Marco Polo House

1989 – 2011

 

bsb marcopolo house

 

Situated in Battersea, this distinctive building was constructed around 1987 and was designed by postmodernist architect Ian Pollard.  It was actually two buildings separated by a glass atrium.  On the left was Marco Polo House and on the right was Chelsea Bridge House, which used to house The Observer newspaper. 

 

marco polo bsb logo 150p

Marco Polo House was originally the headquarters of British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB).  The consortium that owned BSB initially comprised Granada, Anglia, Virgin, Pearson and Amstrad.  With all that experience and financial backing it’s amazing it all went so badly wrong.  Mind you – Richard Branson pulled out pretty quickly when he saw what was happening and Alan Sugar also saw the light and jumped ship to make a tidy sum manufacturing dishes for Sky.

 

 

bsb galaxy ident bsb now ident

BSB won the official government-approved franchise to transmit three, later increased to five, high quality satellite TV channels to the UK.  These were called Galaxy, Now, The Sports Channel, The Power Station and The Movie Channel.  The channels began broadcasting in March 1990, after a fourteen month delay caused by technical problems with the D-MAC receivers and their square aerials or ‘squarials.’  D-MAC was a superior system to PAL and was thought to be essential to produce high-quality pictures via satellite.  Even when everything was working perfectly, there was a shortage of squarials so viewing figures were very poor, although the channels could be received in areas with cable TV.

Mark Tinkler has contacted me.  He was the archive producer on the first show made here for BSB.  It was called La Triviata and was made by Noel Gay TV.  Noel Gay had the contract to supply entertainment shows to BSB and was headed up by Paul Jackson and Bill Cotton, no less.  The show was hosted by Nick Hancock and Joanna Brookes.  The pilot was made in a barely completed studio with the rest of the building largely unfinished.  Mark doesn’t recall any other shows being made by Noel Gay in this studio. 

 

In fact, Noel Gay semi-converted the Astoria in Charing Cross Road into a TV theatre.  The Last Laugh and The Happening were two of the shows made there.  David Petrie informs me that the cameras and some engineering support were supplied by Tyne-Tees Television.  (Perhaps not the obvious choice of company to call upon.)  They provided Sony cameras, lenses, Vinten Ospreys etc.  Apparently, the TTTV engineers were a bit cheesed off when they had to build shot-boxes for the Astoria cameras as the cameramen (quite rightly) insisted that they needed them for that kind of work.  Either they were not available for the small Fuji lenses or there was no money to pay for them.  (A shot box is a set of buttons with pre-programmed lens angles connected to the zoom lens.  This enables a cameraman to instantly go from a close-up to a mid shot or wide angle and always have the same sized shot.)

BSB also used Limehouse TV’s studio at The Trocadero to make programmes for BSB including La Triviata, I Love Keith Allen and Up Yer News.

 

Vision mixer Simon King has also written. He had freelance bookings at Marco Polo House between January and November 1990.  Regular programmes included The Movie Show, The Mike Smith Show, It’s a Wrap and Now Sir Robin (one assumes presented by Robin Day.)  A regular slot was a ‘One Show’ type of magazine programme called 31 West (the coordinates of BSB’s transmitting satellite – but I’m sure you realised that.)  Other shows included Nina vs The Rest (with Nina Myskow), Getaway, The Computer Channel, 15 Minutes From Now and Sex, Lies & Love.

 

Simon informs me that links for The Power Station were produced in a small studio in a light industrial building at 10, Heathman’s Road in Parson’s Green.  He says that the links were carried out by a very young, very energetic Chris Evans – who would often come into the gallery afterwards and ask ‘Was that funny?’  Clearly, he took being funny very seriously.  And quite right too. After the demise of BSB this studio was used by Middle East Broadcasting for live news broadcasts until they moved to Silverthorne Road, Battersea.

 

 

Unfortunately for BSB, Sky had begun broadcasting on the independent Astra satellite in 1989 using PAL, which proved to be technically adequate for most viewers and attracted more subscribers than BSB.

Thus, the company folded eight months later in November 1990 and was taken over by Sky to form British Sky Broadcasting.  Most of the staff moved to Sky’s HQ in Osterley but Sky held on to the building and occasionally used the studio (see below).  A few of the programmes that had been made for Galaxy ended up on Sky One whilst some programmes made for Now were shown for a while on Sky News.  The Sports Channel became a new channel – ‘Sky Sports’ and some of the original BSB presenters stayed with that channel for many years.

