Golders Green Hippodrome

During the second major refurb of Television Theatre in 1968/’69 production moved to The Golders Green Hippodrome.

 

 

The Hippodrome was built in 1913 by Bertie Crewe and became a successful touring theatre, rather than a music hall as all London’s other TV theatres were.  Its capacity was about 1,500.  For a number of years it was famous amongst other things for its annual pantomime.

Oddly, there is no mention of it in any BBC Handbook – however, it was in their possession by 1968.  It was converted into a TV studio with an audience of 700 – very large for a studio but of course less than half its original capacity.  The stalls floor was levelled and control rooms built beneath the first balcony.  The upper section of the fly tower and part of the wings were converted into a rehearsal room, band room, offices and air conditioning plant.

It is astonishing how much money was spent on the building in making these conversions if the intention was only to provide a short-term replacement for Television Theatre.  Possibly they thought that both would continue in use for some time, or maybe money in those days was no object. (I suspect the latter.) 

 

Series and one-off specials made at Golders Green included The Monday Show, Dee Time, The Val Doonican Show Dave Allen Show Basil Brush, Crackerjack!, Ken Dodd, Rolf Harris with The Young Generation, Lulu, Cliff (with Olivia Newton John), Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker, Topol and Cilla.  Phew! Those certainly were the golden years of BBC light entertainment.

 

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A typical LE show in Golders Green – with the great Roy Castle
thanks to Chris Jones and the tech ops website
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Ron Green on the Mole crane
thanks to Chris Jones and the tech ops website

 

Golders Green saw all the big names in front of (and behind) the camera – Producer/directors like Stewart Morris, Michael Hurll, John Ammonds, Yvonne Littlewood and Johnnie Stewart, and lighting directors like Dickie Higham and Ritchie Richardson were regulars – plus all the top LE crews.  Bob Marsland – later to become a celebrated Nationwide director, started life as a racks op at Golders Green, and some of the big names in LE in future decades were humble floor assistants in those days.

 

Chris Jones – ex-Golders Green studio engineer – has written to me with his recollections…

 

‘…The cameras were Pye Mk 6’s out of an old scanner which was disemboweled and the parts installed around the theatre.  Shift 2 always reckoned they produced the best mono studio pictures in the business.  This was achieved firstly by regularly ordering large numbers of enormously expensive Image Orthicon camera tubes from the valve engineer at TC on the basis that they were a long way away and there could be an emergency.  The junior shift engineer and the TA would then run the tubes up in the spare camera and select the finest ones, ‘rejecting’ all the others back to TC with trifling and scarcely discernible ‘faults’ for issue to other less finicky engineering crews.  Having harvested the best of the BBC’s stock of camera tubes, they would then introduce cunning, secret, and entirely unofficial variations to the standard camera lineup procedure.  Since no other studio in London had Pye Mk 6’s (they were bought by the BBC as an OB camera, and it hadn’t occurred to Studio Engineering Department to ask the OB people how to work them) there was no-one to argue, and to the delight of the vision staff, the system actually produced extremely clean pictures with bright crisp highlights that were ideal for the style of LE lighting then in fashion.  To this day one can pick out ‘Golders Green’ pictures in old black and white compilation shows. 

As it happened, a new camera tube really was needed in a hurry one Saturday night, when Camera 1 (mounted on a Mole Crane with Val Doonican seated on a ‘flying chair’ in the form of a sleigh for the live Christmas spectacular) went down completely during the pre-transmission audience warmup.  Producer John Ammonds gamely ploughed on with the warmup while a frantic engineering crew changed every unit in the camera head and CCU and the camera crew rigged a new cable.  When nothing worked it was decided as a last resort to try a new camera tube and – bingo – success!  In those days getting a picture out of a camera was a bit of a dark art, involving adjusting numerous knobs on the CCU, but with a sweating Bob Newton at the controls the camera was finally tweaked in as the show hit the air, with the shift TA (me) walking alongside frantically screwing the various replacement units back in as it tracked in through a set of chimney pots surmounted by Gojo’s (remember them?) dressed as scantily clad mother Christmases for the opening shot of the show to the delight of the audience (and the considerable surprise of Mr Doonican).

