In 1978 a steering group had been set up to examine what could be included in the project to complete TV Centre – in other words, stage 5. The ‘Television Development Committee’ chaired by Robin Scott would examine four or five possibilities. One of the intentions was that this final phase of construction would partly replace the existing facilities at Lime Grove and TV Theatre. Their conclusion was to construct stage 5 in two phases – the first would provide a new videotape area containing 100 machines (in fact it became 130) and accommodation for staff from Lime Grove. The second phase (stage 6) would see the construction of a replacement for Television Theatre (TC9). It was assumed that the project would be complete by the mid 1980s.
In fact, construction of stage 5 did not commence until January 1985 and was completed in February 1988. It contained no television studios although at the time it was still assumed that the new TC9 in stage 6 would be built within a few years. The huge task in designing the new studio was begun. By October 1985 the plans were well developed – even to the extent of building a large scale model in which acoustic tests could be undertaken. The huge volume of the new studio – far greater than any other built by the BBC – was raising issues of reverberation within the building and the possible penetration of traffic noise. Thus the research and detailed plans for TC9 gathered pace.
To support the weight of the new building, piles 100 ft deep had to be driven into the ground. Its largest single girder was 22 metres long and weighed 12 tons. Despite these superlatives stage 5 was a monolithic brick-faced block that did not quite match the colour or style of the previous construction. The back of the building was in my view particularly unsympathetic to the original design.
Stage 5 included the BBC post production areas on its upper floors. 130 VT machines were installed. Rather different from the 16 machines the VT area in the hub was originally designed for.
The move of the VT department to stage 5 did not take place immediately. They had to wait for a new tape format to be established before equipping all the suites. This format was the D3 cassette. Developed by Panasonic, the BBC was its first major customer. A few suites were opened in 1991 and used for training but the big move to stage 5 happened in January 1992.
The BBC’s post production department had been created in 1989 – combining film editing with VT editing and sound dubbing. This new department was, as its name suggests, more concerned with what happens to the programme after it has been made rather than during it. From 1991, the new D3 cassette enabled every studio to be equipped with its own machines in the studio’s apparatus room which were remotely operated by the studio resource manager who sat in the production gallery.
The new VT suites in stage 5 thus became almost entirely used for editing. In the late ’90s as each studio was converted to digital widescreen, the tape format in general use was changed to Digital Betacam. This used the technically superior component system of recording whereas D3 recorded composite pictures. It took many years and several tape formats but with Digital Betacam we at last had a recording system in use that in playback was indistinguishable from the original live pictures.
In 2006 the BBC announced that over the next few years it planned to go over to a tapeless system of recording and transmitting programmes, meaning that everything would be stored on hard disk or server. This was to avoid having to digitise recordings prior to editing, grading and dubbing. The transferring of the final edit to a master tape would become a thing of the past with programmes being transmitted as data directly off a hard drive. This was to simplify the whole post production process and cut costs.
In fact, not much was done about this for two years – it was not until 2008 that the BBC announced a grand scheme to transfer all its archive material as well as all new recordings onto digital media servers. This was to be called the Digital Media Initiative. You may have heard of it. They spent a reported £98.4m on the project and it was abandoned in May 2013.
Despite the good intentions, ‘going tapeless’ has taken many years to achieve – the catastrophe of the BBC’s DMI became front page news and this certainly didn’t help. However, this was not just a BBC thing – most other facilities and channels took far longer than anyone anticipated to leave the security and familiarity of tape.
Even in 2013 about half of all programmes were still being recorded on tape and subsequently digitised for post production work although by the end of 2014 the majority of programmes were at last being recorded directly onto hard drive.
BBC Post Production did most of its work at TVC for the Sport department in the last decade or so of TV Centre. They did some work for factual productions and BBC Entertainment shows (e.g. Strictly) but most comedy productions preferred to use independent facilities in Soho. Once Sport moved to Salford it was clear that the department would have to be considerably reduced in size when it moved out of TVC.
In November 2012 the post production side of BBC S&PP began moving into the old premises of Editworks, which had gone bust a few months earlier. (Any alarm bells ringing?) The new HQ was to be in Charlotte Street, Soho – an area of London where many film and TV production companies are based along with several other post production houses.
It was equipped with nine Avid Media Composer offline suites, nine Avid Symphony Nitris DX finishing suites, an Avid Pro Tools 5.1 audio suite and an Autodesk Smoke system. (The days of 130 VTR machines long gone.) The new building was to house 14 permanent staff and freelancers – rather fewer than Stage 5 in its heyday. Meanwhile, the company’s Digital Media Services department moved to South Ruislip.
