London has dozens of spaces that are marketed as 'TV studios'. Some have been converted from existing buildings with an industrial past, or are simply rooms within office blocks. These range from those with proper lighting grids, flat resin floors and the latest high definition technology to those that are little more than a basic 4-waller.
However, this website ignores many of the above and instead deals mostly with the main large studio complexes that have a history that in many cases go back to the origins of ITV and the BBC. I have included independent TV studios if they have produced a variety of work, and film studios if they also have TV studios on site or have been used to make a number of television programmes on their stages. (Hence Denham isn't included - I believe they only made feature films there.) I have also added the studios Gerry Anderson created for his TV series in the 1960s.
In order to put a limit on things I have left out the many small studios that can be found all over London - most of them making programmes for digital channels (news, shopping, bingo, porn etc). Some others available for hire are often little more than a black-painted room with a scaffold grid, a white or chromakey cyclorama and maybe a couple of dressing rooms and a green room.
This website focuses on the buildings and facilities of the various studios over the years. I'm aware that too many dry facts could be very boring indeed. So I also cover the programmes, the artists and some anecdotes associated with the studios whenever I am able to offer up a nugget of human interest. However, I would strongly recommend what might be considered a companion volume to this website - Louis Barfe's truly excellent history of British light entertainment - Turned Out Nice Again. It's a glorious wallow in all those performers who never seemed to be off our screens from the mid '60s to well into the nineties and in some cases well beyond. If you have worked in the industry you will also know many of the names behind the scenes that he mentions.
A television studio is a factory floor. It is simply the most efficient way a particular type of television programme can be made. If it could be made cheaper anywhere else it would be. Don't believe those who say that TV studios are no longer needed because of the sophistication of current cameras and other flyaway technology. Using a warehouse or very basic film stage might look cheaper but once you have installed a lighting grid and all the lights, dimmers and cabling, paid for several days of rigging, booked a generator, laid a TV friendly floor, discovered that the roof leaks and the walls let in the sound of local traffic and aircraft, there is no local catering and you have to put most of the crew up in a hotel - many a production manager has discovered that the fully equipped TV studio looks incredibly good value for money after all.
Nevertheless, several types of programme that used to be made in studios are now shot on location or in offices/warehouses/deserted factories. However, this is not an inevitable process. For most of the first decade of this century, Watchdog used the production's own office as a studio. They drove an OB truck up once a week, turned on the TV lights and recorded a show. The next day it was an office again. Like many others, this show used to have a regular booking in a studio at TV Centre but cost forced them to find an alternative. Then in 2009 when Anne Robinson returned, the look of the show changed and a set was built inside the office that hid all the desks and windows. This caused so many headaches to sound, lighting and cameras that in 2010 the show went back to TC2 at TV Centre. One assumes BBC Studios offered a cheaper price than before, so the sums made sense to the programme and thus everyone benefited. (Except perhaps for SIS Live, the OB company, who sadly now are no more.) Of course, a couple of years later TV Centre was closed so the show had to find another studio - it is now made in the Hospital Club studio in Soho.
Most of Britain's multicamera studio-based television is still made in or near London, despite the new studios in Glasgow and Salford. Outside the capital are a number of medium/large (6,000 sq ft and over) multicamera studios - in Salford (3), Glasgow (1) and Maidstone (2).
There is a BBC studio in Cardiff (Llandaff studio A) but this is almost only used now for Crimewatch and will be closing around 2018. The BBC's drive-in studio in Belfast is mostly used for local programming. The new BBC drama centre at Roath Lock in Cardiff makes single-camera drama although it has been used to record a series of Only Connect using an OB unit for facilities. Wales currently has one independent studio in Cardiff - the 4,800 sq ft Enfys studio - mostly making local material but is now the home of Only Connect.
Setting aside those studios permanently making soaps, news, sport or daytime magazine shows - London's main medium-to-large (6,000 sq ft and over) fully equipped production TV studios in January 2016 are at BBC Elstree (1), Elstree Studios (2), Fountain (1 very large or 2), The London Studios (2) and Pinewood (2). Elstree 'George Lucas' Stages 1 and 2 have no lighting grids or TV floors but they do now have a suite of control rooms and cameras that can be used for either stage. Pinewood's F stage has connections to the galleries for TV-three (the Lotto studio) but it does not yet have a TV floor or TV grid so cannot really be described as a TV studio. There are plans to convert either stage L or M or possibly both into TV studios (they are very similar to TV-one and two) but this is unlikely to happen until the new film stages are open on the other side of the road - so maybe some time in 2016 or 2017.
