(revised January 2022)
Of all the TV studio centres in London this was one of the most loved. It was a higgledy-piggledy rabbit warren of corridors, staircases, fire escapes and studios, apparently piled on each other in random order. When I worked there in the late 70’s and 80’s it seemed a dark and mysterious place with locked rooms, old gallery suites and other areas that had clearly once been used for this or that but were now either empty or about to be converted into some other use. You could easily get lost but the place seemed magical and full of hidden secrets.
It was also the setting for the acclaimed BBC drama The Hour (’11, ’12) which concerned a fictional current affairs programme in 1956. Sadly, the studios themselves were long gone when they filmed it.
Of course, its history went right back to the earliest days of film making as these extraordinary photographs show…
The film years…
The original film studios were opened in 1914 by the Gaumont Film Company. The site was previously owned by a railway company. Lime Grove was originally a cul-de-sac leading up to this industrial area. Later, when the film studios were built, the road was continued to meet with Brookland Road at the Goldhawk Road end. This is how the studios ended up looking somewhat out of place in what was otherwise a residential road.
When first built, the studios consisted of the large glazed stage seen above with ancillary buildings behind. The stage floor was at first floor level with workshops beneath. It was 90ft x 40ft x 20ft high with an end section 30ft high.
In 1917 they decided that relying on daylight was not really practical in England (especially in winter) so the glass was blacked out and Westminster arcs and Boardman northlights were installed.
In 1927 a block was completed to the left of the stage with workshops and offices. Two years later, the glass walls were boarded up in and the studio became a sound stage. However, the site was then completely redeveloped – re-opening on 29th June 1932. The original stage was demolished and a new two-block building was completed by the company (now known as ‘Gaumont-British’), divided by the smaller building that had served the original glass stage. In order to fit as many sound stages as possible onto the relatively small site some were built above each other and a long, narrow stage was constructed within the centre block.
The stages and theatres were numbered differently from the way the BBC later named them. For clarity, I shall refer to them by their BBC letters but just for the record – here is a table indicating how they were originally numbered:
|stage 1 (dubbing theatre)||theatre 1|
|stage 2||studio H|
|stage 3||studio G|
|stage 4||studio F|
|stage 5||studio D|
|stage 6||studio E|
|theatre A||theatre 3|
|theatre B||theatre 2|
|theatre C||theatre 4|
The BBC chose to use letters, rather than numbers – following on from studios ‘A’ and ‘B’ at Alexandra Palace. One might assume that the absence of ‘C’ was due to the pre-war plan to convert the theatre at AP into a studio. Apparently not. A memo dated 1950 from the Senior Superintendent Engineer, Television explains that there was to be no studio ‘C’ at Lime Grove. This was to avoid any confusion between the control room of ‘C’ and the planned ‘Central Control Room’ which would be known in BBC parlance as the CCR. He can’t have had much faith in his staff. It’s hard to imagine quite how the CCR could ever have been confused with a studio control room but there we are. Thanks to his foresight, countless disasters were avoided.
Oddly, the BBC altered the order of studio numbering – not just replacing letters for numbers. There appears to be no logical reason for doing this, except that the BBC’s letters go more or less from left to right across the building whereas the Gaumont-British numbers went from right to left. Clearly, as ever, the BBC knew best.
The use of numbers rather than letters to ‘name’ TV studios seems to have begun around 1955. Prior to that, the studios at AP and here at the Grove were given letters as was the norm with most film stages at the time. In 1955 Rediffusion named their studios using numbers at Television House and Wembley, and the BBC followed the fashion at Riverside in 1956 with R1 and R2 and then of course at TVC with TC1 – TC8. Granada used (even) numbers from 1956 and ABC also used numbers at Teddington from 1959 but curiously, ATV continued with the original film stage letters at their Elstree studios in 1960.
Even today, most London TV studios have numbers whilst most film stages have letters. However, in the regions it was the norm for the main TV studio in a centre to be called ‘A’.
The only film studio that I can think of that uses numbers for its stages is Elstree Studios, which opened after reconstruction in 1948. Actually – just remembered – Twickenham with stages 1, 2 and 3 and the old MGM studios in Borehamwood had stages 1-10. Pinewood and Shepperton of course use letters (although the new stages at Pinewood on the North side of the road are numbered because there are not enough letters in the alphabet to continue the sequence.) Maybe there has never been a logical reason, just the whim of the studio’s owner.
The image above shows the studios shortly after rebuilding. The block in the centre was built in 1927 – originally housing facilities to support the glass stage. This was adapted to contain stage 3 (studio G). The block on the left was completed in 1932 and the right hand block in 1933, replacing the original glass stage.
The North Block on the left had F at first floor level and D and E at fourth floor level above it. The South Block on the right was not as deep as the North Block – its depth was the same as the old glass stage. H was at first floor level in this block with the viewing theatres above it. Behind this were a couple of other buildings which connected at basement level – in the BBC’s day they became the Presentation Block and the East Block. All very confusing! Behind all this was an open area – ‘Smith’s Yard’ – that led to a low building that later contained the BBC Club. We could all eventually find our way there but the route to and from the studio was often interesting.
The flat roof of the North Block was intended to provide space for outdoor filming in the absence of a back lot although how often this was actually occupied during the film years is not recorded. It was, however, used by the BBC for Percy Thrower’s Gardening Club. Much of the show came from a studio set but apparently a full garden including a greenhouse was built up there for some filmed sequences. It’s a wonder it didn’t all blow away.
The BBC added G’s production galleries above the main entrance in the centre and on top of that at fourth floor level was a rather ugly bridge linking the two blocks. The Gaumont-British logo on the face of the north block was still visible during the long years of BBC occupation.
I wondered for a while how the picture above could have been taken in such a narrow street. David Aley has written to me with the answer. The image is from a promotional film made in 1930 whilst the studios were being rebuilt. What we see here is actually an architect’s model, with realistic clouds back projected.
So – on the first floor of the North Block was the largest stage – stage 4 (studio F), which was 11,500 sq ft and 136ft x 85ft. It had a tank in its floor that in the BBC’s day would become yet another room on the floor below. F was never converted into a television studio by the BBC but was used as a scenery store. In the ’80’s a mezzanine was built in it to construct production offices for Breakfast Time. It is perhaps surprising that it was never converted to be used as a studio rather than, say, studio G. It was actually bigger than TC1 would be and its space would have been incredibly useful on many productions.
Above it on the fourth floor were the stages that became studios D and E. Wall to wall – stage 5 (D) was about 5,300 sq ft – 82ft x 65ft at its maximum and stage 6 (E) was about 4,000 sq ft and an irregularly shaped 70ft x 64ft at its maximum. Once D had its firelanes added by the BBC it became 73 x 55ft but with several bites out of that for the control rooms and doorways.
In the centre between the main blocks was stage 3 (G), a 6000 sq ft long, narrow space about 112ft x 54ft wall to wall at its widest. This studio was an elongated ‘L’ shape with a bite taken out of one corner for the goods lift. However, once the BBC added fire lanes all round, it was only 34 or 35 feet wide for much of its length which became very limiting. In the South Block, stage 2 (studio H) was about 3,000 sq ft and about 40ft x 70ft plus an extra little bit in one corner. It was on the first floor with viewing theatres above it. G and H were connected by a soundproof door in one corner of each studio.
