Television Theatre

(revised September 2019)


tv theatre 1950s 450p (1)
Shepherd’s Bush Empire – aka BBC Television Theatre, as it appeared from 1953 – 1968.
tv theatre 1955 boom and cameras
Early days in Television Theatre.  In later years the proscenium arch and side boxes were always hidden behind scenery as the stage was built right out into the auditorium.
I reckon these are Pye Photicon cameras.  Anyone disagree?
I’m told by Roger Brunskill that the cameraman with his back to us is Dave Thomson and who am I to argue?


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  It was filmed unofficially in TV Theatre by one of the camera crew during rehearsals and is well worth a look.)


The theatre in 1955.  The stage is to our left, the main auditorium to our right.  The orchestra pit has been covered over to increase the depth of the stage so the band has moved to the camera right stalls.  The camera dolly in the foreground is on the narrow central tracking platform that extended forward from the stage.
Later, the space occupied here by the musicians was also filled in and they moved to a band room built under the balcony seen on the right of this picture.
Note the beautiful plasterwork on the front of the dress circle.  Later this would all be hidden behind fashionable grey-painted plywood.  Very attractive it was too I’m sure.
with thanks to Bernie Newnham for Photoshop work above and beyond the call of duty!


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.

tv theatre this is your life 450p
This Is Your Life.  A regular Television Theatre booking.  Several things to mention here:  The show began in 1955 – the first edition was presented by Ralph Edwards, who was also the presenter of the original American version.  The first victim was Eamonn Andrews, who regularly presented from the second show onwards up to 1964 with the BBC.  It was revived by Thames from 1969.  I’m guessing that this photo may be from the first edition as Eamonn Andrews (on the right) does not appear to be the presenter.  Note the set!!! I remember my Nana having curtains like that in her kitchen.  Clearly, they weren’t expecting any wideshots to be taken.  Also, note the guests sitting very awkwardly on chairs that are clearly too low for comfort and decorum.  Say what you like about the Golden Age of Television, production values have certainly improved a little since then.



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 .


Many of these classic light entertainment spectaculars were produced and directed by Stewart Morris.  Stewart was hugely respected by everyone who worked with him.  He took no prisoners when directing and had a reputation of knowing everyone’s job better than they knew it themselves.  I remember him stopping one recording because the second trumpet in the band had played a cracked note.  Woe betide the console operator who didn’t fade out the singer’s backlight so it could still be seen on the studio floor as the crane pulled out and if the crane swinger caught a follow spot shadow on the artist then he was in very serious trouble indeed. 

Stewart would always use the same camera crew – Ron Green’s crew 7 – the same sound supervisor – Hughie Barker – and the same lighting director – Dickie Higham.  Most of the shots were taken on cameras 1-4 but on some shows he often liked camera 5 to hunt for unscripted shots.  There was of course no room for a 5th camera so it had to dodge about and grab what it could.  If the cameraman was forced out of the way then he got a bollocking for not trying hard enough. 


There is a well-viewed example of camera talkback during Stewart’s direction of a Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube which is worth a watch if you haven’t already.  Apocryphal stories about him directing include…

…a camera going into a close up of Shirley Bassey and Stewart shouting “Too tight” at which point camera 2 crash-zoomed in and he screamed “No – too tight not two tight!!!!” 


That one may or may not be true but one cameraman I shan’t mention recalls the following non-typical conversation where someone actually got the better of him for once…

Stewart:  Stay with her two! (the artist sliding down a rope, in close up, not very smoothly)

cameraman:  It’s a really tricky shot Stewart.

Stewart:  Surely not to a man of your calibre, Peter!

cameraman:  That’s how I know it’s a tricky shot.

Stewart:  (pause) There’s no answer to that.

You may have noticed the slight giveaway with the name there.


Stewart Morris really was a one-off and I don’t think we have seen the like of his talent since.  I lit his last studio show – Michael Ball’s  Song For Europe in 1992.  It was my first really big LE show as lighting director and I was utterly terrified – not least having worked with Stewart many times before as a camera assistant, crane swinger, racks operator and console op.  I was expecting him to make my life hell but apart from a couple of well-judged remarks he was utterly charming.

Sadly, Stewart died on January 10th, 2009.  Have a look at the tribute page on the website for a few typical stories.  I think it’s fair to say that to some people he was considered a bully and occasionally completely unreasonable in his demands.  However, he was also highly innovative and made everyone stretch themselves to heights they never knew they could reach.


