In 1961 Highbury Studios were demolished to make way for a block of flats – ‘Athenaeum Court’. ATV had withdrawn from those studios and the theatre in Hackney to concentrate their production at the National Film Studios in Borehamwood. They had purchased the studios in May 1958 but it wasn’t until late in 1960 that the four stages were one by one brought into use as superbly equipped television studios – with the cameras and other electronics supplied by business partner Pye.
So from 1958 this site in Clarendon Road was known as ATV Studios but since 1984 it has been BBC Elstree Centre. Please note that in this section I cover the history of these studios from the days of film, through the ATV years to the BBC years up to the present. As well as general information about the whole site, the history of each individual studio is covered in its turn.
Forgive any confusion re the on-going history of ITV! I return to that after this page.
The studios had their origins over 100 years ago – in 1914 in fact, when three enterprising potential moviemakers looked for a site near London with a good train service that was free of fog. An area near Elstree village called Boreham Wood seemed ideal so the studios of Neptune Films were built. They were said to be the finest in England and the one stage was over 70 ft in length. It was described as the first ‘dark’ stage in Europe since, unusually for the time, it had no glazed roof but relied upon electricity for illumination. This enabled film making to take place every day all year round. British cinema went into decline during the First World War (as so many technicians and actors had been killed) and production ceased in 1917, when the site was sold to the Ideal Film Company.
Ideal Films used the premises until 1928, when Ludwig Blattner, inventor of an early sound recording system, took them over. Ironically, his studios were the last in Elstree to be converted to sound so they lost a lot of work. In 1935 the studios were leased by Joe Rock, an American producer, the same year as Blattner committed suicide. Leslie Fuller, a popular comic actor, also set up his own production company here around this time.
A year later, Rock bought the studios outright, naming them (somewhat unimaginatively) Rock Studios and constructed the main stages that are still in use today as studios C and D. This major investment ensured the future use of the studios for decades to come. However, in 1939 the Rock studios were taken over by British National Films. Their timing was poor as almost immediately the government took over the stages for war duties. Then British National continued to make films here until 1948 when the studios went dark for several years. American film actor and producer Douglas Fairbanks Jnr bought them in October 1952, renaming them National Studios.
The Kinematograph Year Book for 1952 has some interesting information. It states that the studios had the following: no stage A; B was 61 x 36ft; C and D were each 112 x 80ft and stage E was 168 x 80ft. So this suggests that the block that is now studios A and B was once one long stage (E) – which looking at the photo below does make sense. It was almost certainly built some time after stages C and D. Stage A was probably an old one that had been demolished to make way for newer developments and the old stage B must have been lost in the ATV rebuild. C and D were more or less as they are now. The same Year Book for 1942 states that there were 4 stages but doesn’t give sizes. My assumption therefore is that stage E (the present studios A and B) was built some time between 1942 and 1952, so was constructed by British National Films, probably just after the war.
Douglas Fairbanks used the stages to make filmed TV programmes for the American company NBC. His initial contract was for 39 half hour films as well as many commercials. He made 155 TV dramas in total – Christopher Lee appeared in 13 of them. From 1955 Associated-Rediffusion ran a series called Douglas Fairbanks Presents. It is likely that this made use of the half hour dramas that had been originally made here for the US. Curiously, in Australia the series was renamed Chesebrough Ponds Playhouse. Make of that what you will. Fairbanks ran the studios for about five years before ATV took over.
One of the oldest buildings on site is the two-storey block with the green-tiled roof near to studio D containing dressing rooms and offices. It probably dates back to the 1930s. Much later when the BBC took over they named the building ‘Fairbanks’. The man himself visited the site during the 1980s to see what had become of his old studios.
The arrival of television…
ATV acquired the studios in May 1958. It seems likely that they originally intended to keep them as film studios – using them to make TV dramas on 35mm. One of the first series they made was the popular Adventures of William Tell. It employed many of the features and techniques seen in The Adventures of Robin Hood – purchased by ITC and shown on ATV but not actually made by them. (That series was made by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios. Those studios are covered elsewhere on this website.) Another series was HG Wells’ Invisible Man – very much aimed at the US market but also shown of course by ATV. Individual filmed dramas included The Strange World of Planet X (’58) and Behemoth the Sea Monster (’59). Although made in these studios after ATV took over, these two were probably intended for theatrical release with their production companies hiring studio space from ATV.
