1968 – 2008; 2010 – 2014
(Revised January 2022)
The studios on this site in Wandsworth were host to many successful ads, promos and TV shows for forty years. There were two studios – A was about 60 x 50 feet and B was about 50 x 40 ft. (These dimensions are wall to wall as, unusually, the studios did not have fixed fire lanes running round the sides.) They had monopole grids with crossovers similar to the studios at LWT – although of course much lower – and as such were very flexible.
When I lit a TV series a couple of years before their closure in 2008 I found them very nice studios to work in. The staff were friendly and helpful. The studios were equipped with a good selection of well-maintained lamps and their Ikegami cameras produced very nice pictures. A further advantage of the site was its excellent restaurant. John Tarby tells me that the man who built the studios – Keith Ewart – was very keen on good quality food and it seems that this tradition was continued right through the Capital years too. Possibly having so many cookery shows being made here also helped to maintain the high standards!
The studios’ history is unique and they came about due to the drive and passion of a brilliant cinematographer – Keith Ewart.
In the sixties and seventies Keith Ewart was one of the talented and fashionable group of photographers who helped define the swinging sixties. He was also a cinematographer who was very much in demand making commercials. He directed many famous ads during the 1960s – with a young Ridley Scott often working as his art director.
Graham Le Page worked for Keith Ewart during the early sixties in his first studios at Glebe Place, Chelsea mostly making television commercials (TVCs). It’s worth quoting Graham to get an idea of the kind of chap Keith was – and what his employees thought of him…
‘…I remember he won a few awards for his work and the annual awards night was to be held at the Dorchester Hotel in London. I remember him saying that he wanted ALL the crew and their partners to attend the evening. I’m not sure what the hotel’s answer was but we all had to cart ourselves off to Moss Bros to hire a black suit and then sit down in front of the set hairdresser (Doris,…. wonderful lady) to make ourselves presentable for the evening. He paid for the whole lot!
At Christmas he was more than generous, he would give a big bonus to all the staff on the proviso that you would sit down and partake in an auction. The auction consisted of Keith sitting at a table with his hand buried in a cardboard box. He would then say ”What am l bid for what is in my hand?” The idea was that you used some of your new gotten wealth to bid for it. The problem was it could be a bottle of Chivas Regal or a plastic bottle of lavatory cleaner from the toilet! (yes.. I won the lav cleaner!) The money taken in this hilarious auction was donated to a worthy cause. It was easy to admire him from this point. I think he did the same with the proceeds from a heavy game of poker after the auction.
His clients l remember included (I’ll put them all in…) Vesta packet curries, Huntley and Palmers biscuits, Findus Fish fingers, Kelloggs Rice Crispies, Hartleys Jams, Nivea cream, Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry, Finn shoes, Vaseline jelly, and I think he made a few TVCs for Benson & Hedges. Any left-over product (trays of off season strawberries used in the Hartley’s jam ads, or great loaves of cheese from a cheese ad, he would send around the corner to an orphanage.’
Graham also recalls a typical day at the ‘office’…
‘…We were told we were shooting a TVC for Kelloggs Rice Crispies. The track had been sung by none other than Mick Jagger and the ‘Stones (or some bloody good impersonators). Our bit was to shoot this wonderful slomo shot of the packet, full screen, the top of which would then open up and this beautiful arc of Rice what-nots would spray out.
A very expensive black and white version all hand done at the ad agency was delivered and duly stuck on a table top which had a small hole drilled into it. A small air hose was then pushed up through the hole into the pack and secured. The pack was then loaded to the top with ‘crispies’. The hose wound its way back to a large cylinder of compressed air with one of the crew sitting astride it. We were using the new R35 Mitchell camera and the wild motor was fitted.
Action was called and I wound the speed up to 124fps and called ‘speed’. The chap sitting astride the cylinder tried to turn on the air but the valve was stuck. With one final heave it let go and we all witnessed an amazing spectacle. The pack opened up as planned but the arc (the whole contents of the box) rocketed upwards and disappeared into the roof space above the lighting pantographs.
