 using the Sony 1250 line analogue HD system.
Sadly, under the proposed restoration of this part of the building, these historic areas are due to be ripped out and replaced with a single anonymous black room. Imagine that happening at Bletchley Park or in the Churchill War Rooms.
Click on the images to see them in higher resolution.
In 1900 Ally Pally was given to the people of London in trust for all time by Act of Parliament. However, for most of the early part of the 21st century the ownership and future of Alexandra Palace was something of a minefield to say the least. The building is owned by a trust. However, the trustees are not independent but happen to be the current councillors of Haringey Council - so some potential conflict here.
A few years ago the trust (or more accurately, officers working for the local council) decided to sell the building to a leisure company, who apparently did not plan to preserve the TV studios. Local people claimed that decisions over the sale were not being taken as a charity operating in the best interests of the building and the people of London but as a way of saving money for the council.
According to the 'Save Ally Pally' website...
The sale was delayed by the various legal challenges that were made over a number of years. However, curiously, it seems that Firoka were permitted to manage the building for some eight months, allegedly running up a loss of £3m for the charity. The protesting continued and many people signed a petition. The Save Ally Pally campaign went to the High Court to ask that the decision to permit the sale be overturned.
Fortunately they were successful and the building remained under the ownership of the trustees - who of course still happened to be Haringey Council. However, there does seem to have been a change of heart and the councillors were now at last taking their responsibilities seriously. The council officers who planned the sell-off were replaced and the Palace was given a new manager - Duncan Wilson - who it seems had extensive experience of running historic buildings. So - well done indeed to the organisers of the Save Ally Pally campaign! Mr Wilson spent the next months improving the fortunes of the building as a whole and steering the restoration and redevelopment of the Victorian Theatre and BBC studios.
In fact, he resigned after three and a half years, just before the planning application for the East Wing redevelopment was due to be agreed or not by the council. The proposed plans for the TV studios were not well received by many campaigners and local historians (see below) but it seems that his resignation was nothing to do with this. He was simply offered a better job as head of 'Historic England.'
In May 2013 it was announced that a large amount of money had been set aside by the Lottery Heritage Fund to preserve the areas of Ally Pally that were run down. The redevelopment included the renovation of the Victorian theatre and the refurbishment of the studios. An imaginative plan was drawn up to restore the theatre and enable it to be used again for live productions whilst keeping the original Victorian wall treatments and ornamentation. The old stage machinery has also been preserved. The theatre reopened on Dec 1st, 2018.
Of considerably greater concern were the proposals for the studios and surrounding rooms. The architects and designers seemed to have missed the whole point of preserving them so that visitors can view them as they were in the groundbreaking days of early television before the war and in the decade or so that followed. Instead, they planned to turn them into anonymous black boxes and have interactive AV installations showing images from various moments in television history. Studio B would also be faced in black plasterboard whilst the area between, with the various control rooms and Baird's 'spotlight studio', was to be be ripped out and turned into yet another black box containing a few display cases with technical equipment. In other words, these unique historical rooms would become a rather dry museum that could be anywhere.
No doubt it was all going to be technically impressive but I suspect visitors would be extremely disappointed not to see actual studios with cameras, lights, sound booms etc. The AV display could be located elsewhere - the old transmitter hall for example - but studios A and B should surely be returned to something that visitors will no doubt be expecting to see. Otherwise, why bother to go at all?
Needless to say, there has been much dismay at these proposals, which in my view completely miss the point of the whole campaign to preserve the studios.
Studio restoration 'stalled'
At a meeting between AP chief executive Louise Stewart and the venue's statutory and consultative committees in June 2017 it emerged that the BBC studios would not be restored any time soon. Certainly not by 2018 as had previously been announced. It was revealed that the theatre was costing far more than anticipated to restore so the plan for the studios had been dropped.
Committee member Jacob O'Callghan said afterwards that the public have a right to know why all the Lottery Heritage Fund's money is now being spent only on the Victorian Theatre, when the historic studios were part of the original agreement.
Let us hope that at the very least, the roof of the studios has been made weatherproof so no more damage is done.
My personal hope is that a less ambitious and costly plan that simply restores the fabric of the rooms will emerge. One that could enable a re-creation of the studios without the interactive AV installation that had originally been proposed. Something along the lines of what has been achieved at the Churchill War Rooms and Bletchley Park - which are both now very popular with visitors.
However, who will now pay for this? And when?
(revised September 2019)
Of all the TV studio centres in London this was one of the most loved. It was a higgledy-piggledy rabbit warren of corridors, staircases, fire escapes and studios, apparently piled on each other in random order. When I worked there in the late 70's and 80's it seemed a dark and mysterious place with locked rooms, old gallery suites and other areas that had clearly once been used for this or that but were now either empty or about to be converted into some other use. You could easily get lost but the place seemed magical and full of hidden secrets.
It was also the setting for the acclaimed BBC drama The Hour ('11, '12) which concerned a fictional current affairs programme in 1956. Sadly, the studios themselves were long gone when they filmed it.
Of course, its history went right back to the earliest days of film making as these extraordinary photographs show...
The film years...
The original film studios were opened in 1914 by the Gaumont Film Company. The site was previously owned by a railway company. Lime Grove was originally a cul-de-sac leading up to this industrial area. Later, when the film studios were built, the road was continued to meet with Brookland Road at the Goldhawk Road end. This is how the studios ended up looking somewhat out of place in what was otherwise a residential road.
When first built, the studios consisted of the large glazed stage seen above with ancillary buildings behind. The stage floor was at first floor level with workshops beneath. It was 90ft x 40ft x 20ft high with an end section 30ft high.
In 1917 they decided that relying on daylight was not really practical in England (especially in winter) so the glass was blacked out and Westminster arcs and Boardman northlights were installed.
In 1927 a block was completed to the left of the stage with workshops and offices. Two years later, the glass walls were boarded up in and the studio became a sound stage. However, the site was then completely redeveloped - re-opening on 29th June 1932. The original stage was demolished and a new two-block building was completed by the company (now known as 'Gaumont-British'), divided by the smaller building that had served the original glass stage. In order to fit as many sound stages as possible onto the relatively small site some were built above each other and a long, narrow stage was constructed within the centre block.
The stages and theatres were numbered differently from the way the BBC later named them. For clarity, I shall refer to them by their BBC letters but just for the record - here is a table indicating how they were originally numbered:
The BBC chose to use letters, rather than numbers - following on from studios 'A' and 'B' at Alexandra Palace. One might assume that the absence of 'C' was due to the pre-war plan to convert the theatre at AP into a studio. Apparently not. A memo dated 1950 from the Senior Superintendent Engineer, Television explains that there was to be no studio 'C' at Lime Grove. This was to avoid any confusion between the control room of 'C' and the planned 'Central Control Room' which would be known in BBC parlance as the CCR. He can't have had much faith in his staff. It's hard to imagine quite how the CCR could ever have been confused with a studio control room but there we are. Thanks to his foresight, countless disasters were avoided.
Oddly, the BBC altered the order of studio numbering - not just replacing letters for numbers. There appears to be no logical reason for doing this, except that the BBC's letters go more or less from left to right across the building whereas the Gaumont-British numbers went from right to left. Clearly, as ever, the BBC knew best.
So - on the first floor of the North Block was the largest stage - stage 4 (studio F), which was 11,500 sq ft and 136ft x 85ft. It had a tank in its floor that in the BBC's day would become yet another room on the floor below. F was never converted into a television studio by the BBC but was used as a scenery store. In the '80's a mezzanine was built in it to construct production offices for Breakfast Time. It is perhaps surprising that it was never converted to be used as a studio rather than, say, studio G. It was actually bigger than TC1 would be and its space would have been incredibly useful on many productions.
Above it on the fourth floor were the stages that became studios D and E. Wall to wall - stage 5 (D) was about 5,300 sq ft - 82ft x 65ft at its maximum and stage 6 (E) was about 4,000 sq ft and an irregularly shaped 70ft x 64ft at its maximum. Once D had its firelanes added by the BBC it became 73 x 55ft but with several bites out of that for the control rooms and doorways.
In the centre between the main blocks was stage 3 (G), a 6000 sq ft long, narrow space about 112ft x 54ft wall to wall at its widest. This studio was an elongated 'L' shape with a bite taken out of one corner for the goods lift. However, once the BBC added fire lanes all round, it was only 34 or 35 feet wide for much of its length which became very limiting. In the South Block, stage 2 (studio H) was about 3,000 sq ft and about 40ft x 70ft plus an extra little bit in one corner. It was on the first floor with viewing theatres above it. G and H were connected by a soundproof door in one corner of each studio.
There is an excellent website at www.gaumont-british.co.uk that includes the original specifications for the studios including these quite interesting facts...
The Gaumont British website also includes some photos of the stages taken soon after construction, in a pristine state that they were never to see again! Those BBC staffers who worked there might just be able to recognise them...
Richard Stibbons has informed me that the studios were possibly unique in having an artesian well, guaranteed to supply unlimited amounts of water to the processing lab. Except unfortunately it didn't. Richard was a BBC engineer who enjoyed exploring the parts of the bulding nobody was supposed to go into and he discovered some files containing letters dating back to the 1930s. He found three years of increasingly bitter correspondence relating to broken drills and a great deal of wasted money. It seems that the well only ever produced a trickle of water and the project was abandoned. He says the well head was still there in his day behind the canteen block (ex processing labs) and they used it as a station earth.
The studios made many successful films including Hitchcock's The 39 Steps in 1935. Jessie Matthews was a big star at the time and most of her films were made here. She was worked very hard by the studio, often begining at 06.30 and sometimes not finishing till 3.00am. She collapsed from nervous exhaustion during the shooting of Evergreen. The studio's sympathetic answer was to have a bed in the corner of the stage so she could rest between shots. They certainly knew how to look after their stars in those days.
It is worth mentioning that as well as a succession of pretty ropey 'quota quickies', Lime Grove also produced a fair number of classics of the British cinema in the '30s and '40s. There are too many to list here but almost all the stars of British cinema must have worked here at some point and many highly-regarded films were produced.
However, by 1937 Gaumont-British were in financial crisis and had to close Lime Grove, concentrating their film making at their Gainsborough studios in Islington - a converted railway power-house. Later, when war broke out in 1939 it was considered that the Islington studios were dangerous as they had a huge chimney attached to the building that might come crashing down on them if a bomb landed nearby. Thus during the war Lime Grove became the home of Gainsborough Films, making many popular historical romances and wartime propaganda films such as We Dive at Dawn.
20th Century Fox had closed their studios in Wembley (later, they would become the home of Associated-Rediffusion TV) and they leased studio space at Lime Grove making films like HG Wells' story Kipps, starring Michael Redgrave and directed by Carol Reed. This leasing agreement ran out in 1942.
In 1939 J Arthur Rank became chairman of Gaumont-British and in 1942 the studios came under the ownership of the Rank Organisation, thus becoming part of that immense empire. However, that company too was in deep financial trouble by the end of the 1940s and in 1949 Rank sold off everything except Pinewood in order to keep that studio going. All the contents were auctioned off in October 1949 and on the last day of the auction it was announced that the BBC had bought the studios. Curiously, some three months previously the BBC had said they were not interested in purchasing Lime Grove.
At the time, there was speculation that this was some sort of partnership between Rank and the BBC with both organisations keen to explore the possibility of making films using television methods. The BBC had certainly been developing their 'telerecording' system of recording television pictures on film but the results were technically barely good enough at the time to transmit to tiny television sets, let alone blow up on a cinema screen. In fact, Rank probably had no such arrangement with the BBC but he was certainly keen to see if he could make his films as cheaply as television plays. In fact, within a year, HDF at Highbury studios would be using high definition cameras to attempt to achieve just this and Rank had a finger in that pie too.
The BBC years...
Thus in November 1949 Lime Grove Studios were bought by the BBC as a 'temporary measure' until their new Television Centre was ready. They paid £230,000. The first show was broadcast from here in May 1950 and ultimately the BBC stayed for 42 years.
There were four main production studios here which are detailed below. However, two other areas on the site were almost as interesting and just as productive. The first was known as studio P.
In 1953 the presentation department for BBC TV transferred from Alexandra Palace and the small studio they used was given that designation. It was 560 sq ft and a little over 20ft square. It was originally equipped with two Pye P.E.S. Photicon cameras and a 'Type A' sound desk. Although it was primarily used for continuity links with an in-vision announcer, it was for a while the home of a magazine programme called Highlight. There were three regular interviewers - Cliff Michelmore, Geoffrey Johnson Smith and Derek Hart. These three went on to become the presenters of the highly successful Tonight programme which began broadcasting in February 1957 from the Viking studio in Kensington - known by the BBC as 'studio M'. That programme eventually transferred to one of the main studios in Lime Grove.
This small studio was the only one available when Prime Minister Anthony Eden transmitted Britain's first ever Ministerial Broadcast (August 8, 1956). This was a rallying cry against Egypt's President Nasser who had the previous month nationalised the Suez Canal and against whom Eden was about to take Britain to war. Eden appears to have been somewhat stressed out or perhaps unwell on the day of the broadcast. He cursed the 'communists' at the BBC for the long walk to the studio which involved him having to climb several concrete staircases, for the fact the studio was stiflingly hot and because he believed they were deliberately shining lights in his eyes. There are politicians today who believe much the same.
Dan Cranefield has contacted me. He began at Lime Grove in 1958 before moving on to CAR and thence to Ally Pally. He tells me that a few other programmes were also made in this tiny studio. These included Match of the Day, every Saturday.
Ray Liffen has kindly sent me a schedule that came from Lime Grove on April 4th 1956. You can see how often studio P was used...
Incidentally - studio P contained an in-vision clock which was a model of Big Ben. This was naturally known as 'Little Ben.' I'm told it wasn't used often but every New Year's Eve it was wheeled out - much easier and cheaper than sending out an OB unit to the real thing.
This little continuity studio was referred to by all at Lime Grove as 'studio PP.' The story went that Brigitte Bardot was being interviewed on an edition of Highlight and was asked about her pets. She said she had a dog and a little monkey who was very naughty as he 'went pee-pee all over her flat'. In 1950s Britain this was highly controversial language and not at all the kind of expression to be heard on the BBC. I wonder what they would have made of Jerry Springer the Opera.
Studio P closed in 1961 when Pres A opened at TV Centre and the area was converted to a film transfer area.
We shall come to the main studios shortly but first, another of those curiously unique BBC activities that found a home at Lime Grove. As part of their public service remit, the corporation realised that it had to create children's TV programmes too. These may now seem rather quaint and naiive but they were hugely popular at the time and were made with immense care by the small department involved.
Children's programmes frequently involved puppets back in the '50s so the department soon attracted a group of expert sculptors, designers, puppeteers and story writers. At first, they had no base as such but in 1955 they were given a tin shed in Smith's Yard as their home. Within this building, plays involving marionettes were rehearsed and then transferred into one of the studios where they were transmitted live. In fact, this tradition of puppetry had started some years earlier at Alexandra Palace. Muffin the Mule had begun there and then transferred to Lime Grove. He was, as it happens, one of the acts in the first programme to be transmitted from the Grove.