London lost 4 superbly equipped 8,000 sq ft studios when TV Centre closed in 2013 plus the excellent 10,000 sq ft TC1. Teddington's 9,000 sq ft studio closed at the end of 2014 whilst Wimbledon closed in August and Riverside in September 2014. Two stages at Wimbledon re-opened in August 2015 but are really only suited to single camera work. This is all causing serious problems to programme makers and will continue to do so until 2017 when TC1, TC3, Riverside studios 1 and 2 and possibly stages L and/or M at Pinewood are open. Mind you, will TLS still be open in 2017?
Other smaller but still useful studios available for general use are to be found at TLS, The Hospital Club and Cactus Clapham. The old Cactus studio in Kennington (now called Spectrecom) is open again but is relatively small and has very basic facilities. Kentish Town Studios had a long-term booking between 2011 and 2014 but the two studios there are now available for hire again. Princess Studios has several long term bookings but it might be worth checking availability with them. The RADA studio (formerly the Drill Hall) has been used to make some TV using flyaway facilities but is a very basic studio theatre, not a TV studio. The BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House has televised concerts which are also going out on the radio. However, despite having excellent sound facilities and a well equipped lighting grid, the studio has no television facilities - it all has to be hired in for each booking.
A few years ago, a number of small studios closed including 124, Capital, Molinare, MTV, Technicolor (Disney), Mediahouse and Stephen St. Teddington closed all its small studios in the summer of 2013 and of course TV Centre's small studios were also lost in the same year.
Sky's studio centre in Osterley contains two small-medium studios (1,900 & 3,100 sq ft) which are used for arts and sport programmes (plus all their dedicated news and sport studios) and a long and narrow 5,500 sq ft 'double' studio that opened in 2011 in their new Sky Studios building which is very occasionally used for some general programme making but is mostly filled with sport. These studios are currently only available for programmes that will be transmitted on Sky's channels but are occasionally used by independent production companies as well as Sky's in-house production departments. There have been rumours of a new large studio for entertainment shows being built at Sky for a number of years but these have so far come to nothing.
There are a handful of large TV studios in England that are very much in demand, mostly making big shiny floor shows. TC1 will be rejoining this list in 2017 but at around 10,000 sq ft it is quite a bit smaller than most of these. NB - Elstree stages 1 and 2 ('George Lucas' stages) are technically film stages but are often used for TV as they share a well-equipped suite of control rooms and cameras that are owned by BBC Studios and Post Production (S&PP).
On 12th January 2016 it was announced that Fountain had been sold to a property developer. The studios are likely to close at the end of 2016, making the acute shortage of facilities in the London area even worse.
Most multicamera studio productions are designed to fit into a space around 90ft x 70ft. Although the BBC have converted two stages at Elstree Film Studios for TV use, they are not able to turn productions round as fast as they could at TV Centre. It is only really practical to have two different shows per week in those stages (although three have shared a stage by keeping all 3 lighting rigs in place) and standing sets are preferred. BBC Elstree D is also a slow studio to turn round from one show to the next. The 4 studios of this size lost at TVC have thus not been replaced like for like and along with the closure of Teddington there is a serious studio shortage of the most popular 90 x 70ft size. It is worth noting that BBC Glasgow and MediaCity Salford (dock10) each have only one studio of this popular size.
These 90 x 70 studios are used for entertainment programmes of all kinds including music shows, gameshows, panel shows, chat shows, sitcoms, sketch shows, standup shows, magazine programmes, kids shows, quizzes, current affairs debates etc. Sadly, they are no longer used to make TV drama. The last example of this on the main channels was probably The House of Eliott, made at TV Centre from 1991-1993. (The exception in London is EastEnders, which is still made using traditional techniques in multicamera studios but those studios are purely dedicated to that programme.) Sky, however, have briefly broken this trend - producing a season of live multicamera dramas from their studio 6 in the summer of 2009 and again in 2010 for their Sky Arts channel. Good for them!
Below is a table showing the 90 x 70ft (approx) studios in Britain and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Elstree Studios stage 8 is the same as 9 except that the galleries are on the first floor. Pinewood TV-two is the same as TV-one (they share galleries). TLS 1 is the same floor area as TLS 2 except that it also has permanent audience seating. Fountain's 13,400 sq ft Wembley studio can be divided into two 6,500 sq ft studios. (The 'missing' 400 sq ft is taken up by the huge doors and the space that separates them.) They are a very useful 92 ft long but only 61 ft wide when used individually. However, there are plenty of shows that would fit comfortably into this sort of area.