ATV continued to use Highbury, Wood Green and Hackney for TV but realised that they needed a new, properly planned TV studio centre. Seven and a half acres of land was purchased in Kennington on the South Bank near the Oval cricket ground – once part of the 17th-19th century Vauxhall gardens – and plans were drawn up. However, by 1960 they realised that it would take too long for those plans to be realised so they decided to convert their Elstree film stages into TV studios. Thus they began the enormous task of converting them with telescope (actually ‘harp’) grids similar to those at Teddington, and control room suites with plush overlooking viewing rooms suitable for all the US TV executives that would be invited to watch programmes being made. Perhaps inspired by the success of Fairbanks, Grade knew from the beginning that he wanted to make shows that he could export as well as sell to the ITV network. Many new buildings were constructed to support TV production. In fact, it was only the stages and existing buildings adjacent to them containing production offices, make-up, wardrobe and dressing rooms that survived from the original film studios.
As it turned out, the various filmed dramas made by ITC for ATV were made down the road partly at MGM British Studios but mostly at ABPC Elstree Studios. This television work over many years arguably kept the latter studios afloat.
One can’t help wondering whether the ABPC/EMI Elstree film studios would have survived if ATV had stuck to their original plan and built their Vauxhall centre. ITC’s filmed dramas would, as originally intended, have been made at ATV’s Elstree studios. As it turned out, for many years several of the ABPC film stages were filled with sets for The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions and other popular drama series thus providing an invaluable source of regular work.
When ATV were forced to become Central TV, leave London and move to Nottingham, the old National Film Studios would hardly have been appealing to the BBC without TV equipment so they wouldn’t have bought them in 1984. Thus there would have been no EastEnders – arguably the most important series that has kept BBC1 viable in audience figure terms for the past 30 odd years. Without the huge audiences that EastEnders brings in – could the TV licence still be justified and would the BBC still exist now as a major TV broadcaster?
Whew! Lew Grade and the ATV board certainly had no idea of the future ramifications when they decided to convert their Elstree film studios into TV studios.
Update – reviewing this comment in August 2021, the figures for EastEnders have been relatively poor for the past 2 or 3 years and the BBC TV licence is indeed in jeopardy.
Enough ‘what ifs’ – on with what actually happened…
ATV also constructed a large L-shaped office headquarters building on the site, which is still known as ‘Neptune House’ – named after the original film company. Viewers of Holby City may be familiar with its appearance. It was also used by Gerry Anderson in his 1969 series UFO where it represented the secret HQ of ‘Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organization’. Of course. (UFO was filmed down the road at MGM British studios until they closed, then it moved to Pinewood.)
Staff began to move onto the site during 1960, although the studios would not be ready for use until the end of the year.
The work involved in converting the stages into television studios was considerable and it was not until late in 1960 that any of them was ready for business. All four studios were equipped with Pye Mk V Image-Orthicon cameras. These were said to give the best pictures around in their day. Pete Simpkin tells me that they were also ground-breaking in that the OCPs (operational control panel) for each camera were grouped together enabling one operator to match iris and sit levels, using one monitor. This is taken for granted nowadays but previously each camera had had a separate racks operator.
The studios were also unusual in that it was theoretically possible to have three studios operating on different line systems at the same time (405, 525 and 625). Local generators were also capable of supplying mains power at the US standard of 60 Hz, enabling programmes to be made in NTSC for America without the studio lights appearing to flicker. However, I’m told that when shows were being recorded onto the early generation of VTRs, they had genlocking problems if different standards were in use at the same time so this was avoided whenever possible.
The cost of converting the studios was £4m. This was a huge amount of money in those days but of course by 1960 ATV could well afford it.
The first show to come out of the studios – from D – was a drama called The Man Condemned – which was made on 29th November 1960. Studio C opened a few weeks later on 3rd January 1961 with a play called The Jason Group.
One of the first big LE series at Elstree was a six-part spectacular starring Cliff Richard and the Shadows. At that time, audience seating was moved in and out of the studios when required but took up much of the useful floor space. It was not until a few years later that an ‘auditorium’ would be built behind one of the long walls in studio D.
Studio A opened on 3rd October 1961 with Call Oxbridge 2000 – an Emergency-Ward 10 spin-off. E-W 10 itself was in the studio on 6th October, having made the move from Highbury.
Studio B was ready for business a few weeks later on 24th November 1961 and opened with The Warning Voice – a drama I assume. The studios were soon all busy producing top quality entertainment and drama. The first of many US co-productions was The Jo Stafford Show, made in 1961.
