1983 – 1989
From the summer of 1983 to early in 1989 this studio centre in the heart of Docklands was in its day the place to be making programmes. Its story is one of enterprise, high expectations and a brief moment of success. Sadly, it was a victim of circumstances and its story is in some ways rather sad.
Much of the following information is grate fully taken from a 1984 copy of ‘Television Lighting’ – the journal of the Society of Television Lighting Directors. Some details and images were equally gratefully taken from an article by Martin Hawkins in the autumn 1989 edition of ‘Zerb’ – the magazine of the Guild of Television Cameramen. Martin also supplied most of the images below. John Brady was also kind enough to post me a CD with scanned-in copies of various Limehouse leaflets and publications. Further details were taken from an article in ‘Building’ magazine dated April 1984 and also from various documents issued by the company itself. Some of the more interesting details have been emailed to me by various individuals who were involved at the time.
When Southern TV lost its franchise in 1981, three of the senior managers – Jeremy Wallington, Frank Letch and Al Burgess decided to plough £43,000 of their redundancy money into funding a feasibility study into whether there was a market for an independent studio in London. The result was inconclusive (so, money well spent then) but they decided to go for it anyway. Their approach was very much client-centred and they drew up a list of requirements that they believed would make their studios popular with programme makers.
Three more people joined them to become directors of the company – John O’Keefe, previously production director of Thames’ Euston studios, Michael Flint – formerly vice-president in charge of European production of Paramount Pictures and Mark Shivas – ex BBC producer. Limehouse Productions was formed – to make programmes for the BBC, ITV and C4 but the aim was also to build a studio centre to make their own programmes and offer the facilities to other independent production companies. The construction costs would be huge so the task of raising the necessary sum from various investors began.
Much of this funding was raised by forming by a consortium of five companies – Associated Newspapers, DC Thomson & Co Ltd, Drayton Consolidated Trust plc, May Gurney Holdings Ltd and The Scottish Investment Trust plc. Along with the directors’ own contributions a total of almost £10m was invested in the company.
They looked for a site – initially in west London near most other studios but costs were prohibitive. Fortunately the Docklands Enterprise Zone had just been created and a suitable building was available for conversion. Shed 30, Canary Wharf had been a rum and banana warehouse, built in 1952, but its size and immense strength made it highly suitable for their needs. There were grants and loans available for building in this area and no rates would have to be paid until 1991. The government was very keen to see new businesses set up here so it seemed ideal. Famous architect Sir Terry Farrell was engaged and he came up with an ingenious and attractive plan. He had just completed the conversion of a Henley’s garage into the new TV-am studios in Camden so he certainly understood what was required. The original technical report was carried out by Sir James Redmond (ex Chief Eng of the BBC).
In fact, the studios occupied only half of the building. It was hoped that the right hand half would be occupied by other small companies working in the television industry so forming that most ghastly of expressions – a ‘media centre’. In fact, probably the only company to take up residence was Spitting Image Productions. However, they occupied an upper floor in the eastern (studio) half of the building where they set up their puppet factory. The empty western half of the building was used for films and pop videos, including Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and Queen’s I Want To Break Free.
The ground floor was also used as the location for a play – God’s Chosen Car Park – whilst the top floor became well known on Channel 4 as the home of Network 7. This was controlled from studio 2’s gallery – but more on that show later…
According to a company document dated 18th January 1983, the lease taken out by Limehouse was for 200 years and I have been reliably informed cost £475,000 for the entire warehouse. This lease was signed in 1982 and work began. The directors of the company were fully involved in every aspect of the construction so that it not only ran to time but every detail was exactly as they wanted it.
Actually – not quite to time. The construction work ran about five weeks behind schedule but allegedly that was mainly due to repainting the front of the building at the wishes of the architect. Terry Farrell went on to design the MI6 building in Vauxhall and the distinctive office block above Charing Cross railway station on the Thames. The family resemblance is clear. Incidentally, in 1961 one of Mr Farrell’s first jobs was to design the ventilation ducts for the Blackwall Tunnel. Well, we all have to start somewhere.
The staff were taken on during the final few months of construction and they too became involved in the fitting out of the studios. It was very much a team effort and all were hugely and justly proud of what they had achieved. There was a very small freelance market in those days so staff had to be attracted away from the security of their ITV or BBC jobs. Those that made the move proved to be highly motivated and contributed very much to the success of the company. Partly thanks to them, the technical fit-out was to time and on budget.
The studios were constructed to the highest possible standards. (An interesting contrast to those created by some in the past few years.) Antony Koeller has contacted me – he helped design and install the studios and Dave Chawner of Link was project manager.
Each studio consisted of a sealed concrete box supported by giant springs in order to isolate it from extraneous noise. Technically, the company went to extraordinary lengths to ensure top quality. In order to make the right choice, every TV camera on the market was put in the same room and compared side by side. Vision engineers, LDs and cameramen all picked the Link 125. Even so, they asked Link to improve the design beyond the BBC spec, which they were happy to do.