Some people may disagree with me on some individual categories below - they are purely my opinion. After all, how do you define when a toilet is 'near' or 'far' from a control room? (I think when you need to go, you probably know.)
green = good, red = not so good, black = neither good nor bad.
All the above studios have the following: flat TV floor, at least 6 HD cameras, fully equipped galleries, lighting grid (bars or monopoles), green room, production office, make-up room, wardrobe room, coffee bar/canteen, audience handling facilities - but some are much better than others.
Many sets are designed to fit into a 90 x 70ft studio so a studio that is even a few feet larger is very handy as it provides extra room. The two Pinewood studios are particularly useful in this regard. Any with a width less than 70ft can create problems if a set was previously designed for another studio. BBC Elstree D is relatively narrow at 64ft but it has audience seating along one wall which more than compensates for this. Similarly, TLS studio 1.
Only having 1 scene dock door slows down rigs and derigs as all scenery, rostra, props, hired lights, LED screens, prompter kit, camera cranes etc. have to pass through the same door. Having easy access to the studio for deliveries is essential - a door opening directly to outdoors where large trucks and smaller vehicles can unload is ideal. The worst studio for this is MediaCity HQ2 but the TLS studios are not much better.
Dimmers mounted on lighting bars or in the grid are difficult to access for fault-finding or resetting tripped circuits so this is not good. They are much better in their own dimmer room.
Monopoles are preferred by most LDs over motorised bars as they enable lights to be positioned closer to where they need to be. However, a rig with many dual-source lamps on bars is sometimes quicker to cope with short-notice production changes on the day. This is known as a 'saturated rig'. Bars usually have DMX data points too, which speeds up the rigging of automated lights.
The big fully-equipped and fantastically expensive TV studio is still very much alive and well, despite numerous attempts over the years to declare its imminent death. Since the closure of TV Centre, production companies have found it very difficult to find available studio space at the busy times of the year. In Maidstone a large studio opened in 2005 and has since been attracting a number of bookings. However, an old Anglia production studio in Norwich re-opened in 2006 as an independent facility but has picked up very little work, probably due to its remote location. One of the two larger stages at Wimbledon Studios was converted into a TV studio in 2011 with the intention of attracting entertainment shows with a studio audience and a standing set but they couldn't make the sums add up and it closed in August 2014. It is now simply a 4-waller again.
As for the future, Riverside Studios has closed for redevelopment. The new building will contain two TV studios - one a little larger than the previous 6,000 sq footer and the other about 4,000 sq ft. However, during the three years of construction, its very useful (and busy) studios have been lost, adding to the problem.
Early in 2012 Pinewood completed the construction of the huge 30,000 sq ft Richard Attenborough stage which, although not a fully fitted out TV studio, they hope will attract large scale TV entertainment shows using an OB truck for facilities. Construction of a second very large stage (Q) was completed in 2013. Sky too are said to have plans to build a large studio at their site in Osterley - but 'when?' is the question.
A few years ago the BBC declared that by 2016, half of its output would be made outside London. The question is - are London-based entertainment productions prepared to make their shows in Salford or Glasgow? The answer is - sometimes, because they are made to do so by the BBC management's policy. 'Producer Choice' no longer exists as it once did since several London-based programmes have been forced to move to Glasgow or Salford whether they liked it or not. A number of gameshows and one or two sitcoms are regularly made in BBC Glasgow's excellent studio - this seems to be a popular and successful arrangement with those involved. In contrast, Peel Media's dock10 studios in Salford still appear to struggle to attract work from London-based production teams. Paying for travel and accommodation for heads of department and artists adds a cost to the budget that doesn't apply when making a show in London. Most shows made in Salford are Manchester-based such as the BBC shows Match of the Day, A Question of Sport and Blue Peter and the ITV shows Countdown, Jeremy Kyle, University Challenge and Judge Rinder. The Voice audition rounds have been made in Salford and Citzen Khan is based there but it is hard to think of many other BBC entertainment shows that were recorded in Salford in 2015.
The industry has now completed its move to making every programme in high definition (HD). This development has technically been as big as the change from black and white to colour. Sky is transmitting over 70 HD channels with more being added all the time.
