Puppet studio/video effects workshop

tvc tc4 puppet theatre 150p
This section of a much larger plan shows the space between TC4 and TC5 which was originally the Puppet Studio, later the Video Effects Workshop and finally the Sport graphics area.  The dot in its centre is the pillar that can be seen on the photos below.  Bottom right of TC4 behind the South Hall is the smaller area that was originally TC4A.


The main phase of construction of TV Centre also included a couple of other interesting areas.  In the corner of TC4 was a soundproof door leading to a studio about 20 feet square called TC4A.  It had no equipment of its own but did have wall boxes with sound sockets connected to TC4’s mixer.  It was intended as a small band room and was occasionally used for this purpose in the early years.  It could also be used as a stand-alone studio for simple single-camera interviews but although it was soundproofed it had no fixed production lighting facilities.  When the studio was last refurbished it was reduced in size and converted into a kitchen and food prep area for TC4.

Through a door in the opposite corner of TC4 was another small wedge-shaped studio – although somewhat larger than TC4A and quite a bit higher.  This was the puppet studio and it had connecting doors to the studios either side so cameras could be wheeled in to make recordings.  It had no sound or vision facilities of its own.  It did have a simple scaffold grid with lamps on pantographs but how they were controlled I have no idea.  It was intended to replace the old puppet theatre in the tin shed in the yard at the back of Lime Grove but was only used for a few years.


tv centre puppet theatre in use alastair roxburgh 400p
This picture shows Gordon Murray and assistants in the new TVC puppet studio, making an episode of Rubovian Legends named Bees and Bellows.  It was filmed somewhere around the beginning of 1962, although it was not transmitted until October of that year.
Roy Skelton was one of the voice-over artists.  He later went on to become the voice of Zippy and George in Thames TV’s Rainbow and, most impressively, the voice of the Daleks.
with thanks to Alastair Roxburgh and www.rubovia.org


Gordon Murray was the head of the BBC’s Children’s department and also produced their puppet programmes but by the time the new studio was opened he was beginning to become somewhat disillusioned.  He apparently didn’t think the BBC really appreciated what he was doing for them.  He probably made around fifteen Rubovian Legends programmes in the new TVC studio. 

He was keen to move on from this method of filming as he was also becoming frustrated by the limitations of using puppets with strings.  He produced a pilot called The Minute Men (minute men – geddit?) using stop frame techniques rather than strings but his bosses in the BBC were not impressed.  Other short films met a similar reaction.  Rather depressed at this, he left the BBC in 1964 and set up his own studio in Albert Mansions, near the Albert Hall.  The Children’s Department was closed at his departure and the puppet studio was never used for this purpose again.

Or was it?! Roger Singleton-Turner has written to me to let me know that in 1973 he shot some inserts to Paul Ciani’s series Outa-Space in the puppet studio.  This involved some prehistoric monster puppets.

Two years after he left the BBC Gordon Murray went on to have huge success with his own company making Camberwick Green and then Trumpton.  One assumes that the senior manager who had driven him from the BBC did the decent thing and shut himself in a locked room with a loaded revolver.  Well – somehow I doubt it.

Meanwhile, Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate created Smallfims and sold such classics to the BBC as The Clangers, Bagpuss  and Noggin the Nog.  The days of stringed puppets on TV seemed to be over.  Well, at the BBC they were.  Sylvia and Gerry Anderson of course had other ideas and kept the technique alive – ultimately producing such ‘Supermarionation’ classics as Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet at their APF/Century 21 studios in Slough for ATV. (See the Gerry Anderson section on this website for their history.)


As mentioned above, the puppet studio probably became assigned to the schools television department around 1964 for the creation of graphics.  TC5 was the home of schools broadcasting and the puppet studio had good access via a large door to this studio as well as TC4.


tvc puppet theatre as fx studio 450p

Around 1983 this little studio became the video effects workshop where post production work was done on shows like Dr Who and various other dramas using BBC-developed multi-level overlay and early digital video processors.  In the workshop there was space for a camera and a small blue screen as well as VT machines and a complex video mixing desk with loads of bolt-on toys (see above).  However – its creation had been a long time coming…


Back in the mid 1970s a very small department of experts – who came to be called ‘Electronic Effects Operators’ had been formed – consisting of Dave Chapman, Dave Jervis and Mitch Mitchell – under the management of Bob Wright.  They were used primarily to operate the inlay and overlay desks in studio galleries during the recording of shows.  However – they realised that some effects were best achieved after the recording. In fact, you might say ‘post-production’ – although nobody called it that back then.

