( Revised September 2019)
The BBC moved into this theatre, situated in the grounds of Guy’s hospital near London Bridge station, in 1979. The first programme was made here on 23rd September. However, there are several mysteries surrounding the Greenwood:
Firstly, what is a fully equipped theatre doing in the grounds of a hospital?
Secondly, when a hospital trust has spent a considerable sum building it, why lease it to the BBC and let them knock it about as only the BBC can, only three or four years after it was built?
Thirdly, why did the BBC acquire yet another studio in London when they had plenty of space at TV Centre, Lime Grove and TV Theatre?
Fourthly, with the BBC having spent a fortune equipping yet another studio, why did it remain relatively unused for most of the ten years it was part of their inventory and why did they not cut their losses and leave it sooner? After all, in 1984 they gained four more large studios when they took over ATV’s Elstree studios. Why did they not leave the Greenwood then and transfer its equipment into one of those studios?
I can only guess at some of these questions – but to take them in turn…
There is of course the old story that a wealthy benefactor, grateful for the care he received at Guy’s Hospital, left a fortune in his will to be spent on ‘a new theatre’. A dim and rather literally-minded lawyer is said to have taken him at his word and instructed the hospital authorities to go ahead and have it built when of course what the old gentleman had in mind was a theatre of the operating kind. There are people who actually seem to believe this story and I suppose it is somewhat amusing but even an old cynic like me can’t quite bring myself to swallow it whole. In fact, I have discovered that the truth is more prosaic.
The theatre was built in 1975 and was indeed largely paid for by a benefactor – Sir James Mantle Greenwood (1902-1969), chairman of James Greenwood Advertising Ltd. In fact his portrait hangs in the foyer. The building was designed as a lecture theatre (Guy’s is a teaching hospital and is part of the Kings College, University of London campus.) There were flip-up writing tables in the seat armrests, the sound gallery was originally a translators’ booth and the production gallery had been a projection room. However – it was also equipped with a fly tower and full theatre lighting facilities. Backstage was space for storing scenery and a number of dressing-rooms. It was originally hoped to stage professional productions there in the evenings – attracting the city workers just over the river. The profits from this use would help the hospital’s funding. Sadly, of course, theatres seldom make big profits so this income was never realised.
Thus, the hospital was rather keen to see another source of revenue generated by the theatre. Against this background, the story goes that one of the hospital trustees happened to be at a dinner party along with a senior manager of the BBC – probably Bill Cotton. (If the following story sounds a little unlikely, let us not forget that things at the Corporation were done rather differently back then.) Apparently, the man from Guy’s asked Bill if he had any ideas how they could generate some income from the theatre. Bill is said to have replied that the BBC could certainly make use of it for a year and on a handshake the BBC took it over. Thus the lease was initially for twelve months and then extended on a rolling monthly basis with a year’s notice on either side. Interestingly, to my knowledge the theatre was never used as a lecture theatre during the BBC’s occupation.
The background to this rather surprising ‘purchase’ of a studio is that apparently Bill Cotton was trying to persuade Michael Parkinson to do a nightly weekday chat show, rather than just his Saturday show. There was no available studio at TV Centre (due to asbestos removal) and Bill realised that The Greenwood fitted the bill perfectly, being in central London and close to the West End where guests could be found relatively easily. However, it turned out that Mr Parkinson was not too keen on doing that many shows and in the end agreed to just one more – on Wednesdays.
Thus the BBC were left with a studio and only one regular booking. The story goes that Question Tim was therefore created for the Greenwood. In fact of course the venue was ideal – close to Westminster and with an auditorium that looked good on camera. This programme occupied the Greenwood one day a week for most of the year from September 1979 – 1990 when it moved briefly to TV Centre and then to various studios and locations around the country.
I have been told an interesting little anecdote about this programme by Peter Neill, a sound assistant who worked regularly at the studio.