3D is also technically possible in many studios but lack of consumer interest has prevented this from taking off. What may give financial managers sleepless nights is the next development - Ultra high-definition. This has two formats: 4K, which has a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels and 8K which is 7680 x 4320 pixels. The 8K version is also known as Super Hi-Vision. Both systems are significantly sharper than current HD pictures, the 8K version said to be like looking through a window and 'better than 3D.' In effect, 4K is four times sharper than conventional HD and 8K is 16 times sharper.
8K Ultra HD will probably only be used for cinema projection but the 4K system is already being introduced in OB scanners and will probably be in some studios by 2017. Sony brought out two 4K CineAlta cameras in November 2012 and the other manufacturers have followed with their new cameras. 4K TVs are already on the market and BT Sport launched the UK's first UHD channel in August 2015.
Sky will be introducing some 4K channels later in 2016. Some of the Rio Olympics in 2016 will probably be transmitted in 4K. Interestingly, following research into the size of typical screens and viewing distances in homes and viewers' plans for replacing existing TVs with ever larger screens, the BBC indicated in January 2015 that it would be seriously looking at moving into Ultra HD within the near future. TC1 and TC3 are expected to be equipped for 4K when they reopen in 2017.
Before the Second World War there was only one television studio centre in London - Alexandra Palace - but there were 21 film studios, each with several stages. By the early 1960s the number of film studios had dwindled to a mere handful but on about half a dozen sites around the capital television was thriving. The decline in the film industry coincided with the dawn of television so a number of studio sites were ready and available to be converted to the new entertainment medium.
The film studio capacity had exceeded the demand and many closed - either to become television studios or to be lost to redevelopment. Amongst the most famous was Denham, which in its day was the largest studio in the country with 7 stages. It closed in 1951. (Apparently, the BBC briefly considered siting its new Television Centre there, rather than at White City. I gather that the Post Office couldn't guarantee to get the necessary sound and vision cables laid in time so it had to be rejected.)
Many film studios had been built to accommodate the system of quotas introduced by the government in 1928. This stipulated that at least 20% of all films shown in cinemas in the UK must be made in Britain. The Hollywood studio companies therefore made hundreds of 'quota quickies' in studios all round London - usually very cheaply but crucially giving invaluable experience to actors and crew members. After the war the quota was dropped and a tax was introduced on cinema ticket sales. These two things combined to create a rapid decline in the UK's film industry and the inevitable result for many studios was closure. A contributing factor of course was television itself. People were not so inclined to go to the pictures once or twice a week if they had a TV set in their own living room. This was particularly true from about 1955 when the ITV companies began broadcasting.
Those old film studios that found a new life with television included Lime Grove (Shepherds Bush), Riverside (Hammersmith), Teddington, Highbury, Wembley Park and National Studios in Elstree (which in 1938 were owned by Joe Rock).
The arrival of television...
The table below shows the year each studio opened. The chart only covers London's TV studios. It is interesting to note the two main clusters of construction - around the launch of ITV and then during the early to mid 1960s. News/presentation and small studios are not included unless they have special significance or are part of a larger complex. Studios marked in red are no longer in use.
Studios marked 'TC' are at BBC Television Centre, 'LG' were at Lime Grove and 'TLS' are at The London Studios.
Studios marked with an asterisk* were converted into a TV studio from previous use as a film stage.
It is worth mentioning that although HDS Studios closed as TV studios, they were kept on as dry-hire 4-wallers. They have now been taken over and are marketed as West London Film Studios. Also, Capital closed for redevelopment in 2008 but in 2010 the studios were reopened by an Iranian TV channel (Marjan TV Network) and were used by them. The studios closed for good in 2014. Meanwhile, Marjan have moved to Wimbledon Studios, which went into administration in the summer of 2014 so the stages there are no longer available for general hire although one or two may become so following refurbishment in 2015.
Incidentally, if you are wondering who actually invented television - I have written a very brief history at the start of the Independent TV Studios section.
Finally, I have taken the liberty of copying a superb sketch drawn in 1995 by Dicky Howett. Dicky is a very knowledgeable expert on the history of British television cameras. He owns dozens of them - most of which he has returned to full working order. He and a colleague, Paul Marshall, run Golden Age Television Recreations - a company that rents out period television equipment for use as working props in films and TV programmes. Their expert knowledge has been called upon several times by me in the writing of this website.
Anyway - below is a drawing of the principal monochrome television cameras in use in London's studios from 1937 to the beginning of colour in the late '60s. Despite at first glance looking like a rough sketch it is in fact incredibly accurate and I have often found it invaluable in identifying camera types. It was originally printed in 405 Alive magazine and I hope the people associated with that publication and Dicky himself won't mind me copying it here...