Previously, any video effects would have been done in the gallery at the time of recording.  Editing was simply that – making a final cut of the show.  Such things as colour grading for video material or any kind of video post production were almost unheard of back then.  Mitch describes how a typical effect was created…

‘The Blake’s 7 teleport effect with the white line was a hand drawn matte for instance so could only be applied to a pre-filmed sequence or after the video was laid down to tape.  These things were only possible after the availability of the video frame brought about by 1″ C format and frame stores of which Quantel were the main UK protagonists.’

These complex effects were done in ordinary studio galleries whilst the studio floor was being used for a set and light day.  However, this wasn’t ideal to say the least.  Mitch thought that it was ‘nuts’ to be using studio galleries for this kind of work.  Also – some were better equipped than others.  He pressed hard to have a dedicated area created for this expanding area of TV production. 


The requirement was for a room containing vision mixing and video effect facilities, some VT machines and a camera with a small area of blue screen and space to shoot models and miniatures.  The old puppet theatre was the perfect place but despite management promises that it was about to happen it was many years before it did.  As well as the obvious issue of the cost of setting it up it is possible that the union had concerns about these individuals apparently doing the work of several separate specialists.  Remember that in the 1970s the unions in Britain were not known for their flexibility and willingness to embrace change.  In fact, Mitch and the others were all union members, had all been cameramen and were already in some ways doing the work of vision mixers.  However, it has been pointed out to me that it was just as likely to have been the management of the various departments involved who would have been equally obstructive, arguing over whose empire this new facility should come under.

Anyway – sadly, after much frustration Mitch moved on in 1980 to do this kind of work for a newly created independent post-production company.  A year or two after he left, the video effects workshop was eventually opened. 


A few other EEOs were created to join the two Daves – Robin Lobb, Adam McInnes, Nick Moore, Danny Popkin and Ian Simpson.  The work done in this little studio was ground-breaking for its day and it was used not just for sci-fi programmes but also to paint backgrounds onto wideshots in dramas, add snow or other weather effects – in fact much of the kind of work done by very sophisticated CGI today.

Despite the success of the workshop, by the early 1990s things had moved on and video effects work was being done in post production suites either in the new stage 5 at TVC or independently by companies in Soho, so the workshop was eventually closed.  The area became used as a store for the visual effects department with many Dr Who props being left there.  Bob Richardson remembers seeing several Daleks huddled in a corner, lit only by a dim emergency light.  Sounds the stuff of nightmares.

During 1997 the area was converted into the Sport graphics area as it was linked to TC5.  For the previous few years Sport Graphics had been based in a tech room on the other side of TC5.  This in turn became the lighting, vision and remote camera operating gallery.

On 13th December 1997 the area went live, working into Grandstand.  It continued in operation right up to the end of 2011.  Most of the kit was the same as had been installed 14 years previously – there was not much point in upgrading it with the move to Salford looming.  With all its CRT monitors I’m told it got very hot in there on a Saturday afternoon!


The last Sport programme from TC5 and its graphics area was (appropriately) Final Score on 26th November 2011.  The studio remained mothballed until 31st December but then became part of the S&PP portfolio of studios and available for hire by anyone. The old Sport set remained until November 2012 – purely to be seen by the regular groups of visitors who toured the Centre every day.  However, early in 2012 all the cameras, vision mixers, monitors, lights – in fact anything that could be removed was removed rendering the studio unusable.

Well… not quite. As its swansong TC5 was brought back into life for the 2012 US Presidential elections in November.  A greenscreen was hung and Jeremy Vine presented the ‘state of the parties’ graphics from this studio.  Why in here and not in TC4, say, is a mystery.


tvc tc5 final score board 400p
The board in the entrance lobby to TC5 as it was at the end of November 2011.