Milliseconds later the empty pack imploded, tore itself loose from the table and did the same thing! It seemed like ages before the ‘crispie’ things came back down again and spread themselves everywhere. I don’t think we ever found the pack (or what was left of it). The boss shouted ‘cut’ over the din of laughter and the high pressure air still roaring out of the hose. I can still see him smiling as he walked out of the studio.
All he said was ”…clear it up please and get another one (pack)’. The super bit was the rushes in the morning where, in glorious slomo, the whole episode was played over again.’
During the early ’70s Keith Ewart became drawn towards working with videotape at about the same time as Ridley Scott moved on to directing his own commercials. Ewart was a brilliant jazz musician and also held a private pilot’s licence – flying twin-engined aircraft, although one assumes not whilst playing jazz. He did however use this skill to transport human organs around the country in his aircraft for charity. Like Graham above, some of those who knew him have described him to me as one of the nicest people they have met.
His son, James has contacted me and I hope he won’t mind me saying that he was surprised that I had described his father in such glowing terms. He believes that there are probably some people who did not quite share that view and remembers his father as being an ‘incredibly talented man but not a very good manager of people!’ However, in my experience we seldom see our own parents as others see them and possibly the truth lies somewhere between the two perceptions.
Clearly a wealthy man, he decided to invest in constructing a small studio centre for his own use. Rod Allen has written to me and claims some of the responsibility for suggesting to him that owning his own studios would be a good idea. Ewart Studios were completed in Wandsworth in 1968. Very unusually, although at the time he was very much a film man, he equipped the two studios with flat TV floors, control galleries and monopole lighting grids. The grids were to enable rapid relighting from one production to another. The control galleries were very sensible forward thinking.
At first, the two studios were simply used as photographic and film studios – working mostly in 35mm. Around 1969 studio A was equipped with black and white Marconi Mk. IV 4½ inch image-orthicon cameras fitted with Varotal 10:1 zoom lenses. (Another source reckons they were Cooke zoom lenses). These could record onto 2-inch videotape via a vision mixer in the normal way but the cameras had one interesting feature. They had optical splitters that also directed the image onto Mitchell 16mm film cameras attached to the TV cameras. As the vision mixer cut the programme a mark was made on the film so it could be edited later. This system was usually known as Gemini.
Light levels had to be much brighter than normal as the image was being divided and of course the film stock in those days was relatively insensitive. At first, this caused problems as the power availability was limited but later a 1200A generator was installed.
The Gemini system was used to make dozens of short films for the Central Office of Information. Those of us of a certain age will remember the little films that ran for two or three minutes just before closedown each night on the BBC. They demonstrated what happens if you throw water on a chip pan or warned you not to open the front door to strangers. Anyway – this is where many of them were made. Previously, these had been filmed at the Granville studio (details elsewhere on this website).
Brian Rose tells me that he mainly worked on a series called Tomorrow Today – a sort of Tomorrow’s World type of programme but intended to show off British technology and products in order to aid exports. The programmes were distributed on film to be shown on TV in the various Commonwealth countries all over the world. His job was to load up the mags on the three cameras with film which was a nightmare as the stock they used – Kodak VNF reversal – was very slippery and the 1200ft. mags were not only huge but also upside down.
He also recalls an Arri system that was around at the same time – this used Arriflex IIc cameras in 300s blimps and a very early form of video assist – enabling the same technique of multi-camera shooting with a vision mixer doing the editing on the fly. He recalls that this was used for a feature film at EMI Elstree – he nearly worked on it but was glad not to when he saw how much film stock they were getting through! Interestingly, he thinks the camera crew were all from TV rather than film – which is certainly very surprising.
In the early 1970s, once colour was firmly established on BBC1 and ITV, Keith re equipped his studios with Bosch Fernseh cameras. He was convinced that videotape was the way to make ads but the industry was reluctant to follow his lead. Thus, the studios made commercials sometimes on tape and sometimes on 35mm. A typical campaign of the time shot on film in studio A was Macleans means whiteness, don’t you forget it! which involved a white painted elephant.
Roy Clarke recalls seeing ‘B’ format video recorders in use but Adrian Church has written to correct this. When he joined in 1979 there were three RCA TR70C 2″ machines and an Ampex AVR2 that went out in the OB truck (The Ashes to Ashes promo was recorded on this – see below.) These were later replaced with Ampex VPR2 ‘C’ format machines. Adrian suggests that the B format machine may have been around just to evaluate its suitability but it wasn’t adopted here at Capital.