‘When the audience filed in to take their seats they were directed to fill the auditorium from the front. After a few weeks of this it was noted that when it came to the recording, the most vociferous always seemed to be at the back. Someone suggested that maybe the quiet ones were the first to take their seats, while the more vocal ones were discussing things over the coffee and sandwiches until the last minute. It was decided to let them choose their own seats and see what happened. The auditorium filled from the back and the best participants were then usually found within good camera and boom range.’
The other regular occupant of the Greenwood in the early years was Russell Harty. In fact, his show began at the Greenwood some weeks before Michael Parkinson’s Wednesday show. He was brought to the BBC from a successful career at LWT where his chat shows had built a regular audience. His series ran on BBC2 from 1980-1983 and then transferred to BBC1 from ’83-’84. His style and indeed his guests were individual and although never a mainstream performer he was very popular in a niche audience kind of way. Of course, everyone has seen the ‘Grace Jones Incident’ but there was far more to his show than that kind of thing. Sadly, he died of hepatitis in 1988.
There were one or two other shows that used the studio but after the first few years it was never particularly busy. The schedule in the early eighties looked something like this:
Tuesday – Russell Harty (he recorded a Thursday show in Manchester)
Wednesday – Parkinson (Saturday from TV Centre)
Thursday – Question Time
Friday – A succession of chat shows – notably Friday Night, Saturday Morning – a recorded open-ended show which finished when it finished, being transmitted later that evening as the last programme before BBC2 closed down for the night. This was usually presented by Ned Sherrin but also had a number of guest presenters including, famously, Harold Wilson.
It is difficult to trace many other shows that were made here – particularly after Russell Harty’s shows ended. One source said that Call My Bluff may have been made at the Greenwood, another mentions Face the Music and yet another a single Jackanory series. There was also – lest we forget – a Roland Rat series.
One programme made here was Private Lives, a chat show hosted by the actress Maria Aitken in which she invited some of her actor friends to bring along possessions which had a story attached. These were late afternoon recordings as most of the participants were in the West End in the evenings. John Latus tells me that he worked on a panel show starring Tom O’Connor called I’ve Got a Secret (’84, ’85). Jonathan Gibbs has written to let me know that whilst a student at Guys he sat in the audience for an edition of Masterteam, hosted by Angela Rippon. This daytime quiz series was recorded here in 1985, ’86 and ’87.
Bernie Newnham recalls Star Memories – a series he directed in 1986:
‘Star Memories was done at the Greenwood, because that was the only space available. Although by today’s standards completely forgettable, being a series of favourite clips from various celebs, it was quite a deal then as it was the first series that could actually do that. Up to then, Equity didn’t allow anything older than two years to be shown, and then only twice. The influence of Mrs Thatcher on all things union got the rules changed, and this was the BBC’s first chance to show anything in the library. Of course, lots of stuff that should have been in the library wasn’t, owing to being wiped. On the one Star Memories VHS I have, Lenny Henry picked the clip of Jimi Hendrix on the 1968 Lulu show – when Jimi decided to do something different on the transmission to what he’d (sort of) rehearsed. The Lulu series was P as B (‘programme as broadcast’) recorded and then soon wiped, but luckily a VT engineer used to make copies of rock material that he liked, and stashed the somewhat illegal 2″ tapes under the flooring. And lots of very good old stuff came back from him.’
Whilst the studio was relatively busy during the early eighties its use tailed off as the years progressed. By the end of the decade almost the only series regularly made there was Question Time. I personally worked at the Greenwood on a handful of occasions – on a few Harty’s and Question Times but it was always seen as something of an oddity – certainly a nice place to work and quite different from TVC, Lime Grove or TV Theatre.
It is hard to find anyone who can recall many other shows made here during the ten years of BBC occupation. Some have mentioned a book quiz and a talk show with Irish writer Frank Delaney. Susan Hill, writer of A Woman In Black is said to have possibly hosted a show. Clare Francis, the solo sailor, also possibly presented a series. Even Edna Healey, wife of politician Denis Healey is recalled having presented a programme on poetry. However, memories are fickle and some of the above might have been guests on other shows or have been part of the Friday Night Saturday Morning strand.