Incidentally – there is a very interesting video that was made by ATV/Central just before they left Elstree, which details their history there and includes many clips from shows. It would appear that quite a few dates on the video are incorrect. Maybe their research wasn’t quite as good as it might have been. Anyway – Richard Greenough, who organised the studio schedules, has confirmed the above dates and first programmes. I met him a couple of years before he died and he still possessed all the studio schedules for every ATV studio from their first day of transmission in September 1955 to the last day at Elstree on 29th July 1983, when Family Fortunes was made in studio D. Thus, studio D was ATV’s first and last at Elstree.
ATV’s regional programmes came from their Birmingham studios – including, of course, Crossroads. Elstree, meanwhile, produced a range of drama, comedy and light entertainment for the network – typical examples being The Braden Beat (’62), Hancock (’62), Love Story (’63), Sergeant Cork (’63), The Larkins (’63), The Plane Makers (’63), Morcambe and Wise (’63), Mainly Millicent (’64) and in 1964 the Arthur Haynes Show moved to Elstree from its previous homes at Hackney and Wood Green.
Popular dramas included The Power Game (’65), Mrs Thursday (’66), Fraud Squad (’69), Camille (’67), Timeslip (’70), Edward VII (’73), Father Brown (’74), The Cedar Tree (’75), Sapphire and Steel (’79-’82) and Shine on Harvey Moon (’81). One-off major dramas included Hamlet (’70) starring Richard Chamberlain, A Long Day’s Journey into Night (’72) starring Laurence Olivier and Antony and Cleopatra (’73). All of the above were of course shot on multi-camera video.
Comedy included George and the Dragon (’66-’68), Young at Heart (’80-’82) and music shows included Singalongamax (’73 onwards) and specials and series with Des o’Connor (’71) and Val Doonican (’71). The children’s series Inigo Pipkin and Pipkins ran from 1972-1981.
Popular gameshows made at Elstree included The Golden Shot (’67-’75 ), Celebrity Squares (from ’75) and Family Fortunes (from ’80).
Darren Knipe has kindly written to me. He has been researching the life and career of his Dad, Ray Knipe, who worked at ATV from the 1950s until his untimely death in 1974. He was a pioneer in videotape editing – in the razor blade years! Lew Grade called him his ‘Blue-eyed Boy’ as he so often worked miracles on ATV’s programmes. He has an extraordinary tale to tell which of course I can’t corroborate but makes very interesting reading…
‘Dad hadn’t long won his EMMY nomination. Mum tells the story where he came home absolutely tamping mad one day. The Party Political Broadcasts were historically done by the BBC but one day Lew came skipping in and excitedly told Dad he had just received a call from No 10, who wanted ATV to do that year’s broadcast.
This was a huge kudos that Lew craved and he gave Dad the task of doing it. Mum recalls the day Dad came home: After Mum had calmed him down, he said “You know I have no issue with drunks. I work with plenty of them. But what I will not do is work with a drunken imbecile.”
Apparently they had to do so many retakes because Ted Heath was slurring and mumbling, that Dad soon realised the reason ATV had got the job was because of their VT editing skills. Dad refused to finish the work, which had No 10 screaming at Lew, and Lew screaming at Dad, but he would not shift.
Lew said he would have to fire Dad, and this is when the shop floor said they would walk out if that happened. Lew had to back down, knowing he had no choice but to surrender his coveted chance at being the Government’s go-to TV channel, and life went on.’
The ‘glory days’ of ATV at Elstree were full of happy memories for the staff that worked there during the ’60s and ’70s. The following sums up the period perfectly, and was kindly sent to me by Colin Russell:
‘Every year, Lew Grade and his wife Kathy would visit the studios before Christmas and tour the site giving their Christmas greetings personally. Everyone would be greeted and invariably first names remembered.
They were greatly admired by all the staff and this personal touch gives a hint of Lew’s genius and humanity and why ATV did so well.
A Christmas Party was laid on for the children of staff and all the resources of the studios would be used. Putting on a decent show in the studio was easy, with the co-operation of the management and an army of volunteer staff.
Santa would make a grand entrance into the studio on a silent self-powered sleigh, a testament to the skills of the construction shop and lighting electricians in adapting one of the Lansing-Bagnall tow-trucks normally used by Scenery and Props. New popular themes would emerge and ‘Supercar’ made a spectacular appearance one year.