Other work during this period included the emerging phenomenon of pop promos. One of the most famous was David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, made using video cameras and using some of the latest electronic effects, directed in 1980 by David Mallet. Another video that was well known in its day was the one for Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s 1982 No.1 hit Ebony and Ivory – probably directed by Keith (Keef) McMillan. I was informed by someone on the crew that although it looks as though both men are singing together, Stevie Wonder’s contribution was made in the US whilst McCartney was filmed here at Ewarts, the two being cleverly combined in post-production. In fact the VT editor himself – David Hornsby – has contacted me to confirm this. He says it took about a week to ‘glue’ it all together.
Another promo was directed by Godley and Creme of 10CC fame. The band in question was a supergroup which later went on to become ‘Asia.’ (I think I bought the album. Not one of my favourites, to be honest.) Anyway, the noteworthy thing about the video was that it was shot with 16 sub-broadcast cameras, fed to 16 monitors which were configured in different ways. I’m told that for various reasons it was something of a miracle that the final result was in any way useable.
Matthew Hadley has informed me that the video for Easy Lover by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey was shot here in 1985.
Of course the studios really came into their own from 1982 when Channel 4 began. This channel was (and is) forbidden from making its own programmes. Everything shown on the channel had to come from ITV companies or independent production companies. Ewart Studios were ideal for the independents’ use and almost immediately they became host to several cult entertainment series such as Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and Jonathan Ross’ early shows such as The Last Resort. I am told that this latter series in particular probably saved the business as it was a regular long-running booking that paid relatively well.
One might have thought that there would have been plenty of work to ensure the studios’ success but in 1983 Limehouse Studios opened in Docklands. The smaller studio there was a very similar size to studio A here at Ewarts so both were in competition for some of the same work. Keith Ewart found this competition very hard to deal with and, I am told, allegedly believed that Limehouse were trying to put him out of business by undercutting him at a rate that he considered unviable. Nevertheless, thanks to his hard work and determination, Ewart Studios continued to flourish. However, Keith’s family knew that the stress was beginning to tell.
In the late 1980s the government changed the rules and said they would allow the ITV companies to sell some time in their studios to independent production companies. This was by definition going to be ‘down time’ when their own productions were not using studio space. Thus the studio owners would naturally be looking upon this income as a supplement, rather than a major source. From 1989 big, well-equipped studios would become available to the independents at relatively cheap rates. Ewart saw this as one step too far and could not face the added stress of having to run his business in the face of such competition. He decided to sell the studios. Tragically, five months later at the end of July 1989 he died of a brain tumour.
Before the sale he had joked that the site would probably be worth more as a car park. (He was eventually to be proved almost right.) His daughter Victoria wrote to me in 2008 and told me…
‘…He could have profited more from the sale himself, but he was determined to protect the livelihoods of his staff. He only sold when their jobs were guaranteed by the purchaser.’
Referring to the eventual closure she wrote…
‘Keith Ewart was a legend in his own lifetime. Demolition will never erase the impact he made on his world and on those who loved, admired and were inspired by him.’
So Ewart sold the studios to the Capital Radio group, who changed the name to Capital Studios. (Later, in 1997, Capital sold them off and they became an independent facility. However, they retained the name.)
Back in 1989, despite the added competition from the ITV studios, Capital Studios did manage to attract sufficient work to remain in business. In fact, from the early 1990s, competition increased even more when the BBC’s studios too were marketed to independents. Nevertheless, Capital offered a unique mix of informality, friendliness and professionalism which many producers found attractive. Fantasy Football League with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel was made here, as were early Frank Skinner Shows before they moved to LWT.
Capital Studios specialised in quiz shows and especially cookery. Matthew Hadley has kindly pointed out that the first series of the gameshow Turnabout was made here in 1990 before moving to BBC Manchester. A kids’ show made at Capital for GMTV between 1994 and 1996 was Eat Your Words – presented by Konnie Huq.