The lighting grid utilised motorised lighting bars rather than monopoles. This is the only somewhat surprising decision but it was made to offer the ‘greatest flexibility to programme makers’ and to speed up turn-rounds between shows. Some LDs would certainly quibble with the former argument but it is certainly true that fewer electricians are needed to prepare a saturation rig than a monopole rig thus saving operating costs. The lighting consultant was Jim Richards, who had previously been Head of Lighting with the BBC, so perhaps the choice of bars rather than monopoles is not that surprising. (I wonder if he ever lit a sitcom or drama in a monopole studio and found out how much easier it is than in a studio with bars.)
The Philips sound installation, as designed by Sandy Brown Associates, was unique for its day in that the main studio had 81 microphones slung in the grid along with 79 speakers. The sound could be fed through a delay simulating various acoustics including that of a concert hall if required. Musicians loved it.
In May 1983 studio trials began. By July studio production was underway and the business immediately began attracting work. Surprisingly, it was not just programmes for the newly opened Channel 4, which had been the anticipated market. Some dramas were recorded here including Cyrano de Bergerac, which was transferred from TC1 at TV Centre, due to a strike. Other dramas included Winter Sunlight and God’s Chosen Carpark. The National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries was also a Limehouse production – shot over a week in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. This production was highly regarded at the time by many people in the industry and beyond and proved the high production values that the Limehouse crews were capable of.
Entertainment shows included Network 7 (’87-’88), Treasure Hunt (’83-’89), sketch show Who Dares Wins (’83-’88), Rock in the Dock, Food and Drink, The Emma Thompson Special and some inserts and a special for Spitting Image (’84-’89). Whose Line is it Anyway? began here in 1988. The main studio was also popular with rock musicians and in 1985 Carl Perkins recorded a celebrated televised concert here with George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton.
A milestone in British television was reached when in August 1988 the Yogic Flying high jump world record was beaten, at 4ft 2ins, on an edition of Network 7. It was that kind of show. Actually, it was a groundbreaking show in many ways – aimed at a ‘yoof’ market and mixing current affairs and entertainment. It broke conventional television rules of the day wherever it could – using wobbly hand-held cameras and being lit with a giant softlight mounted on a fork-lift and other slightly more portable but equally unconventional fixtures. It was, in short, a typical Channel 4 show – many critics (and viewers) hated it but it gathered a small but devoted following and set trends that other shows copied.
Martin Hawkins has quite rightly taken slight umbrage at my description of the hand-held shots as being ‘wobbly’. He would rather describe them as ‘canted.’ Absolutely. The point though is that this show created its own style. In fact, cameramen would henceforth be asked to do a ‘Network 7 – type shot.’
The Business Daily was a regular booking in studio 2. It was transmitted live six days a week for Channel 4 and on Sunday there was no rest for the wicked as The Business Programme was also made here.
The facilities offered on site included a hospitality boat, ‘John B’, moored alongside which became very popular with artists and clients. The story goes that it had previously been a boat of ill repute moored to the west of London. After it became ‘undockworthy’ it was replaced by a small liner purchased from the Gdansk shipyards. Well I never.
It is probably worth mentioning that Limehouse did not have the market all to itself. Over in Wandsworth, Ewart Studios were also trying to attract companies making shows for Channel 4. Inevitably each attempted to outbid the other to win contracts. Someone close to Keith Ewart has told me that he found the undercutting very hard to deal with. Certainly, Ewarts was a much smaller enterprise and so one assumes had lower overheads than Limehouse. Keith Ewart is allegedly said to have believed that for a number of years Limehouse were undercutting him consistently at rates that he deemed unviable. However, Keith Wilkinson doesn’t remember that as quite being the case. He was Deputy Chief Accountant, then Finance Director of Limehouse TV. He recalls that in the early days contracts may well have been underpriced but ‘that was put right next time they were quoted.’
Following a slightly shaky start the business began to settle down nicely. The studios were becoming known as being a great place to make programmes and more production companies were using them. In July 1986 the company was bought by Trilion plc. Trilion also bought an equipment hire company called Viewplan in November of the same year. Limehouse thus became part of a group that also owned a facilities house in Stockport, a distribution company and the Trident recording studio. Trilion had been operating an impressive fleet of OB vehicles but when they acquired Limehouse they sold off their large units and retained four smaller scanners and a location unit which were repainted with the Limehouse logo.
Unfortunately, it seems that from this point the real trouble began.
I am told that in spite of appearances, both Trilion and Viewplan had not been generating cash and within a few months in 1987 the founders of Trilion and Viewplan had left the group. One sizeable block of shares changed hands and ended up in the hands of Brent Walker plc (yes – the same company that in 1989 bought and then sold off most of Elstree Film Studios to build a Tesco superstore). Brent Walker were regarded by the others as a hostile shareholder for a while, until peace broke out when a common enemy appeared in the surprising guise of the London Docklands Development Corporation. In Keith Wilkinson’s words…
‘…We made a great play of being there to stay (although in reality the practicalities of running a studio on a building site were not to be underestimated) which led to the LDDC breaking cover.’