During the 70’s, the annual Christmas ‘Chippies Party’ grew to legendary status among the usual round of Christmas office parties, and is fondly remembered. It’s worthy of a mention because I doubt that its like exists today in any industry, in these politically correct cost-conscious times. It seemed to grow in scale year by year and was all the more remarkable because it was only funded by a whip round and all the facilities were provided free by volunteers, with the tacit approval of management.
The Construction Shop was located on the 3rd floor of the building west of Studios A & B, easily identified by a spiral staircase at each end, and which has a glass roof running the entire length. The ground floor was the Property Store and the 2nd floor was the stock Scenery Store. Three large lifts provided access to the covered way facing Studio B.
The Construction Shop held their own ‘office party’ in a free space on the construction shop floor, which after the departure of the OB department to Birmingham in 1968 included both the OB garages.
There was a heavy workload in those days (a local contractor would visit up to three times a day in a 3 ton truck to collect scrap scenery) and by December there was a lot of steam to be let off. Office parties were meant to be a lunchtime drink, and so it was. The construction staff would make the most of it with a buffet and drinks. But year upon year it got bigger and better, fuelled by the successful atmosphere at ATV Elstree then, as much as the collective resources available, and which no other department confined to an office could match no matter their status.
A set would be constructed of ballroom proportions from stock scenery and props, with a stage at one end with working tabs, and the longest bar available at the back, fully equipped and dressed by the Props and Drapes boys and lit by the Sparks. We were used to making the most lavish costume dramas and light entertainment shows and we had the pick of the stock sets.
Whatever the chosen décor, cowboy western-style swing doors were traditionally used for ease of access every year.
The Sound Department would provide the mics, p.a. and background music and the catering department provided the food.
The official lunchtime party was restricted by invitation only, when a show would be put on by a group of carpenters, painters, and labourers. The degree of creative talent was surprising, providing a decent pool of musicians for the band and singers and comedy actors for the turns. One of my favourite memories is of a painter, a labourer and a prop-maker, on stage dressed in only loincloths, boots and fez, doing a very funny version of The Sand Dance.
After the show, about 1.30pm, the set was opened to visitors from other departments, when the prop-maker would revert to his weekend profession of disco DJ and the numbers would swell with guests from other departments.
By mid-afternoon the place would be heaving, word having spread around the site.
No meaningful work would be done anywhere, and if a studio was in production there’d be a string of visits by the crews and actors to the party, as and when they could slip away. Year after year, the reputation of the Construction Party grew such that everybody found his or her way there, senior management and actors included. It has to be said that A Lot of alcohol was consumed and many interesting relationships could be observed. Normal social barriers evaporated in the festive spirit and the most unlikely dance partners would let their hair down, it being the 70’s, everyone had long hair – except the skinheads!
The whole spectrum of TV life was there, from management to cleaners, producers to actors, and all the crews and office staff in between, dancing like Cinderella in Ibiza for just one night a year.
Famously, there was once almost an ugly scene when the security department was tasked with stopping the party at 6pm. It was still in full swing, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ was playing for the umpteenth time by popular request, and there was still enough fuel in the kegs to go all night. Trying to stop the party proved to be a slow process, few were in the mood to go home and extra time was negotiated and played.
In hindsight, I think the success of the annual Construction Party was a reflection of the wonderful atmosphere in ITV in those days. We all had secure jobs with decent pensions and conditions of work and staff turnover was very low. We loved what we did; we worked hard all year, and played hard.
It was truly the Golden Age of Television for the workers.
Lorraine Cheek has written to me, having read Colin Russell’s account. She too remembers the Christmas parties from her childhood. She recalls that they were magical but she almost wondered if they had actually happened until once when driving past Elstree, her mother said ‘Oh, that’s where the Walsh’s used to take you to the Xmas parties and Father Christmas would fly in.’ She remembers ‘rows and rows of children sitting at long tables eating jelly and ice-cream waiting for Father Christmas to arrive and the overwhelming feeling of excitement when he made his entrance.’
The site has two large and two medium studios (A-D). In later years the BBC added three studios converted from workshop space for EastEnders (Stages 1, 2, 3), one regional news studio (G – built for Newsroom South-East which ran from 1989-2001), a small training studio (E) converted from the original band room for studio D, the top floor of Neptune House later used to film Holby City, and on the back lot they built ‘Albert Square’ and its surrounding streets. Until the show moved north, Grange Hill was also based here, and its playground and some school buildings occupied part of the car park alongside Neptune House. For many years this show had a regular booking for six months of the year in studio B.
