(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 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.
There was also a curious little room called the ‘Baird Spotlight studio’ that used a kind of fixed camera to take a midshot of a presenter. This was used for continuity announcements or for ‘talks’. The presenter was not lit using conventional lighting but their head was scanned by a ‘flying spot’. The reflected light was picked up by a photoelectric cell. Thus, from the presenter’s point of view they were sitting completely in the dark, apart from a rapidly scanning intense beam of light and had to memorise any announcements without being able to refer to notes. Obviously autocue was many years in the future. The Baird system was of course black and white but because of its poor resolution and its tendency to pick up certain colours better than others, the presenters also had to wear macabre coloured make-up designs so their faces were visible on screen.
Both TV systems had rooms with telecine machines enabling films to be broadcast.
Astonishingly, almost the whole ground floor was occupied with the transmitters and coolers. How the electromagnetic radiation didn’t affect the electronics only a few feet above is a bit of a mystery. The signal was fed via enormous cables to the aerials on the mast. They look like thick black pipes on the drawing above.
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 (the link is at the top of the 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 section.)
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…
Nothing to do with television studios but a fascinating story none the less…
From the beginning of the war the Luftwaffe had used systems employing radio beams to enable bombers to find their targets. The first, ‘Knickebein’, was relatively easy to jam. The second, X-apparatus or ‘Wotan 1’, proved more difficult and before effective countermeasures were in place it was used for targeting the terrible raid on Coventry, amongst other towns and cities. By the end of 1940 this too had been beaten by the British intelligence services. A new, more complex system was therefore anticipated and sure enough, it duly arrived.
Early in 1941 the Luftwaffe began to use a new bombing and navigational guidance system called Y-apparatus or ‘Wotan II’. It employed a transmitting station on the Cherbourg peninsula that broadcast a signal down a narrow beam on a particular frequency. The beam was to be aimed directly at the target for that night. The lead aircraft in the formation flying along the beam received the signal and rebroadcast it on a slightly different frequency. This was picked up at the Wotan II station and the position of the aircraft determined by the time delay. Thus the bomber could be given a signal at precisely the right moment to release its bombs.
As luck would have it, the frequencies used were within those covered by the Alexandra Palace transmitter. The message went out to call back BBC engineers who could fire up the transmitter again and they were found in the nick of time. Thanks to some excellent intelligence, countermeasures were in place ready for the first night the system was used operationally by the Germans. The signal rebroadcast from the aircraft was picked up at Swain’s Lane receiving station and sent along cables running through various tubes and tunnels to AP. It was converted back to the same frequency used by the Wotan II transmitter and broadcast by the powerful television transmitter. Thus the aircraft received the same signal twice. This was then of course rebroadcast back to Swain’s Lane, thence to AP, then back to the aircraft and so on and so on.
On the first few nights the AP transmitter was used at low power simply to confuse the Germans – who assumed that their equipment was faulty. Later it was turned up in strength and the system howled round like a badly set PA system – rendering the whole thing useless. What is striking is that the AP transmitter, although only intended to provide television pictures to the London area was sufficiently powerful to cover the whole of southern England for this alternative clandestine purpose! It is perhaps worth pointing out that although the tower is only 300 feet high, the building itself is on a hill more than 300 feet above sea level.
Thus for a while, many towns and cities all over Britain were spared destruction at night. Odd to think that if the BBC had not begun its regular television broadcasts in 1936 then thousands more civilian lives might have been lost in the war. Who says television never did anybody any good!
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…
‘There was a workshop for constructing scenery, and for the painters who wallpapered and painted the sets. Scenic artists painted backcloths on paint frames. Although the transmitted picture would be in black and white, scenery was painted in colour. There were two main reasons for this. The first because if actors were in an all grey set, they would find it very depressing. In a set with colour they would give a much better performance. This was particularly true in Light Entertainment. The other reason was that it was assumed that one day television would be in colour and scenic artists who had been trained to use colour would lose their skills if they always had to work in tones of grey. The designers had to choose colours for their tonal value and, if they wanted a contrast, not to put two different colours with the same tonal value next to each other. Red was not much used as, although it is an exciting colour to the the eye, it came out as a rather dark grey. Orange (Tangerine) worked much better. Shades of Khaki were pleasant and it was easier to predict what shade they would come out on the screen. Large areas of black and white were not used as the cameras could not cope with such a great contrast. For this reason, white shirts were not used. They were dyed in a weak solution of coffee which could easily be washed out afterwards.
There was a large stock of scenery, flats, doors, windows, balustrades etc., which could be arranged in many ways, new pieces being made as required and re-decorated for every show. There was a number of stock sets such as the Georgian set and Oak Panel set which were in units of walls, doors and so on. The scenery was mostly stored in the Alexandra Palace Theatre, which had not been used as a theatre for many years, and also in many other areas.’