Do contact me if you can remember any other shows!
Martin Kisner has written to me, reminding me of another use of the theatre during the BBC’s occupation:
‘ …There was a clause written into the BBC lease that they were to allow the Guy’s medical students use of the theatre for one or two weeks in the year. This was rarely taken up but at least on one occasion it was. The students wanted to put on a performance of Oh What a Lovely War, over two nights. The BBC said OK, but if you want to use the lighting our staff must be present.
So it was that Andrew Dixon and myself became honorary medical students for the week. He designed the lighting and I was the console op. As I remember, because the Galaxy faced the monitor stack (of course) and away from the stage, we had to mount a camera to give us a wide shot of the stage. I was then able to work off a monitor, just like telly. We also put a follow spot in the gallery firing through the glass.
I remember the after show party to which we were invited. The directions were ‘go down to the basement and take the first corridor past the mortuary’. I don’t think anybody would have been too disturbed by the partying that night. I also recall thinking that the director, a medical student and future doctor, was a very talented bloke. Perhaps a Jonathan Miller in the making.’
A final aside, courtesy of Peter Neill:
‘…Trevor Neilson, the self-styled House Manager (what we called a Studio Supervisor in W12) kept a “Visitors’ Book” which he endeavoured to get every visiting celeb to sign (and as you can imagine there were very many very big names over the years). Photocopied pages were displayed in the foyer, but the original must have been worth a fortune to an autograph collector.’
In fact, having seen the above, Trevor wrote to me in February 2009 with a fascinating account of his years at the Greenwood. There is too much to include all of it but here are some edited highlights…
‘…My job was an unusual combination of front of house management – including meeting and greeting – and backstage safety and security. In fact I had the rare privilege within the modern BBC of, to all intents and purposes, writing my own job description. A curious result was that I never had an official title – I was simply a Studio Supervisor-on-loan. On internal memos I sometimes called myself Theatre Supervisor – I wasn’t of a BBC grade where I could call myself a manager. However for simplicity’s sake I sometimes introduced myself as the Front-of-House Manager when dealing with audiences and other folk outside the Corporation.
There was another, unofficial, title given me by the taxi drivers who waited outside the theatre to collect our guests after the show. Often they would have to wait a very long time, at BBC expense of course, but even then some of them would get restless. I’d take out plates of sandwiches and soft drinks from the Green Room to keep them happy. I was chuffed to discover that their title for me was simply “The Man”.
(A point of interest: one of the cabbies, a real East End old-timer, told me that the Greenwood was doomed to fail as a theatre because it didn’t “face up west”. There is a tradition, he explained, that if a theatre isn’t in the West End it can only hope to succeed if it is built to face towards the West End. The Greenwood faced east.)’
‘…The seats that were removed plus other furniture, fixtures and fittings as well as a lot of technical equipment from the original translators booth and the projectors (I think) were stored (piled up, really) in a corner of an old warehouse just a hundred metres or so along Weston Street. I wouldn’t like to know what sort of condition this stuff was in when the BBC gave up the theatre and it was restored to its original state. Not my problem, I’m pleased to say. (Perhaps by that time everybody forgot the stuff was there.)’
I wonder if Guy’s Hospital realised the above when they returned the theatre to its original use?
‘…The Greenwood had a theatre licence but we managed to have the requirement that the safety curtain be lowered in the presence of each audience waived; if something had gone with the mechanics and it refused to go back up it would have taken several able-bodied people a very long time to wind it into the flies manually. This would really have been a disaster before, think about it, the live transmission of Harty. Thus it was dropped and raised to an empty auditorium as near to audience admission time as possible, usually just before the last camera line-up of the day.
Any parts of the set that came downstage of the pros. arch had to designed with a break to allow the curtain to make full contact with the stage floor. This sometimes created “artistic problems” but none that were insurmountable.