There was a big semicircular Pye sound desk in the sound gallery operated by the likes of the famous Adrian Bishop-Laggett and his peers – and lighting, racks and engineering lived in the old stalls bar.  The actual electronics for the vision mixer was in a rack by the Racks Op’s feet, and on many a cold winter’s morning only the patient application of a hairdryer borrowed from makeup would get a signal out of it.

There was one outgoing circuit, and one incoming.  Shows were mostly live – with somewhat hairy ‘up the line’ inserts from TC for titles, pre-records, and the infamous live inserts into the Cilla shows from one of the day’s MOTD scanners after a hasty re-rig in some suburban street near the match ground – or recorded remotely at TC or the Grove.  When the circuits disappeared in a flooded manhole somewhere between TC and the green one weekend a van with a VT machine and a magnificent radio links truck appeared, plus a substantial hoist to get the dish up above Golders Green, but despite our best efforts we weren’t allowed to keep it.’

 

 

For a year or two Golders Green continued in use even when Television Theatre was back in service and was used amongst other things for a regular chat show (The Monday Show?).  It was certainly still in use in October 1969 when the Dave Allen Show was recorded.

 

In 1972 it became a radio studio and was particularly popular as a concert venue for all kinds of music.  Many top rock bands played there and recorded sessions for Radio1 – especially for John Peel’s show.  The earliest I can trace is Queen in September 1973. 

The Sight and Sound In Concert series used the Hippodrome as a unique TV and radio venue using an OB unit.  The show was made in 1977 and 1978 – every Thursday during the series, performances by the latest up-and-coming bands were recorded and the concert transmitted on Radio1 and BBC2.  In those old analogue days it was possible to transmit the programme on both networks and for the high quality stereo sound on the radio to be in perfect sync with the pictures.

In more recent years the Hippodrome was the home of the BBC Concert Orchestra – the large stalls area providing plenty of room as can be seen below.

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The Hippodrome in 1984 during its radio studio days.
photo by John Talbot-Jones
with thanks to Roger Beckwith

 

The BBC announced its intention to leave the theatre in 2003.  In August 2004, radio comedy and other audience shows moved to the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House and the Concert Orchestra now performs at the Royal Festival Hall and various venues around the country.

During 2004 the theatre was visited by the Save London’s Theatres Campaign and they rather optimistically noted that the building was in ‘generally quite good condition.’  However, there had been some damage to the plasterwork in the auditorium.  They were nevertheless impressed to see that a partial ceiling collapse had been repaired by the BBC at considerable cost.  (All those  Sight and Sound concerts rattling the decorative mouldings, no doubt.) 

Since then, it does seem that the theatre’s condition must have deteriorated rapidly as later descriptions were not at all good.  In fact, even in 2004 it was put on English Heritage’s list of buildings at risk.

 

Once the BBC closed it, the future of the Hippodrome became very uncertain.  They put it up for sale in December 2004 but there were no buyers.  There was a strong local campaign to see it retained as a theatre but the cost of restoring it and repairing it was deterring potential purchasers.  Perhaps understandably, the BBC intended to make as much money as possible from its sale but Barnet Borough Council refused an application to partially redevelop the site to include flats, commercial outlets and offices, and gave the BBC two years to find an appropriate buyer.

Interested parties included the Central School of Ballet and a Danish dance company but in March 2007 a short term lease was taken out by the El Shaddai International Christian Group, who wished to turn the theatre into a place of worship.  A change of use was agreed by the local council and it is now still used regularly as a church by this organisation.  The ownership of the building passed to El Shaddai and they carried out the repairs and renovations necessary to restore and preserve it.

The Hippodrome appeared on BBC2 again in December 2013 as the El Shaddai Church was the venue for the gospel round of Gareth Malone’s workplace choir contest Sing While You Work. The building looked great and the choirs sounded fantastic!