 

bsb st 1 450p
In 1993, studio 1 was used to record this show for Sky One.  It was the Hewland International computer gaming series Games World.  This was a 5 days a week show hosted by Bob Mills with a different theme each day.  This may have been the last programme to be made in the studio by Sky before the building was handed over to QVC.
thanks to Jonny Haw.

 

Incidentally – there is one series made for Galaxy that has achieved cult status.  The sc-fi soap Jupiter Moon had a huge budget of over £6m and was said by some to be very good.  No less than 150 episodes were made.  Not here in Battersea though but in Central’s Birmingham studios.  The ones in fact where Crossroads had originally been recorded.  The show was a sort of soap set in space – 105 episodes were broadcast on Galaxy between March and December 1990 – the remaining ones eventually went out on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1996.  Curiously, Jupiter Moon was broadcast in its entirety in Gibraltar, replacing EastEnders on the local TV station.  Make of that what you will.

Another Galaxy series became notorious rather than celebrated.  This was the multi-camera sitcom Heil Honey I’m Home.  Recorded at Pinewood and Bray studios, it was a spoof ’50s-style domestic comedy in which Adolf and Eva Hitler live next door to a Jewish couple.  I kid you not.  A series of 8 episodes was written – all bar the 8th were recorded and only the pilot episode was broadcast before the company went bust.  Some might say that was a small mercy.  (It is on YouTube if you are curious but I warn you, it is pretty awful.)  The remaining eps have never been broadcast – it is not known whether the tapes still exist.

 

marco polo atrium 350p
The atrium during the QVC days.
thanks to Zuno Dunlop

 

QVC, the shopping channel, occupied Marco Polo House including BSB’s studios in 1993 – transmitting on Astra satellite and cable.  (In case you were wondering, it stands for Quality, Value, Convenience.)  The company gradually occupied more space over the years and eventually took over the whole building.  The warehouse and distribution was and still is handled elsewhere.

Philip Stevens worked with QVC from its launch in 1993 – first as a freelance director, then Senior Director until 1997.  He along with chief engineer Richard Burrell has provided some information about those early days…

 

‘Studio 1 was QVC’s main studio that housed four sets initially, although this number was gradually increased over the years.  The much smaller Studio 3 situated on the first floor of Marco Polo House was equipped with a gallery, although it was frequently used for PSC product shoots.  As a multi camera studio, it was often used for training purposes and for auditions for new presenters or product guests.

QVC Studio 2 was previously the BSB computer room and was converted into the pack shot studio in 3 weeks flat.

 

QVC inherited BSB’s Sony tube-based cameras (which is why you see comet tails on early recordings).  The tubes for these cameras cost around £3K each – and it seems that the replacement rate was quite high.  When it came time to replace the Sonys, the choice was LDK 400 series chip cameras and the improvement in picture quality was like drawing back net curtains to reveal a much clearer scene.

 

When QVC started transmissions, the galleries (there were two – Studio 1 and Studio 3) were equipped with Cox T24 vision mixers which, according to the engineers, were known for their characteristic unreliability.  It wasn’t long before the need to replace the main gallery mixer was apparent – and a used GVG 200 was the choice.  (The QVC directors were required to vision mix their own output – quite a feat when there were often numerous layers of keying required for the sales information, tickers and other onscreen information.)

QVC made use of one of BSB’s subsidiary TX suites (possibly The Power Station) as it was the only one left intact or nearly when QVC arrived.

When QVC went digital in 1998, the old MCR was refitted and transmissions were controlled from there.  The subsidiary suites then became QVC’s first Interactive Master Control with the launch of QVC Active and the Buy Button in 2000/2001.’