Andy Pandy ('50-'57) was another favourite. This famous character was created prior to the tin shed being taken over by the puppet department. He was the invention of Freda Lingstrom who wrote the scripts with Maria Bird, who also wrote the music. The first programme was transmitted live from studio D on June 20th 1950. Audrey Atterbury was the puppeteer who remembers the first transmission as being something of a disaster involving tangled strings. Apparently she went home and had a little weep. Bless. However, more programmes were made, all transmitted live, until somebody realised that if they were filmed they could be repeated. It wasn't just the Teletubbies who knew that toddlers love to see things over and over again. So twenty-six fifteen minute episodes were filmed on 16mm.
The same team went on to make Bill and Ben. Twenty-six of these were made - most were filmed at Lime Grove but some were apparently made at Alexandra Palace and also rather curiously at Kingswood Warren, the BBC's engineering research establishment. Rag, Tag and Bobtail ('53-'55) - my personal favourite as a discerning toddler, in case you were interested - was filmed here too and from 1955 when the tin shed was available, another famous series - The Woodentops ('55-'58) - was rehearsed in it and possibly filmed in there too.
Studio E became the home of 'The Puppet Theatre' which was a generic series that included Toytown and Rubovia Legends. These were transmitted live so sadly we have no record of them now. They were written and produced by Gordon Murray, who later left the BBC to make the Trumptonshire series of animated stories.
Incidentally, E was the home of Captain Pugwash (1957-1966), a classic children's (?) programme that used cut-out painted paper and cardboard animated captions rather than puppets. They were written by John Ryan and produced by Gordon Murray. Although later made in colour on film (from 1974), the 86 original 5-minute shows were shot live with the studio's cameras. Several old-time cameramen still recall hilarious episodes involving Seaman Stains, Master Bates, Roger the cabin boy and several other dubious characters who may or may not have existed. Urban myth or truth? I've no idea.
Andrew Brownfoot designed and made scenery for some of the puppet shows made at Lime Grove. There is an interesting website called Trumptonshire Web at www.t-web.co.uk/trump_ab.htm where he describes his early career and I hope he and the webmaster won't mind me quoting a section of it here...
It is perhaps somewhat surprising that following Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, The Woodentops and Rag Tag and Bobtail, the BBC didn't carry on filming children's puppet series so they could be repeated. Picture Book too was on film and was shown over and over again as part of the Monday to Friday pattern of Watch With Mother to several generations of children throughout the '50s and '60s. Apart from a few editions of Muffin the Mule, these were the only children's series of that era to be preserved on film. All the rest went out live so are lost for ever.
The main production studios - the 50s and 60s...
From 1950 Lime Grove quickly established itself as the hub of BBC television and its four main production studios created thousands of hours of drama, entertainment, children's programmes, sport and current affairs for the next forty odd years.
Studio D opened on 21st May 1950, equipped with three ex Tel-OBs CPS Emitron Mk 1 cameras - a fourth was added later. D was mostly used at first for children's programmes. Studio G came into service later that year on 23 December 1950 with four Pye Photicons, being used mostly for light entertainment programmes. Then in February 1952 Studio H was commissioned with CPS Emitrons and used for talks programmes. Finally Studio E opened on 21st August 1953 with four Marconi Mk III Image-Orthicon cameras. (Actually not quite - the Mk IIIs were not ready in time so apparently Mk Ib camera heads were used with the Mk III CCUs for the first few months.)
With several manufacturers all producing cameras in those days it is perhaps not surprising that the BBC hedged its bets by ordering different makes for different studios. Each camera type had its strengths and weaknesses but often these were very much down to personal preference. A memo from a senior engineer (the same one who wished to avoid using the name studio 'C') explains that the reason why D was equipped with CPS Emitrons was that they were the least satisfactory of the cameras used by OBs, and that OBs had been allowed to buy a new set of Pye cameras as long as the redundant CPS gear was diverted to studio use.
A series of tests took place in July/Aug 1950, moving several shows from B at Alexandra Palace to H at Lime Grove, which had been temporarily fitted with Marconi image-orthicons to test them out. Cecil McGivern thought that CPS Emitrons gave the best pictures under ideal conditions, but when conditions were less than ideal (which was most of the time - he noted the infamous 'peel' and that captions in CPS studios had to be written in green), Pyes were more consistent. He apparently hated the Marconi I/Os, and said they were very 'unsubtle' compared to the CPS cameras. This anti-Marconi attitude amongst some BBC engineers seems to crop up time and again over a surprisingly long period.
Late in 1956 studio D had its cameras replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3 cameras. These were in turn replaced early in 1965 with 625-line EMI 203 Image Orthicon cameras (Bill Jenkin recalls operating the old cameras in January and when he returned from a course at Wood Norton in June they had been replaced by the EMIs.)
Studio E had its Marconis replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3s in 1959 and in 1964 these were replaced with 625-line EMI 203s. Studio G had its Photicon cameras replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3s in 1956 and then EMI 203s in 1964. H probably had its original cameras replaced in the late 50s but in 1964 it became the BBC's experimental colour studio and was equipped with Marconi BD848 colour cameras - more on this below.
Although it opened as the home of Children's TV, studio D soon specialised in drama. This famously included the first Dr Who episode, which was broadcast on November 23, 1963. There had been a non-TX pilot made a few weeks earlier but this was considered to have several problems - partly the script, partly performances. The character of the doctor was modified, as was his granddaughter Susan and another pilot was made. This was as rare then as it is now! The first episode was eventually recorded but only a handful of edits were allowed for cost reasons so most of it was 'as live'. When it went out it had a modestly successful reception by critics and audience. However, the figures were lower than expected but this was probably because President Kennedy had been assassinated the day before. The BBC again did something unprecedented - they transmitted the same episode the following week. This time, millions watched.
The first story was set in the stone age and frankly was a little dull. Audiences began to fall off and the show looked as though it would be axed. However, the next storyline involved the Daleks - and the rest is history.
A very good drama about the making of the first Dr Who series was broadcast on BBC2 in November 2013 called An Adventure in Space and Time. It suggested that studio D was considered a poor studio and very small. That's a little unfair. It was of course smaller than TC3 and TC4 which were both open by then but it was a reasonable size and was used by many dramas of the period. It was in fact about 73 x 55ft within firelanes. The play also implied that the set remained standing in the studio for the whole series and was rehearsed on during the week. In fact, that's very unlikely. Like all programmes at the time it would have been rehearsed in a church hall and only moved into the studio for one day each week. It's pretty certain that the set was built and lit overnight or possibly the day before, the episode was camera rehearsed during the day and it was recorded over a couple of hours or less in the evening - which makes the result on screen even more impressive.
Studio E has very little information about it from this period. However, Keith Rodgerson has informed me that there was a show actually named after the studio. He reckons that a children's programme in the late '50s in a pre-Blue Peter mould was called Studio E and was presented by Vera McKechnie. The opening title shot involved her travelling up in the old cage lift and walking into the studio.
Keith worked in the dubbing theatre in the early '70s and occasionally explored the more remote corners of the building on weekends when things were a little quieter. (I used to do exactly the same at TV Centre.) He tells me that he found a strange door near the film archive vaults on top of a fire escape and upon opening the door found a dark little room full of heating pipes which had apparently been regularly polished and gleamed like the Crown Jewels. Somebody apparently saw it as their role in life to keep those pipes clean and shiny. Only the BBC could employ somebody who felt that their contribution to the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world was to make sure that the pipes were shiny. I genuinely think that's great - so stuff you Daily Mail!
Most photos of the Grove seem to have been taken in the other three studios. Studio E was used for children's programmes including the various puppet shows but of course housed many other types of programming too.
Studio G was the BBC's largest studio for several years, producing all kinds of light entertainment, music and drama. Even when Riverside 1 opened in 1956, it had a similar floor area (although a very different shape) so both studios continued to be very important until TC3 was ready in 1960. Richard Greenough recalls...
Quatermass II, the follow-up to the highly successful The Quatermass Experiment, was made in G. It was transmitted live with filmed inserts on Saturday evenings from October 22 to November 26, 1955 and was also telerecorded enabling repeats to be shown. The opening of the alien 'pod' was achieved using a small plaster model on a grass-covered table. A live Pye Photicon took a close-up of smoke puffing out, thanks to the floor manager blowing cigarette smoke up a pipe into the pod. Who needs CGI?
Mike Du Boulay has sent me some reminiscences of this studio...
In July 1956 the first series of Hancock's Half Hour was made in studio G. The studio was quite the wrong shape to make a sitcom. The sets were spread along one long wall but because the studio was so narrow there was only room for four rows of audience seats. Even then, there was insufficient space to get a decent wideshot, the sets were so close to the audience. Very sensibly, the subsequent series were made at Riverside.
Other programmes made in G during the '60s include Music For You with Eric Robinson, Sportsview, Science and Man, Viewpoint, Blue Peter, A Tale of Two Cities, Juke Box Jury, Hereward The Wake and 30 Minute Theatre. In other words - a bit of everything.
This same studio was visited by Maurice Dale on November 11th 1967. He was just a lad at the time but with a keen interest in television and had persuaded the BBC to let him see a rehearsal and recording of Dee Time. He has written to me with a fascinating account of how the rehearsals went. It seems that guests Kathy Kirby and Gene Pitney were polite, professional and everything went very well. Maurice remembers Patrick Troughton coming into the studio, dressed in full Dr Who gear, to watch Gene Pitney rehearse. Things didn't go quite so smoothly towards the end of the morning he recalls, when Shirley Bassey arrived for her run-through. There were, it seems, quite a few changes that she wanted to the way she was being shot and lit. He has told me quite a few details which I had better not repeat here but I'm sure you get the picture.
Maurice had been to see various shows being recorded at Teddington and Wembley so he knew what other studios looked like but he was not very impressed with the appearance of Lime Grove G...
Maurice also recalls the same evening when he joined the studio audience. They were herded round the back of the building and he was astonished at what happened next. He writes...
Maurice's account may seem rather unlikely a scenario if you have never been to Lime Grove but believe me - he describes it perfectly. The 'ladder' was almost certainly one of the rickety iron fire escape staircases. I assume that someone had decided to bring the audience in through the fire escape rather than via the maze of corridors and staircases inside the building. Incidentally - he does go on to say that Miss Bassey's performance of Hey Big Spender for the recording of the show was 'outstanding.'
Studio G was the home of Top of the Pops for several years from 1967. Of course, other programmes continued to be made here too. According to engineer Peter Harris it had 'the hottest, dirtiest apparatus room in the universe.'
It had opened in 1951 with 4 Pye Photicon cameras. These were replaced in 1956 with CPS Emitrons and in 1964 with EMI 203/9 625-line cameras.
Studio G was used to cover for studios E and D respectively during 1970 when they were being colourised. After that, for a few years it didn't actually close - it just gently faded away. For a while it was used occasionally as a training studio. It was then officially closed around 1972 although the equipment remained installed.
However, due to some industrial action at TVC affecting setting and striking scenery in that building it was coaxed back into action once again in 1974 for a Blue Peter. (This date has been confirmed by a sound assistant and cameraman who both worked on the show.) Apparently, towards the end of transmission a puff of smoke was seen in the apparatus room and the pictures went to black. The show ended with sound only and the studio was never used again. I remember exploring the deserted floor and the old control rooms in 1976 soon after first joining the Beeb and rather spooky it was too.
In the late 1970s a film dubbing suite was built on the studio floor.
During the 1980s the floor was taken over by the BBC's Studio Capital Projects Department (SCPD). These were the people who designed and installed the refurb of each studio in turn, either specifying equipment from manufacturers or even making it themselves. To check that it would all work, a mock-up of each studio gallery and apparatus room was built and all the equipment installed and tested before dismantling it and fitting it in the actual studio. Quite extraordinary. You can imagine how many months this all took and how much it must have cost. Nowadays of course, everything is bought off the shelf and studios are refitted in a matter of weeks.
One day in 1984, intrepid vision mixer Ian Trill went exploring and took the photograph below. It's a long exposure photo - it was much darker than it appears. It is taken from gantry level, looking down onto the ceiling of the SCPD 'cage' where they were working on their next studio refurb. The studio floor is thus about 10 feet lower than the surface we can see. He says he was particularly taken by the ghostly expanse of the old studio looming above the rooms below. On a later occasion he returned and climbed a ladder into the roof - he found himself in a huge space with a pitched roof, full of cables. These were the countless miles of video cable that looped back and forth, ensuring that the distance of every cable from every source to and from the studios in the building was the same length so they were 'timed' perfectly. Creepily, at the far end of the space, in the dark ahead was a lit-up equipment bay, gently humming. Shades of Quatermass indeed!
Studio H, which opened in 1952, was the smallest of the production studios at the Grove. Initially it was used for 'talks' programmes and the first Grandstand came from here in 1958 but before then it was the home of The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 - 1957. This was the BBC's first soap, although not at all like EastEnders. It was very firmly rooted in the studio and could hardly be described as a heavy drama, relying instead on the petty squabbles of ordinary family life. Nevertheless, it was very popular and ran solidly for three years until the exhausted scriptwriters, father and son Michael and Roland Pertwee, very bravely asked for a short break. Instead, to their surprise and considerable disappointment the BBC closed down the series altogether.
Other programmes used the studio too of course - including Tonight and schools programmes. However, by 1964 the BBC had decided that it was no longer needed for general programming as several studios at TV Centre were now open so it was converted into the experimental colour studio. Much of the colour equipment was moved here from Alexandra Palace and several years of tests began.
John Winn has written to me - he worked for Marconi's Colour Camera Development Group and tells me that they updated the two colour cameras the BBC owned to the latest spec. This was based on some cameras they had built for a 'Smith, Kline and French' OB unit which was used for medical training purposes.
In 1967, studio H was converted into a sound only recording studio. It was known as the Television Music Studio (TMS) and became busy recording everything from theme tunes to backing tracks for variety shows. Previously the dubbing theatre at Riverside had been used for this work.
Lime Grove became the home of many classic TV shows over its forty year history. Several long-running series began here in the '50s and '60s including What's My Line? (from '51), Sooty (from '52), Panorama (from '53), Dixon of Dock Green (from '55), This Is Your Life (from '55), The Sky at Night (from '57), Blue Peter (from '58), Grandstand (from '58), Steptoe and Son (from '62) Dr Who (from '63), and Britain's first soap, the Grove Family ('54-'57) - named after the road the studios were located in. (Bizarrely, the official BBC history website states that this was made at Alexandra Palace.)
Blue Peter, incidentally, was originally commissioned for just seven weeks and each programme only ran for 15 minutes. It was then increased to thirty minutes and adopted a regular pattern of studio G on Mondays and D on Thursdays before moving to various studios at TV Centre and occasionally Riverside Studios in the mid '60s. Finally, in 2011 it was moved to a much smaller studio in Salford when it disappeared from BBC1. That would never have happened under Biddy Baxter!
