Merton/Wimbledon Studios

1989 – 2014.  2015 – present

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The exterior of the two main stages – 2 on the left and 1 on the right

 

Merton Studios, converted from a former wine warehouse in Deer Park Road SW19, were originally owned by talkbackTHAMES.  The site was purchased and permanent sets built in one of the warehouses in 1989 so that The Bill could move here from its previous home in Barlby Road, off Ladbroke Grove.  The original home of The Bill had been in Wapping so this was its second move.

The Bill occupied the site on its own until 1999, when another talkbackTHAMES production, Channel 5’s Family Affairs, moved here from the HDS studios in Hayes.  The Bill was shot single camera but Family Affairs was made using multicamera techniques like EastEnders so a production gallery had to be built.  A ‘London street’ was also constructed outdoors on the back lot.

Family Affairs was axed in December 2005.  After that, The Bill spread to occupy more space on the site.  Many rooms and spaces within the building were dressed as various very realistic permanent sets.

 

When Family Affairs ended, the production gallery was retained but the cameras were disposed of.  The gallery could be fed to any of the stages here, or to the back lot area if required. However, it seems that relatively little multi-camera TV was made here after the soap ended.  The studios mostly provided services for single-camera television drama, commercials and video post production.

Productions made at Merton during talkbackTHAMES’ days included Disney’s As The Bell Rings, The Yellow House for C4, Bear Behaving Badly for CBBC, Little Devil for ITV1, The Golden Hour for ITV1 and Murder Investigation Team – a spin-off from The Bill.

This site formed a very useful facility for the production company talkbackTHAMES, enabling them to make some of their drama series in their own facilities, which one assumes was more cost-effective than renting studio space elsewhere. 

Sadly, in March 2010, ITV announced that The Bill would be axed later in the year.  The final episode was transmitted to an audience of 4.4 million on 31st August after 26 years and 2,400 episodes.  With this production no longer occupying the studios here it was inevitable that talkbackTHAMES would dispose of them.

 

 

In September 2010 it was announced that Panther Securities had bought the freehold of the studios for £4.75m.  Panther also bought a 25% interest in the management company that were to run the business as independent film and TV studios.  The company had a 10 year lease and was led by Piers Read.

In January 2011 it was announced that the new name for these studios would be Wimbledon Film and Television Studios.

The gallery suite reopened in September 2011.  All the technical equipment and cameras were provided by facilities company Roll To Record – no kit was permanently fitted here apart from cabling and furniture etc.  The two largest stages were busy with single camera drama and comedy work for most of the time.  The hope was that studio 1 would be used to record a number of multi-camera entertainment shows after TV Centre closed but in fact very few productions booked the studio that might otherwise have used the Centre.

Studio 1 has a cyc track and fire lanes but initially there were no footage markings enabling sets to be constructed in the exact position as marked on designers’ set plans.  After a suggestion from yours truly, the usual markings were painted on the floor in August 2012.  There is no overhead grid but 27 points in the roof support a basic truss structure upon which lights or further trussing can be hung.

 

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Studio 1.  The very basic widely-spaced truss grid is clear to see. Unfortunately, gaining access to the roof structure is rather difficult as the whole area is covered by suspended ceiling tiles.
 

Only studios 1 and 2 were offered as available spaces initially.  At the beginning of 2013 the semi-permanent courtroom set in the old talkbackTHAMES studio 3 was put up for sale and the studio and the building alongside that contained prison sets were demolished.  A new studio 3 was built to replace them.

 

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The street lot at the back of the studios. Occasionally to be seen in commercials and sketch shows.

 

At first, around 50 purpose built and semi-permanent fully dressed sets were retained from The Bill.  These included police stations with many different areas and rooms (many with working computers and CCTV video screens), fully equipped hospital wards, train carriage interior, pub etc.  Some had windows letting in daylight and all these areas appeared to be real locations with ceilings and practical light fittings.  They were used for a few dramas and sketch shows but in May 2013 the management decided to clear most of these sets and increase the amount of office space available for companies to base themselves here in the media village. 

The only sets remaining were the exterior street, the police custody room, the crime investigation room, the A&E hospital area and the hospital ward.