Fifteen to One was made in studio A for many years, whilst Ready Steady Cook moved to Capital from its original home in the first Fountain Studio in New Malden and stayed right up to 2008. The studio also produced two live shows each week – Saturday Cooks for ITV1, and on Sundays the BBC2 kids’ show Smile was broadcast from here for several years during the early 2000s. Thanks to the very flexible grid it was possible to turn these shows round overnight.
Meanwhile, studio B was host to UKtv Food’s Great Food Live and Food Uncut every weekday between 2003 and 2008.
However, despite their popularity, as Keith Ewart predicted, the land they occupied proved to be more valuable than the studios themselves and the site was sold off for redevelopment along with the closed-down brewery next door. Timing is everything and the banking crisis had not hit in 2007 when the deal was done. Another year and the value of the land would have plummeted, almost certainly ensuring the continued running of the business.
The studios closed on August 8th 2008. The last show in B was Wife Swap, the Aftermath and A closed with yet another cooking show – Step Up To The Plate. Meanwhile, Ready Steady Cook moved to TV Centre and Capital Studios became history.
Well, almost. As a last gasp, Capital was brought back into use between September and October 2008 to make another series of ITV’s Daily Cooks Challenge. It was made in studio A using hired lights with an OB truck parked in studio B providing facilities. However, that came to an end in the middle of October and the management ceased to have access around the middle of December. The building was boarded up and extra security measures added.
Guess what? In March 2010 the studios had a new lease of life after all. An Iranian TV company called Marjan Television Network took over the building. They hosted their Manoto 1 channel from here. Studio B was used for for a daily magazine programme. (‘Manoto’ in Farsi means ‘You and I’. Apparently. But then ‘Dave’ probably doesn’t translate that well into Farsi.)
Initially an OB truck was parked in studio A to service B but the same engineers who a couple of years before went round snipping wires so that bits of kit could be sold off had to go back into the building and try to trace those old wires and get things up and running again. Studio B was then operating normally via its galleries. It had its own stock of lights and I gather that the sound gallery was rewired at the end of 2011.
Studio A was occasionally used for entertainment shows for the Iranian TV channel. It still had no technical equipment or lights but the monopoles and dimmers were still there. An OB truck was used for facilities when required and lights were hired in.
I gather that they made a Come Dine With Me type of show – although clearly not at all like that show in any way – and a singing talent show series in 2010, 2011 and again in 2012 called Googoosh Music Academy. Googoosh is a very successful female Iranian pop star. But then I’m sure you knew that.
In short, it seems that the scheme to develop the site including the old ‘Ram’ brewery next door ran into some planning difficulties. An amended plan was drawn up by the developers and a new application submitted. This was given approval in July 2013. The scheme is a mix of shops, restaurants, bars and flats. Most of the Victorian brewery buildings have been retained with new construction and open areas between them. Incidentally, around 2011 – 2013 a warehouse in the Ram brewery was converted into the studio in which Masterchef was made. This is now made at 3 Mills in a set that copies the look of the old brewery.
Marjan were therefore looking for suitable alternative premises for many months. As luck would have it (for them), Wimbledon Studios went into administration in August 2014. Marjan immediately contacted the owners and arranged a lease of the entire site – many times larger than Capital Studios at 220,000 sq ft. They reportedly agreed a 15 year lease. They moved from Wandsworth to Wimbledon in October 2014 when these studios closed again.
As planned in the scheme, the Capital Studios site will have a 36 storey triangular block of flats located where the building once stood. The redevelopment was due to be completed in 2018 with the tower block being the last thing to be built.
However – and this has so many similarities to what has happened at TLS, Fountain and the new East Tower at TV Centre – property prices are not what they were in the world of luxury flats. It simply isn’t worth the developer building the tower yet so these studios are still standing!
In the summer of 2019 Backyard Cinema announced that they had discovered these ‘forgotten studios’ and were re-opening them in September as a home for their immersive cinema experience. The venue is advertised as having ‘multi-sensory theme changing cinema, live music, a backyard drinks terrace, artisan pizza, captivating theatrics, exotic cocktail lounge, vegan street food, craft beer bar and many more fantastical surprises yet to be revealed!’
Well, this is all great of course and it’s good news that the building is being used again. But how frustrating that nobody got their act together and reopened it as a TV studio!