Tonight - the highly popular tea-time current affairs programme moved to the Grove in 1960. It ran from 1957-1965, with the first three years coming from Marconi's Viking Studio in Kensington. As something of a contrast, as mentioned above, Top of the Pops transferred to the Grove in 1967 after its first three years in Manchester.
Many dramas were made here too, including a brilliantly shocking version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ('54). It was transmitted live on a Sunday night and repeated - again live - four days later. This second broadcast drew the largest TV audience since the coronation. The Newcomers was a popular bi-weekly soap that ran from 1965 to 1969 - mostly made in studio D.
Ian Dow sent me a couple of recollections of his time at the Grove...
The '70s onwards...
With G and H closed, Studios D and E were the home of several long-running programmes during the '70s and '80s. These included Nationwide ('69-'83), Newsnight (from '80), Breakfast Time (from '83), The Late Show (from '88) and even Kilroy (from '87) was here, to coin a phrase.
These two studios were the only ones converted to colour with EMI 2001 cameras - in 1970. They were replaced with Link 110s in 1981 and 1982 respectively. The 1981 refurbishment of studio D also included the first example of a Grass Valley vision mixer in a BBC production studio - a 1600/3F. Its fancy wipes and effects were made full use of by Chock-A-Block - a popular children's series that occupied the studio straight after the refurb. The show was made by Michael Cole and featured 'Chockabloke' Fred Harris and 'Chockagirl' Carol Leader. It was highly innovative in its use of colourful graphics.
For all of the 70s and into the 80s studio E was used on weekdays for Nationwide (from Sep '69 - Aug '83) and on Saturdays for Grandstand. As mentioned above, E became colour equipped in 1970. Actually, not quite. E's camera 5 was a black and white vidicon that was used for racing captions during Grandstand. Many a happy hour was spent by camera 5 operators in the corner of the studio - me included - having a nice quiet day whilst watching a young John McCririck (for it was he) rushing round the studio floor shouting at all and sundry because the racing results weren't ready to be shown. Highly entertaining.
In those days captions were made by hand. They were painted by graphic artists in white lettering on black card about 12 x 9 inches. The cards were slotted into a six-sided drum that was rotated manually in front of camera 5. All we cameramen had to do was sip our tea and look as if we were focusing it occasionally. Happy days.
There was another programme that made much use of the skills of a graphic artist - The Sky at Night. The show began in April 1957 and is still the longest-running regularly broadcast television series in the world. (It can now be found on BBC4 and is still just as informative and entertaining.) It used whatever studio was available for its monthly broadcast - the set usually consisting of a black floor, some black drapes, a couple of chairs and maybe a PBU (photo blow-up) or two. In those days the programme used some beautifully designed captions that animated and revealed objects and lettering. These employed a complex system of sliding strips of black paper and card and were designed by one Alfred Wurmser. Any form of animating captions were thus often called "wurmsers" back in the Lime Grove days...
Patrick Moore's autobiography includes a reference and I hope he won't mind me copying a part of it...
'In pursuit of "props" we went to see Alfred Wurmser, a charming Viennese who lived in Goldhawk Road. He had a dog named Till, half-Alsatian and half-wolf, who weighed about a ton but was under the strange delusion that he was a lap-dog. Alfred made moving diagrams out of cardboard, and he soon became enthusiastic, so that we continued to use the "wurmsers" until he decided to return to his native Austria. The original title of our programme was to be Star Map, but we changed it to The Sky at Night almost at once - to make sure that the new title went into the Radio Times.'
In January 1983 Breakfast Time began in E and ran until October 1989. (In 1988 it transferred to TV Centre). Its immediate success surprised nearly everyone - not least the owners of TV-am. Introduced by Frank Bough, it made celebrities of people like Selina Scott, Russell Grant, Francis Wilson and of course sports presenter David Icke, who in later years had something of a career change. Grandstand moved to TC2 around this time.
A great deal was written about Frank Bough when he died in October 2020. Most very complimentary but sadly not all. He had a private life that was surprising, considering his on-screen persona. I was a cameraman on many shows that he presented back in the late '70s and found him utterly professional and always courteous and friendly to the crew. However, a week after he died, Selina Scott wrote a piece about him that I found deeply shocking. It seems his attitude to others on his presenting team and women in particular may not have been quite what we all assumed. I'll say no more here but do look up what she wrote. It's important that these attitudes from some men to women in the media are opened up and lessons are learned. Let's just say that my view of Mr Bough is now quite different to how it was when I was working with him.
D was used in the seventies and 80s for shows like 24 Hours and Midweek but I remember working on several children's programmes in that studio too. Back in the 70s and 80s, Whistle Test sometimes came from D. Newsnight was based there too for a while and I remember spending hours as a cameraman hanging about doing nothing and trying not to get too tipsy before the evening transmission - which could sometimes be surprisingly hairy!
Someone who now works in the US has sent me some memories which I cannot possibly reproduce here in detail. He worked on Midweek in the early 1970s. He recalls there being freely available drink in the Midweek and Nationwide green rooms. Apparently he would occasionally retire with a female colleague to the unused control room of studio G where much gin would be consumed. Ah - the BBC in the 1970s.
No history of the BBC's studios - especially Lime Grove - would be complete without a mention of Mother. Mother was the name by which everyone (including MPs) knew Joan Marsden MBE. She was a highly regarded floor manager who worked mostly on current affairs programmes and everyone held her in high regard - especially politicians. Nobody would dare disobey any instruction from her - even prime ministers. However, she was no dragon - she actually had a keen sense of humour - it was just that everyone, including royalty, knew that she was in charge and could cope with any emergency on a live show. She was a floor manager between 1960 and 1979 and worked on all the main current affairs shows including Panorama and of course general elections. Peter Neill (thanks to the tech-ops website) recalls the occasion when a director asked what the interesting pattern was on camera 2. Mother replied 'I think he's pointing at my bum.' She was wearing a tweed skirt. However, being the kind of gal she was, she stood still during the closing credits, allowing her nether regions to become the background to the roller. Mother died in 2004, aged 84.
Geoff Posner has sent me a recollection of the time he worked as floor assistant on 24 Hours...
'One day, the programme started with (let's just call the highly regarded, now deceased presenter 'LK') opening the programme and then the whole of the rest of it was one long filmed item, coming back to LK at the end. Now my job on this show used to be to get from the production office 4 chicken legs and a glass with three fingers of whisky in it. I soon learned that three fingers referred to a horizontal measure, and not to dipping three fingers into it. Anyway, LK (and I therefore) was able to have four glasses of the stuff during the filmed item. When Mother cued him to say goodnight, he leant forward to put the glass down and fell on the floor, having to say his goodnight from there. I read Mother's Log afterwards and she described the programme as "V. Hairy".'
There was a big shake-up in news and current affairs during the early 1980s. They were merged to form one department and Lime Grove became the BBC's 'Topical Production Centre.' For the first time they had their own staff, separate from Television Centre. (Previously, the studios at Lime Grove had been treated as no different, crew-wise, from any at TV Centre.) Several TV Centre camera and sound staff took the plunge and moved to Lime Grove on a permanent basis - working in the studios and receiving training to become location camera crews making current affairs programmes that were based at Lime Grove. 'Topical' programmes made here at this time included Newsnight, The Money Programme, London Plus, Breakfast Time and Watchdog.
John Constable has reminded me that some time later the name of Lime Grove changed to the LGCAPC. This was considered to be an improvement on 'TPC' (of course!) and stood for 'Lime Grove Current Affairs Production Centre.'
In 1988 everything changed again and the existing Lime Grove crews were reabsorbed into the BBC's News department around the time Breakfast Time, Newsnight, Newsround (which was never at LG) and Watchdog moved into TC2. That studio was suitably equipped for current affairs after its stint as the main sports studio (all those lines and comms in and out of the studio were perfect for current affairs). At the same time TC5 was refurbished to become the new sports studio.
Lime Grove then continued for a while using crews from TV Centre again. Kilroy, which had begun in 1987, moved from D to E - until the Grove was closed. (After that, the show moved briefly to TC6, then to Teddington, then from 1999-2002 to studio A at BBC Elstree Centre, then back to Teddington until the programme's closure in 2004. As if anybody cares.) A brand new daily arts programme was created known as The Late Show. It was broadcast on most weeknights from D on BBC2.
The Late Show introduced several new presenters and gave an opportunity to new directors too - who were encouraged to forget the tired old ways of doing things and try 'experimental' methods of shooting interviews. Ho hum. I well remember an occasion when a new director instructed every camera to crab left each time it was cut up. About a minute into the interview all the cameras were jammed on one side of the set and he couldn't understand why he didn't have a shot of the interviewer. There was much shouting on talkback but it didn't really help.
The show was a great opportunity for the younger crew members to get some useful training so there was lots of 'acting up' and the senior operators often went home. That's how things were in those days. I gained quite a bit of lighting experience. I was a lighting vision supervisor (console operator) at the time but the LD was usually happy to let me have a go. If it all went horribly wrong I could simply say it was 'art'.
One show involved my illuminating a tumbler of water on a glass shelf which was fixed to a white scenery flat. This was apparently a celebrated art installation called 'An Oak Tree' and had been on display in a London gallery. Believe it or not there was a security guard there to make sure nobody stole it.
The production designer had very specific instructions on how high it was to be mounted - the shelf was to be 253 cm above the ground and the water to a level stipulated by the artist. However, where to fix it on the flat laterally? Dead centre or to the left or right of centre? If so, by how much? We soon realised that we could make this glass of water look quite different depending on the angle and size of the shot. My problem was how to light it? Soft light or hard? From above or the side? How many shadows? One? Two? None? White light or coloured? I did wonder quite who was having the last laugh at the time. Still, it kept us pretty busy for an hour or two one rainy afternoon.
No doubt this particular artwork was the climax to years of strenuous intellectual and artistic rigour leading to the final product, and our lame efforts to present it on television were probably greeted with dismay by the artist.
(According to Wikipedia, An Oak Tree was created by Michael Craig-Martin. He has explained that 'the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of a glass of water.' Of course. In case you wish to view this masterpiece, the original is in the National Gallery of Australia but fortunately for us Poms, an artist's copy is on loan to the Tate from a private collector. Damien Hurst has apparently said 'That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture. I still can't get it out of my head.' Maybe he saw it first on The Late Show. No doubt it was the way I lit it that created such an impression.)
When LG closed The Late Show transferred to TC7 at TV Centre for a few more years and eventually led to Later With Jules and Late Review.
The studios were closed in 1991. The last programme made here was an edition of The Late Show from D. Actually, not quite. Ian Hillson recalls...
On 26th August 1991, a month after the studios were closed forever, the BBC transmitted a special day of programming called The Lime Grove Story featuring examples of the many programmes and films that had been made at Lime Grove in its 76 years as a place of film and television production.
The studios had acquired an extraordinary history as film studios for thirty-four years and television studios for forty-two years. After the BBC left, the buildings were demolished, the rubble used as hardcore for the widening of the M25, and a small housing estate now occupies the site. The roads are named after the film companies that once used the studios but no physical record of the BBC's work in Lime Grove remains. I suppose nobody would want to live in a road called Quatermass Court or Steptoe Street.
Incidentally - a couple of people have written to me informing me that the building was in fact riddled with asbestos. This had to be dealt with by a specialist company prior to the demolition. The cost of sanitising it whilst the building was in place would apparently have been far too great - hence, despite opposition from some quarters, demolition was the only option. But - let's be honest - sad as it was, the studios had come to the end of their useful life. Nobody ever said that about Television Centre. At least, nobody who ever worked there.
(revised Sepember 2019)
In the early 1950s TV light entertainment was very much based on the variety shows that still occupied theatres up and down the country. It made sense therefore for the BBC to take over the ownership of a theatre where they could televise the popular variety stage acts of the day. Just round the corner from Lime Grove was the Empire, Shepherds Bush - a grand old theatre designed by Frank Matcham and built for Oswald Stoll in 1903. It had been very successful in its day - hosting many stars of the music hall era and staging weekly variety performances and revues until the early 1950s. However, it is a big theatre and it was becoming more difficult to attract audiences large enough to fill it.
According to BBC files, they had been looking at purchasing either the Empire or the King's Theatre Hammersmith. The King's was in better condition but was only leasehold. The Empire was freehold and much closer to Lime Grove and the proposed TV Centre in Wood Lane. The King's was a good deal cheaper, at £85,000 but they bought the Empire for £120,000 - having negotiated a reduction from the asking price of £150,000.
The BBC bought it in 1953, opening in October with Variety Parade, starring Max Bygraves and the Tiller Girls. Within a very short time its stage and auditorium had become a familiar sight on the nation's screens. Early regular shows included What's My Line?, The Black and White Minstrel Show and The Billy Cotton Band Show. This show ran from 1956 - 1968 under various names with its line-up of regular performers (Kathy Kay, Russ Conway, Alan Breeze, Mrs Mills, Ted Rogers, Roy Hudd etc.) and guest stars like Tom Jones and Cliff Richard, hosted by the old wartime bandleader with his catchphrase call 'wakey-waaaaakey!' (There is an extraordinary 8mm film available to view on www.tech-ops.co.uk/page107.html. It was filmed unofficially in TV Theatre by one of the camera crew during rehearsals and is well worth a look.)
In December 1953 a music show was made here, with Ray Martin and his orchestra. This featured a large string section, which had a similar sound to that of Mantovani. This was normally achieved by placing a microphone close to the violins and playing the sound into an echo chamber, the reverberation being added back into the mix. At TV Theatre there was no echo chamber so the upper circle Gents toilet was used instead. Everything went well except for a strange random hissing noise noticed by the sound supervisor from time to time. After some intensive technical investigation it was discovered that the cistern for the urinals was going off automatically every ten minutes or so and this was contributing to the musical effect. It is not recorded whether Ray Martin's orchestra made use of this added depth to their performance henceforth as a regular feature.
Perhaps most famously, from 1955 - 1984 the building regularly reverberated to the deafening screams of children as the words 'It's Friday night, it's five to five and it's Crackerjack' were heard. Each generation of children grew up with their favourite presenters including Eamonn Andrews, Michael Aspel, Leslie Crowther, Peter Glaze, Ed Stewart, Bernie Clifton, Don Maclean, Stu Francis and the Crankies. The Basil Brush Show was also a popular kids show that ran from 1968-1980 although some of these series were made at TV Centre.
Juke Box Jury was a user of TV Theatre from 1959-1967. The guest panel and host David Jacobs were on the stage of course but each week the audience in the stalls featured prominently as the cameras slowly panned across them trying to look interested in the record that was being played.