For a while there was also a House of Commons set in storage that was used by the film The Iron Lady, filmed in stage 1 early in 2011.  This is the set that was originally built in 1986 for Granada’s mini-series First Among Equals.  It then became part of the Granada Studios Tour.  It was later used for the BBC drama State of Play and after some time in storage it was bought by Wimbledon in 2012 following its use in The Iron Lady.  It was disposed of during 2013 to free up space – going on eBay in March of that year and receiving a winning bid of £123,400.  Unfortunately, the bidder did not finalise the purchase so it was put up for sale again at an auction house in June.  I can find no record of who bought the set, if anyone.

 

Single camera TV work in 2011 included Misfits, One Night and Pete vs. Life and the feature Run For Your Wife was also shot here.  Other bookings included the sketch show series Anna and Katy’s Television Programme.  Some sketches for Russell Howard’s Good News were also shot on stage 2.

In March 2012 studio 1 attracted its first multicamera audience show – The Angel – a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style show for Sky 1.  In September and October I had the pleasure of lighting a multicamera comedy drama made by Hat Trick for Sky Arts – Nixon’s the One – in studio 1.

Productions using Wimbledon in 2013 included Bad Education, An Adventure in Time and Space, Episodes and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie.

 

The three stages were called ‘studios’ by Wimbledon but only studios 1 and 3 have a TV floor and control rooms making them TV studios in the normal sense.  Studio 2 is a basic 4-waller so really should have been called a sound stage.

 

Studio 1  is about 7,200 sq ft gross or 78 x 73 metric feet within firelanes with a big bite out of one corner.  The height is a useful 9 metres.  There is an area at one end of the studio, approximately 45 x 31 metric ft, that has a much lower ceiling height of 5.62m and no grid so any lights in this area have to be floor mounted.  In 2011 the main roof was strengthened and a basic truss grid installed.  A new TV floor was also laid and tab tracks round the walls installed.  A very costly extra wall was built between the two main stages so that they were properly soundproofed from each other.  New dock doors were also fitted.  This stage could therefore be called a ‘TV studio’ rather than a 4-waller but there are no lights, dimmers or distribution permanently fitted and the truss grid is very basic.

Studio 2  is about 8,000 sq ft gross or 106 x 68 metric ft within firelanes – about a third having a ceiling height of 5.62m with the rest at 9m.  It has a basic concrete floor so is unsuitable for TV camera peds.  The roof was strengthened in September 2012 and seven runway beams with chain tackles installed on the higher section.

Studio 3  was newly built in 2013.  It is about 4,800 sq ft gross or 74 x 54 metric ft within firelanes.  Its height is also 9m.  The grid has 11 runway beams spaced 1.5 metres apart, from which a truss lighting rig can be suspended.  It has its own gallery suite on the first floor.  Cameras and facilities were provided by Roll to Record in the Wimbledon Studios days.  This studio was used for The Last Leg (C4) in 2013 and Tipping Point (ITV) in 2013/14.  It is now occupied on a permanent basis by Marjan TV.

Studio 4  was never brought into service but was planned to be a green-screen stage of about 2,500 sq ft.

Studio 5  opened in February 2014 and was relatively small at around 500 sq ft, having been converted from a couple of old grading suites.  It had a permanent hard cyclorama and cove and was suitable for simple, single camera one presenter to camera shoots.  It had no facilities of its own.

 

 

In November 2013 it was announced that the management company were looking for investors to purchase the freehold and the 25% of the company owned by Panther.  They were hoping to raise £3m which would enable them to ‘iron out inconsistencies’ between the studios. 

I met with Piers Read and he explained what he hoped to do.  Studio 1 would have a denser truss grid installed in the short term.  Studio 2 was to have the low ceiling at the end removed so the whole studio became 9m high.  A lighting rig involving trussing on motors, scaff bars and rolling pantographs was to be installed, giving far greater flexibility to lighting directors and speeding up rigging time.

Studio 3 was to have more trussing and permanent distribution installed – again improving the flexibility of the studio.

There was also an ambitious long-term plan to rebuild studio 1 and extend it into the area currently occupied by The Street set.  This would have a proper overhead grid and would be around 12,000 sq ft.  It would be aimed at big Saturday night live entertainment audience shows.

