Lock Keeper’s Cottages, Bow

(aka Bow Locks studios.  No, really)

1992 – 2002

bow locks big b house and logo

 

In 1992 Channel 4 decided to replace their existing breakfast show The Channel Four Daily with something much lighter in tone and more likely to attract a younger audience.  Planet 24 (part owned by Bob Geldof) won the contract to make The Big Breakfast and rather than hire a conventional TV studio they decided to buy a house and make the show there.

After looking all over London for suitable premises they purchased three canal-side cottages at Old Ford Lock, Hertford Union Canal in Bow, east London.  These were very small so were knocked into one house.  The cottages were well away from other properties – essential when it was likely that a lot of noise and disturbance was likely to happen early in the morning.  In fact, the location was in the middle of run-down ex-industrial land that nobody suspected would be given a very serious makeover some 20 years later.

The cottages had originally been built in 1947 for canal workers.  As the canal declined in use, the cottages fell empty and by the time they were purchased by Planet 24 they were near derelict. None of them had been lived in for 20 years and each had broken windows and a leaking roof.

An ex-BBC OB scanner was purchased which would be used to provide technical facilities for the first couple of years.  I’m told it was originally ‘LO4’ – a type 5 unit.  Unfortunately the only access was over a footbridge so the huge vehicle had to be lifted into place using a giant crane.

 

bow locks scanner 250p thebigbreakfast.co.uk
The old BBC OB truck being lifted into position
with thanks to www.thebigbreakfast.co.uk

 

The house was refurbished and then dressed in a distinctive colourful style by designer Cath Pater-Lancucki.  There were 11 rooms inside, most of which were seen on camera.  These included bedrooms – one had a giant bed upon which guests were interviewed by Paula Yates.

There was a semi-permanent lighting rig consisting of lights bolted to various ceilings and walls, enabling the house to be used at all times of year in various degrees of daylight and darkness.  The cameras were all hand-held.  This gave the directors the freedom to stage items all over the house and garden and gave the show a more edgy contemporary look.

The first edition was broadcast on 28th September 1992.  With its two main presenters Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin, The Big Breakfast quickly attracted a relatively large audience of around 2 million.  Popular regular presenters included puppets Zig and Zag.

 

In 1994 Evans began to work on his C4 show Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush so he was only able to do 3 days a week on The Big Breakfast.  Mark Little took over the other two days – continuing when Evans left for good later in the year.  Paul Ross took over some of the days – later Keith Chegwin joined the show.  The viewing figures began to decline after the departure of Chris Evans.

1994 was also the year that Planet 24 acquired the nearest industrial unit of a block that had recently been built only a few yards from the back garden of the cottages.  They got rid of the BBC truck and built a gallery suite within the industrial unit plus – most interestingly – a studio!  This was roughly square in shape and about 60ft x 60ft.  It was 5m to the scaffold grid which was in 2m squares with pantographs hanging from it.  The intention was to use the studio during the afternoons and evenings for other shows using the same technical and support facilities as The Big Breakfast.  However, it was never as busy as was originally hoped.  My guess is that very few people even knew it existed!

Still, a number of pilots were made in the studio including one called Cross Section, intended for the Wright Stuff slot.  Series made here included Gaytime TV (BBC), Start the Weekend (BBC),  Best of The Word (C4), Singled Out (C5), Videotech (Carlton) and The Pinky and Perky Show (BBC).

Most of the time The Big Breakfast used the studio as an art department prep area and as an overspill games area.

 

bow lock with studio 2006 m evison 450p
The Big Breakfast House, looking from the canal lock.  On the left of frame is the block that contained the studio and other facilities.
with thanks to M Evison and www.geograph.org.uk

 

Duncan Stewart (now helping to run Riverside) was sound supervisor and engineer and he has sent me the following:

The galleries opened in 1994 with four Sony BVP-7 cameras which were used throughout the time at Bow.  It was a relatively early SDI installation – heavily BTS with a Venus Router and Diamond DD15 2ME Vision Mixer.

Towards the end of the 1999 a homemade jib was built with a Panasonic 3CCD camera on an Egripment hothead.  The pictures from this always looked awful.

The sound desk was one of only two ever built by Phillips Drake with 24 channels and 8 groups.

Lighting was controlled by a Strand GSX Desk, LD90 Dimmers (24 x 5K and 120 x 2.5K – later moved to Riverside)

There were wall boxes everywhere, throughout the house, across the canal and two in the studio.