There is an excellent website at www.gaumont-british.co.uk that includes the original specifications for the studios including these quite interesting facts…
dressing rooms – 49 with accommodation for 600 people
fresh air supply – 14 tons per hour
generators – 6, weighing 8 tons each
generated power – 1 megawatt, or 1.5 megawatts over half an hour
fire prevention – 3,000 sprinkler heads with 6 miles of pipe
laboratory output capacity – 2,000,000 feet of film per week
total floor area of the 5 stages – 90,000 square feet
For those of an electrical bent – if you’ll pardon the expression – the following might be of some interest…
‘The overhead lighting is suspended from trollies on a system of runways across the ceiling, enabling lamps to be concentrated and banked as required. The upper gallery is also served from the lift for transporting the large sun-arcs, which weigh nearly half a ton, and the lower gallery has a trolley system for quick manipulation of lamps. All electrical apparatus for lighting and power is controlled from switchboards on the floor and galleries. The ordinary lighting of the buildings, offices, dressing rooms, etc., in fact everything over and beyond the stages has necessitated the use of ten miles of cable and two miles of steel conduits. The cables which supply the current to the various stages weigh over fifteen tons. The great changes which have been brought about in electrical equipment are demonstrated in the fact that whereas in the early days of production six lamps were in use on the floor, now over 300 are needed. These vary from 500 to 5,000 watts for incandescent lighting, and from 25 to 150 amperes for arc lighting.’
A lighting bridge suspended from the grid with arcs and electrician during 1933. I don’t remember Nationwide being lit quite like this. The film was Britannia of Billingsgate. No, me neither. Image from the BFI stills library
The Gaumont British website also includes some photos of the stages taken soon after construction, in a pristine state that they were never to see again! Those BBC staffers who worked there might just be able to recognise them…
Richard Stibbons has informed me that the studios were possibly unique in having an artesian well, guaranteed to supply unlimited amounts of water to the processing lab. Except unfortunately it didn’t. Richard was a BBC engineer who enjoyed exploring the parts of the building nobody was supposed to go into and he discovered some files containing letters dating back to the 1930s. He found three years of increasingly bitter correspondence relating to broken drills and a great deal of wasted money. It seems that the well only ever produced a trickle of water and the project was abandoned. He says the well head was still there in his day behind the canteen block (ex processing labs) and they used it as a station earth.
The studios made many successful films including Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in 1935. Jessie Matthews was a big star at the time and most of her films were made here. She was worked very hard by the studio, often beginning at 06.30 and sometimes not finishing till 3.00am. She collapsed from nervous exhaustion during the shooting of Evergreen. The studio’s sympathetic answer was to have a bed in the corner of the stage so she could rest between shots. They certainly knew how to look after their stars in those days.
It is worth mentioning that as well as a succession of pretty ropey ‘quota quickies’, Lime Grove also produced a fair number of classics of the British cinema in the ’30s and ’40s. There are too many to list here but almost all the stars of British cinema must have worked here at some point and many highly-regarded films were produced.
However, by 1937 Gaumont-British were in financial crisis and had to close Lime Grove, concentrating their film making at their Gainsborough studios in Islington – a converted railway power-house. Later, when war broke out in 1939 it was considered that the Islington studios were dangerous as they had a huge chimney attached to the building that might come crashing down on them if a bomb landed nearby. Thus during the war Lime Grove became the home of Gainsborough Films, making many popular historical romances and wartime propaganda films such as We Dive at Dawn .
20th Century Fox had closed their studios in Wembley (later, they would become the home of Associated-Rediffusion TV) and they leased studio space at Lime Grove making films like HG Wells’ story Kipps, starring Michael Redgrave and directed by Carol Reed. This leasing agreement ran out in 1942.
In 1939 J Arthur Rank became chairman of Gaumont-British and in 1942 the studios came under the ownership of the Rank Organisation, thus becoming part of that immense empire. However, that company too was in deep financial trouble by the end of the 1940s and in 1949 Rank sold off everything except Pinewood in order to keep that studio going. All the contents were auctioned off in October 1949 and on the last day of the auction it was announced that the BBC had bought the studios. Curiously, some three months previously the BBC had said they were not interested in purchasing Lime Grove.
At the time, there was speculation that this was some sort of partnership between Rank and the BBC with both organisations keen to explore the possibility of making films using television methods. The BBC had certainly been developing their ‘telerecording’ system of recording television pictures on film but the results were technically barely good enough at the time to transmit to tiny television sets, let alone blow up on a cinema screen. In fact, Rank probably had no such arrangement with the BBC but he was certainly keen to see if he could make his films as cheaply as television plays. In fact, within a year, HDF at Highbury studios would be using high definition cameras to attempt to achieve just this and Rank had a finger in that pie too.
The BBC years…
Thus in November 1949 Lime Grove Studios were bought by the BBC as a ‘temporary measure’ until their new Television Centre was ready. They paid £230,000. The first show was broadcast from here in May 1950 and ultimately the BBC stayed for 42 years.
There were four main production studios here which are detailed below. However, two other areas on the site were almost as interesting and just as productive. The first was known as Studio P.
In 1953 the presentation department for BBC TV transferred from Alexandra Palace and the small studio they used was given that designation. It was 560 sq ft and a little over 20ft square. It was originally equipped with two Pye P.E.S. Photicon cameras and a ‘Type A’ sound desk. Although it was primarily used for continuity links with an in-vision announcer, it was for a while the home of a magazine programme called Highlight. There were three regular interviewers – Cliff Michelmore, Geoffrey Johnson Smith and Derek Hart. These three went on to become the presenters of the highly successful Tonight programme which began broadcasting in February 1957 from the Viking studio in Kensington – known by the BBC as ‘studio M’. That programme eventually transferred to one of the main studios in Lime Grove.
This small studio was the only one available when Prime Minister Anthony Eden transmitted Britain’s first ever Ministerial Broadcast (August 8, 1956). This was a rallying cry against Egypt’s President Nasser who had the previous month nationalised the Suez Canal and against whom Eden was about to take Britain to war. Eden appears to have been somewhat stressed out or perhaps unwell on the day of the broadcast. He cursed the ‘communists’ at the BBC for the long walk to the studio which involved him having to climb several concrete staircases, for the fact the studio was stiflingly hot and because he believed they were deliberately shining lights in his eyes. There are politicians today who believe much the same.
Dan Cranefield has contacted me. He began at Lime Grove in 1958 before moving on to CAR and thence to Ally Pally. He tells me that a few other programmes were also made in this tiny studio. These included Match of the Day, every Saturday.
Ray Liffen has kindly sent me a schedule that came from Lime Grove on April 4th 1956. You can see how often studio P was used…
Studio P – announcement by Vera McKechnie
Studio P – Cy Grant (singer with guitar)
CTR – Children’s International Newsreel
Studio P – announcement
Studio E – All Your Own (magazine programme presented by Huw Wheldon)
Studio P – announcement
Studio P – Sunday At Six (religion)
CTR – Twinkle Twinkle
Incidentally – studio P contained an in-vision clock which was a model of Big Ben. This was naturally known as ‘Little Ben.’ I’m told it wasn’t used often but every New Year’s Eve it was wheeled out – much easier and cheaper than sending out an OB unit to the real thing.