 

 

During the early summer of 2014 there were rumours in the industry that all was not well at Wimbledon.  On 28th July, it was reported that CEO Piers Read and financial controller David Smith had resigned.  Piers is quoted as saying that Panther, the owners of the site, had resisted his £10m offer for the freehold after he had negotiated with potential investors to fund £6m-worth of upgrading work.  He said it left the future of the studios in doubt.  He continued, “We fundamentally disagree with the direction our parent company and freeholder Panther wishes to proceed.  We believe this direction will kill Wimbledon Studios as it is known today.  With studio space in London now at a premium following the closure of a number of our closest competitors, the UK TV and film industry is in desperate need of exactly the type of facilities that Wimbledon could offer.”

Sadly, on August 6th it was announced that the studios had gone into administration.  Panther said it wished to close the site down gradually, enabling the several companies occupying offices to find alternative accommodation.  This was going to cost them more than a forced liquidation would have done.  The company had reportedly invested £150,000 for its share of Wimbledon Studios and it had provided a loan of £622,000, which it said had been fully drawn down.  It also said that as landlord it had “assisted the Wimbledon Studios business by not collecting rent and lease payments for fixtures” and that it was owed £1.6m in rent.

With the board of Panther deciding against taking on additional funding, Panther chairman Andrew Perloff reportedly loaned £250,000 himself to Wimbledon Studios.

The fourth series of Episodes had begun filming here only a week before this announcement but they were given permission to complete their shoot.  However, Panther reportedly asked for an additional £125,000 studio rental.  Since Hat Trick, the production company, had already paid £150,000 they were not impressed.  Jimmy Mulville, head of Hat Trick understandably described this as ‘galling’.  They apparently paid an additional £50,000 and were in the studios for less than half the planned time.  The shoot was completed at Elstree.  Russell Howard’s Good News  was also booked to use one of the studios in the autumn.  Fortunately Avalon had just enough time to find an alternative before recording the series – they ended up sharing a stage at Shepperton with 8 Out of 10 Cats.

 

 

The lease for the studios was sold to Marjan Television Network – the Iranian TV channel that had previously been using Capital Studios in Wandsworth.  I understand that Marjan were intending to immediately rent out the studio space that they didn’t need but they discovered that a great deal of work needed to be done to parts of the building including the roof.  They therefore occupied half the site whilst work was done on the rest.

In August 2015, Marjan announced that studios 1 and 2 were again available for hire.  They now occupy studio 3 and the offices previously used by the media village whilst the rest of the site including the two big stages and the exterior street set is divided off and has a separate entrance.  Location specialists The Collective are looking after the studios and a new studio manger has been appointed.  The site is known now simply as Wimbledon Studios.

 

Marjan reportedly agreed a 15 year lease with Panther, paying just over £1m per year.  Two and a half years’ rent was paid in advance, enabling Panther to replace the majority of the facility’s roof.  A much needed upgrade to the site’s electricity supply has also been undertaken.

The two main stages are now busy most of the time with single camera drama and comedy.  To my knowledge, no multicamera TV shows have been recorded here since the studios reopened.  In 2019 the studios were used to made the excellent drama mini-series Quiz.  The set for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was recreated on stage 1, along with a copy of the original lighting rig.  The exterior was dressed to look like stage 9 at Elstree, where the show was originally made – I believe it fooled quite a few people who know those studios.

 

 

These studios incidentally are not to be confused with Merton Park Studios.  That site in Kingston Road, Merton Park, began operation in 1930, originally with one silent stage.  Like many film studios this was built in the grounds of an old house – in this case, ‘Long Lodge.’  By the early 1960s there were three relatively small stages.  Stage A was 72 x 67ft, stage B was 64 x 45ft and the ‘insert’ stage was 23 x 16ft.  There was also a dubbing theatre, 2 preview theatres and as many as 12 cutting rooms.

During WWII the studio made films for the Ministry of Information.  After the war it was quite busy making feature films including Circus Boy, The Secret Tunnel and in 1962, Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing

Merton Park was the home of Edgar Lustgarten’s popular crime series Case Histories of Scotland Yard from 1953-1961.  These were originally intended as a few second features for cinema use but soon found their way onto television.  39 one hour episodes were made.  Other series filmed here included all 49 episodes of The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre (’60-’65) and the 13 episodes of  The Scales of Justice (’62-’67).

By the mid-1960s these studios were mostly used for making commercials.  The last film to be made here was an episode of Scales of Justice  in 1967.  The film library and projection services continued until the mid ’70s when the site was redeveloped.