I had the pleasure of going to the new Charlotte St premises for the grading of a sitcom in July 2013 – in fact we were the first show to use the new suite. Very nice it all looked too. Three weeks later S&PP announced that for some reason, the business plan did not work and they would be closing Charlotte St down at the end of 2013. Extraordinary. Quite how the sums could have been so wrong is difficult to fathom – the new business was hardly given a chance to see if it could be made to succeed.
So – sadly for those made redundant – the PP part of S&PP hardly existed any more. They still provided editing facilities for EastEnders at BBC Elstree – and the South Ruislip facility with its digital media servers remained in operation for the time being. Their speciality was the transferring and restoration of old programmes from 16mm film, 2 inch and 1 inch VT and old SD cassette formats into a digital format for preservation.
Unfortunately, in October 2015 S&PP announced that they would be closing the South Ruislip Digital Media Services division in 2016. They said they would be concentrating on their studios business and what remains of post production. This is genuinely a real shame – there must be thousands of hours of material that has yet to be digitised for preservation. Who will do this now? Old 2 inch tapes will soon be unplayable and the material recorded on them will be lost for ever.
The final nail in the post production coffin came in 2016 when BBC Studios & Post Production changed its name to BBC Studioworks.
The new stage 5 included a Television Music Studio (TMS) on the ground floor. It was built to replace the previous TMS (studio H) in Lime Grove and was equipped to a very high standard. It opened in July 1989 and was planned to have sufficient space for 40 musicians. It apparently had an automated Neve 48-channel sound desk together with 2, 8 and 24-track ATRs. (I was previously mystified as to what these initials stood for. It was more than a year before Aiden Lunn wrote to me to point out the obvious. ATR stands for ‘audio tape recorder’. Doh!!!)
The main floor area was 52 x 26ft but it also had a very large control room at 35 x 21 ft and a separate smaller soundproof ‘loud’ booth which was 21 x 15ft. The whole studio was a floating box within a box construction. The walls had variable acoustic panels that could be turned round for hard or soft surfaces, and it had a silent ventilation system.
Unfortunately, the new TMS only had a working life as a sound studio for a few years. With the new commercial way of working introduced in 1993 (snappily named ‘Producer Choice’) each studio had to bid for bookings in competition with those outside the BBC. Despite its superb facilities it was priced too high and therefore did not get the use it deserved. It struggled to pay its way for a year or two until the decision was make to close it. It might seem curious to some that closure was a better idea than cutting the hire cost to attract business but that was the way BBC managers’ minds seemed to work.
Around 1995 the studio found a new use. It reopened as a ‘virtual reality’ studio following a name change. It was considered unwise to call it TC9 as the BBC policy in the ’90s was to close studios, not open new ones. Senior BBC management might not understand. Therefore it became TC0 (‘TC zero’) which also had a nice ‘virtual’ ring to it. Matt Goodman has written to me claiming to be the one who thought that one up, and who am I to doubt him.
The studio was initially equipped with a 2-D system called ‘Virtual Scenario’. Around 1997 this was upgraded to a 3-D system called ‘Free-D’. Richard Russell worked on this project. He informs me that Free-D was first shown publicly at IBC in 1997. It had been developed by BBC Research Dept. and many people thought it would be very popular with programme makers. The system allowed actors or presenters to move freely in front of a blue screen whilst the camera could track, pan, tilt and zoom. Hand-held cameras could also be used. Sensors detected all these parameters partly by looking at ‘targets’ mounted all over the studio grid and the system automatically locked the background behind the artist. This background could be a photograph or more interestingly a computer-generated 3D world.
I mentioned ‘blue screen’ but it was even cleverer than that. The cameras had a ring of blue LEDs around their lens and the cyclorama and floor were made of grey fabric impregnated with millions of highly reflective glass beads (rather like a road sign). Thus the camera saw the cloth as bright blue but the actors could be lit in any colour to match the background.
Free-D was a great idea but sadly few producers initially liked it or understood its implications and only a handful of VR programmes were made in TC0. These included Record Breakers Gold – although in fact this show probably only used the 2-D system. Richard Russell also recalls another children’s series, probably broadcast live on Sundays, which involved children searching for objects that they couldn’t see (although the viewers could, through the magic of VR).
The system didn’t really come into its own until about 2004 when ITV News adopted a virtual set – followed over later years by more sophisticated VR sets and in 2018 by Sky News and in 2019 by BBC Sport. General election programmes have also made use of the technology but very few entertainment programmes have. Perhaps the most striking example of the latest version of this technology was the BBC’s set for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which came from dock10 in Salford.