This little continuity studio was referred to by all at Lime Grove as ‘studio PP.’ The story went that Brigitte Bardot was being interviewed on an edition of Highlight and was asked about her pets. She said she had a dog and a little monkey who was very naughty as he ‘went pee-pee all over her flat’. In 1950s Britain this was highly controversial language and not at all the kind of expression to be heard on the BBC. I wonder what they would have made of Jerry Springer the Opera.
Studio P closed in 1961 when Pres A opened at TV Centre and the area was converted to a film transfer area.
We shall come to the main studios shortly but first, another of those curiously unique BBC activities that found a home at Lime Grove. As part of their public service remit, the corporation realised that it had to create children’s TV programmes too. These may now seem rather quaint and naïve but they were hugely popular at the time and were made with immense care by the small department involved.
Children’s programmes frequently involved puppets back in the ’50s so the department soon attracted a group of expert sculptors, designers, puppeteers and story writers. At first, they had no base as such but in 1955 they were given a tin shed in Smith’s Yard as their home. Within this building, plays involving marionettes were rehearsed and then transferred into one of the studios where they were transmitted live. In fact, this tradition of puppetry had started some years earlier at Alexandra Palace. Muffin the Mule had begun there and then transferred to Lime Grove. He was, as it happens, one of the acts in the first programme to be transmitted from the Grove.
Andy Pandy (’50-’57) was another favourite. This famous character was created prior to the tin shed being taken over by the puppet department. He was the invention of Freda Lingstrom who wrote the scripts with Maria Bird, who also wrote the music. The first programme was transmitted live from studio D on June 20th 1950. Audrey Atterbury was the puppeteer who remembers the first transmission as being something of a disaster involving tangled strings. Apparently she went home and had a little weep. Bless. However, more programmes were made, all transmitted live, until somebody realised that if they were filmed they could be repeated. It wasn’t just the Teletubbies who knew that toddlers love to see things over and over again. So twenty-six fifteen minute episodes were filmed on 16mm.
The same team went on to make Bill and Ben. Twenty-six of these were made – most were filmed at Lime Grove but some were apparently made at Alexandra Palace and also rather curiously at Kingswood Warren, the BBC’s engineering research establishment. Rag, Tag and Bobtail (’53-’55) – my personal favourite as a discerning toddler, in case you were interested – was filmed here too and from 1955 when the tin shed was available, another famous series – The Woodentops (’55-’58) – was rehearsed in it and possibly filmed in there too.
Studio E became the home of ‘The Puppet Theatre’ which was a generic series that included Toytown and Rubovia Legends. These were transmitted live so sadly we have no record of them now. They were written and produced by Gordon Murray, who later left the BBC to make the Trumptonshire series of animated stories.
Incidentally, E was the home of Captain Pugwash (1957-1966), a classic children’s (?) programme that used cut-out painted paper and cardboard animated captions rather than puppets. They were written by John Ryan and produced by Gordon Murray. Although later made in colour on film (from 1974), the 86 original 5-minute shows were shot live with the studio’s cameras. Several old-time cameramen recount tales of hilarious episodes involving Seaman Stains, Master Bates, Roger the cabin boy and several other dubious characters who may or may not have existed. Urban myth or truth? I’ve no idea.
Andrew Brownfoot designed and made scenery for some of the puppet shows made at Lime Grove. There is an interesting website called Trumptonshire Web at www.t-web.co.uk/trump_ab.htm where he describes his early career and I hope he and the webmaster won’t mind me quoting a section of it here…
‘Down the centre of the Tin Shed a long puppeteer’s bridge made of Dexion spanned three puppet stages, so the scenery could be set up for an entire play. When the transmission day arrived, the entire set up would be taken down, moved to a TV studio and re-erected ready for camera rehearsals, and finally at 5pm the programme would be transmitted. Tele-recording had not been developed at that time and so everything went out live, including a few embarrassing moments when things went wrong. Puppets would get entangled with each other or with the scenery, which during Beauty and the Beast I remember, fell over and then was picked up by a giant hairy arm of the floor manager in full view of the transmitting camera!’
It is perhaps somewhat surprising that following Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, The Woodentops and Rag Tag and Bobtail, the BBC didn’t carry on filming children’s puppet series so they could be repeated. Picture Book too was on film and was shown over and over again as part of the Monday to Friday pattern of Watch With Mother to several generations of children throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Apart from a few editions of Muffin the Mule, these were the only children’s series of that era to be preserved on film. All the rest went out live so are lost for ever.
The main production studios – the 50s and 60s…
From 1950 Lime Grove quickly established itself as the hub of BBC television and its four main production studios created thousands of hours of drama, entertainment, children’s programmes, sport and current affairs for the next forty odd years.
Studio D opened on 21st May 1950, equipped with three ex Tel-OBs CPS Emitron Mk 1 cameras – a fourth was added later. D was mostly used at first for children’s programmes. Studio G came into service later that year on 23 December 1950 with four Pye Photicons, being used mostly for light entertainment programmes. Then in February 1952 Studio H was commissioned with CPS Emitrons and used for talks programmes. Finally Studio E opened on 21st August 1953 with four Marconi Mk III Image-Orthicon cameras. (Actually not quite – the Mk IIIs were not ready in time so apparently Mk Ib camera heads were used with the Mk III CCUs for the first few months.)
With several manufacturers all producing cameras in those days it is perhaps not surprising that the BBC hedged its bets by ordering different makes for different studios. Each camera type had its strengths and weaknesses but often these were very much down to personal preference. A memo from a senior engineer (the same one who wished to avoid using the name studio ‘C’) explains that the reason why D was equipped with CPS Emitrons was that they were the least satisfactory of the cameras used by OBs, and that OBs had been allowed to buy a new set of Pye cameras as long as the redundant CPS gear was diverted to studio use.
A series of tests took place in July/Aug 1950, moving several shows from B at Alexandra Palace to H at Lime Grove, which had been temporarily fitted with Marconi image-orthicons to test them out. Cecil McGivern thought that CPS Emitrons gave the best pictures under ideal conditions, but when conditions were less than ideal (which was most of the time – he noted the infamous ‘peel’ and that captions in CPS studios had to be written in green), Pyes were more consistent. He apparently hated the Marconi I/Os, and said they were very ‘unsubtle’ compared to the CPS cameras. This anti-Marconi attitude amongst some BBC engineers seems to crop up time and again over a surprisingly long period.
Late in 1956 studio D had its cameras replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3 cameras. These were in turn replaced early in 1965 with 625-line EMI 203 Image Orthicon cameras (Bill Jenkin recalls operating the old cameras in January and when he returned from a course at Wood Norton in June they had been replaced by the EMIs.)
Studio E had its Marconis replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3s in 1959 and in 1964 these were replaced with 625-line EMI 203s. Studio G had its Photicon cameras replaced with CPS Emitron Mk3s in 1956 and then EMI 203s in 1964. H probably had its original cameras replaced in the late 50s but in 1964 it became the BBC’s experimental colour studio and was equipped with Marconi BD848 colour cameras – more on this below.
