mid ’60s – 1989?
Television Recordings Ltd was a small company set up in the mid 1960s to provide videotape recording facilities at 9-11, Windmill St. They were used by the BBC and ITV companies to record and edit programmes. This was at a time when videotape machines were very expensive indeed and the main TV companies could not afford to buy many for themselves. Occasionally they would find themselves short so they rented time on the machines owned by TVR. The programme was thus sent from the studio down the line to Windmill Street in Soho where it was recorded remotely.
However, as it was generally easier for the TV companies to use their own in house VTRs for production and editing work, the TVR videotape machines were often used to put the programmes to air. Chris Patten (no, not that one – another Chris Patten) has written to me and tells me that he can remember on more than one evening walking down the corridor and watching three adjacent VTRs transmit the network programmes to air for BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV. At that moment the whole of UK television was originating from a small facility in Windmill Street.
TVR’s claim to fame was that it was the first non-broadcast company to have video and audio circuits to the Post Office (now BT) Tower. To take advantage of this, they fitted out a small studio at Windmill Street (hence its inclusion here) which was used for interviews and talking heads. It was very small with a low ceiling (see photo above) – but was used on many occasions by both the BBC and various ITV companies.
The studio was also used by ITN for their news bulletin for a period up to the launch of their flagship News at Ten programme which began in July 1967. They used their own studio to build the News at Ten set and then did weeks of rehearsal from it, all the time putting out their regular late evening news service from TVR.
Incidentally, it seems that other companies were linked with TVR – Geoff Hale has pointed out that there were ads in the TV Cinema and Radio Advertising Directory for 1968/69 for companies called ‘Tape Commercials’ and ‘Television Applications Ltd’ or simply TAL. Intriguingly, they claim to have 3 studios of 225, 2,000 and 3,000 sq ft available. One wonders where these might have been. The 225 sq ft one is presumably the Windmill St studio but as for the other two…?
In September 1968 TVR did indeed open two larger studios round the corner in Whitfield Street but not of the sizes indicated above. The address was 38/42, 38/46 or 44/46 – various ads in trade papers use all these addresses! A company called Television West One was also based here and was part of the TVR group. Geoff Hale has helpfully confirmed the studios’ location. The photo below shows Margaret Thatcher being interviewed in 1974 on the pavement outside the studio. The road opposite is Scala Street (the old Scala Theatre was down there on the right.) A street map dated 1953 shows the building from which this photo was taken as a printing works and has the address 42-46 Whitfield Street. (The building has since been redeveloped.)
After a while, the first studio at Windmill St reverted to its use as a meeting room. It seems that the main studio here was originally equipped with three Marconi Mk IV cameras. These were later replaced with Philips LDK3s (also known as PC-80s in some parts of the world).
One source has a studio at 40ft x 25ft (1,000sq ft) but according to an advert for ‘Wynne Film Productions’ (a company also apparently linked to TVR), the main studio here was 50ft x 40ft (2,000 sq ft). However, a rate card from the 1970s offers two studios – Studio A at 1,200 sq ft and Studio B at 1,000 sq ft. It seems that Wynne Film Productions opened its facilities here in October 1967 so maybe they did indeed have a larger studio which when TVR moved in a year later, they reduced in size to make space for control rooms.
As one of the original outsourced programmes, LWT’s Big Match opening season 1968-1969 came from TVR’s Windmill and Whitfield Street facilities every Sunday Afternoon. TVR had a Marconi Mk IV four camera scanner with VTR that covered the match on the Saturday afternoon, with the editing being done Saturday night at Windmill Street. On the Sunday morning Brian Moore would host the show and do interviews in the Whitfield Street studio with the programme going out on tape from Windmill Street.
Soon after News at Ten started, The Sun decided to do a live 30 second ad in the mid news break about what would be in the following day’s (‘super soaraway’) paper. ITN did not want to make them in their second studio so TVR transmitted them from their Whitfield street studio feeding the signal to ITN to go to air nationally as the first commercial of the break.
Thanks to their unique link to the GPO Tower, The Windmill and later Whitfield Street studios of TVR were used for early two-way interviews by the BBC and regional ITV companies wanting to interview their own local MPs. There was a steady stream of British and foreign politicians arriving for interviews, including the Prime Ministers of various countries.