 

As a footnote, it is interesting to record that QVC was the only company to turn in a profit operating from Marco Polo in its entire history (as reflected by Ray Snoddy in the BBC documentary “The Haunted House”).  That is somehow fitting given the abuse QVC received at the hands of mainstream TV when it started.  Philip Stevens recalls that when he was looking to recruit additional directors, many came in to trail a show but frequently left (sometimes within 10 minutes) saying that it was too hard to contemplate.  Philip remembers that when anyone asked why on earth he should want to work on ‘shopping telly’ he would invite them to spend an hour while he directed.  That, he says, took away their negative attitudes and the visitors left with nothing but admiration for the work being carried out by the directors and the rest of the team.  Turning out 17 hours a day, live, unscripted, unrehearsed was a challenge – and it was obvious that not everyone was up to the task.

 

In 1998 Chelsea Bridge House became the headquarters of the terrestrial digital provider ‘ONdigital’ which later became ‘ITV Digital’.  It is not known whether this company used any studios here but it seems unlikely as they were a provider rather than a programme-maker.  ITV Digital was placed in administration in April 2002.  The free-to-air digital transmission system they offered was replaced by DTV Services – a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, C4, BSkyB and Arqiva.  The company operates of course under the name ‘Freeview’.  This is the arrangement that frankly should have been there all along.  ‘ONDigital’, ‘ITV Digital?’  Confusing or what?  Who on earth thought that would be a good idea?

 

 

The BSB studios…

 

It seems that BSB opened the building with just two studios.  These were used for linking sport programmes but the larger studio was also used for entertainment shows.  Following the merger with Sky, studio 1 was used to make some DJ Kat programmes for Sky One.  The studio was kept operational until Sky left in 1993.

Studio 1 has been described to me as ‘large’ but of course, all things are relative.  On the Elgood TV flooring website they used to quote an area of 500 sq metres (about 5,400 sq ft).

 

bsb studio 450p

This image of studio 1 in the BSB days gives a good indication of its size.   It was kindly sent to me by William Neale who grabbed it from an old BSB promo video.

 

 

The studios as used by QVC…

 

QVC started in studio 1 and the other much smaller BSB studio which they named studio 3.  They created studio 2 out of the old computer room.  Later they added two more, giving them five in total.  Studio 1 was the largest and the next in size were studios 4 and 6. Studios 2 and 3 were relatively small.

 

Studio 1 was originally BSB’s largest studio and so became QVC’s main studio.

Studio 2 was QVC’s ‘pack shot’ studio which was set up for shooting vision only and was fitted with equipment chosen as most appropriate for pack shots, especially jewellery.  It had previously been the BSB computer room.

Studio 3 was used for rehearsals, screen tests and post production work although some single-camera product shoots were also done in here.  It was probably originally the base for the BSB Sports Channel.  It had its own gallery which could be linked to any of the studios.

Studio 4 was created by QVC in part of the atrium between the two buildings and was their second main studio.

Studio 5 did not exist.   (Unless you know different!)

Studio 6 was built by QVC in Chelsea Bridge House as their 3rd main studio.

 

There were two control rooms that serviced all the studios.  They operated alternately, providing backup and enabling maintenance and training to be carried out whilst transmission was uninterrupted.  The studios here produced live television 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Studio 1 was refurbished including new cyc tracks in 2002.  Control room suite A was completely rebuilt in 2004 and received a vision area for setting up and monitoring 8 Thomson cameras, a production gallery with 9 metre desk and 32 monitor stack, sound control room with a 52 fader Calrec Sigma 100 digital console and 2 equipment areas of 10 racks.  Control room suite B received a new sound mixer in 2002.

 

QVC’s control room suite A soon after its refurb is shown below.

marcopolo qvc control room a

 

 

The lease on the building expired in July 2012.  The last broadcast from these studios was on 7th June 2012.

From 2007 QVC began looking for a suitable site to move to.  In July 2010 they signed a 21 year lease on new premises in Chiswick Park – the high tech commercial development that is also the base for Technicolor, Discovery Channel, CBS and Paramount.  They have now occupied ‘Building 8’ on the site, the 10th of the 12 planned buildings there.  Offices and studios were specially constructed and QVC moved there from Marco Polo in April 2011.  The warehousing and distribution for QVC remains in Knowsley.

 

marco polo being demolished twitter 450p
Another little bit of television history is lost forever.

 

The building itself was demolished in March 2014.  It has been replaced by several blocks of luxury apartments called Vista, Chelsea Bridge.  Love it or loathe it – it was a classic, post-modern design typical of the 1980s and perhaps should have been preserved as a striking example of that very distinctive style of architecture.