Although it opened as the home of Children’s TV, studio D soon specialised in drama. This famously included the first Dr Who episode, which was broadcast on November 23, 1963. There had been a non-TX pilot made a few weeks earlier but this was considered to have several problems – partly the script, partly performances. The character of the doctor was modified, as was his granddaughter Susan and another pilot was made. This was as rare then as it is now! The first episode was eventually recorded but only a handful of edits were allowed for cost reasons so most of it was ‘as live’. When it went out it had a modestly successful reception by critics and audience. However, the figures were lower than expected but this was probably because President Kennedy had been assassinated the day before. The BBC again did something unprecedented – they transmitted the same episode the following week. This time, millions watched.
The first story was set in the stone age and frankly was a little dull. Audiences began to fall off and the show looked as though it would be axed. However, the next storyline involved the Daleks – and the rest is history.
A very good drama about the making of the first Dr Who series was broadcast on BBC2 in November 2013 called An Adventure in Space and Time. It suggested that studio D was considered a poor studio and very small. That’s a little unfair. It was of course smaller than TC3 and TC4 which were both open by then but it was a reasonable size and was used by many dramas of the period. It was in fact about 73 x 55ft within firelanes. The play also implied that the set remained standing in the studio for the whole series and was rehearsed on during the week. In fact, that’s very unlikely. Like all programmes at the time it would have been rehearsed in a church hall and only moved into the studio for one day each week. It’s pretty certain that the set was built and lit overnight or possibly the day before, the episode was camera rehearsed during the day and it was recorded over a couple of hours or less in the evening – which makes the result on screen even more impressive.
Studio E has very little information about it from this period. However, Keith Rodgerson has informed me that there was a show actually named after the studio. He reckons that a children’s programme in the late ’50s in a pre – Blue Peter mould was called Studio E and was presented by Vera McKechnie. The opening title shot involved her travelling up in the old cage lift and walking into the studio.
Keith worked in the dubbing theatre in the early ’70s and occasionally explored the more remote corners of the building on weekends when things were a little quieter. (I used to do exactly the same at TV Centre.) He tells me that he found a strange door near the film archive vaults on top of a fire escape and upon opening the door found a dark little room full of heating pipes which had apparently been regularly polished and gleamed like the Crown Jewels. Somebody apparently saw it as their role in life to keep those pipes clean and shiny. Only the BBC could employ somebody who felt that their contribution to the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world was to make sure that the pipes were shiny. I genuinely think that’s great – so stuff you Daily Mail!
Most photos of the Grove seem to have been taken in the other three studios. Studio E was used for children’s programmes including the various puppet shows but of course housed many other types of programming too.
Studio G was the BBC’s largest studio for several years, producing all kinds of light entertainment, music and drama. Even when Riverside 1 opened in 1956, it had a similar floor area (although a very different shape) so both studios continued to be very important until TC3 was ready in 1960. Richard Greenough recalls…
‘I designed the first show out of Studio G. This was Gala Variety, which included Tommy Cooper, on the 23rd December 1950, directed by Michael Mills. His P.A. was Yvonne Littlewood, who went on to be a light entertainment producer and director in her own right.
The next show in this studio, which I also designed, on the 26th December 1950, and repeated on the 1st January 1951, was Cinderella, with Jack Hulbert, Sally Ann Howes and Kathy Moody (Lady Grade), produced by Walton Anderson.’
Quatermass II, the follow-up to the highly successful The Quatermass Experiment, was made in G. It was transmitted live with filmed inserts on Saturday evenings from October 22 to November 26, 1955 and was also telerecorded enabling repeats to be shown. The opening of the alien ‘pod’ was achieved using a small plaster model on a grass-covered table. A live Pye Photicon took a close-up of smoke puffing out, thanks to the floor manager blowing cigarette smoke up a pipe into the pod. Who needs CGI?
Mike Du Boulay has sent me some reminiscences of this studio…
‘…I enjoyed working in G because it had “racks” on studio floor level. Did 30 Minute Theatre, Hereward The Wake, Dr. Who etc, there. Loved the old CPS Emitron’s pictures. I remember upstairs in the production gallery they installed the first Fernseh special effects box fed directly into the vision mixer. It had a set of wee “chocolate” looking chips that you plugged in to generate the type of wipe you wanted. The electronic effects device stopped our trips to central stores at the TV Centre to pickup the “barn-door” wipe contraption that you physically placed in light path of Inlay/Overlay desks found in each control room.
Imagine having to “book” a wipe! The early years indeed.’
In July 1956 the first series of Hancock’s Half Hour was made in studio G. The studio was quite the wrong shape to make a sitcom. The sets were spread along one long wall but because the studio was so narrow there was only room for four rows of audience seats. Even then, there was insufficient space to get a decent wideshot, the sets were so close to the audience. Very sensibly, the subsequent series were made at Riverside.
Other programmes made in G during the ’60s include Music For You with Eric Robinson, Sportsview, Science and Man, Viewpoint, Blue Peter, A Tale of Two Cities, Juke Box Jury, Hereward The Wake and 30 Minute Theatre. In other words – a bit of everything.
This same studio was visited by Maurice Dale on November 11th 1967. He was just a lad at the time but with a keen interest in television and had persuaded the BBC to let him see a rehearsal and recording of Dee Time. He has written to me with a fascinating account of how the rehearsals went. It seems that guests Kathy Kirby and Gene Pitney were polite, professional and everything went very well. Maurice remembers Patrick Troughton coming into the studio, dressed in full Dr Who gear, to watch Gene Pitney rehearse. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly towards the end of the morning he recalls, when Shirley Bassey arrived for her run-through. There were, it seems, quite a few changes that she wanted to the way she was being shot and lit. He has told me quite a few details which I had better not repeat here but I’m sure you get the picture.
Maurice had been to see various shows being recorded at Teddington and Wembley so he knew what other studios looked like but he was not very impressed with the appearance of Lime Grove G…
‘My impression of it was that they could have done Steptoe and Son there without any need to build a set. The sound proofing for the walls had the look of old sacks held up in place with somebody’s old wire netting from a disused chicken run. Over to the right a tap on the wall dripped down into an open drain. The phone above the tap flashed in hope that someone would answer and a man emptied a teapot into the drain.’
Maurice also recalls the same evening when he joined the studio audience. They were herded round the back of the building and he was astonished at what happened next. He writes…
‘Where we were in location to the studio I couldn’t tell as all seemed utterly confusing. Following like sheep we were instructed to climb a ladder which led up to a door in the wall. The door itself flapped violently in the wind and crashed against people as they tried to enter what appeared to be like some dark satanic mill. Just where we were I don’t know. There was so little light and if you lost sight of the person in front of you, well you might never have been seen again.’
Maurice’s account may seem rather unlikely a scenario if you have never been to Lime Grove but believe me – he describes it perfectly. The ‘ladder’ was almost certainly one of the rickety iron fire escape staircases. I assume that someone had decided to bring the audience in through the fire escape rather than via the maze of corridors and staircases inside the building. Incidentally – he does go on to say that Miss Bassey’s performance of Hey Big Spender for the recording of the show was ‘outstanding.’