Surrounding the studio on the ground floor was a canteen (which served a mean breakfast), production offices and all the galleries in a line with direct access to the studio.

 

On the first floor were five dressing rooms, makeup, admin and a huge green room overlooking the pool.  Every wall was painted in bright colours just like the show.

Extending from the back was a long covered blue ramp down to the Lock Keepers Cottages, with satellite dishes and the generator alongside.

Around the house was the swimming pool, the famous picket fence by the tow path and a bandstand at the end of the garden.  The garden was huge and featured heavily in the show providing somewhere to play all the games, host marquees for TV Weddings etc.’

 

In 1996 Channel 4 bought the cottages from Planet 24.  This enabled a refurbishment of the property both inside and out reported to cost around £2m – giving it an art-deco look.  The exterior was rendered over and painted white (whose idea was that?!!), balconies were added, interior walls knocked about and a swimming pool built.  In later years the house was painted bright yellow, then brown and finally bricks were painted onto the walls to represent – er – bricks.

 

bow locks upstairs plan 450p

These plans were originally on the C4 website but can now be found on the excellent site www.thebigbreakfast.co.uk.  Well worth a visit.

bow lock ground floor plan 450p

 

1996 was also the year when Gaby Roslin left, to be replaced with Zoë Ball.  Figures continued to decline gradually, particularly when Rick Adams (?) and Sharron Davies took over.  They were rapidly replaced with Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen who revived the fortunes of the show.  A couple of other female presenters came and went but van Outen then returned.  She and Johnny Vaughan both left in 2001 and that was the beginning of the end.  Various replacements were tried out but the show was axed by Channel 4 and last aired on 29th March 2002.

 

A regular ‘character’ of the show was a giant gnome, who sat in the garden.  On the final show it was announced that he would be taken to a lucky viewer’s house.  The final OB ‘hit’ on the programme showed the gnome being deposited outside the Horseferry Road HQ of Channel 4 – with a single raised finger aimed at the front door.  The execs at C4 were reportedly furious – Planet 24 refused to remove the gnome and it stayed there for several days.

A pilot was run in the studio at Bow as a replacement for the show.  It was called B4 and was hosted by Liquid News presenter Christopher Price, a couple of months before he died.  However, Princess won the commission with RI:SE which was made at first in Sky’s studios.

The final show made in the studio was Survivor Raw for ITV2 on 22nd May 2002.  By this time the Big Breakfast House had been completely stripped of all its kit, phone lines were dead and even the water had been turned off.

 

The technical equipment was removed from Bow and made its way to Riverside Studios where it enabled studio 1 there to become a fully working TV studio again after many years as an arts centre performance space.

Sadly, the Big Breakfast house was the victim of a suspected arson attack on Nov 8th 2002.  The roof and upstairs rooms were badly damaged.  The property was eventually sold by C4 in December of that year to be used as a private house.  It was repaired and became a luxury dwelling. 

Despite its being originally chosen due to its quiet remote location, in 2005 it was compulsorily purchased as it was situated only 200 metres from the proposed Olympic stadium.  It thus found itself right in the middle of the busiest place in London.

 

bow lock satellite 450p
This satellite image takes a moment to work out.  On the left is the canal and lock.  Right of it is the Big Breakfast House, with distinctive swimming pool in the back garden.  A new road cuts through the site where the studio block used to be.  To the right – the edge of the Olympic Stadium!  Extraordinary that in the midst of all the demolition and regeneration, this little oasis of TV history remains.

 

It seems that the house was used for at least three other TV shows after it had been taken over by the Olympic authority.  These were shot using single camera techniques – not an OB unit.  They were the BBC Two cookery programme Neneh and Andi Dish It Up (’07), BBC Three’s Singing With the Enemy (’07), and ITV1’s Too Fat To Toddle (’08).  Early in 2012 there were newspaper reports suggesting that C4 might take the house over again for some Big Breakfast shows during the Olympics but this came to nothing.

 

In January 2013 the house was advertised for rent at the very reasonable rate of £2,000 per month(!)  The swimming pool with its distinctive curved painted wall still remained but you would be hard pressed to recognise the very smart interior, which was all polished wooden floors and white painted walls.

 

Many thanks to Duncan Stewart for much of the above information – also the excellent website www.thebigbreakfast.co.uk