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…
‘The whole cabaret company, totalling 66 with dressers, hairdressers, stage manager and stage staff, had been flown over from Paris, lock, stock and curves for the biggest and costliest show the BBC has ever imported (transport apart it cost £1000).
Viewers saw the glamour and glitter of Paris night-life brought right into their homes – plus a little extra something that the BBC made the show-girls wear above the waist.
In the interests of British decorum, the four French semi-nudes became demi-semi-nudes by adding discreet scarves and sundry strips of material to what, for argument’s sake, you might call their dresses.’
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…
‘If an actor “dried”, i.e. forgot his lines, the assistant floor manager had a cut key for the sound. He (or she) would press this, cutting out the sound, then shout the line to the actor, then restore the sound and the actor would hopefully carry on and the audience at home would not notice except for no sound for a few seconds. However, Nancy Price, who by this time was a very old actress, was in “White Oaks”, a play she had performed many times in the theatre. She dried early on in the play and never managed to pick up her lines, so the rest of the cast fed her the lines by saying, “You do want to do this, Grandma”, to which she replied, “Yes” or “No”, and as she was playing a hundred year old lady, nobody noticed.’
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…
“Carissima” was a far more complicated show than “Bob’s Your Uncle”. The orchestra was at the back end of Studio A, and the music piped to Studio B as required. There were several set changes in each studio as there was not room to have them all up at once. The show was in both studios for two days, building the sets and rehearsing on the first day and rehearsing and transmitting live in the evening on the second day. This meant that no other programme could be done live for those two days. All went very well for the first day and half way through the next, until the director realised he had not left time to rehearse the last quarter. Some sets by this time had not been put up. It was decided that the show should not be cancelled and so it went ahead live at the scheduled time. The first three quarters were very good but the last quarter left a great deal to be desired with artists peeping round the set in vision and not knowing if they were on or off camera.
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…
Because Equity used to insist that any film recording could only be made of a repeat performance – when everyone re-assembled and did it again that is – this gave rise to the AP shift system of working the weekend and then the following Thurs/Fri. All the rest of the two week shift was day on/day off.
Until 1955 “any telerecording made could only be viewed privately on BBC premises and not transmitted.”
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…
‘Bob Dougall was reading a piece to camera in studio B (the one with the remote control cameras, so there was only Bob, the floor manager and myself present). With no warning, as far as Bob was concerned, there were several quite loud bangs followed by a final crash that must have been audible over the mic. Bob never twitched while this was going on. When he got to the end of the item he looked at the camera with the ghost of a smile on his face and said “Viewers may be a little concerned at the noise. Don’t worry, it was only the ‘please be silent’ notice falling off the wall.” This board was about 5 or 6 feet long and a couple of feet tall, and was normally about 12 feet from the floor above the lighting gantry.’
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 Mk VII 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…
‘…Studio A had the Marconi Mk VII (3 off, brand new!) for Newsroom, News on Two, News Review, Westminster, etc., (plus a black and white EMI 201 for the newsreader shot on the lunchtime BBC1 news which we also did, to give that soggy Vidicon look that the punters were so used to!)
Studio B did the rest of the monochrome BBC1 weekday transmissions (including Town And Around, the SE opt-out) using four remote controlled EMI 201s. When we left there in 1969 the studio still had the glass booth (complete with water supply) for Baird’s intermediate film camera in-situ half way along the south wall….’
‘…I was at, and involved in, the last news from Alexandra Palace on Friday 19 September 1969. In fact, I’ve probably closed more TV studios than anyone else in the Beeb – Lime Grove, TV Theatre, the Greenwood, you name it. I wonder if they’ll invite me back in 2013 to close TVC for them?’
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…
‘…The last news on BBC2 from AP was marked (!) by the vision mixer – not me – being sick over the buttons as the opening music ran, after previously celebrating too much (with the rest of us) down the Club beforehand. It was not noticeable on output – that is when he found the camera one button for the newsreader, under said pile of sick. The director looked a bit worried at the time, I’m told….’
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:
A 50 channel Strand 2-preset lighting console.
74 5kW dimmers with a maximum load of only 60kW! (A peak demand of 70kW ‘may be tolerated’)
24 motorised lighting hoists with barrels 4ft, 6ft and 10ft long depending on their position in the studio
a BBC EP5/502 8 channel 2-bank vision mixer
a colour caption scanner for 35mm slides
an inlay desk with monochrome camera for video effects including CSO
a DK4/501 sound desk with 2 groups of 7 channels each
an ‘episcope’ in a separate room. This was a rostrum camera with a vertically mounted Link 110 used to produce recordings of the various graphics that often featured in OU programmes. It was sited in the area previously occupied by the old Baird Spotlight studio.