Studio G was the home of Top of the Pops for several years from 1967. Of course, other programmes continued to be made here too. According to engineer Peter Harris it had ‘the hottest, dirtiest apparatus room in the universe.’
It had opened in 1951 with 4 Pye Photicon cameras. These were replaced in 1956 with CPS Emitrons and in 1964 with EMI 203/9 625-line cameras.
Studio G was used to cover for studios E and D respectively during 1970 when they were being colourised. After that, for a few years it didn’t actually close – it just gently faded away. For a while it was used occasionally as a training studio. It was then officially closed around 1972 although the equipment remained installed.
However, due to some industrial action at TVC affecting setting and striking scenery in that building it was coaxed back into action once again in 1974 for a Blue Peter. (This date has been confirmed by a sound assistant and cameraman who both worked on the show.) Apparently, towards the end of transmission a puff of smoke was seen in the apparatus room and the pictures went to black. The show ended with sound only and the studio was never used again. I remember exploring the deserted floor and the old control rooms in 1976 soon after first joining the Beeb and rather spooky it was too.
In the late 1970s a film dubbing suite was built on the studio floor.
During the 1980s the floor was taken over by the BBC’s Studio Capital Projects Department (SCPD). These were the people who designed and installed the refurb of each studio in turn, either specifying equipment from manufacturers or even making it themselves. To check that it would all work, a mock-up of each studio gallery and apparatus room was built and all the equipment installed and tested before dismantling it and fitting it in the actual studio. Quite extraordinary. You can imagine how many months this all took and how much it must have cost. Nowadays of course, everything is bought off the shelf and studios are refitted in a matter of weeks.
One day in 1984, intrepid vision mixer Ian Trill went exploring and took the photograph below. It’s a long exposure photo – it was much darker than it appears. It is taken from gantry level, looking down onto the ceiling of the SCPD ‘cage’ where they were working on their next studio refurb. The studio floor is thus about 10 feet lower than the surface we can see. He says he was particularly taken by the ghostly expanse of the old studio looming above the rooms below. On a later occasion he returned and climbed a ladder into the roof – he found himself in a huge space with a pitched roof, full of cables. These were the countless miles of video cable that looped back and forth, ensuring that the distance of every cable from every source to and from the studios in the building was the same length so they were ‘timed’ perfectly. Creepily, at the far end of the space, in the dark ahead was a lit-up equipment bay, gently humming. Shades of Quatermass indeed!
Studio H, which opened in 1952, was the smallest of the production studios at the Grove. Initially it was used for ‘talks’ programmes and the first Grandstand came from here in 1958 but before then it was the home of The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 – 1957. This was the BBC’s first soap, although not at all like EastEnders. It was very firmly rooted in the studio and could hardly be described as a heavy drama, relying instead on the petty squabbles of ordinary family life. Nevertheless, it was very popular and ran solidly for three years until the exhausted scriptwriters, father and son Michael and Roland Pertwee, very bravely asked for a short break. Instead, to their surprise and considerable disappointment the BBC closed down the series altogether.
Other programmes used the studio too of course – including Tonight and schools programmes. However, by 1964 the BBC had decided that it was no longer needed for general programming as several studios at TV Centre were now open so it was converted into the experimental colour studio. Much of the colour equipment was moved here from Alexandra Palace and several years of tests began.
In fact, there was initially a slight hitch. The two Marconi colour cameras from Ally Pally had been in storage for a while. Upon examination, it was discovered that mice had eaten the delicious wax coating of every one of the cameras’ capacitors. (Thanks to Robin Barrett for that little nugget, recalled by his father Michael.) John Winn has written to me – he worked for Marconi’s Colour Camera Development Group and tells me that they updated the two colour cameras to the latest spec. This was based on some cameras they had built for a ‘Smith, Kline and French’ OB unit which was used for medical training purposes.
The Early Days of Colour in Studio H and beyond…
Studio H was the BBC’s experimental colour studio – using huge Marconi BD848 colour cameras needing vast amounts of light to make them work – around 4000 lux as opposed to the 600 – 800 lux then in normal use (as it is today). Their distinctive shape and size led to them being nicknamed ‘the coffins’. The BBC used three versions of this camera – at Ally Pally they first used the Marconi copy of the RCA TK-41 – this had 3 cables running from it to the CCU. Then came the BD848, with a single cable, a fixed viewfinder and rounded casing, then the version seen in the photo above with a more angular casing.
The cameras utilised three 3-inch image-orthicon tubes and were said to be very unstable. Every slight tweak of a control would rotate the image slightly causing a lack of colour registration. ccording to contemporary accounts they took hours to stabilize but even then continued to drift gently. Each camera was connected to a six-foot high rack of electronics full of glowing valves. Nevertheless, this was cutting edge technology for the time which relied upon the ingenious design of the Marconi engineers and the dedication of the BBC engineers – often working into the small hours.
Despite the shortcomings of the technology, these cameras could produce surprisingly good pictures and the latest version of them was in fact used by Intertel, a company making programmes in colour for the US market, from 1964. I have seen surprisingly good pictures from them that were used to record Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
It’s worth quoting part of an email sent to me by John Winn who worked for Marconi on the early colour cameras to get a sense of how ground-breaking the technology was in those days:
‘In 1961 I joined Broadcasting Division’s new Colour Camera Development Group working on updates to the 3 x 3″ Image Orthicon (IO) cameras. We also updated the two BBC 3 x 3″ IOs which had been built before the Smith Kline and French ones. We built a lash-up 3 x 4½” colour camera. Now that was the biggest camera ever. Beautiful pictures. We did all sorts of lash-ups of various tube arrangements including a combination of 4½ IO and 3 x Vidicons. Design started on that when the Plumbicon arrived making everything a lot smaller and a Plumbicon was soon exchanged for the IO. We tried two tube YRB with a Plumbicon and I think a Vidicon with half size R and B one above the other, scanned alternatively with a PAL receiver delay line filling in the missing line. Didn’t work too well as diagonals and moving images didn’t work. We eventually came with the MkVII and I was CCU operator for all its early demonstrations in the UK and USA.’
After closedown on one or two evenings each week a short colour film would be shown on BBCtv and then a programme would come live from H. This might be a simple music show, a magazine programme or even a little drama. It would be broadcast around midnight from the Crystal Palace transmitter to be received by a few dozen engineers and specially selected BBC production types who would observe the results and make critical judgements. All production departments were involved in these tests – design, lighting, make-up, wardrobe. Everyone needed to see how this new world would affect them.
At first, the pictures were broadcast using the American NTSC system and the number of picture lines was only 405. It was at the time assumed that NTSC would be adopted in the UK. From 1962 test transmissions began in 625-lines on the UHF band, using the three competing colour systems – NTSC, SECAM and PAL. After a few years, the German PAL system was adopted as the UK standard. PAL stands for Phase Alternating Line – this was an ingenious way of correcting colour errors that might creep in during the complicated route from camera via the transmitter to the TV set at home.
Robin Barrett has sent me a note written by his father Michael, who was a cameraman working on these tests. In it he recalls that the BBC were prepared to go with whatever system the EBU decided was best. However, when the French declared that they would adopt their own system, SECAM, whatever the EBU decided, the BBC engineers said that they would definitely go for PAL and ‘the French can go f**k themselves!’