Astonishingly, despite all the encouragement given to the company when they first set up, it seems that the London Docklands Development Corporation issued a compulsory purchase order on Limehouse. To most people in the industry – let alone the staff – this was something of a surprise.
I have incidentally been contacted by someone who was involved with the technical fit-out. He informed me that rather surprisingly, before the studios even opened, there was an understanding amongst the contractors that they would possibly have to leave within a few years. This apparently referred to a common belief at the time of the installation that the LDDC had the right to purchase the land back ‘at any time.’ This of course was technically true but none of the Limehouse management or staff actually expected them to do it – and certainly not the bank that had advanced the considerable loan enabling the studios to be constructed.
Keith informs me that the compulsory purchase order was issued early in 1988, five years after they had begun to operate. He believes this was actually a bit of sabre rattling on the part of the LDDC. The Limehouse management were deeply unimpressed by this and thought that the LDDC were acting in a very shameful manner, especially considering the open and very public support they had previously given Limehouse. The LDDC wanted Limehouse to come to a deal with Olympia and York, the company that was developing Canary Wharf. Apparently, O&Y needed the studio site in order to build their new towers, even though the studios didn’t actually occupy the land on which they would be built. Maybe somebody had decided that an old rum and banana warehouse wouldn’t look quite right amongst all the shiny new skyscrapers.
In any case, Keith tells me that Limehouse fought the order to move ‘tooth and nail.’ The lawyer in charge even felt it would make his career to see it off, but in fact they eventually reached an agreement with Olympia and York. In October 1988 it was announced to the staff that the studios would cease operation the following February.
The deal that was done was financially very much in Limehouse’s favour. Remember that the building itself had cost £475,000. The construction and technical fit-out had cost around £8m. The site was sold for £25m – so a significant profit was made. Where all that cash went is another story.
How the deal was done is quite interesting. It seems that George Walker personally took on the negotiations and the £25m deal was reached in the Autumn of 1998. That is the public story. In reality though, at first he got nowhere – but I’m told that the studio manager learnt from an indiscreet builder that the Canary Wharf Tower could not be constructed without encroaching on Limehouse’s property for scaffolding and access. Once he was armed with that information, Walker got the deal sorted out. You see it’s not what you know… it’s knowing what who you know knows.
Thus, only five and a half years after they opened, the studios closed. Studio 1’s last production – Food and Drink – was recorded on 20th February 1989 and studio 2 packed up the following Friday. Both were stripped of all useful equipment – most of which was put into storage. By 16th March the site was empty.
The company still had their contract to provide facilities to the Business Daily programme so on they moved to the Trocadero in Piccadilly (a site handily owned by Brent Walker) where a studio was temporarily set up, opening on 17th March. Up Yer News, La Triviata and I Love Keith Allen were also made here by Noel Gay Television for BSB during 1990.
The space had previously been used as a ballroom. Lines were installed from here to various places in the City such as Lloyds, BZW, the Stock Exchange etc so that live interviews could be carried out. Steve Simon recalls the occasion when the whole of W1 was blacked out due to a power cut. The studio was due to go live on Channel 4 so the emergency generator on the roof was fired up but refused to start. It was discovered that the relay was refusing to close the contactor so the studio manager pushed it with his finger and lo and behold – with a deafening roar it started! He told the impressed small crowd who witnessed his bravery/foolhardiness that in doing so he had lost a year off his life.
On 9th June 1989 Limehouse bought Wembley Studios from Lee Lighting. (That company had been operating the site as Lee International Film Studios since 1978 but had left the site in 1986.) The old film studios were sold off by Limehouse for redevelopment as a retail park (note the Brent Walker touch here) and the huge Studio 5, which had been purpose-built by Rediffusion, was taken over. One source states that it took Limehouse only eight weeks to refurbish the studio but in fact the first programme was recorded some four months later on 6th October.
(The Limehouse years at Wembley are covered in the ‘Old ITV studios’ section.)
Perhaps surprisingly, despite the profit made on the selling of the docklands site and the cash made from selling the old Wembley film studios, within three years the company had folded. Keith Wilkinson, incidentally, left the group some 15 months before the collapse. It seems that although Limehouse were themselves profitable, the parent company and at least one of its subsidiaries was in serious financial trouble – and after all, this was the time of a recession.
One can only feel sympathy with all those who put so much into the Limehouse company. The Docklands studios were excellently designed and the work done there was highly regarded by the whole industry. It must have been heartbreaking for them to leave after such a short time .
If only the studios had been built in a different place, even in a less valuable part of Docklands – and if they hadn’t been taken over by a company that was itself to go bust – it seems likely to me that they would still be just as popular as ever.