From the early sixties to the mid eighties - this was the period of light entertainment shows headed by popular performers of the day such as Cilla Black, Lulu, Petula Clarke, Nana Mouskouri, Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard and Val Doonican, who made his Val Doonican Music Show each year from 1964-1985. Many of the hosts of these variety shows seemed to appear regularly as guests on each other's programmes. Often singers performed whilst young dancers gyrated around them in bizarre choreographic styles that were considered 'with it.' One of these dance troupes was called 'The Young Generation' and extraordinary as it may seem now, they became so popular that they ended up with a series in their own right. Their choreographer was Nigel Lithgoe - who went on to become a TV director/producer and later, head of light entertainment at LWT. To most of the public however, he became infamous as a judge on Popstars.
A high spot of the early '70s was when The Osmonds made a special for BBCtv in Television Theatre. The building was under siege as thousands of pubescent girls surrounded it, spilling onto Shepherds Bush Green and preventing anyone from entering or exiting for the entire day. Those who were there talk about it in hushed tones like the survivors of a terrible accident or natural disaster.
Of course, TV Theatre was also the home of the Generation Game from 1971-1981, at first with Bruce Forsyth and then Larry Grayson. In 1984 the Wogan show began broadcasting live three nights a week and this occupied the studio on weekdays right up to its closure in 1991. On Sundays for much of the year during the eighties That's Life! had a regular booking. Other programmes such as Whistle Test also used the stage as a studio from time to time.
Trevor Parkins has written to me to point out that in 1982 TV Theatre was out of service for 7 months for a major update to the technical installation. Link 125 cameras were installed along with a new vision mixer and sound mixer. TVT reopened in September with Des O'Connor Tonight. (I must admit, I had assumed his shows were always on ITV and made at Teddington - but no. He was with the BBC from 1977 to 1982 - after that his show was broadcast by ITV from 1983 till 1999. There were then a few specials until 2002. Dear old Des died in November 2020. Lovely bloke - I lit an edition of Harry Hill's Alien Fun Capsule at TLS in 2015 when he was a guest aged 83 and he was still on top form.)
In its day the Television Theatre on Shepherds Bush Green was a wonderful place to work and produced some of the nation's favourite shows. I was lucky enough to work there at various times as crane tracker, crane swinger, cameraman, vision operator (racks), vision supervisor (console op) and for a couple of years as LD on a few Wogan shows. For a theatre lover like myself I really appreciated the unique mix of theatre and TV in that lovely old building. My claim to fame is that I was the first LD to use Varilites there in May 1991, a few months before the theatre was closed. I was lighting a Wogan show with MC Hammer as the main guest. His record company wanted his performance to look spectacular so paid for extra lighting. I was told to spend as much as I wanted! I filled every available space with Varilite VL2s, 8-light Molefays, PARcans, aeros, howie battens and anything else I could think of. I have no idea what it looked like but it certainly wasn't the Billy Cotton Band Show.
One little anecdote to end with. Nigel Southworth has written to me - he was a 21 year old security guard at the Theatre in the late '80s. He often had to do the night shift where he was of course expected to patrol the building guarding against intruders. Unfortunately, he had to move on as he managed to lose the keys to the building for a whole week. They were eventually found down the back of the sofa in Mr Wogan's dressing room. He admits now after all these years that one morning he woke up on the sofa in a bit of a daze - 'clueless and keyless'.
Sadly it all had to end when thanks to the great cutbacks at the beginning of the nineties it was decided to close the Theatre along with a number of other BBC premises. The last show was made there in 1991. TC1 at Television Centre was 'upgraded' with new audience rostra and improved entrance for the audience to give it more of a theatrical feel (really?) and the Wogan show moved up the road. The new weekly version of the show only lasted a few months and Mr Wogan (as he was then) moved back to a very successful career in radio.
Of course, the theatre itself still exists and is now a very popular venue for live music. The auditorium has been redecorated - the 1960s plywood cladding round the front of the circle removed to reveal Matcham's glorious plasterwork, the band room demolished and and the upper circle reopened. The stage has been restored to its former shape and size, with a soundproof 'box' built within it to reduce disturbance to neighbours. However, above the roof of the box the BBC lighting bars dangle uselessly and the old wall boxes are still there, connected to sound and vision control rooms that are long gone.
In March 1997 part of Comic Relief was broadcast from the Shepherds Bush Empire and it was unrecognisable. It looked huge (and beautiful!) and indicated perhaps that with a bit of imagination - and money - it might yet have had an extended life as a unique TV studio specialising in televising music and comedy. Graham Rimmington was the lighting director for that event and he wrote to me with an amusing little story to round off the history of this studio that shows how quickly things become misunderstood or forgotten...
During the 1956/57 refurbishment of Television Theatre, production moved to the King's Theatre, Hammersmith.
This theatre was another old music hall that had been built in 1902 and had an original capacity of around 1,500. The theatre was to be found in Hammersmith Road, on the corner with Rowan Road, W14. The BBC took it over in 1954 and it was put on the market by them in 1958, selling it the following year.
Mike Jones kindly informed me that a competition that sounds very much like a cross between the Eurovision Song Contest and The X-Factor took place in 1956. It had the catchy title of Festival of British Popular Songs and the final was transmitted from here on 22nd October. The winning song was 'Everybody Falls in Love With Someone' and was sung by Dennis Lotis - a useful fact for the next pub quiz? Shirley Abicaire came second - no doubt sporting her zither.
A couple of other shows made here were Great Scott it's Maynard starring Terry Scott and Bill Maynard and at least one edition of This Is Your Life in December 1956.
The theatre was demolished in 1963.
During the second major refurb of Television Theatre in 1968/'69 production moved to The Golders Green Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome was built in 1913 by Bertie Crewe and became a successful touring theatre, rather than a music hall as all London's other TV theatres were. Its capacity was about 1,500. For a number of years it was famous amongst other things for its annual pantomime.
Oddly, there is no mention of it in any BBC Handbook - however, it was in their possession by 1968. It was converted into a TV studio with an audience of 700 - very large for a studio but of course less than half its original capacity. The stalls floor was levelled and control rooms built beneath the first balcony. The upper section of the fly tower and part of the wings were converted into a rehearsal room, band room, offices and air conditioning plant.
It is astonishing how much money was spent on the building in making these conversions if the intention was only to provide a short-term replacement for Television Theatre. Possibly they thought that both would continue in use for some time, or maybe money in those days was no object. (I suspect the latter.)
Series and one-off specials made at Golders Green included The Monday Show, Dee Time, Val Doonican Show, Dave Allen Show, Basil Brush, Crackerjack, Ken Dodd, Rolf Harris with The Young Generation, Lulu, Cliff (with Olivia Newton John), Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker, Topol and Cilla. Phew! Those certainly were the golden years of BBC light entertainment.
Golders Green saw all the big names in front of (and behind) the camera Producer/directors like Stewart Morris, Michael Hurll, John Ammonds, Yvonne Littlewood and Johnnie Stewart, and lighting directors like Dickie Higham and Ritchie Richardson were regulars plus all the top LE crews. Bob Marsland later to become a celebrated Nationwide director, started life as a racks op at Golders Green, and some of the big names in LE in future decades were humble floor assistants in those days.
Chris Jones - ex-Golders Green studio engineer - has written to me with his recollections...
For a year or two Golders Green continued in use even when Television Theatre was back in service and was used amongst other things for a regular chat show (The Monday Show?) It was certainly still in use in October 1969 when the Dave Allen Show was recorded.
In 1972 it became a radio studio and was particularly popular as a concert venue for all kinds of music. Many top rock bands played there and recorded sessions for Radio1 - especially for John Peel's show. The earliest I can trace is Queen in September 1973.
The Sight and Sound In Concert series used the Hippodrome as a unique TV and radio venue using an OB unit. The show was made in 1977 and 1978 - every Thursday during the series, performances by the latest up-and-coming bands were recorded and the concert transmitted on Radio1 and BBC2. In those old analogue days it was possible to transmit the programme on both networks and for the high quality stereo sound on the radio to be in perfect sync with the pictures.
In more recent years the Hippodrome was the home of the BBC Concert Orchestra - the large stalls area providing plenty of room as can be seen below.
The BBC announced its intention to leave the theatre in 2003. In August 2004, radio comedy and other audience shows moved to the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House and the Concert Orchestra now performs at the Royal Festival Hall and various venues around the country.
During 2004 the theatre was visited by the Save London's Theatres Campaign and they rather optimistically noted that the building was in 'generally quite good condition.' However, there had been some damage to the plasterwork in the auditorium. They were nevertheless impressed to see that a partial ceiling collapse had been repaired by the BBC at considerable cost. (All those Sight and Sound concerts rattling the decorative mouldings, no doubt.)
Since then, it does seem that the theatre's condition must have deteriorated rapidly as later descriptions were not at all good. In fact, even in 2004 it was put on English Heritage's list of buildings at risk.
Once the BBC closed it, the future of the Hippodrome became very uncertain. They put it up for sale in December 2004 but there were no buyers. There was a strong local campaign to see it retained as a theatre but the cost of restoring it and repairing it was deterring potential purchasers. Perhaps understandably, the BBC intended to make as much money as possible from its sale but Barnet Borough Council refused an application to partially redevelop the site to include flats, commercial outlets and offices, and gave the BBC two years to find an appropriate buyer.
Interested parties included the Central School of Ballet and a Danish dance company but in March 2007 a short term lease was taken out by the El Shaddai International Christian Group, who wished to turn the theatre into a place of worship. A change of use was agreed by the local council and it is now still used regularly as a church by this organisation. The ownership of the building passed to El Shaddai and they carried out the repairs and renovations necessary to restore and preserve it.
The Hippodrome appeared on BBC2 again in December 2013 as the El Shaddai Church was the venue for the gospel round of Gareth Malone's workplace choir contest Sing While You Work. The building looked great and the choirs sounded fantastic!
(Revised July 2020)
The film years...
Riverside Studios were (and in fact still are, in a new form) on the north bank of the Thames near Hammersmith bridge. They began life as an industrial building in the 1800s. In 1903, it was bought by 'Gwynnes', an engineering and foundry works specialising in manufacturing water pumps. The company was taken over in 1927 by Foster & Co, developers of the first tanks - who subsequently moved to Lincoln in 1930.
The studio areas were originally open-sided constructions supported on a steel frame. Later, walls were built, windows added and the whole area enclosed. Along Crisp Road was a row of tiny cottages and between them and the large sheds was a three-storey Victorian warehouse/office building which later formed part of the studio site.
In 1933 Triumph Films bought the site and converted it into a relatively compact film studio complex with two stages (1 - 105 x 75ft and 2 - 80 x 60ft) a large dubbing theatre and various other supporting areas. The internal walls of the cottages were knocked out to create a workshop area.
To form the larger stage a wall and steel columns had to be demolished between the two 'sheds'. A box truss was inserted into the roof structure to support the area where the two roofs joined. The roof line at this point was thus relatively complex and drainage could very occasionally be a problem in heavy downpours. In the summer of 2005 I saw rain come pouring in to studio 1 during a particularly spectacular storm.
Following construction there was a short period of modestly successful film-making but around 1937 it was bought by Julius Hagen, the owner of Twickenham Studios, with the idea of using Riverside as an overflow for making quota quickies. However, by 1939 his company had gone into liquidation. The studios were purchased by famous song and dance man Jack Buchanan, although he did not appear in any films made here. Around this time the site was known as Hammersmith Studios.
One source states that the studios were 'bursting with activity' during the war. In fact John Logie Baird's son (apologies for name-dropping) Malcolm Baird has written to inform me that The Mancunian Film Corporation used them to make Lancashire comedies including Somewhere in the Camp (1942), Somewhere on Leave (1942) Somewhere in Civvies (1943) (I spot a kind of 'Carry On' trend here) and Demobbed (1944). This company presumably rented the premises from Jack Buchanan. After the war, Mancunian moved to a cheaper studio in Manchester and continued to make the same sort of films until the late 1950s. Their films were apparently aimed purely at the north west market and only shown in cinemas in that region. According to present day reviewers the 'B' movies made by Mancunian were pretty grim.
In fact I am informed that the Manchester studio they used was the converted church the BBC later occupied and used as its TV studio - the one Top of the Pops first began in.
Despite the previous account, another historical source claims that for most of the war the studios were hardly used, except for a little overflow work from other places - such as the model work for One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (I can recommend the DVD - the model of the German town being bombed is very realistic. It must have been huge.) Towards the end of the war and into the post-war period some well-regarded films were made here such as The Seventh Veil, which filled British cinemas for no less than ten years.
In 1944-45, none other than John Logie Baird was taken on by Jack Buchanan as a consultant to Hammersmith Studios working on a 'cinema television' project. This was an invention of Baird's that would enable live TV to be transmitted to cinemas where it would be shown on a large screen. We take this sort of thing for granted now, with boxing matches, operas and plays from the National Theatre being shown live in cinemas, but in those days the idea was revolutionary. Sadly for Baird, it was not taken up by the industry at this time except in an experimental way.
However, in the astonishing way that these things sometimes happen - 63 years later, on 8th March 2008 the BBC held a live screening of a rugby match at Riverside Studios. The unique aspect of this was that it was in 3D and was the first live 3D high definition screening of a sporting event via satellite in the world. Three camera rigs using pairs of Sony HDC-950 cameras were used. The audience viewed the screen with lightweight 3D glasses and the result was said to be 'a true immersive like-being-there sensation.' Just before he died in 1946, Baird had been working on all these technologies - 3D television, high definition television and large screen TV for displaying sport in cinemas. It is astonishing that it was over sixty years before the work he started was eventually adopted. I wonder how many of those involved realised the significance of holding that experiment in these studios.
In 1948 Jack Buchanan sold the studios to the new owners of Twickenham Studios - Alliance Films. The two sites provided sufficient studio space for a number of successful movies. The period from about 1945-1954 was the most productive in Riverside's history. However, the decline in film-making affected these studios like all others. In the early 1950s studio time began to be hired by the BBC film unit and by the end of 1954 movie-making had ended here. The last feature film made at Riverside was Father Brown, starring Alec Guinness.
The BBC years...
In 1954 the BBC took over ownership and decided to convert the two stages into TV studios. Studio 1 was to be a replacement for each of the Lime Grove Studios as they were taken out of service for refurbishment and upgrading with the latest equipment. Studio 2 would simply become additional studio space. However, the studios would also form an experimental test bed for the design of Television Centre. The layout of galleries and the suspension, dimming and control of lighting - all of these were tried out at Riverside.
Considerable alterations were made to the buildings. The row of cottages along Crisp Road were demolished and a box-shaped construction was erected which on the ground floor contained a workshop and scenery dock, dressing rooms and a boiler room with a ventilation plant above.
The two studios were named R1 and R2. R1 was 6,000 sq ft gross which was approx 68 x 65 metric feet within firelanes. R2 was 4,400 sq ft gross or about 62 x 52 metric feet within firelanes. The conversion of studio 2 was relatively simple. It was within the structure of one of the original sheds and the roof steels were considered strong enough to support the proposed lighting grid. The roof was thus a complex web of old original steel supports dating from when the roof was first constructed, some (one assumes) from its time as a film stage and below all that the huge red-painted I-beams installed by the BBC. The weight of all that lot must have been colossal - before you hung anything on it.