Issues such as compatibility with existing black and white sets were tested. From the production point of view, a huge amount of data was generated to do with colours that did or did not work well when used in scenery, costumes and graphics. The effect of closely patterned shirts, jackets or ties causing moiré patterns or shimmering on screen was established, so these patterns were avoided until relatively recently when digital TV replaced the old analogue transmission system.
Lighting too was examined – particularly the effect of using dimmers (which cause lamps to go yellower when dimmed down or bluer when faded up brighter.) Thus camera line-up procedures were established, using a light on a chart that was set at 70% on the dimmer. Using this system the studio lights could be faded up to full and the blueness would just be tolerable – and faded down but only as far as 50%. Any lower than that and the yellowness was considered technically unacceptable. (Things are rather different now and for a desired effect LDs frequently use lights faded very low or add coloured filters to make them look warmer.)
The result of all these years of experimentation was a generously proportioned rulebook on what was and was not acceptable when working in colour. Every producer was issued with one. It affected set designers, costume and make-up, graphic design and lighting.
Even the cameras themselves were involved. Those carrying out the experiments seemed to dislike any strong or primary colours. This was partly because the system at the time transmitted such colours poorly and the stronger the colour, the ‘noisier’ it was on the screen. As Ian Hillson has quite rightly pointed out to me…
‘…The lowest common denominator was the noisiest thing in the chain – in this case, the camera tube. With primary colours you had signal output from only one tube, but noise from all three. Secondary colours weren’t much better with signal from two tubes but noise from three.’
Such artefacts were made worse by the early generation of VTR machines. However, one does sense that there was an element of what was considered ‘good taste’ involved and pastel colours and subtle tints were clearly seen as being far more ‘BBC’ than brash reds, blues and yellows. Back in the early 1960s, colour TV in the US was so poor that their NTSC system (National Television Standards Committee) became known as ‘Never Twice the Same Color.’ Faces on American TV were the most extraordinary range of reds, greens and oranges. The BBC were determined to avoid such things when they began their own colour service. (Astonishingly, the US persevered with this old inaccurate colour system and low-res 525 line pictures well into the 21st century. It was only around 2005 that digital HD TV really began to take off there but the old system is still widely used.)
Thus the engineers devised an electronic matrix within the camera that suppressed such excesses and concentrated on reproducing the most accurate skin tones. This BBC matrix was fitted in all colour cameras that the corporation bought from the 1960s right up to the Thomsons that were purchased in the 1990s. A very similar matrix was also fitted to the cameras of ABC and Rediffusion (and later Thames) but not to the Philips cameras of ATV. Hence, their LE programmes often seemed more colourful and (dare I suggest) garish than anyone else’s.
In the late 1990s it became more fashionable to light music shows and gameshows with strong colour. Automated lights (Vari-lites, Macs etc) were capable of producing a range of saturated colours with their dichroic filters that hadn’t been seen before. On the studio floor, to the eye the colour of the lighting on the scenery looked rich and warm but on screen certain colours looked thin and desaturated. Other studios – in particular those at LWT – had cameras that were not by then fitted with the matrix. Lighting directors became so frustrated at not being able to reproduce colours accurately in BBC studios that the Thomson cameras at Television Centre were modified to include a switchable ‘EBU’ matrix. From the day these were installed, almost every light entertainment programme was made using this system and the BBC matrix fell out of favour.
Going back to the first days of broadcast colour – there is an argument that possibly too much data was generated by the studio H experiments. By the time colour began – using the superior PAL system with 625 lines – there was hardly any strong colour to be seen on screen for many years. Even on Top of the Pops the performers were lit with bright white light and a few pastel coloured filters were fixed to 5Ks in the background.
The colour experiments in H came to an end around 1966. Experimental transmissions of programmes like Late Night Line-Up were broadcast in 1966 from Pres B at TVC using three different cameras. The following summer BBC2 officially went colour with Wimbledon using an OB unit equipped with Philips PC60 Plumbicon cameras. Two OB units were equipped with PC60s that year and other suitable OBs were covered in colour, such as the Trooping of the Colour – obviously – and a gentle stream of studio shows in colour started to come out of TC6 and TC8 using Marconi Mk VII cameras.
By December 1967 the colour service on BBC2 had officially begun.
I had a Saturday job working in an electrical retailer at the time and can still remember the thrill of seeing the green grass in those first Wimbledon broadcasts. Hard to imagine if you have grown up with colour TV but if you spent your whole childhood only seeing black and white television then to see your first colour TV was quite something. Naturally, the one colour set in the shop was not actually for sale. You had to place an order in those days and might receive one six months later if you were lucky. The cost too was very high – about £400, which I suppose would be the equivalent of almost ten times that much today. In other words, about the price of a 65 inch 4K UHD TV in 2017. It was quite a while before we had our first colour TV at home!
In 1967, studio H was converted into a sound only recording studio. It was known as the Television Music Studio (TMS) and became busy recording everything from theme tunes to backing tracks for variety shows. Previously the dubbing theatre at Riverside had been used for this work.
Lime Grove became the home of many classic TV shows over its forty year history. Several long-running series began here in the ’50s and ’60s including What’s My Line? (from ’51), Sooty (from ’52), Panorama (from ’53), Dixon of Dock Green (from ’55), This Is Your Life (from ’55), The Sky at Night (from ’57), Blue Peter (from ’58), Grandstand (from ’58), Steptoe and Son (from ’62), Dr Who (from ’63), and Britain’s first soap, The Grove Family (’54-’57) – named after the road the studios were located in. (Bizarrely, the official BBC history website states that this was made at Alexandra Palace.)
Blue Peter, incidentally, was originally commissioned for just seven weeks and each programme only ran for 15 minutes. It was then increased to thirty minutes and adopted a regular pattern of studio G on Mondays and D on Thursdays before moving to various studios at TV Centre and occasionally Riverside Studios in the mid ’60s. Finally, in 2011 it was moved to a much smaller studio in Salford when it disappeared from BBC1. That would never have happened under Biddy Baxter!
Tonight – the highly popular tea-time current affairs programme moved to the Grove in 1960. It ran from 1957-1965, with the first three years coming from Marconi’s Viking Studio in Kensington. As something of a contrast, as mentioned above, Top of the Pops transferred to the Grove in 1967 after its first three years in Manchester.
Many dramas were made here too, including a brilliantly shocking version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (’54). It was transmitted live on a Sunday night and repeated – again live – four days later. This second broadcast drew the largest TV audience since the coronation. The Newcomers was a popular bi-weekly soap that ran from 1965 to 1969 – mostly made in studio D.
Ian Dow sent me a couple of recollections of his time at the Grove…
‘A memory I have of Lime Grove was as a maintenance engineer. I was called to repair the echo chamber by sound. This really was a chamber, none of your digital rubbish. It was an old air raid shelter with a speaker at one end, and a mic at the other. I descended the stairs into the shelter, in the dark, as the lights didn’t appear to work. Although it was summer, I found that my legs were getting very cold. My mate passed me a torch and I discovered that the reason for the failure was that the shelter was flooded with 2 foot of water – which I was standing in, wearing me best trousers!