Studio A made its first programme on 3rd October 1961. It is 66 x 62 metric feet within firelanes – with a corner lost for the gallery suite and technical equipment store beneath. The opposite corner also loses a few square feet as a doorway protrudes into the floor area. From 6th October 1961 the twice-weekly drama series Emergency-Ward 10 continued a 10-year run in this studio that had begun in 1957 at the Wood Green Empire, then at Highbury Studios. When it was axed the viewers made it clear that they missed it, so from 1972-1979 the soap General Hospital was made in A and B. (Clearly, Holby City continued a fine tradition of medical drama on this site some years later.) During the black and white years ATV used the studio for various entertainment programmes including the David Nixon Show (now there’s a name to conjure with) and the Dave Allen Show – live on a Friday night. The children’s show Inigo Pipkin, which after the first series became Pipkins occupied studios A or B from 1972 – 1981. An astonishing 313 episodes were made.
This studio’s equipment was not colourised so from around 1970 its galleries were no longer used. However, programmes continued to be made on A’s floor at first using a colour OB scanner and later using B’s galleries, which were converted to colour in 1972.
Nevertheless, the studio had briefly seen a colour camera a few years before then – as Jeremy Hoare recounts…
‘Summer 1966 – England won the World Cup against Germany in 1966 in a never to be forgotten Wembley Final, broadcast by the BBC in B&W as the debate was still going on about line and colour standards. The very next day the entire England squad attended a live broadcast luncheon, which was set up in Studio D at ATV Elstree. I had the job in Studio A of getting the first Philips PC60 literally out of its box, mounting it on a tripod set onto a rostrum so the lens height was around eight feet, then operating it so that the players who had been so victorious the day before could see themselves in colour. It was a great moment for me but the heroes of English soccer didn’t seem impressed. I didn’t get lunch either. But at least I did get to operate ATV’s own first ever colour camera!’
Cliff Hughes recalls that during the ’70s and into the ’80s it was quite common to do a sitcom in B on a Saturday and then another in A on the Sunday, using the same cameras and of course controlled by B’s galleries.
An interesting aside: ATV briefly considered bidding for the proposed ITV breakfast franchise. It was to be called Sunrise and studio A would have been its home. The bid was abandoned before any serious work was done on it.
As has often happened during the research for this history I have conflicting information about what happened to the studio in the months before ATV left. I have been informed by an ATV staffer that towards the end of ATV’s time here the studio was used as a rehearsal room and for storage. Certainly, my correspondent is sure he accidentally barged in on a rehearsal to his considerable embarrassment. However – this may simply have been on a day when a programme wasn’t scheduled and the studio was being used for a rehearsal.
Oddly, some evidence seems to suggest that before ATV/Central left Elstree the lino TV flooring was removed as according to a BBC engineering document (‘Eng Inf’ spring 1984) written shortly after they moved in…
‘ It has not been used for production for a few years and is unequipped. It has a wooden floor which makes it unattractive for television use, though it should become a useful BBC film stage.’
However, according to Richard Greenough, the head of ATV design (who kept copies of the studio schedules), the studio was fully utilised right up to the end and the last programme to be made in A was Blockbusters on 17th May 1983 – only two months before ATV/Central moved out. Certainly the galleries hadn’t been used for many years but what’s all this BBC stuff about a wooden floor???
Whatever the state of the floor, one of the first uses by the new owners was to hire the studio out as a film stage to the Children’s Film Foundation early in 1984. Later, the studio became the home of a huge model of a city for the sci-fi series The Tripods. ‘ The City’ was and probably remains the largest single model ever built by the BBC, at about 1,200 square feet. It took an extraordinary 18 months to construct and was largely the work of Simon Tayler of the BBC special effects department. During the next few years studio A used facilities provided by OB units or simply to shoot single-camera drama or comedy. In 1987 Jim Henson returned to Elstree (more on him later) to make The Tale of the Bunny Picnic – a Muppet-based one-off special for children. This was shot single camera and occupied studios A and B for several months.
In 1989 studio A was completely refurbished by the BBC with a new grid and monopoles (the first installed in any BBC studio as all their others have motorised lighting bars.) The gallery suite was brought up to the standard of the day including a GVG 200 vision mixer and new dimmers were installed. The old mechanical dimmers were not removed however and still remain (disconnected) upstairs in the huge dimmer room in their wire cage, the replacement thyristor racks sitting nearby. The control room still had ATV’s old Strand System C lighting console in it, which was carefully removed and – because nobody knew what else to do with it – placed inside the dimmer cage, where as far as I know it remains to this day.