Studio 2's control rooms were constructed within the warehouse building that joined the studio. Windows of course were installed as in those days a clear view of the studio floor from the control rooms was considered essential.
Studio 1 was much more of a problem. The control rooms at first floor level would have to occupy some of the space within the existing film stage but would be extended outwards through the stage wall to the site boundary. Dressing rooms and make-up areas would be built beneath them. However, the roof construction was not strong enough to support the TV lighting grid so a separate ground supported structure was designed. This would not impose any load on the roof steels which would remain an entirely separate construction.
Huge pits had to be dug to form the foundations for the steel supports. Many problems were encountered - partly through having to clear buried iron and steel waste from the old foundry days and partly due to the close proximity of the river. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that so much effort went into creating a studio that was always intended to be temporary. Nobody back then would have imagined that the studios would still be producing television programmes up to 2014.
The lighting grid was for its day revolutionary. 79 motorised hoists were installed in R1, 62 in R2. These consisted of a aluminium bar, 8ft 8ins in length (why that exact length?) with the ends 2 feet apart from the next hoist. They were spaced across the studio 6 feet apart. The normal rig was 4 lamps - two 2K fresnels and two 'scoops.' These were round softlights specially developed for the purpose. The 2Ks too were specially ordered as they had to be much lighter in weight than the previous very sturdy model in normal film and TV use. It was also possible to hang another bar a few feet below the lights. This was said to be for additional lights or scenery. Hard to see quite how that would have worked.
The hoists were all removed after the BBC left the site but their fixing points could still be seen in the grids of both studios. The frame and pulleys for one of them was directly in front of the theatre lighting control position on the gantry in Studio 2 and (as I noted whilst working on a play in January 2010) a label proudly displays the fact that it was made in Cardiff. I have been informed that a lot of metalwork including the copper from the hoist motors was allegedly stripped out of these studios during the time the building was owned by Hammersmith council but before it reopened as an arts centre. It would appear that this was not done with the official knowledge of the council. The fact that the council's refuse depot was sited next door was of course purely coincidental.
Long bars similar to this were duly installed in the first five studios at TV Centre (TC2, TC3, TC4, TC5, TC7) having proved their worth here at Riverside. They were also installed in studios D, E and G at Lime Grove and at TV Theatre as each of those were refurbished in the late '50s/early '60s.
There were several types of dimmers available at the time. It was not known which was the most suitable for TV use so R1 was fitted with 166 variable resistor and auto-transformer dimmers, remotely controlled by an electro-magnetic clutch system. R2 was fitted with 96 electronic xenon thyratron dimmers. Both studios had a Strand type 'C' console enabling a limited form of recording and recalling lighting states. Perhaps surprisingly, the old resistor dimmers were preferred and the first four studios at TV Centre (TC2 - TC5) were duly fitted with these. (TC2 and TC3 still have huge, almost empty dimmer rooms, built to fit all the original mechanical dimmers.)
The best position for the lighting console was not agreed by all in those days. Some felt it should be in the 'vision' gallery which is where the director and vision mixer sat. Others felt it should be in the apparatus room where the vision operator racked the cameras. Clearly, the lighting affects the camera exposure so arguably it made sense for the two operators to sit side by side (as is current practice.) However, in those days there was no lighting director - the lighting was the responsibility of the Technical Operations Manager (TOM). He sat close to the director in the 'vision' gallery so one can understand why he would want to have the console operator nearby rather than on the end of a phone. The experimental solution at Riverside was to have the console in the apparatus room in R1 and in the production (or 'vision') gallery in R2.
The studios were fitted with Marconi Mk III cameras. There were 4 cameras in R1 and only 3 in R2. Each studio had an MPRC Mole crane and a Vinten Heron dolly as well as the usual Vinten HP peds. R2 opened on 4th June 1956 and R1 on 25th September 1956. In their day these were the most technically advanced studios in the country - and considering that the BBC had wide resources for R&D in those days - possibly the most advanced in the world.
The original cameras were in turn replaced with Pye Mk5 cameras in the early 1960s. In some people's opinion, for picture quality these were the best cameras of their generation. However - they were not loved by everyone. Mitch Mitchell sent me his opinion...
Popular programmes made here included Six-Five Special, Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green and Dr Who. Six-Five Special began in 1957 and was a live music show with artists playing mostly rock-'n-roll and skiffle. It started at Lime Grove - shortly afterwards transferring to Riverside. The show was produced by Jack Good and was the first in the world to feature music aimed at teenagers. Bizarrely it was also a magazine programme, so would cut from a song with Marty Wilde or Tommy Steele rocking in the studio to a worthy item on film about rock climbing in the Lake District. It was therefore an odd mixture of TOTP and Blue Peter before anyone had thought of either of those programmes. It was one of the first programmes to break the BBC's 'toddlers truce'. This was a gap in broadcasting between 6.00pm and 7.00pm that had enabled parents to put their children to bed. Extraordinary. (Of course these days CBeebies is still transmitting right up to 7.00pm.)
Six-Five Special had a regular house band whose members included several well-known musicians. They would, it is said, go to the pub over the road after the dress run and only return as they saw the opening titles roll on the pub's TV They would often go back to the pub during the show if there was a performance or an item on film when they were not required to play and continue their pint, returning to the studio just in time for the next song when they were needed. This would sometimes happen two or three times during the show. The director would phone any notes to the pub if required. Now that's class.
In fact, the pub ('The Chancellor's') was in such regular use by artists and studio crews that the landlord had a sign mounted on the door saying 'studio 3' in BBC lettering. The pub is still there - I lit a location sketch for Russell Howard's Good News there in May 2013. It looked like nothing much had changed for several decades, with the walls proudly displaying photos of the various TV stars who had performed in the studios over the road.
Mike Du Boulay also has fond memories of The Chancellors...
Some Riverside programmes recalled by Derek Donoghue include Alma Cogan, It's Magic (David Nixon), Charlie Drake, Off the Record, Solo for Canary (6 part drama) and A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Rudolf Cartier.
Mike Du Boulay worked on the following in 1965...
Muses With Milligan (R2), A 'Three Day Play' (R1), The Sky At Night (R2), Take It Or Leave It (R2), Anatomy Of A Film (R2), Mogul (R1), The Roy Kinnear Show (R1). Mogul was a popular glossy drama series about an oil company that ran for some time in the sixties.
Brian Cuff has also reminded me that the popular series Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School was made here. The show ran from 1952 to 1961 (49 episodes) - the early series came from Lime Grove.
Ivan Burgess recalls meeting an ex-engineer called Lionel Morris at Riverside some years after the Beeb left...
You need to read the second paragraph a couple of times to follow the mistake the VT engineers back at TV Centre understandably made.
During the '60s Blue Peter mostly came from Lime Grove or one of the black and white studios at TVC but towards the end of the decade it was often made here at Riverside. I have been told that the famous elephant incident occurred here but it seems more likely that it took place at Lime Grove. However - Peter Harris recalls a programme with a pig that sounds almost as chaotic...
Blue Peter was probably the last live programme to be made here by the BBC - around March 1970. In fact, all programmes were transmitted live from Riverside during the early years including the dramas that were rehearsed during the day and performed in the evening. Some were performed 'as live' but telerecorded on film by a camera looking at a monitor. This is how we still have some recordings of these early shows although most have sadly been lost for ever.
There are many crew anecdotes about mishaps during live performances of Z-Cars including cameras in shot, actors pushing cameras out of the way with their feet and inevitably the back projection (BP) for the car scenes running out. More than once the BP film continued to play when the vehicle was supposed to be stationary and an actor stepped out of the car - seemingly whilst travelling at high speed (the actor attempting to cover the gaff with a 'don't bother to stop - I'll jump out here!') Apparently rehearsals were not taken particularly seriously, with much larking about from the actors and playing practical jokes on each other. The camera crew often found that the positions of the actors in the live transmission were not quite what they had been expecting, which made for a terrifying half hour for any inexperienced cameraman.
Z-Cars was live from 1962-1965 and was one of the last live dramas made by the BBC. Later series were recorded - it ran until 1978, the last few series being made at TV Centre. It was hugely popular and ran for 799 episodes.
Roderick Stewart has sent me a couple of recollections...
The third in the very popular Quatermass series was made at Riverside. (The previous two were made at Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove respectively.) Quatermass and the Pit went out on Monday evenings from December 22, 1958 to January 26, 1959 - live with pre-filmed scenes shot at Ealing and on location. This was the first major series to have scenes shot at Ealing after the BBC took it over as the base for its film department. The series was also telerecorded and at the time was the BBC's most expensive production ever.
Several drama series were made at Riverside throughout the BBCs residence. Several episodes of the first five series of Dr Who, starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, came from here. It is said that Dr Who shared his police box Tardis with Dixon of Dock Green, also shot at the studios. Hmmm. Maybe.
R1 and R2 were separated by large dock doors. These were occasionally opened for major dramas linking the two studios. Roger Brunskill recalls that 'a western called A Town Has Turned To Dust starring Rod Steiger was made at Riverside. The typical wild western street ran through these dividing doors.' Now, according to the IMDb, this play was made in 1958 and was part of the 'Playhouse 90' series. For some years on this website I stated that this show was directed by John Frankenheimer and its cast included William Shatner. The rest of the series appeared to have been made in the US by CBS so why this one was made at Riverside by the BBC was a mystery.
Fortunately, David Aley has solved the puzzle. He informs me that two versions were made - one in the US by CBS and the other by the BBC. It turns out that the makers of the original series felt that 'executive interference' had prevented it from being as powerful as intended. Following contact between the producers and the BBC, agreement was reached that a new production would be made in London for a UK audience, with greater artistic freedom. This is the show seen below which was transmitted in the Sunday Night Theatre series on 3rd July 1960.
As well as being the base for much of the BBC's drama it also became the home of one of the most successful sitcoms ever - Hancock's Half Hour. This series also starred Sid James, who had appeared in at least one film made here before the days of television.
More than 500 editions of Play School were shot at Riverside before it moved to TC7 at TV Centre in 1968. I have been sent a nice bit of background to the show by Malcolm C Walker, its first director...
Soon after BBC2 opened in 1964 it was decided to broadcast an alternative to sport on Saturday afternoons. This show, transmitted from Riverside, was known as Open House and as its title suggests it was an arts show with a very broad remit. Amongst its many guests were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones - although sadly not on the same show. Now that would have been worth watching. It is interesting though how going right back to Six-Five Special the studios were often the home of contemporary music programmes. Even after the BBC officially left, they were used for a while to make several editions of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and a youth culture show called Riverside - both using an OB truck for facilities. In 2001, for a few months Top of the Pops was recorded in Studio 1 after the show left Elstree, again using an OB unit. The 2013 Christmas TOTP was recorded here, as TV Centre was of course closed. As we will see, this musical tradition continued almost to the studios' end.
Chris Jones has sent me couple of anecdotes from his days as a Technical Assistant in the late '60s. On one occasion he was showing a visitor round the CAR and was asked what a particularly unusual looking switch did. Chris replied that it used to be for switching between 405 and 625 lines but wasn't used any more. Giving it a quick flip to demonstrate, he now admits to tripping every camera in the studios. He also recalls a 'God Spot' programme one Sunday in R2 when an act of God caused the turret drive motor on one of the cameras to burst into flames to the obvious consternation of all the clergy assembled.
I have concentrated on the studios themselves above for obvious reasons but Brian Cuff has asked me to mention the two Mechau flying spot telecine machines that were on site. He reckons that these were situated in a small 'foyer' at the top of a flight of stairs. (The ones that led to the cinema in later years.) Intended to be used for playing-in filmed inserts into studio productions, he admits that they probably weren't used that much and TK machines playing down the line from Lime Grove were often used in preference. Anyway - job done, they are now included!
When exactly did the studios close and the BBC leave?...
The precise date, or even the year when the BBC left Riverside has proved to be one of those puzzles that has occupied far too much of my time writing this website. During the 1960s Riverside is not mentioned in the annual BBC handbooks except obliquely. Thus, they might state that there are 8 studios in Television Centre plus 'a television theatre and six further major production studios in the London area.' Of the six, one assumes 4 at Lime Grove and 2 at Riverside. Most annual handbooks also give a list of the total number of BBC studios in London. This figure of 15 continues up to the 1971 book - so refers back to 1970.
Mitch Mitchell has dug up his old diaries and discovered that up until 13th September 1967 he was working on Z-Cars regularly in R1. After that he has a few entries for staff training days in R1 up to December 1969 but no 'real' programmes. Following that date he has no entry for that studio. Jackanory and Playschool shared a studio day in R2 until 13th July 1968 when he worked on Play School in TC7. However - Jackanory continued in R2 until at least 10th Oct 1968.
Bob Buckler's diaries go a bit further. He has some Blue Peters in R1 in December 1969 and into January 1970. The last is 15th Jan. I have incidentally heard a story that Biddy Baxter, famous editor of BP, objected to the extra cost of using colour studios so she kept Blue Peter in black and white for as long as possible. Eventually, her budget was increased and the show went into colour. (BBC1 officially went colour in November 1969 but BP remained in black and white for several years after that.)
Bob's diaries for R2 have a Jackanory on 14th November 1968. After that he has some training days - the last being 28th Feb '69. Studio engineer Peter Harris reckons that when he was posted to Riverside in October 1969 only R1 and the music studio were working. He believes that the studios ceased operations in March 1970.
Roger Neal - a vision supervisor in BBC OBs - recalled an ice show that was made here in colour using an OB unit in the late 1960s (Riverside was never colourised by the BBC.) This has been confirmed by TA Chris Jones and sound supervisor John Holmes. The programme was called International Ice Cabaret and was recorded in R1. A stage was built, flooded up to 2" and then frozen and the studio was used for nothing else during the run. Terry Hughes was the director (he went on to direct Golden Girls in the US) and the show was introduced by Ray Allen and his vent puppet "Lord Charles". It probably ran for about a dozen shows.
This series is listed as being broadcast in October 1968 and was recorded in June/July of that year. John's recollection is that the studios had been empty for a few months before and studio 2's equipment had been dismantled. This doesn't quite tally with Bob Buckler's diary mentioned above or Mitch Mitchell's diary - which has Jackanory in R2 in October '68. On the other hand, John says that the canteen was closed by then so they all went to the Chancellor's just across the road. Mind you, did an OB crew need an excuse?
Roger Prior also worked on the Ice Show. He recalls that the crew went to great lengths to arrange for a feed of a drama being made at TV Centre to be sent to their viewfinders. The drama was called Nana and was apparently incredibly bawdy. (Nana was made in 1968 so that confirms the year.) Apparently every BBC region and OB around the country had also asked for a feed of the studio which stretched the resources of CAR at TVC considerably. The solution at the Riverside OB to avoid rolling pictures was to synchronise the scanner to TC5. Roger recalls that in the other studio the Gemini cameras were in storage. More on these below.