A strange design feature of Lime Grove was the common Apparatus Room for D & E. The two sets of CCUs met in the middle, and some SCPD man with a sense of symmetry had made one a mirror image of the other – so in D they ran right to left, and in E left to right (or vice-versa…). If you moved studios and suddenly had to switch off a camera for replugging, there was a very high chance you got the wrong one!’
Since reading the above, SCPD engineer Jeff Gibson has contacted me and admitted to being the engineer with the symmetry fixation. ‘It kept Tech Ops on their toes’ was his comment.
As is mentioned elsewhere on this website, recording programmes on videotape did not begin until 1958 with Rediffusion at Wembley and 1959 with ABC at Teddington. The BBC also bought its first Ampex machine in the autumn of 1958 and installed it at Lime Grove. This immediately made their own experimental machine – known as VERA – obsolete. That was very clever for its day but rather impractical, with huge spools rotating at the terrifying rate of 200 inches-per-second and a maximum recording time of only 15 minutes.
Even when recording on videotape was technically possible it was slow to be adopted due to the very high cost of the machines and the tape. It was the high cost of videotape that was the reason for all those classic programmes from the ’60s and ’70s being wiped so the tapes could be re-used.
Therefore, from 1948 – when the BBC resumed broadcasting after the war – up until the early 1970s believe it or not, there was a BBC telerecording department hard at work recording programmes on film.
Telerecording simply consisted of a 16mm or 35mm camera pointing at a TV monitor and filming the programme. Except of course it wasn’t simple at all. Because TV cameras and monitors scan the image with a dot of light going from top to bottom in 405 (later 625) lines, simply trying to photograph that onto a frame of film would not produce a useable image. It took years of research and development to make it work acceptably. Even then the result did not look as clear and sharp as the original TV picture and was only in monochrome.
However, by the end of the ’60s the film recording was astonishingly sharp enough for engineers working forty years later to resolve the coded colour sub-carrier dots hidden in the detail of each picture of an episode of Dad’s Army. This was digitally scanned frame by frame and the colour restored to the picture by a very clever computer program that read and decoded the dots. It was broadcast on BBC1 in December 2008 to considerable acclaim. Now that is clever!
Lime Grove had a busy telerecording area that Garth Nicholson recalls…
‘At Lime Grove we had 35mm machines on the second floor using a ‘stored field’ technique to get round the fact that it was physically impossible to pull the film frame down during the frame blanking period. These machines were located behind the area where the Corporation carried on its 405 line colour TV tests – left over from Alexandra Palace days. The more up to date 16mm quick pull down machines and 35mm rapid pull down machines were located on the ground floor behind the hospitality suites adjacent to the rooms where the original ill fated BBC Videotape machine VERA (vision electronic recording apparatus) was located. To conclude the VERA stuff those machines were killed stone dead by the introduction of the AMPEX videotape machine (VT) – these new VT machines being located on the first floor in the Telecine area. I sweated down there many hours like a troglodyte in the dingy safe light existence with poor air conditioning. Then the TV Centre became ‘live’ for us.’
The ’70s onwards…
With G and H closed, Studios D and E were the home of several long-running programmes during the ’70s and ’80s. These included Nationwide (’69-’83), Newsnight (from ’80), Breakfast Time (from ’83), The Late Show (from ’88) and even Kilroy (from ’87) was here, to coin a phrase.
These two studios were the only ones converted to colour with EMI 2001 cameras – in 1970. They were replaced with Link 110s in 1981 and 1982 respectively. The 1981 refurbishment of studio D also included the first example of a Grass Valley vision mixer in a BBC production studio – a 1600/3F. Its fancy wipes and effects were made full use of by Chock-A-Block – a popular children’s series that occupied the studio straight after the refurb. The show was made by Michael Cole and featured ‘Chockabloke’ Fred Harris and ‘Chockagirl’ Carol Leader. It was highly innovative in its use of colourful graphics.
For all of the 70s and into the 80s studio E was used on weekdays for Nationwide (from Sep ’69 – Aug ’83) and on Saturdays for Grandstand. As mentioned above, E became colour equipped in 1970. Actually, not quite. E’s camera 5 was a black and white Vidicon that was used for racing captions during Grandstand. Many a happy hour was spent by camera 5 operators in the corner of the studio – me included – having a nice quiet day whilst watching a young John McCririck (for it was he) rushing round the studio floor shouting at all and sundry because the racing results weren’t ready to be shown. Highly entertaining.
In those days captions were made by hand. They were painted by graphic artists in white lettering on black card about 12 x 9 inches. The cards were slotted into a six-sided drum that was rotated manually in front of camera 5. All we cameramen had to do was sip our tea and look as if we were focusing it occasionally. Happy days.
There was another programme that made much use of the skills of a graphic artist – The Sky at Night. The show began in April 1957 and is still the longest-running regularly broadcast television series in the world. (It can now be found on BBC4 and is still just as informative and entertaining.) It used whatever studio was available for its monthly broadcast – the set usually consisting of a black floor, some black drapes, a couple of chairs and maybe a PBU (photo blow-up) or two. In those days the programme used some beautifully designed captions that animated and revealed objects and lettering. These employed a complex system of sliding strips of black paper and card and were designed by one Alfred Wurmser. Any form of animating captions were thus often called “wurmsers” back in the Lime Grove days…
Patrick Moore’s autobiography includes a reference and I hope he won’t mind me copying a part of it…
‘In pursuit of “props” we went to see Alfred Wurmser, a charming Viennese who lived in Goldhawk Road. He had a dog named Till, half-Alsatian and half-wolf, who weighed about a ton but was under the strange delusion that he was a lap-dog. Alfred made moving diagrams out of cardboard, and he soon became enthusiastic, so that we continued to use the “wurmsers” until he decided to return to his native Austria. The original title of our programme was to be Star Map, but we changed it to The Sky at Night almost at once – to make sure that the new title went into the Radio Times.’
In January 1983 Breakfast Time began in E and ran until October 1989. (In 1988 it transferred to TV Centre). Its immediate success surprised nearly everyone – not least the owners of TV-am. Introduced by Frank Bough, it made celebrities of people like Selina Scott, Russell Grant, Francis Wilson and of course sports presenter David Icke, who in later years had something of a career change. Grandstand moved to TC2 around this time.
A great deal was written about Frank Bough when he died in October 2020. Most very complimentary but sadly not all. He had a private life that was surprising, considering his on-screen persona. I was a cameraman on many shows that he presented back in the late ’70s and found him utterly professional and always courteous and friendly to the crew. However, a week after he died, Selina Scott wrote a piece about him that I found deeply shocking. It seems his attitude to others on his presenting team and women in particular may not have been quite what we all assumed. I’ll say no more here but do look up what she wrote. It’s important that these attitudes from some men to women in the media are opened up and lessons are learned. Let’s just say that my view of Mr Bough is now quite different to how it was when I was working with him.
D was used in the seventies and 80s for shows like 24 Hours and Midweek but I remember working on several children’s programmes in that studio too. Back in the 70s and 80s, Whistle Test sometimes came from D. Newsnight was based there too for a while and I remember spending hours as a cameraman hanging about doing nothing and trying not to get too tipsy before the evening transmission – which could sometimes be surprisingly hairy!