One Cintel 16mm colour telecine machine. (Cintel had its roots in Baird’s original company – one of his great achievements was the design of telecine machines, so his technology lived on at AP.)
Three Ampex VR 2000B 2-inch VTR machines (a fourth was added later)
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…
‘We used to wheel a Pye Mk 6 in from Studio A and the animation would be done by doing assembly edits on an Ampex Quad VT, advancing the edit point a frame or two at a time. Took forever. That was around 1972.’
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.
The new Open University Production Centre in the Perry Building, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes began making programmes on 29th September 1981. They used purpose-built studios designed and operated by BBC staff. The new centre had two TV studios – studio 1 was 3,600 sq ft and studio 2 was 1,098 sq ft. Studio 1 was equipped with the four Link 110 cameras taken from Ally Pally and the control rooms were sensibly on the ground floor (designers of MediaCity please note!). Studio 2 operated on a ‘drive-in’ basis – using the OU’s outside broadcast truck and cameras for facilities. Studio 1 had a saturated lighting grid with 45 motorised hoists and dual-source Kohoutek luminaires on sprung pantographs and studio 2 a simpler system with tracking pantographs.
Studio 1 was occasionally used for non-OU BBC regional and national productions. One was Primetime – in fact it was a daytime show aimed at a retired audience and presented by David Jacobs. He is said to have told the crew that the studio was the finest he had ever worked in throughout his entire 40 years in broadcasting. What a charmer!
The studio was also used on the odd occasion for inserts into Noel Edmonds’ House Party – and live inserts into Children in Need came from here in 1985 and 1987. Margot Hayhoe remembers that when she was running a drama training course in the mid ’80s they had to use the MK studio as no other was available. Steve Williams also tells me that during the 1980s it was used on several occasions for Children’s programmes. In Philip Schofield’s autobiography he recalls that a couple of series of his kids’ show The Movie Game were recorded at Milton Keynes, for reasons he never understood. He also mentions that the camera crew were ‘very elderly’ and would occasionally fall asleep during recordings. I can’t believe that can possibly be true.
The centre was very well equipped with graphics and editing facilities as you might expect with the type of technical programmes they often made. There were also two sound studios.
John McCafferty has confirmed that studio 1 closed in December 1991. However, studio 2 continued in use for a few years for simple single-camera inserts and interviews etc. Studio 1 was mothballed for a couple of years but was then turned into a conference room.
The last OU course-based television programme made by the BBC was broadcast in December 2006. These days, OU programmes are made as co-productions with the BBC and are part of the normal package of science, history and arts documentaries and feature programmes shown on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4. Typical examples are Stargazing Live, Andrew Marr’s History of the World, Coast, Airport Live, An Hour to Save Your Life, Light and Dark, Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet, Bang Goes the Theory and Brits Who Built the Modern World. Some might say that the BBC should be making these sort of programmes anyway without any OU involvement. Others might wonder whether the intellectual rigour behind some of them is quite as demanding as the old course-based programmes the OU used to make. I couldn’t possibly comment.
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…
‘…In 1900 it literally became the People’s Palace because by Act of Parliament it was given to the people of London, with its Park, in trust for all time.
That was threatened by a proposal by officials of Haringey council, the current trustee, and the Palace management to dispose of the whole building to a commercial developer, Firoka Ltd., lock, stock and barrel.
Since one single council, Haringey, took over the charity in 1980, important decisions have in practice been mostly made by Alexandra Palace’s senior paid officers, not the elected trustees – who have now been largely reduced to rubber-stampers of already made decisions. For twenty years, the Palace has been run as if it were a commercial exhibition business and conference centre set in a municipal park, and the charitable aspects have been quietly sidelined.
Senior council officers, and senior Palace management, through their lawyer, represented to the councillors and the charity commission that Ally Pally charitable trust would be insolvent but for council support, and has never balanced its books in living memory, so the whole building should be disposed of. They also claimed that the developer’s commercial activities (including a casino) would still be “charitable in a modern sense” and should be free of all that red tape. But the truth is out there – and it’s a little… different.
To get their consent for the sale, the councillors and charity commission were solemnly assured by the charity’s solicitor that “this is a charity which has not, within living memory, ever balanced its books”. This idea was repeated again and again – even getting as far as a Parliamentary committee. Great soundbite; only trouble is it’s complete bunkum. According to the real audited accounts, the charity has, both before it was transferred to Haringey and after, made surpluses.’
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 cheaper 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?