Some time later, Bernie Davis remembers working on refurbing a couple of old OB scanners (MCR 15 and 16) that were going to be sold to Greek TV. They were parked in one of the studios and the year was probably 1972. The studios were apparently being used for equipment storage at the time.
Anyway, this all seems to suggest that R1 and R2 ceased making broadcast programmes in 1970 and 1968 respectively. I am told that during 1969 there was a strike over extra pay for working in colour. This caused a backlog of work which it is said led to R1 being kept open for longer than had originally been planned.
After the studios themselves had closed, the site did remain in use for some time as an inject and co-ordination point for the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race - thanks to the many permanent lines to TVC with video, audio and comms circuits in both directions. Its terrace provided an excellent location for a camera with fine views up and down the Thames.
What is perhaps surprising is that the building seems to have remained in BBC hands long after programme-making had ceased there. Eventually it was taken over by the local council.
So - it seems likely that the building was owned by the BBC until some time around 1974. By the time the corporation quietly slipped away from Riverside they had removed all of the television equipment and the studios became the property of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
The Arts Centre Years...
In 1975 it was decided to turn Riverside Studios into an arts centre and they were leased to a trust. After some refurbishment and the removal of a number of internal walls including the old dimmer rooms to form a bar area, the studios were used as performance and rehearsal spaces. The first in-house theatre season began in 1978 when Peter Gill became artistic director. The dubbing theatre had been converted into a very nice cinema in 1976. After refurbishment in 1987 it began to operate as a successful repertory cinema and quickly became highly regarded by film buffs. It enjoyed this reputation right up to the end and the new building includes a cinema with a similar remit. The cinema had both 35mm and digital projectors in its final years - the 35mm projector was going to be re-installed in the new building but sadly this proved impractical.
In 2011 I had the privilege of lighting a production in studio 2 directed by Peter Gill. It was subsequently transmitted on Sky Arts as part of their Playhouse Live strand. He was an extraordinary man - elderly of course but still with great energy, passion and attention to detail - who showed great patience working with a relatively inexperienced cast. He encouraged some impressive performances from them.
The dubbing theatre had been used during the forties and fifties to record the background music for many films, not just those made here. A BBC technician found several scores including that for The Cruel Sea behind the cinema screen one day during the late 1950s. The room was said to have an excellent acoustic and continued to be used as a music recording studio by the BBC until they left. I'm told that the theme tune for Dad's Army was recorded here. It was constructed as a floating box so it was never affected by external noise. Duncan Stewart described to me how he went exploring and discovered the gap between the wall of the cinema and the wall of the building - he could put his arm into it. Very impressive and slightly disturbing.
From the eighties right up to 2012 when the Arts Council grant was removed, Riverside Studios developed a reputation for staging highly regarded innovative theatrical and dance productions. The studio environment lent itself to a 'black box' style of production that was a complement to the more conventional facilities in the West End or at the National. International theatre and dance companies were welcomed here on a regular basis.
A critically acclaimed production of Sondheim's musical Company was recorded here as an OB for the BBC in the late eighties in Studio 1.
Some TV production also continued from time to time in Studio 2. A conscious effort had been made to market that studio to television companies. Obviously, without fully equipped galleries, cameras and permanently installed TV lighting it was difficult to attract much regular work.
However, some programmes were made here from time to time, using OB scanners for facilities. The Biko Inquest was made for C4 in 1984, starring and directed by Albert Finney. Ian Dow recalls working on a Parkinson in R2 during 1979, The Old Grey Whistle Test in Jan '82 and in the autumn of 1983 a 'yoof' series appropriately called Riverside. (Oddly, series 2 and 3 were made elsewhere but kept the same name.) I have also been told by Glenn Aylett that Peter Powell hosted a pop series around 1982/83 - I wonder if this may have actually been the Riverside series, although he isn't credited as hosting that show on the IMDb. In 1987 a National Youth Theatre production - The Ragged Child - was recorded as an OB. Bernie Davis recalls that the chief electrician at the time was Darryl Noad. He went on to become a successful TV lighting director in later years.
Mark Mumford has written to me. He worked on the electrics team at Riverside in the 1980s. They were struggling at the time to build a decent stock of house equipment. Somebody heard that the Talk of the Town nightclub in Leicester Square was being refurbished and a load of perfectly good kit was being skipped. Dave Richardson - at the time chief electrician at Riverside - managed to purchase at a very reasonable price a number of dimmer racks which were subsequently cannibalised to build 3 or 4 racks for studio 2. These remained in use here for many years. Mark also reckons that's where the Galaxy console for studio 1 came from via a circuitous route.
Rod Allen tells me that he attended the opening party for Channel 4 at Riverside in 1982. (He was the original editor of Broadcast magazine, then moved to LWT where he tells me he 'discovered' Andrew Neil.) Anyway, he recalls most of the London media glitterati being there, including of course Jeremy Isaacs, whom he describes as being 'proud but exhausted'.)
In 1993 William Burdett-Coutts took over as artistic director. The centre closed for six months in 1994 for major refurbishment, including a new entrance and foyer area. Riverside Studios had developed severe financial problems and amongst many changes the new director decided to market Studio 1 as a TV studio once again. Studio 2 became the primary theatre space. He hoped the larger studio would prove more attractive to television companies.
The show that put Riverside back on the television map was Chris Evans' Channel 4 show TFI Friday which ran from 1995 to December 2000. The production used an OB unit for its technical facilities. The 'bar' in which he held his interviews was one of the old BBC control rooms in Studio 1. The guests would perform in the main studio, then scramble up the old metal staircase through the gallery door to meet Evans. The little cast-iron framed window with its view overlooking the river was there until 2003 when it was replaced with a very boring white double-glazed unit. It was odd in the 2000s sitting in the green room that occupied that space with its posh sofas and smart pictures on the walls to imagine that this was the same grotty old room that was the focal point of that iconic show for so many years.
'Riverside TV Studios'
Riverside Studios continued to be used as an arts centre right up to the closure in 2014 but in 2002 the administration of Studio 1 was taken over by a small company named 'Riverside TV Studios.' At first, they carried out a basic refurb of the facilities - with most of the equipment coming from the Lock Keeper's Cottages and associated studio in Bow which had previously been the home of Planet 24's C4 show, The Big Breakfast. (The BB ended on 29th March 2002.) Throughout July/August lorries trundled between Bow Locks and Hammersmith and the R1 floor was completely covered with stuff. Everything was taken - even the doors and toilets at Riverside had previously been at Bow. However, the Big Breakfast cameras and Digibetas were sold. I mentioned that everything was taken from Bow but apparently the sign for dressing room 3 was lost somewhere en-route. Thus there was no dressing room 3 at Riverside. Don't believe me? It's true.
R1 reopened under Riverside TV in November 2002. The initial fitup was something of a compromise with some bits left unfinished - it was mostly basic infrastructure and at first comparatively few shows were made. The studio was approximately 6,000 sq ft - about 68 x 65 metric feet within firelanes so not as large as most medium studios but big enough for many types of comedy, entertainment and music shows. It could seat an audience of around 300 and looked very good on screen.
I was there in August 2003 lighting a commercial which was supposed to look like a TV gameshow. I do remember that technically things were pretty basic back then. However, what did stick in the memory was that the place nearly burnt down. I don't think I can be personally held to account - however, the strong smell of burning was for a while blamed on 'something to do with the lighting.' At least, until someone went into the scene dock and saw flames pouring out of the waste container. We all left the building and witnessed a dramatic scene with firemen, hoses, all the trimmings. An hour later and we were back at work. It transpired that the caterers had thrown away the little oil heaters that kept our lunch warm whilst they were still hot. Ah well, it could have been much worse and if it hadn't been for someone wondering where the strange smell was coming from it's quite possible that the studios would not have lasted beyond that date.
In 2003 a major upgrade came about when Riverside secured the CD-UK/SMTV contract. This led to a considerable investment in sound facilities and the purchase of Digibeta VTR's. R2 was also cabled back to R1's galleries. The analogue sound desk installed in R1 at that time was unique. It was a Drake desk, but only a prototype and one production model were ever made: TV-am had one in Studio B and Planet bought the other for Bow. Riverside took both and fused them together to make a 48ch desk.
The old BBC control rooms in R1 were rebuilt and fully equipped and seven Sony E-10 digital widescreen cameras installed. Interestingly, none of these new control rooms had a view of the studio through the windows. Quite a contrast to the BBC days when this was considered absolutely essential.
A lighting grid was installed using scaffold pipes linking the main steel beams supporting a number of sprung pantographs for the lights. This was not as flexible an arrangement as that found in most TV studios and rigging could be very time-consuming. However, for regular series - once the rig was in it stayed in along with the rigs for any other shows that happened to be using the studio at the time. Lights were pushed up to the grid at the end of recording and the next working day the lights for that show were pulled in to height. Not a perfect arrangement but it worked.
Quite how the grid supported the weight of all that metalwork remains a mystery but fortunately it never collapsed and we lived to tell the tale. Often the rigs for three different shows were hanging in the studio - you could almost hear the steel beams groaning under the strain. Sometimes the weight of the lights would make the scaff bars bend - the gaffer's solution was to apply a ratchet strap to something solid above in the grid and bend it back. Problem solved. I was regularly assured that everything was perfectly safe - which fortunately, it was. Interestingly, Studio 2 had a rather more sophisticated motorised bar system that spanned the whole studio, running along the steel runway beams enabling them to be positioned wherever they were needed.
Once R1 became a fully-fledged TV studio once again, regular shows included CD-UK and the trendy BBC2 cooking show Full On Food. Both these programmes sometimes featured the old brick wall that was a unique characteristic of this studio. It took light very well and provided an attractive and cost-free backing to a set. Quite when the acoustic padding was removed from the studio walls is a bit of a mystery but is likely to have been during the early arts centre days - probably in order to help give the studio a bit more life to the actors' voices. (Incidentally, the new studio 1 has a similar brick wall, which is an excellent idea!)
In 2004 whilst the hoists in TC2 at TV Centre were being maintained, the set for CBBC show X-Change had to be removed for a month or two. The programme moved to R1 and many of the transmissions took place on the riverside terrace.
Studio 1 continued to have its facilities upgraded. In 2006 it was fitted with a new studio floor and it received improvements to the air conditioning, replacement vision/audio router, digital sound throughout and 6-channel EVS hard disk video server.
I understand that the TV company worked very closely with the arts centre management so that occasionally R1 was used as a theatre or rehearsal space. Similarly, R2 was used as a TV studio when required. Programmes made in R2 were controlled from studio 1's galleries. In January 2010 I was asked to relight Simon Callow's excellent one-man Dickens show, Mr Chops and Dr Marigold, for TV. The cameras were simply wheeled in from R1 and a matinee and evening performance recorded with a normal paying theatre audience. The resulting recording was thus available to be offered to TV channels like Sky Arts and BBC4 and a DVD was made at minimal cost. No other theatre in London could do that. (Well, except perhaps for the Royal Opera House, which has its own cameras and TV facilities.)
The last edition of SM-TV, when Ant and Dec returned for a final show, came from Studio 2.
In 2006 an interesting development took place. There was then an R3! Not the Chancellor's pub but an actual TV studio. The workshop area next to the foyer that had been turned into a small studio theatre in 1994 became available to be used occasionally by Riverside TV. The studio was 43 x 38ft wall to wall. Early in 2006, Channel 4's T4 and Popworld programmes relocated to Riverside. Initially R1 was too busy for T4 presentation links so Studio 3 was turned into a TV studio. A considerable amount of money was spent on sound-proofing the studio due to its roadside location and a new TV floor was laid. The studio had retractable audience seating for 156. It could be controlled from Studio 1's gallery or via an OB scanner parked outside. It was still mostly booked as a studio theatre or rehearsal room but it was also used for recording Richard Hammond's links for the BBC's Total Wipeout in 2010, 2011 and 2012 when studio 1 was busy.
Riverside was truly a very pleasant place to work. The arts centre atmosphere gave it a unique quality amongst TV studios, and the age and history of the building enhanced its attraction. CD-UK occupied the main studio on and off for much of the year from 2003-2006 and in 2005 Bremner, Bird and Fortune moved here from Fountain. Each year from 2006-2013 studio 1 was used for the Apprentice - 'You're Fired' discussion show that followed every edition of the popular docu-soap. Other shows included Re:Covered for BBC3, The Nokia Green Room for C4, Showbiz Poker for Challenge TV, Russell Howard's Good News for BBC3, Celebrity Juice for ITV2, Lee Nelson's Well Good Show for BBC3, Derren Brown's 'Lottery prediction' for C4 and That Sunday Night Show with Adrian Chiles for ITV1.
An example of Riverside's continued relevance as a TV studio centre was sent to me by Duncan Stewart. He pointed out that on Saturday 1st April 2006, simultaneously BBC2 transmitted The Mighty Truck of Stuff live from R1, ITV1 transmitted the pre-recorded CD-UK also from R1 and Channel 4 transmitted Popworld from R3. Not bad for a 50 yr old facility.
This old building is sadly no longer with us. Redevelopment plans were in discussion for a number of years. However, in the final few years the facilities underwent several improvements. The bar was redecorated in the autumn of 2010 - and very smart it looked too. Studio 1 had a new floor laid and was updated with HD infrastructure, receiving 6 new Sony 1500R HD cameras in March 2011. The production gallery was refurbished early in 2012.
And as for the slightly dodgy old Galaxy lighting console - this was going to be replaced by a brand new desk but frankly most console ops still preferred the Galaxy. Fortunately, when Barcud Derwen closed down their north Wales studio in 2010 their Galaxy ended up on eBay - and Riverside bought it - so most of the console became Welsh... and worked perfectly right to the end.
A big disappointment came in March 2011 when the Arts Council announced its future funding plans. Riverside Studios lost its annual grant of around half a million pounds which was a huge surprise to many. This meant that Riverside could no longer originate its own theatrical productions. However, it continued to be a receiving venue staging plays, music, comedy and dance and the cinema of course remained. The lack of a grant did not affect Riverside TV Studios Ltd. as this was a separate company operating within the arts centre.
Studio 1 continued to attract plenty of bookings including That Sunday Night Show, Celebrity Juice, Russell Howard's Good News, Total Wipeout links, Lee Nelson's Well Good Show, The Apprentice: You're Fired, Sweat the Small Stuff and from the autumn of 2013 moving from the closed down TV Centre - Never Mind The Buzzcocks. C4's The Last Leg was also a regular booking in the final months.
Due to the reduction in theatre performances, in April 2013 it was announced that studio 2 would be returned to use as a fully equipped TV studio. The old BBC galleries which for decades had been mostly used for storage or meeting rooms were refurbished and equipped with all the latest HD kit.