After a couple of years the owners allowed the theatre licence to lapse, thus doing away with any obligation to lower the curtain but at my urging this was not made widely known; sets were still designed around it and it was still operated on any day an audience was expected. I felt that it was a useful discipline.’
I’ll bet there are a few designers who would have loved to have known the above back then!
‘…And then there was the night when Lord George-Brown was on the Question Time panel and one minute he was there and then next he’d gone. Recording time was drawing closer and people began to worry. Then I remembered that earlier he’d told me he knew this part of London well, having been born in Lambeth. He also told me that he remembered a neighbourhood fish and chip shop from his childhood days and wondered if it was still there. I knew it was, so after his disappearance I put two and two together and set a member of the production team and a policeman off in the right direction. My guess was right: they ran into him coming back from the shop tucking into a portion of chips, and looking a little bit lost. I wish I could say the chips were wrapped in the good old Tory Daily Telegraph but even in those days wrapping chips in newspapers was no longer done. And in his defence he was not in a “tired and emotional” state that night.’
‘…Harty had been at the Greenwood for some time before Parkinson came down to record his Wednesday shows there. On the Tuesday before Michael’s first show Russell Harty gave me a huge bouquet of flowers and a card in an envelope and asked me to make sure they were waiting in Dressing Room One when Michael arrived the next day. Michael was somewhat taken aback by the flowers but I’ll never forget the look on his face when he read the card. It was beyond words. Happily, it ended up as a huge grin from Michael followed by a loud chuckle. He then put the card in his pocket and strolled away. To this day I still wonder what was on that card.’
And as for the famous visitors’ book….
‘…I bought and paid for it out of my own money but I asked our visitors to sign it on BBC premises on BBC time so its ownership remains a moot point. I left it behind when I came back to Television Centre and I have no idea what happened to it. But I do know it inspired a similar book at the Television Theatre. I wonder what ever happened to that?’
So the mystery remains!
According to one source the studio floor area was said to be about 3000 sq ft. However, the plan above indicates a somewhat smaller working area of roughly 2250 sq ft. The theatre itself has a reasonably large stage with a pros arch width of 36ft. (5 feet wider than Television Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush.) Working depth upstage was 24ft 6ins and the apron extended the full width of the auditorium downstage about 25 ft until it reached the front row of the steeply-raked audience.
The BBC laid a TV floor on the stage and apron area and added motorised FOH lighting bars across the width of the theatre. Running up and down stage across the pros arch was a row of seven motorised bars. Onstage there were and still are 30 counterweight bars. About 200 dimmers were installed, controlling a large inventory of television lights. A reasonably-sized, fully-equipped control room shared by production and lighting was built at the back of the auditorium. Sound had a well-equipped gallery at the side of the auditorium in what originally was the translators’ room for lectures.
For the first two or three years the cameras were old EMI 2001s from TV Centre – ex TC7. By 1982 they had been replaced with Link 125s.
Incidentally, there were no VT machines locally. A sound assistant wrote to me, recalling one night when they almost had to do Parkinson live because they lost the line to TC – a BT engineer hastily dispatched to clear the fault found that a cleaner in an intermediate exchange had unplugged a DA so she could plug her Hoover in!
Initially, an old BBC OB scanner containing all the vision apparatus was positioned at the back of the theatre. It was in fact L04 – an old type 2 CMCR. I am told that it was parked in the space reserved for fire engines if they were called in an emergency. Therefore, the studio engineers were presented with a large axe with which to sever the cables that were plugged to the vehicle. They were then to drive the scanner away from the building as quickly as possible to make way for the fire brigade! There was a standing instruction to fire up the vehicle’s engine once a week to check that it still worked. The scanner was replaced in 1984 with a purpose-built apparatus room backstage. There is no record of what happened to the axe.