In September 1970 Television Recordings Ltd bought all the shares of Intertel from LWT (see elsewhere on this website) and became Television International Ltd or TVI.
The studio continued to be used by LWT for The Big Match during some of the 1970s. Airtime Productions was also a major client, making ‘cheap and cheerful’ commercials on video. Chris Patten recalls the technique used for these…
‘…Airtime productions did do cheap commercials to the extent that in one session I think we laid down in the studio the elements of 60 x 30 second ads.
The method used was to load a one hour tape on the VTR and for the talent to just lay down the bed of the 30 second spot. The tape would continue to record and then the talent would just do the particular product part and different tags as one long list, but with sufficient spaces to allow for later editing. These elements for the commercials were then edited into the 60 different 30 second spots.
I would have thought that while this type of commercial product is the norm these days, 40 years ago Airtime and TVR was certainly pioneering this style of work. Electronic editing of videotape had only been introduced by Ampex in about 1964, and electronic editing made this type of commercial production possible. In fact the first videotape editing I did was with a razor blade, although I never seriously got involved in editing as I spent most of my time in studios and OB’s as a racks engineer.’
Phil Geeson has described TVI as he recalls it was in the early ’70s: The door from Whitfield St went through reception to the main studio. The green room was upstairs along with the smaller studio, used mainly for interviews and media training. On the third floor was the admin and sound suite. The next door towards Windmill St was TAL, which faced the street with part of the main studio behind. Here they kept kit like 1″ Ampex VTRs and Sony and Shibaden half inch VTRs. For larger productions, an OB scanner was driven over from Acton and parked outside. Someone walked up to Googe St Police Station and asked for a pink slip to put on the windscreen so they could park all day on the double yellow lines. He recalls direct feeds between these studios and Windmill St, which was in turn linked to the GPO Tower.
Peter Piddock has written to inform me that Whitfield Street was still going strong up to 1986 and probably beyond. Its history is tied in with that of Sky and the great Mr Murdoch, no less. It seems that the original ‘Satellite Television UK’ channel (SATV) which began operation in 1982 first came from Molinare but then…
‘…When Rupert Murdoch bought the company in 1983 and rebranded it as Sky Channel, the TX operation moved to TVI [in Jan 1984] and the Whitfield Street studio was put to use on music programming. This was mostly links, interviews and clips. If I remember correctly, the output was so frenetic that at one point 5 one hour shows a day were being produced, with the last one live – just to keep people on their toes! I guess it was also a clever way of avoiding overtime!’
Doesn’t sound like Rupert Murdoch was involved at all does it?
I have yet to confirm exactly when TVI’s Whitfield Street studio closed. Sky moved to its current HQ in Osterley in 1989 so it seems likely that the Whitfield Street studio continued in operation until at least then.
Gary Bainbridge was a sound engineer at TVI from 1976 to 1989. He has shed some light on the complex to-ing and fro-ing of ownership of the business. He recalls that TVI was taken over by the Rank Organisation who almost immediately decided to close the Whitfield St studio – although the TVI business continued with its other activities. The studio had shared staff with TVI’s OB section, which meant that most of them worked on OBs in the summer and in the studio in the winter. With the studio closed, the staff had little to do in the winter so Rank decided to sell the OB fleet to Trilion. After a while, the TVI post production operation was moved to Rank’s premises in Wardour St.
Rank eventually sold TVI and the premises to Carlton, who ran it successfully until a change of management – after which its fortunes changed and it was closed down.
Meanwhile, Trilion’s OB fleet was sold to Mobile Image, then to Sunset and Vine, which merged with VMTV to form Visions – which is still in operation. Phew.
Incidentally, there was another business at a different address in Whitfield St owned by Irvin Pannaman – a cameraman who ran a company called Audio and Video Rentals. Maurice Fleisher has kindly sent me a copy of his business card:
This began as a CCTV company in the mid ’50s but by the middle of the 1970s they were specialising in duplicating VHS cassettes. They had a couple of RCA quad VTRs and a telecine machine hooked up to dozens of cassette recorders working almost continuously. They also had links to the Post Office Tower and a small TV studio equipped with 3 cameras that was used for interviews and inter-city video conferencing. The studio was also used to train company chairmen, managing directors and other senior executives in how to appear on camera when being interviewed. Pannaman claimed to have trained over 10,000 people in this studio over more than 16 years.