Studio 2 was equipped with 5 Sony HXC-100 HD cameras but of course all the cameras and other kit from studio 1 were available to supplement as and when necessary. The studio was about three-quarters the size of studio 1 and was ideal for panel shows, stand-up shows, quizzes etc. It could seat around 250 and still have plenty of useful floor space left. Riverside had to turn away a lot of work in the last few years of the old building and the demand obviously increased hugely with the closure of BBC TV Centre. Studio 2 closed as a fully equipped TV studio in 1968 and reopened for business in September 2013. It closed again in August 2014, having operated as a TV studio for only a year but almost repaying its investment.
In September 2014 I was invited by Duncan Stewart to have one last look round the studios before they were closed for good. These are some of the photos I took - click on them to see in greater detail:
The writing had been on the wall for the future of the building for a number of years. Charming though it was in its grunginess, it was a nightmare to maintain and keep the rain out. From 2009 the trustees who ran Riverside were in negotiation with the owners of the empty 1980s office block next door and various developers. The intention was to demolish both buildings and start again. The larger available area would enable all the existing facilities to be rebuilt, plus more space for restaurants and bars - and above all that the luxury flats that would pay for it. After several near misses, the deal was finally done - and Riverside closed at the end of September 2014. Appropriately, the final show made in R1 was The Last Leg.
It was hoped that the new studios would open in April 2018 but many unforeseen problems ensued - which I'm sure must have been deeply frustrating for Duncan Stewart and Bobbi Blackman, who had to keep turning away bookings. Eventually, after a great deal of very hard work, the new Riverside Studios opened for business in November 2019. And they really are very impressive indeed!
There are 3 main studios as before, plus a very nice cinema (in the basement) and various rehearsal/meeting rooms. Studio 1 is managed by Riverside Television and is intended to be used as a TV studio for most of its time. Studio 2 is shared between arts centre activities of theatre/dance/music and TV. Studio 3 is primarily a theatre space but like anywhere in the building it can very easily be connected to one of the two fully equipped gallery suites. In fact it was used as a TV studio during the summer of 2020.
Even the cinema has 4 lighting bars spanning the space, and cabinets with connectivity to the gallery suites, so could easily be used as a TV studio for a stand-up comedy show or acoustic music concert for example.
The large foyer area outside the studios has more A/V connection points and a lighting bar running all round it making it ideal for a break-out area or second studio for a main show in studio 1. Even the outside terrace has fibre sockets concealed in nearby pillars so links or interviews could easily be done there with Hammersmith Bridge as a background.
The detailed planning that has gone into the whole building is really impressive and shows what can be done when a studio centre is designed by people who have actually worked on shows themselves, rather than using consultants.
Studios 2 and 3 are approximately the same size as the old ones (5,000 sq ft and 2,000 sq ft) but studio 1 is quite a bit larger. About 9 feet longer and 6 feet wider in fact. Officially its gross size is 6,500 sq ft. It has very impressive audience rostra built in - seating a maximum of 400. The units have been designed specifically for this studio - so they can fold back without removing the hand rails, which saves a great deal of time and effort. The front 3 rows can remain folded back to increase the floor area - still leaving a good number of seats.
Studio 1's grid is densely packed with 147 lighting hoists. These are very close to each other so lighting directors will not suffer the same compromises as in other studios that have widely spaced bars. Above the hoists is a 'Skydeck' tension wire grid. It is thought to be the largest in the UK. The first of these in the UK were fitted in the Vanbrugh Theatre at RADA and Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Maidenhead in 2000. I was involved in the planning for Norden Farm and lit a few productions there soon after opening. The first time you step onto the grid is somewhat alarming, walking in mid-air with the floor some 30 feet below but you get used to it really quickly. It's an excellent solution for this studio, enabling easy access to anywhere over the floor.
Rather than tracking scene hoists there are 16 individual chain hoists available, with power sockets all around the grid. These can be fixed to the I-beams above the wire grid or cross rigged so that an accurate spot can be dropped. The cable simply passes through the grid, using a custom made protective sleeve. A truly ingenious solution! Small panels using traditional rope cleats can also be laid on the wire grid anywhere for loads up to 50 kilos.
The two gallery suites and apparatus room are downstairs and are very well equipped. Studio 1 is 4K capable, with Sony HDC-4300 cameras.
Regarding the building itself, one very impressive factor is the acoustic isolation. The three main studios are physically separate, with corridors between them. They consist of sealed concrete boxes, sitting on rubber pads, preventing sound from being transmitted through the fabric of the building. This impressive attention to detail was tested in the autumn of 2019 when the Brits party was held here - which I am told was very loud. No music was heard outside the studio - most notably by the occupants of the very expensive flats which sit alongside and above the studio. The old studios had to be very carefully programmed avoiding a theatre production in one while a loud music show was happening next door. This is no longer necessary.
There is a great deal more that I could add about this excellent project but people will find out for themselves when they work here or visit as members of an audience. I am sure the studios will be very busy indeed. Studio 1 opened on 22nd November 2019 but the opening of studio 2 was delayed by Covid-19 and is due to receive its first booking in the autumn of 2020. Studio 3, however, produced its first TV show (in UHD, no less) on 22nd June - both gallery suites were up and running. One of the first productions made here with Covid-19 restrictions, starting on 6th June 2020, was BBC1's Saturday night entertainment series, Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer.
Good luck to all at Riverside - and congratulations on bucking the trend of closing TV studios. This proves it can still be done!
The Greenwood Theatre
(Revised September 2019)
The BBC moved into this theatre, situated in the grounds of Guy's hospital near London Bridge station, in 1979. The first programme was made here on 23rd September. However, there are several mysteries surrounding the Greenwood:
Firstly, what is a fully equipped theatre doing in the grounds of a hospital?
Secondly, when a hospital trust has spent a considerable sum building it, why lease it to the BBC and let them knock it about as only the BBC can, only three or four years after it was built?
Thirdly, why did the BBC acquire yet another studio in London when they had plenty of space at TV Centre, Lime Grove and TV Theatre?
Fourthly, with the BBC having spent a fortune equipping yet another studio, why did it remain relatively unused for most of the ten years it was part of their inventory and why did they not cut their losses and leave it sooner? After all, in 1984 they gained four more large studios when they took over ATV's Elstree studios. Why did they not leave the Greenwood then and transfer its equipment into one of those studios?
I can only guess at some of these questions - but to take them in turn...
There is of course the old story that a wealthy benefactor, grateful for the care he received at Guy's Hospital, left a fortune in his will to be spent on 'a new theatre'. A dim and rather literally-minded lawyer is said to have taken him at his word and instructed the hospital authorities to go ahead and have it built when of course what the old gentleman had in mind was a theatre of the operating kind. There are people who actually seem to believe this story and I suppose it is somewhat amusing but even an old cynic like me can't quite bring myself to swallow it whole. In fact, I have discovered that the truth is more prosaic.
The theatre was built in 1975 and was indeed largely paid for by a benefactor - Sir James Mantle Greenwood (1902-1969), chairman of James Greenwood Advertising Ltd. In fact his portrait hangs in the foyer. The building was designed as a lecture theatre (Guy's is a teaching hospital and is part of the Kings College, University of London campus.) There were flip-up writing tables in the seat armrests, the sound gallery was originally a translators' booth and the production gallery had been a projection room. However - it was also equipped with a fly tower and full theatre lighting facilities. Backstage was space for storing scenery and a number of dressing-rooms. It was originally hoped to stage professional productions there in the evenings - attracting the city workers just over the river. The profits from this use would help the hospital's funding. Sadly, of course, theatres seldom make big profits so this income was never realised.
Thus, the hospital was rather keen to see another source of revenue generated by the theatre. Against this background, the story goes that one of the hospital trustees happened to be at a dinner party along with a senior manager of the BBC - probably Bill Cotton. (If the following story sounds a little unlikely, let us not forget that things at the Corporation were done rather differently back then.) Apparently, the man from Guy's asked Bill if he had any ideas how they could generate some income from the theatre. Bill is said to have replied that the BBC could certainly make use of it for a year and on a handshake the BBC took it over. Thus the lease was initially for twelve months and then extended on a rolling monthly basis with a year's notice on either side.
The background to this rather surprising 'purchase' of a studio is that apparently Bill Cotton was trying to persuade Michael Parkinson to do a nightly weekday chat show, rather than just his Saturday show. There was no available studio at TV Centre (due to asbestos removal) and Bill realised that The Greenwood fitted the bill perfectly, being in central London and close to the West End where guests could be found relatively easily. However, it turned out that Mr Parkinson was not too keen on doing that many shows and in the end agreed to just one more - on Wednesdays.
Thus the BBC were left with a studio and only one regular booking. The story goes that Question Time was therefore created for the Greenwood. In fact of course the venue was ideal - close to Westminster and with an auditorium that looked good on camera. This programme occupied the Greenwood one day a week for most of the year from September 1979 - 1990 when it moved briefly to TV Centre and then to various studios and locations around the country.
I have been told an interesting little anecdote about this programme by Peter Neill, a sound assistant who worked regularly at the studio.
'When the audience filed in to take their seats they were directed to fill the auditorium from the front. After a few weeks of this it was noted that when it came to the recording, the most vociferous always seemed to be at the back. Someone suggested that maybe the quiet ones were the first to take their seats, while the more vocal ones were discussing things over the coffee and sandwiches until the last minute. It was decided to let them choose their own seats and see what happened. The auditorium filled from the back and the best participants were then usually found within good camera and boom range.'
The other regular occupant of the Greenwood in the early years was Russell Harty. In fact, his show began at the Greenwood some weeks before Michael Parkinson's Wednesday show. He was brought to the BBC from a successful career at LWT where his chat shows had built a regular audience. His series ran on BBC2 from 1980-1983 and then transferred to BBC1 from '83-'84. His style and indeed his guests were individual and although never a mainstream performer he was very popular in a niche audience kind of way. Of course, everyone has seen the 'Grace Jones Incident' but there was far more to his show than that kind of thing. Sadly, he died of hepatitis in 1988.
There were one or two other shows that used the studio but after the first few years it was never particularly busy. The schedule in the early eighties looked something like this:
Tuesday - Russell Harty (he recorded a Thursday show in Manchester)
Wednesday - Parkinson (Saturday from TV Centre)
Thursday - Question Time
Friday - A succession of chat shows - notably Friday Night, Saturday Morning - a recorded open-ended show which finished when it finished, being transmitted later that evening as the last programme before BBC2 closed down for the night. This was usually presented by Ned Sherrin but also had a number of guest presenters including, famously, Harold Wilson.
It is difficult to trace many other shows that were made here - particularly after Russell Harty's shows ended. One source said that Call My Bluff may have been made at the Greenwood, another mentions Face the Music and yet another a single Jackanory series. There was also - lest we forget - a Roland Rat series.
One programme made here was Private Lives, a chat show hosted by the actress Maria Aitken in which she invited some of her actor friends to bring along possessions which had a story attached. These were late afternoon recordings as most of the participants were in the West End in the evenings. John Latus tells me that he worked on a panel show starring Tom O'Connor called I've Got a Secret ('84, '85). Jonathan Gibbs has written to let me know that whilst a student at Guys he sat in the audience for an edition of Masterteam, hosted by Angela Rippon. This daytime quiz series was recorded here in 1985, '86 and '87.
Bernie Newnham recalls Star Memories - a series he directed in 1986:
'Star Memories was done at the Greenwood, because that was the only space available. Although by today's standards completely forgettable, being a series of favourite clips from various celebs, it was quite a deal then as it was the first series that could actually do that. Up to then, Equity didn't allow anything older than two years to be shown, and then only twice. The influence of Mrs Thatcher on all things union got the rules changed, and this was the BBC's first chance to show anything in the library. Of course, lots of stuff that should have been in the library wasn't, owing to being wiped. On the one Star Memories VHS I have, Lenny Henry picked the clip of Jimi Hendrix on the 1968 Lulu show - when Jimi decided to do something different on the transmission to what he'd (sort of) rehearsed. The Lulu series was P as B ('programme as broadcast') recorded and then soon wiped, but luckily a VT engineer used to make copies of rock material that he liked, and stashed the somewhat illegal 2" tapes under the flooring. And lots of very good old stuff came back from him.'
Whilst the studio was relatively busy during the early eighties its use tailed off as the years progressed. By the end of the decade almost the only series regularly made there was Question Time. I personally worked at the Greenwood on a handful of occasions - on a few Harty's and Question Times but it was always seen as something of an oddity - certainly a nice place to work and quite different from TVC, Lime Grove or TV Theatre.
It is hard to find anyone who can recall many other shows made here during the ten years of BBC occupation. Some have mentioned a book quiz and a talk show with Irish writer Frank Delaney. Susan Hill, writer of A Woman In Black is said to have possibly hosted a show. Clare Francis, the solo sailor, also possibly presented a series. Even Edna Healey, wife of politician Denis Healey is recalled having presented a programme on poetry. However, memories are fickle and some of the above might have been guests on other shows or have been part of the Friday Night Saturday Morning strand.
Do contact me if you can remember any other shows!
Martin Kisner has written to me, reminding me of another use of the theatre during the BBC's occupation:
'...There was a clause written into the BBC lease that they were to allow the Guy's medical students use of the theatre for one or two weeks in the year. This was rarely taken up but at least on one occasion it was. The students wanted to put on a performance of Oh What a Lovely War, over two nights. The BBC said OK, but if you want to use the lighting our staff must be present.
So it was that Andrew Dixon and myself became honorary medical students for the week. He designed the lighting and I was the console op. As I remember, because the Galaxy faced the monitor stack (of course) and away from the stage, we had to mount a camera to give us a wide shot of the stage. I was then able to work off a monitor, just like telly. We also put a follow spot in the gallery firing through the glass.
I remember the after show party to which we were invited. The directions were 'go down to the basement and take the first corridor past the mortuary'. I don't think anybody would have been too disturbed by the partying that night. I also recall thinking that the director, a medical student and future doctor, was a very talented bloke. Perhaps a Jonathan Miller in the making.'
A final aside, courtesy of Peter Neill:
'...Trevor Neilson, the self-styled House Manager (what we called a Studio Supervisor in W12) kept a "Visitors' Book" which he endeavoured to get every visiting celeb to sign (and as you can imagine there were very many very big names over the years). Photocopied pages were displayed in the foyer, but the original must have been worth a fortune to an autograph collector.'
In fact, having seen the above, Trevor wrote to me in February 2009 with a fascinating account of his years at the Greenwood. There is too much to include all of it but here are some edited highlights...
The studio was taken over in 1990 by a company called Network One Television. They apparently took on the lease on condition that the Beeb left it equipped as it was. This was probably cheaper than decommissioning it, but possibly the Corporation didn't realise that they had to leave the two rather expensive Fisher booms - which I am told the new occupants promptly sold.