Mike Wood has written to me. He was in the BBC’s Studio Capital Projects Department (SCPD) that was given the job of fitting out the Greenwood with next to no money and with only 6 weeks on site to do all the work. All the kit was begged and borrowed or brought forward from other contracts. Bill Cotton insisted the studio would open on time and open on time it did.
He recalls that the siting of the dimmer racks was one of the problems – the only possible location being on the fly gallery, 35 feet up in the air. Simply getting them up there was a feat in itself. Access to the gantry was only via a very steeply sloping metal ladder. Or was it a staircase? Safety officers could not decide which it was (different regs applied) but in any case were not happy until a handrail was welded on. Even then, Mike recalls that climbing it was extremely perilous!
Other interesting issues included the weight of the TV lights being far greater than the counterweight stage bars had been designed for. The grid was deemed strong enough but to get enough weight in the counterweight cradle the iron weights had to partly be replaced with lead ones which were very expensive and of course highly nickable. They were therefore loaded on the bottom of the cradle with cast iron weights on top. Still fairly easily nicked but you’d need a lot more time and dedication. Whatever happened to those after the TV studio days I wonder? Are they still there…..?
Mike recalls the first Question Time. Unfortunately the link to TVC was lost briefly at the beginning of the show so the opening titles and introductions had not been recorded. This was only discovered after the camera crew had gone home. The presenter and guests were fortunately still in hospitality so they were returned to their seats and the opening was re-recorded – with the SCPD engineers operating the cameras and other kit. This was all kept highly secret – the union would definitely not have approved!
The studio was taken over in 1990 by a company called Network One Television. They apparently took on the lease on condition that the Beeb left it equipped as it was. This was probably cheaper than decommissioning it, but possibly the Corporation didn’t realise that they had to leave the two rather expensive Fisher booms – which I am told the new occupants promptly sold.
The driving force behind Network One were husband and wife John and Angela Beveridge. They were an ex-BBC director and vision mixer respectively. Desmond Wilcox was also associated with the company. They owned the ex-TVS studio in Gillingham (now demolished) and a post-production facility in Greek Street. The Greenwood was re-equipped with Sony BVP70 cameras and a new sound desk. These were bought on the promise of a year-long booking by a new show fronted by Jonathan Ross. This programme was a three-times weekly chat show for Channel 4 and was of course called Tonight with Jonathan Ross. The show first aired on November 5th 1990.
Peter Orton, who directed the show, has confirmed that new cameras were purchased for the series – the old BBC Link 125s being well past their best. He also recalls that on occasions the show ventured forth to rather more glamorous locations…
‘…we did fifteen live shows of the strand from the Ed Sullivan theatre on Broadway, three as live from L.A. one on the beach, and four from the private pier of the Carlton hotel in Cannes, on a boat – two of which were live.’
Peter is still very much in demand – he directed the hugely successful Harry Hill’s TV Burp. He also directs The Russell Howard Hour and many other highly regarded shows.
The Jonathan Ross show was very popular and was recommissioned for a further year but, perhaps surprisingly, Network One fell victim to tough times and went under. However, Alba – the consumer electronics company – who had had a significant share in Network One now took over the studio and operated it (without the involvement of the Beveridges) as The Greenwood.
Tonight with Jonathan Ross continued successfully for about two and a half years in total, ending on May 1st, 1992. Nirvana played on the show in 1991 – according to a website they allegedly trashed some of the set but they did pay for the damage.
The Greenwood operated as a business for a few months after the Ross show ended and one or two other shows were made here. However, possibly due to Alba’s inexperience of marketing its facility to the TV industry, they failed to attract enough work and the business folded. Most of the technical equipment was sold off.