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.  (Actually, that’s not quite true.  The Monday and Wednesday shows were live and the Friday show was pre-recorded on the Tuesday.)  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.

tv theatre jim'll fix it 300p
A typical light entertainment show being recorded in the Theatre during the 1970s.  This shows nicely how the lighting rig extended right over the old stalls area.  Interesting to see they are using booms rather than radiomics.
tv theatre gen game ian perry 450p
above – The Generation Game in rehearsal.  That’s Ian Perry on the camera in the middle.  I’m afraid I don’t recognise the cameraman on the Mole or the bearded gent sporting the smart flares.  Any clues anyone?
tvtheatre gen game 450p
This photo of The Gen Game was grabbed by Geoff Hawkes.  It shows how small the stage was – the magic of television (and 50 degree lenses) made it seem much bigger.
Note camera 2 in the stalls, camera 1 on the end of a Mole crane and camera 3 on a ped to its right.
with thanks to the tech-ops website
tv theatre tom petty 450p
The Old Grey Whistle Test at TVT – with an audience, which was unusual for that show.  The band is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the year 1978.  Due to its simple, back to basics shooting style, all the cameras are on peds on the stage here.  The Mole crane can be seen parked in the background.  Behind the camera on the right of this image you can just make out the audience in the stalls.  The other side of the auditorium on the left is taken up with the band room and general studio clutter.
Of course, the theatre is now a popular venue for rock bands performing in London.


At first in 1953 the Theatre was operated as an OB.  After a few weeks some Pye Photicon cameras – ex Lime Grove – were installed but the Theatre was still crewed by the OB department.  These cameras were not as sensitive as the OB image orthicon ones and extra lighting was required.  This was powered by two generators parked alongside the theatre – connected to a row of floodlamps suspended between the dress circle and upper circle.  Clearly, subtle lighting was not a requirement in those days.

When the BBC first moved in, the building was adapted for TV use with only minimal alterations.  Many changes would take place over subsequent years.  The proscenium arch is only 31 feet wide and the stage only 30 feet deep so initially it was extended downstage over the orchestra pit to give more space.  On camera right of the theatre the stalls area up to the front of the dress circle was turned into a new orchestra pit.  An extension to the stage about six feet wide was constructed forward from its centre into the stalls to accommodate a camera dolly.  Apart from this camera, the rest were static and positioned around the theatre on tripods.


The theatre underwent two major refurbishments during its life.  These both meant closure of at least a year.  The first was from May 1956 – July 1957 and involved the installation of motorised lighting bars, the filling in of the stalls on camera right to extend the stage level forward and the construction of a band room beneath the dress circle on camera right.  New Marconi Mk III image orthicon cameras were also purchased.  Thus, lighting levels could return to a sensible level and lighting directors (not that they were called that then) could be more creative.  Camera development was moving at a pace in those years and the Marconis were replaced with Pye Mk 5 cameras in the early 1960s.

The stage was extended further into the auditorium to about 20 feet downstage of the pros arch.  The rest of the auditorium on the left side of the theatre was occupied with audience seats.

The centre tracking line was invariably occupied by a camera crane or motorised dolly – from the late ’60s usually an MPRC ‘Mole’ crane.  The crane had a protective steel bar around the cameraman’s head to prevent him from being decapitated by the dress circle during over-enthusiastic track-outs.  The Mole could track back to beneath the dress circle to give wide shots of the whole stage (with the band room on the right and the audience about three feet lower on the left.)  By panning left the camera could take shots of the stalls audience and by craning up and looking back could also take shots of the audience sitting in the dress circle.

Above the dress circle was the upper circle.  This was hardly ever occupied by studio audiences – only for very rare specials with a major star.  The view of the stage from the upper circle was terrible – obstructed by lights and speakers.  Even if the first few rows were very occasionally used, the rear part of that circle was blocked off by soundproof screens and the seats there never used.

Following the 1957 refurb the lighting gallery was positioned on the camera left side of the theatre in the dress circle.  The production and sound galleries and the apparatus room were squeezed in a row behind the stage.  From this time the Theatre was treated as another studio and crewed by staff based at Lime Grove and Television Centre.