The driving force behind Network One were husband and wife John and Angela Beveridge. They were an ex-BBC director and vision mixer respectively. Desmond Wilcox was also associated with the company. They owned the ex-TVS studio in Gillingham (now demolished) and a post-production facility in Greek Street. The Greenwood was re-equipped with Sony BVP70 cameras and a new sound desk. These were bought on the promise of a year-long booking by a new show fronted by Jonathan Ross. This programme was a three-times weekly chat show for Channel 4 and was of course called Tonight with Jonathan Ross. The show first aired on November 5th 1990.
Peter Orton, who directed the show, has confirmed that new cameras were purchased for the series - the old BBC Link 125s being well past their best. He also recalls that on occasions the show ventured forth to rather more glamorous locations...
'...we did fifteen live shows of the strand from the Ed Sullivan theatre on Broadway, three as live from L.A. one on the beach, and four from the private pier of the Carlton hotel in Cannes, on a boat - two of which were live.'
Peter is still very much in demand - he directed the hugely successful Harry Hill's TV Burp. He also directs The Russell Howard Hour and many other highly regarded shows.
The Jonathan Ross show was very popular and was recommissioned for a further year but, perhaps surprisingly, Network One fell victim to tough times and went under. However, Alba - the consumer electronics company - who had had a significant share in Network One now took over the studio and operated it (without the involvement of the Beveridges) as The Greenwood. Tonight with Jonathan Ross continued successfully for about two and a half years in total, ending on May 1st, 1992. Nirvana played on the show in 1991 - according to a website they allegedly trashed some of the set but they did pay for the damage.
The Greenwood operated as a business for a few months after the Ross show ended and one or two other shows were made here. However, possibly due to Alba's inexperience of marketing its facility to the TV industry, they failed to attract enough work and the business folded. Most of the technical equipment was sold off.
Shortly afterwards, John Beveridge returned to run the studio again - this time as London Bridge Studios. This was the company that looked after the Greenwood between 1992 and 1998. The studio now operated as a drive-in using OB scanners for facilities. Various programmes were made including several Question Times. Tony Tyrer has written to me about his experience at London Bridge:
'...About 1992, after I'd left Thames to go freelance, I floor managed a few series of the Andrew Newton Experience (hypnotism shows almost identical to Paul McKenna's) at London Bridge Studios. They were for Sky, but produced by Thames in its dying days. John Fisher was the exec prod. We probably did quite a few things there, since I think Thames had some sort of ownership arrangement with them. Scanner provided by Thames OB fleet, augmented by old Anglia vehicles. (Thames and LWT joined up with Anglia to service a new Channel Four Racing contract, so there was a mix of equipment.)'
John Beveridge (for it is he) has kindly send me a few photos from the days he ran the Greenwood...
I visited the Greenwood in June 2008 - having been invited by Catherine Trigg, the theatre manager. There was surprisingly little remaining evidence of the theatre's previous TV use but she did warm her feet in her office with a 'Thames' labelled electric heater that must have been left behind around 1992.
There were a few old photos on corridor walls and set plans in Catherine's office which usefully confirmed the year some TV shows were made. These included Jo Brand's Through the Cakehole ('94), The Andrew Newton Show ('94 - as mentioned above), The Pub Landlord's Late Lock-In (BBC - '97), Countdown 2000th edition (Yorkshire TV - '97), Jackanory (BBC - '97), Armstrong and Miller (C4 - '97) and Dimbleby (LWT '97). She also had the last London Bridge stage door signing-in book which proved that the final shows to be recorded here were editions of Question Time during the spring and summer of 1998. The last recording was on 18th June 1998 and the lease was handed over in September of that year. Sadly no sign of Trevor Neilson's old visitor's book though.
If you have any more info about shows made at the Greenwood please let me know!
Before we leave the Greenwood - there is an apocryphal story that has the ring of truth about it. It seems that there was (or maybe still is) an underground passage that led from the basement of the nurses' home next door to the basement of the theatre. In the middle of the night, at some time in the post-BBC years, a security guard found a group of nurses helping themselves from the bar. Apparently this had been a regular occurrence - although whether we are talking about a matter of days, weeks or years isn't known. Isn't there an expression used in the catering trade that missing booze is 'for the angels'? Ironically, I seem to remember a BBC series about nurses with that very title.
In the summer of 1999 the theatre was refurbished and most of the remaining TV equipment removed. When I say 'refurbished' - what I actually mean is that the stage was returned to its former shape, new seats were installed in the front four rows (see above), 15Amp lighting sockets replaced the television 32Amp ones and the walls of the auditorium were painted a startling shade of orange. The motorised lighting bars over the auditorium still remain however and the red/blue TX/reh lights operate during lectures to prevent people entering and disturbing the proceedings.
The Greenwood is now operated by King's College London, who use it for its original intended purpose as a lecture theatre - mostly for the medical faculty. It is also occasionally booked as a performance space for student, amateur and community productions and events.
There has been some talk over the years about demolishing the theatre and building a medical facility on the site. However, the theatre would have to be replaced somewhere. Seating 450, it is the largest lecture space the University owns and is in heavy demand, not to mention the theatrical activity that is used by community organisations as well as students. Until a suitable replacement can be found, its future is therefore relatively secure.
In 2014 a facilities company began discussions with the owners of the Greenwood to see if it could be shared with the University and used as a TV studio once again. The acute shortage of studio space in London meant that this could have been a very interesting proposition. The idea was that a production would build a standing set upstage, whilst lectures would happen as normal downstage of the house tabs. It would then be used as a studio at weekends or on days when there were no lectures. The long university vacations could also be made available for TV use. Facilities would be provided either by an OB truck or flyaway kit in the control room. In fact a non-TX pilot, Don't Ask Me Ask Britain, was recorded here in July 2014.
Unfortunately, I am told that it has proved very difficult finding a way of making the theatre available on suitable days to TV companies, as well as fulfilling its university role. No more TV bookings were made following this pilot but hopefully it is still possible that an arrangement could be made to work in the future.
The One Show Studio BBC Media Village, White City
(Revised September 2019)
On 9th July 2007 The One Show began its regular weekday 7pm broadcasts on BBC1. The show was created in an effort to bring back something along the lines of the good old days of Nationwide, which was made at Lime Grove between 1969 and 1983. The One Show had been trialled for four weeks in the summer of 2006 where it was made in a temporary studio at The Mailbox, Birmingham using an OB unit provided by NEP Visions.
It was decided to make the regular series in London rather than Birmingham in order to attract as many well-known studio guests as possible. However, the location inserts are usually made all over the rest of the UK. (An exception was the final live show from TV Centre on March 22, 2013 when Michael Grade informed the nation that it would cost £200m to bring the studios there up to HD standard, even though all of the main studios were already fully HD equipped. Hey ho.)
A room was chosen in the BBC's Media Village in White City in which to create a studio. The building is located on ground previously occupied by the White City Stadium, used for the 1908 Olympics. The Olympic rings are proudly displayed on the wall next to where the One Show studio was located and the finishing line is marked on the ground just a few metres from the studio windows. For those who like useless facts, the studio was thus 26 miles and 385 yards (give or take a yard or two) from Windsor Castle. The first modern marathon race was run in these Olympics - it began at the castle and ended in the stadium here, which was 26 miles on the roads plus 385 yards on the track. Every marathon run since then has been the same length. Fancy that.
The BBC Media Village consisted of the original block - White City One (which opened in 1990 and the BBC vacated in March 2013) and a cluster of buildings behind it that opened in 2004. The two most important were the Broadcast Centre, where Red Bee (now Ericsson) play out all the BBC and UKTV channels and the Media Centre which housed production offices for a number of programmes and BBC Worldwide. A smaller building - the Energy Centre - links the Broadcast Centre with White City One and the One Show studio was located in this. The Top Gear production office was also in this building - although until 2015 the programme itself was recorded in a hangar at the old Dunsfold Aerodrome near Guildford. Panorama was based at White City and for a while each programme began with Jeremy Vine standing outside the doorway to the building, the One Show studio window often seen in the shot.
Incidentally, from 2001 Watchdog was broadcast live from an office in White City One using an OB unit for technical facilities, then after a few years moved to an area on the ground floor of the internal atrium in the Media Centre. Transmissions were occasionally disturbed by the sound of distant hoovering from an upper floor. After all, as far as the cleaners were concerned, everyone had gone home. Maybe partly because of the hoovering, Watchdog moved back to TV Centre in 2010. (The show was made in The Hospital Club studio in Covent Garden following the closure of TVC in 2013.)
The One Show studio was on the first floor and had windows overlooking a square that was on BBC land (although accessible to the public), enabling the occasional live item to be presented outdoors without having to obtain special permission or control large crowds of passers-by. HMI lights were permanently mounted on the buildings to illuminate the Broadcast Centre and Media Centre, which were seen through the studio windows at night.
The studio was very small and only had normal office air conditioning so in order to prevent heat from the studio lights building up, LED fittings were chosen to light the set. Keylights were originally MSR lamps but these were replaced in January 2013 with brand new Arri LED Fresnel lights. All the lighting kit was supplied by ELP.
Technical facilities were provided by SIS. A fly-away gallery suite was installed in nearby rooms. This evolved into something much more permanent. In 2010 the studio was re-equipped to transmit in HD, using Sony HSC-300 cameras.
The original regular presenters in 2007 were Adrian Chiles and Myleene Klass, who was soon replaced by Christine Bleakley when she left to have a baby.
In April 2010 Chris Evans was appointed as the presenter of the Friday edition of the show in order to give it a more informal 'weekend starts here' feel. A few days later, Adrian Chiles announced that he was leaving the show and going to ITV to present Daybreak, ITV Football and That Sunday Night Show. Jason Manford replaced him.
Christine Bleakley left about two months later and after a few temporary presenters was replaced by Alex Jones in July. Meanwhile, Jason Manford left the show in August following stories in the press concerning his private life. After alternating presenting duties with two or three other men, Matt Baker was booked as regular presenter each Monday to Thursday in January 2011.
Although the studio was intended for one show - in fact The One Show - it was used occasionally for two other programmes during the day or at weekends. Watchdog Daily was broadcast for four weeks on weekday mornings from November 12th 2012.
Film 2010 (then 2011, 2012 and 2013) was made in this studio. The show was referred to as 'The Film Programme' within the BBC. It began in 1971 and was recorded in BBC TV Centre Pres B. Barry Norman was the well-known host for many years and it remained in that studio right up to its closure in 1996, after which it was made in the corner of various other studios at TVC.
Jonathan Ross took over as presenter in 1999. The show was then made using a single camera in a studio at the BBC's radio studios at Maida Vale. This apparently was the room previously occupied by the Radiophonic Workshop, which had been disbanded in 1998. Claudia Winkleman and Danny Leigh were co-presenters between 2010 and 2016 - making the show for the first few years in this studio - after which various people presented the show on a rotating basis. Film 2018 was the final version of the programme - it was axed at the end of that year.
In 2012 the BBC confirmed that as part of their 'Making Programmes Cheaply' - I'm so sorry, 'Delivering Quality First' policy they would be closing White City One in March 2013 and most of the other buildings in the Media Village over the following months. They would retain ownership but planned to sell the various leases. The One Show thus needed a new studio. They were told they had to move (along with a great many others) to New Broadcasting House in central London. The new studio is on the ground floor and was previously used by BBC London. They in turn moved to a new studio elsewhere in the building. The New BH studio has large windows looking onto the central courtyard as it was originally intended that this would be used as a BBC shop but never has been.
The last edition of The One Show came from this studio on December 20th 2013. The show moved to New BH over Christmas.
Meanwhile, the Broadcast Centre was retained and renamed the 'BBC Broadcast Centre' on the closure of TV Centre. Odd, since broadcasting the BBC's channels was being carried out by Red Bee, a private company, who also transmit from here all the UKTV channels, BT Sport, ESPN and Channel 4 and all its spin-offs. In 2015 it was announced that Red Bee would be rebranded as 'Ericsson Broadcast and Media Services', which trips nicely off the tongue as I'm sure you'll agree.
In June 2015 it was announced that the lease for these buildings was being sold to Stanhope (remember them?) The BBC remain as tenants of The Broadcast Centre, the Energy Centre and a smaller building called the Lighthouse. White City 1, the Media Centre and Garden House have been refurbished and let by Stanhope.
A plot of land to the south, previously used as a car park, was sold to Stanhope and from July 2019 was the location of a large modular structure containing two performance spaces run by a company called Troubadour. (These are the people currently running the old Fountain Studios in Wembley.) One was described as a '1,200-seat fully flexible theatre' and the other 'an 800-seat multi purpose state-of-the-art theatre.' Neither venue appeared to be particularly busy and in fact the only theatre production to be staged here (Peter Pan) closed 2 months early. In February 2020 Troubadour annonced that they would be dismantling the building and handing the land back to Stanhope, who had decided that they required it after all for further development. The structure was removed by April 2020 and is believed to be in storage.
The CCA, (Central Control Area) at TV Centre which for many years handled dozens of incoming and outgoing video and audio signals for transmission and recording was over many months during 2013 moved from TV Centre to the BBC Broadcast Centre which is of course only a few hundred yards down Wood Lane. Some might question the logic of spending millions of pounds on this apparently pointless exercise but such things can only be understood by the enormous brains of senior BBC managers and their consultants. We are not worthy to question such things. However, some with simple minds might wonder whether the £200m raised from selling TVC seems quite such a good deal when all these extra costs are taken into account.
Whilst not strictly within the remit of this website, it is perhaps worth recording that during the time of the 'three-day week' in the winter of '73/'74, the Questor's Theatre in Ealing was taken over by the BBC and used as a studio. At least three live programmes were transmitted from here. One, hosted by David Dimbleby, had Uri Geller as a guest. It is said that this show was the first time that he demonstrated his famous spoon-bending trick on live TV. Well I never.
Thanks to Richard Broadhurst for this little gem. Ian Dow has since added to it...
'...One of the cameramen cast doubts during the derig. Uri asked for his car key, and bent it before his eyes. He had to get a taxi home as he couldn't get it into the ignition!'
In fact, I'm told by Bob Scrivener that the BBC had used The Questors before this, in the late sixties. There were at least two hour-long programmes screened on BBC2 called Something Special. One featured Humphrey Littleton introducing some trad jazz and the other starred The Four Tops.
Yet another postscript...
Mark Mumford informs me that another theatre was taken over for a while and used as a temporary studio by the BBC. This was the Westminster Theatre in Victoria. He thinks this happened some time in the early to mid 1980s. Serviced by an OB unit it became the home of shows like Parkinson, My Music and a show about music hall performers called The Old Boy Network with Frankie Howerd, Arthur Askey, Jack Warner and several others. Alec Guinness was one of the guests on Parkinson - fresh from the latest Star Wars movie, so that would date it probably as 1983 when Return of the Jedi was released. Initially, I assumed that this was because a number of studios had closed at TVC to remove asbestos but that happened in 1988. Why this theatre had to be used is a bit of a mystery. TC4 was undergoing a major refurb in 1983 so it's possible they simply ran out of studio space at a busy time of the year.
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