As a small studio, TC0 was perhaps not the best environment to fully explore the potential of Free-D. Therefore, VR ‘targets’ were installed in the grid of some large studios. One quarter of TC4 had them mounted between the lighting bars – I lit an experimental VR programme in there in July 1997. TC1 was fully equipped for Fightbox and Elstree D for the series Bamzooki.
Shortly after the studio closed as a sound studio, the control room was converted into a dubbing suite. Thus it was not possible for it to become the new vision and production control area for TC0. At one end of the main studio was a timber bridge running across the room’s width that was originally intended to be used for musicians. A single control room for sound, vision and production was constructed beneath it. This effectively reduced the studio’s length by about eight feet. A basic floor-supported lighting truss was constructed within the studio – the ceiling would not take the weight.
VR proved to be a commercial disappointment and after a few years – probably in 1999 – the gear was removed and the studio was booked for a conventional series (if that’s the right expression) when The Chris Moyles Show took up residence. This went out on digital channel UK Play. When this series ended after some months it was followed by another daily show – The Phone Zone. Some time later this show moved upstairs to TC10 to become TOTP@Play and TC0 became the home of BBC Choice’s entertainment news show – Liquid News – which began broadcasting in May 2000. When this in turn moved upstairs after nearly a couple of years to what had become TC11 the studio was occupied by the presenters of the CBeebies channel from February 2002 until the end of 2007. In January 2008 they rather surprisingly moved to studio 4 at Teddington.
It seems that the studio was probably not used at all in 2008. However, one wonders how many production managers seeking a studio for their next show even knew it existed. There was a rumour for a while that it might be turned back into a sound studio but nothing came of that. In 2009 it was used for the occasional single camera shoot and as a rehearsal room for sitcoms. Early in 2010 the BBC’s Research and Development department was relocated from Kingswood Warren to Centre House Block D – on the other side of Wood Lane. (They have since moved to MediaCity in Salford.) TC0 was allocated to them for their experiments, since there was no suitable space in the other building. Thus, the department that devised the various virtual reality systems returned home, as it were.
In September 2010 they carried out what was probably a world first in this studio – a combined use of Super Hi-Vision pictures and stereoscopic 3D. The band The Charlatans performed a concert that was broadcast live to Japan. Apparently the images were quite extraordinary! Super Hi-Vision (now known as 8K UHD) has a resolution of 7680 x 4320 pixels. The current HD standard is 1920 x 1080. The format may soon be used in cinemas but is unlikely to be available for home use in the UK for the foreseeable future. BBC R&D are working along with NHK to develop ways of compressing the extraordinary amount of data that is involved in producing pictures so sharp. Until they do, it will not be possible to use this system domestically. However, only a few years ago it was thought impossible to transmit HD channels on Freeview. Thanks to the work done by BBC R&D, there are now many HD channels available via your aerial.
Incidentally – the old sound control room was itself turned into an ad-hoc TV studio for a kids’ live interactive puppet series called Nelly Nut in 2004. This room was 35 x 21 ft. so was actually very slightly larger than the old Pres A and B. This formally become known as TC12 and for a while was the home of one or two CBBC programmes including Sportsround. It then became the continuity studio for CBBC – the 21st century version of the famous broom cupboard. Early in 2008 that operation moved to a room in the East Tower and the studio was closed. It was then used again as a control room for TC0 by the R&D department and TC12 as a studio no longer existed.
CBBC presentation was located in studio PR-1 in the East Tower until late 2011 when it moved to Salford. Apparently it was previously the edit suites used for UK top 40 and CBeebies. This ‘studio’ was roughly the same size as TC12. It was very simply equipped, with three fixed sub-broadcast quality cameras and no camera racking or lighting control. One can imagine the BBC engineering managers of yore rotating in their graves!
The CBBC Newsround bulletins came from a similarly ad-hoc cheap and cheerful ‘studio’ called NR-1.
Around 2000 an area on the ground floor of stage 5 previously used as the lamp store was converted into ‘The Foyer’. (The lamp store moved to the scenery block). The Foyer was a large area capable of holding two studio audiences – about 650 people – before they made their way to their studios. It contained a licenced coffee bar and also a BBC shop selling merchandise. It took many, many years for the BBC to realise that an audience that had been kept waiting outside in the January rain for an hour or more before coming into the studio would not laugh as loud as one that was nice and warm and had had a glass of wine.
Unfortunately, now that studios 1-3 have reopened, audiences are once again kept waiting outside in the freezing cold. That’s progress.