During the first major refurbishment, production was transferred to the King’s Theatre Hammersmith – see the page in this section for more info on that venue. 


tv theatre 1964 dave lawson
Looking across the theatre stalls from left to right much as the previous photo. The area previously occupied by the orchestra is now built up to stage level and the ornamental plasterwork on the circle front is hidden behind planks of grey painted wood.
This picture was taken on 8th December 1964 and shows Tim Healy and Dave Lawson of crew 4 on a motorised Vinten.  In later years this dolly was replaced with an MPRC Mole crane.
The show was probably a gameshow called First Impressions.
Photo by Geoff Fletcher. With thanks to Dave Lawson and the tech-ops website.




tv theatre extension louis barfe 450p
The back of the Theatre, showing the 1968/69 additions.  These included an extension along the side of the building and a new air conditioning plant.
photo thanks to Louis Barfe


The next major refurb of Television Theatre began in 1968.  It included an addition to the building extending about 2 metres outwards along the right side of the building, cantilevered from the first floor.  The production and sound galleries were moved into it along with the apparatus room and a tea bar on the top floor.  The studio was also ‘colourised’ at this time and was equipped with EMI 2001s. (These were replaced with Link 125s about ten years later.)

The lighting gallery moved across the theatre to camera right in the dress circle to bring it closer to the apparatus room.  The console operator (VS) sat next to a window that overlooked the auditorium with a reasonable view of the stage.  The window could slide open which was very handy during lighting sessions when the LD was on the floor and could shout up to him – and of course he could shout back!  This was one studio where radios were not essential.

By the end of the 1960s the lighting rig had been transformed.  Along the front of the upper circle was a row of beamlights fitted behind beaded glass that spread the light and effectively formed a large softlight filling the whole stage.  These were devised by Ken Ackerman so were known by all as the ‘Ackers’ lights.  All over the auditorium were motorised bars – the beautiful plaster ceiling having had ugly holes punched in it for the supporting cables.  Onstage, lights hung from motorised ‘double tiered’ bars so that some lamps could be focused onto the set or cyc whilst others shone downstage as backlights.  There were positions all over the balconies and auditorium where lamps could be mounted.  When the theatre reopened in 1969 it was a superbly equipped venue and had one of the first Thorn Q-File computer lighting consoles.


Shows were transmitted live from TV Theatre in the early years but by the 1970s were mostly recorded on VT machines at Lime Grove – just round the corner (eg That’s Life!), or at TV Centre – the cables running under the road a few hundred yards along Shepherds Bush Green and up Wood Lane. Of course, Wogan was transmitted live – or at least, each week 2 out of 3 of them were.

During the second major refurb, production was transferred to the Golders Green Hippodrome.  See the section below for more info on that venue.


tv theatre lighting control
Above is the rather cramped lighting gallery following the 1968 refurb.  It remained pretty much the same right up to the closure of the theatre in 1991.  To the left of this photo was the sliding glass window looking into the auditorium.  The photographer is sitting in the lighting vision supervisor’s (console op’s) chair.  To the right sat the lighting director and to his right the vision operator (racks).  I sat in all three of these chairs on occasions between 1985 and 1991.  The console is a Thorn Q-File.  Above can be seen a geographic mimic of the studio with tiny low voltage lights indicating which dimmers are being driven.
tv theatre plan

This is a drawing of Television Theatre as issued to technical managers in 1982.  The letters in squares are camera points, the numbers in circles – wall boxes.
The diagonal line that seems to indicate the downstage edge of the stage on camera right is simply the edge of the floorpaint.  All that area on the downstage camera right was at the same level as the stage.
The dotted line indicating the circle front is certainly not to scale. It was much wider across the auditorium.
tv theatre auditorium seeing lighting gallery 450p
Looking across the theatre towards the lighting gallery – showing its good view of the stage.  The technical equipment store was beneath it – the band room was closed off beneath the circle on the right.
photo thanks to Ian Jackson
tv theatre auditorium towards stage ian jackson 450p
The view from the circle.
photo thanks to Ian Jackson
tv theatre sound desk type d ian jackson 450p
The ‘type D’ sound desk.  Who needs motorised faders?  In those days nobody had heard of 5.1 – it was just 1.0
photo thanks to Ian Jackson.


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.


tvt from stage 450p
This picture taken shortly before the closure shows very nicely the layout of the theatre as a studio. For some reason it all looks terribly small here but it never seemed that way on TV. Or indeed when you were there.
photo thanks to Peter Watson


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…


‘…Although not used, the front of house lighting bars still existed as it was deemed too expensive to remove the mechanics.  The house electrician said that they would like to use the bars but rigging was a problem as the bars would only come down to 7 ft from the floor.  This of course was where the stop switches had been set to give the 3ft dead for rigging when the extended apron was in place.  He did not realise this and thought that the BBC rigged from ladders!’