Someone who now works in the US has sent me some memories which I cannot possibly reproduce here in detail. He worked on Midweek in the early 1970s. He recalls there being freely available drink in the Midweek and Nationwide green rooms. Apparently he would occasionally retire with a female colleague to the unused control room of studio G where much gin would be consumed. Ah – the BBC in the 1970s.
No history of the BBC’s studios – especially Lime Grove – would be complete without a mention of Mother. Mother was the name by which everyone (including MPs) knew Joan Marsden MBE. She was a highly regarded floor manager who worked mostly on current affairs programmes and everyone held her in high regard – especially politicians. Nobody would dare disobey any instruction from her – even prime ministers. However, she was no dragon – she actually had a keen sense of humour – it was just that everyone, including royalty, knew that she was in charge and could cope with any emergency on a live show. She was a floor manager between 1960 and 1979 and worked on all the main current affairs shows including Panorama and of course general elections. Peter Neill (thanks to the tech-ops website) recalls the occasion when a director asked what the interesting pattern was on camera 2. Mother replied ‘I think he’s pointing at my bum.’ She was wearing a tweed skirt. However, being the kind of gal she was, she stood still during the closing credits, allowing her nether regions to become the background to the roller. Mother died in 2004, aged 84.
Geoff Posner has sent me a recollection of the time he worked as floor assistant on 24 Hours…
‘One day, the programme started with (let’s just call the highly regarded, now deceased presenter ‘LK’) opening the programme and then the whole of the rest of it was one long filmed item, coming back to LK at the end. Now my job on this show used to be to get from the production office 4 chicken legs and a glass with three fingers of whisky in it. I soon learned that three fingers referred to a horizontal measure, and not to dipping three fingers into it. Anyway, LK (and I therefore) was able to have four glasses of the stuff during the filmed item. When Mother cued him to say goodnight, he leant forward to put the glass down and fell on the floor, having to say his goodnight from there. I read Mother’s Log afterwards and she described the programme as “V. Hairy”.’
There was a big shake-up in news and current affairs during the early 1980s. They were merged to form one department and Lime Grove became the BBC’s ‘Topical Production Centre.’ For the first time they had their own staff, separate from Television Centre. (Previously, the studios at Lime Grove had been treated as no different, crew-wise, from any at TV Centre.) Several TV Centre camera and sound staff took the plunge and moved to Lime Grove on a permanent basis – working in the studios and receiving training to become location camera crews making current affairs programmes that were based at Lime Grove. ‘Topical’ programmes made here at this time included Newsnight, The Money Programme, London Plus, Breakfast Time and Watchdog.
John Constable has reminded me that some time later the name of Lime Grove changed to the LGCAPC. This was considered to be an improvement on ‘TPC’ (of course!) and stood for ‘Lime Grove Current Affairs Production Centre.’
In 1988 everything changed again and the existing Lime Grove crews were reabsorbed into the BBC’s News department around the time Breakfast Time, Newsnight, Newsround (which was never at LG) and Watchdog moved into TC2. That studio was suitably equipped for current affairs after its stint as the main sports studio (all those lines and comms in and out of the studio were perfect for current affairs). At the same time TC5 was refurbished to become the new sports studio.
Lime Grove then continued for a while using crews from TV Centre again. Kilroy, which had begun in 1987, moved from D to E – until the Grove was closed. (After that, the show moved briefly to TC6, then to Teddington, then from 1999-2002 to studio A at BBC Elstree Centre, then back to Teddington until the programme’s closure in 2004. As if anybody cares.) A brand new daily arts programme was created known as The Late Show. It was broadcast on most weeknights from D on BBC2.
The Late Show introduced several new presenters and gave an opportunity to new directors too – who were encouraged to forget the tired old ways of doing things and try ‘experimental’ methods of shooting interviews. Ho hum. I well remember an occasion when a new director instructed every camera to crab left each time it was cut up. About a minute into the interview all the cameras were jammed on one side of the set and he couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a shot of the interviewer. There was much shouting on talkback but it didn’t really help.
The show was a great opportunity for the younger crew members to get some useful training so there was lots of ‘acting up’ and the senior operators often went home. That’s how things were in those days. I gained quite a bit of lighting experience. I was a lighting vision supervisor (console operator) at the time but the LD was usually happy to let me have a go. If it all went horribly wrong I could simply say it was ‘art’.
One show involved my illuminating a tumbler of water on a glass shelf which was fixed to a white scenery flat. This was apparently a celebrated art installation called ‘An Oak Tree’ and had been on display in a London gallery. Believe it or not there was a security guard there to make sure nobody stole it.
The production designer had very specific instructions on how high it was to be mounted – the shelf was to be 253 cm above the ground and the water to a level stipulated by the artist. However, where to fix it on the flat laterally? Dead centre or to the left or right of centre? If so, by how much? We soon realised that we could make this glass of water look quite different depending on the angle and size of the shot. My problem was how to light it? Soft light or hard? From above or the side? How many shadows? One? Two? None? White light or coloured? I did wonder quite who was having the last laugh at the time. Still, it kept us pretty busy for an hour or two one rainy afternoon.
No doubt this particular artwork was the climax to years of strenuous intellectual and artistic rigour leading to the final product, and our lame efforts to present it on television were probably greeted with dismay by the artist.
(According to Wikipedia, An Oak Tree was created by Michael Craig-Martin. He has explained that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of a glass of water.’ Of course. In case you wish to view this masterpiece, the original is in the National Gallery of Australia but fortunately for us Poms, an artist’s copy is on loan to the Tate from a private collector. Damien Hurst has apparently said ‘That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture. I still can’t get it out of my head.’ Maybe he saw it first on The Late Show. No doubt it was the way I lit it that created such an impression.)
When Lime Grove closed, The Late Show transferred to TC7 at TV Centre for a few more years and eventually led to Later With Jules and Late Review.
The studios were closed in 1991. The last programme made here was an edition of The Late Show from D. Actually, not quite. Ian Hillson recalls…
‘…We actually closed Lime Grove twice – the last Late Show from Studio D on 14th June 1991, and then just to make sure, we all trooped back the following Monday and closed it all over again by recording stuff for a Peggy Ashcroft obit.’
On 26th August 1991, a month after the studios were closed forever, the BBC transmitted a special day of programming called The Lime Grove Story featuring examples of the many programmes and films that had been made at Lime Grove in its 76 years as a place of film and television production.
The studios had acquired an extraordinary history as film studios for thirty-four years and television studios for forty-two years. After the BBC left, the buildings were demolished, the rubble used as hardcore for the widening of the M25, and a small housing estate now occupies the site. The roads are named after the film companies that once used the studios but no physical record of the BBC’s work in Lime Grove remains. I suppose nobody would want to live in a road called Quatermass Court or Steptoe Street.
Incidentally – a couple of people have written to me informing me that the building was in fact riddled with asbestos. This had to be dealt with by a specialist company prior to the demolition. The cost of sanitising it whilst the building was in place would apparently have been far too great – hence, despite opposition from some quarters, demolition was the only option. But – let’s be honest – sad as it was, the studios had come to the end of their useful life. Nobody, on the other hand, ever said that about Television Centre. At least, nobody who ever worked there.