Shortly afterwards, John Beveridge returned to run the studio again – this time as London Bridge Studios. This was the company that looked after the Greenwood between 1992 and 1998. The studio now operated as a drive-in using OB scanners for facilities. Various programmes were made including several Question Times. Tony Tyrer has written to me about his experience at London Bridge:
‘…About 1992, after I’d left Thames to go freelance, I floor managed a few series of the Andrew Newton Experience (hypnotism shows almost identical to Paul McKenna’s) at London Bridge Studios. They were for Sky, but produced by Thames in its dying days. John Fisher was the exec prod. We probably did quite a few things there, since I think Thames had some sort of ownership arrangement with them. Scanner provided by Thames OB fleet, augmented by old Anglia vehicles. (Thames and LWT joined up with Anglia to service a new Channel Four Racing contract, so there was a mix of equipment.)’
John Beveridge (for it is he) has kindly send me a few photos from the days he ran the Greenwood…
I visited the Greenwood in June 2008 – having been invited by Catherine Trigg, the theatre manager. There was surprisingly little remaining evidence of the theatre’s previous TV use but she did warm her feet in her office with a ‘Thames’ labelled electric heater that must have been left behind around 1992.
There were a few old photos on corridor walls and set plans in Catherine’s office which usefully confirmed the year some TV shows were made. These included Jo Brand’s Through the Cakehole (’94), The Andrew Newton Show (’94 – as mentioned above), The Pub Landlord’s Late Lock-In (BBC – ’97), Countdown 2000th edition (Yorkshire TV – ’97), Jackanory (BBC – ’97), Armstrong and Miller (C4 – ’97) and Dimbleby (LWT ’97). She also had the last London Bridge stage door signing-in book which proved that the final shows to be recorded here were editions of Question Time during the spring and summer of 1998. The last recording was on 18th June 1998 and the lease was handed over in September of that year. Sadly no sign of Trevor Neilson’s old visitor’s book though.
If you have any more info about shows made at the Greenwood please let me know!
Before we leave the Greenwood – there is an apocryphal story that has the ring of truth about it. It seems that there was (or maybe still is) an underground passage that led from the basement of the nurses’ home next door to the basement of the theatre. In the middle of the night, at some time in the post-BBC years, a security guard found a group of nurses helping themselves from the bar. Apparently this had been a regular occurrence – although whether we are talking about a matter of days, weeks or years isn’t known. Isn’t there an expression used in the catering trade that missing booze is ‘for the angels’? Ironically, I seem to remember a BBC series about nurses with that very title.
In the summer of 1999 the theatre was refurbished and most of the remaining TV equipment removed. When I say ‘refurbished’ – what I actually mean is that the stage was returned to its former shape, new seats were installed in the front four rows (see above), 15Amp lighting sockets replaced the television 32Amp ones and the walls of the auditorium were painted a startling shade of orange. The motorised lighting bars over the auditorium still remain however and the red/blue TX/reh lights operate during lectures to prevent people entering and disturbing the proceedings.
The Greenwood is now operated by King’s College London, who use it for its original intended purpose as a lecture theatre – mostly for the medical faculty. It is also occasionally booked as a performance space for student, amateur and community productions and events.
There has been some talk over the years about demolishing the theatre and building a medical facility on the site. However, the theatre would have to be replaced somewhere. Seating 450, it is the largest lecture space the University owns and is in heavy demand, not to mention the theatrical activity that is used by community organisations as well as students. Until a suitable replacement can be found, its future is therefore relatively secure.
In 2014 a facilities company began discussions with the owners of the Greenwood to see if it could be shared with the University and used as a TV studio once again. The acute shortage of studio space in London meant that this could have been a very interesting proposition. The idea was that a production would build a standing set upstage, whilst lectures would happen as normal downstage of the house tabs. It would then be used as a studio at weekends or on days when there were no lectures. The long university vacations could also be made available for TV use. Facilities would be provided either by an OB truck or flyaway kit in the control room. In fact a non-TX pilot, Don’t Ask Me Ask Britain, was recorded here in July 2014.
Unfortunately, I am told that it proved very difficult to find a way of making the theatre available on suitable days to TV companies, as well as fulfilling its university role. No more TV bookings were made following this pilot but, who knows?, it is still possible that an arrangement could be made to work in the future.