The dimmer room shared by A and B is now a museum of television dimmers! At one end is the huge cage containing several hundred motorised resistor dimmers installed in 1961, next to them are A’s thyristor dimmer racks which were state of the art in 1989 and at the other end of the room is a small cabinet containing the digital dimmers for studio B – each one the size of a cigarette pack – which were installed in 2003. Well, I find it interesting anyway – sad old git that I am.
Following A’s refurbishment, the BBC’s intention was then to carry out similar work on the other three studios. However, the new regime of austerity under DG Michael Checkland (popular nickname amongst staff – ‘Michael Chequebook’) and his successor John Birt brought an end to all major capital spending, so studios C and D were given the bare minimum to make them useable.
In fact, B didn’t have its galleries reequipped by the BBC until 2016 and those rooms sat there for 33 years much as ATV left them, literally gathering dust. Because for many years A had the best equipped gallery suite, it was often used to remotely control programmes being made in the other three studios.
A was used as a proving ground for a couple of new technologies when it was refurbished. The first was to use existing TV36 camera cables as a BBC-designed enhanced triax. This proved very problematic and did not last long.
Secondly, the cameras that were initially installed in A were Link 130s along with some NEC MNC-100 lightweight cameras. The Links were highly sophisticated for their day with automatic line-up processors. Sadly, they proved to be very unreliable. They had been around for a few years in development and the idea was to use studio A and BBC Glasgow as test beds to try to make them work. (John Wardle informs me that 42 130s were ordered but only 11 delivered – BBC Glasgow was the unfortunate studio to receive the first batch.)
The new cameras were soon rejected – the software in the 130s was simply too complex for the technology available at that time and Link’s backing companies pulled the plug for any further investment. Sadly, this caused the downfall of the company and the UK lost its sole remaining TV camera manufacturer. The Schneider lenses were kept – and a camera was sought that they would fit. This rather surprisingly turned out to be the French Thomson TTV-1530 – one of the last tubed cameras. These were modified by the BBC (surprise surprise) and this variant supplied to the Beeb was known as the 1531. Around 1994 these were updated with Thomson TTV-1542 CCDs and 1647 lightweight cameras. The studio went widescreen in 1999 and was equipped with Philips/Thomson LDK 100s.
Despite the studio being one of the best equipped in the country (although rather an awkward size), I can find no record of any programmes being made in it from 1989 to 1998. Of course, its galleries controlled a number of shows made in C and D but apart from Double Dare in 1992, Incredible Games in 1994 and a few occasions when EastEnders spilled into it… nothing. Any clues anyone?
However, from 1999 the Kilroy programme began a three-year contract in this studio. Thus TOTP, which had used A’s gallery facilities for most of the nineties now had to use an old OB scanner parked in the car park as a control room. Once Kilroy left, studio A became part of the EastEnders empire.
One other aspect unique to studio A – it was the first studio to be fitted by the BBC with a resin floor. Previously, studios had floors consisting of lino mounted on asphalt. However, it was thought that the cameramen might find the resin too hard to stand on all day so lino was laid on top! To my knowledge, this is the only studio in the UK with both types of flooring.
In 2016, A’s galleries were found to contain asbestos within the walls which made a refurb prohibitively expensive. Instead, the galleries for studio B were rebuilt and re-equipped for EastEnders and A’s galleries were closed. As far as I am aware, they remain locked and unused. Maybe they will stay that way for thirty odd years like the galleries for B did?
Studio B is almost a mirror image of A but slightly longer at 70 x 62 metric feet within firelanes. It opened on 24th November 1961. ATV used it for a variety of small dramas and children’s programmes. Originally it was equipped with Pye Mk V image-orthicon cameras but from 1969 it was also used as a 4-waller using a colour OB scanner. In 1972 it was fully colourised with four Philips PC60s. As mentioned above, following colourisation the studio was used to make dramas such as General Hospital (’72-’79) and children’s series such as Pipkins (’72-’81). Late in the 1970s four EMI 2001s were transferred from studio D into this studio when D’s cameras were replaced with LDK 25s.
Cliff Hughes has sent me an interesting snippet…
‘Studio B was fully equipped in the late 70s and early 80s and in fact had a brand new Grass Valley mixer installed in I would guess late ’79 early ’80 in preparation for a live action series of Dan Dare which never actually materialised as is often the case! My memory of this is it was to be heavily a blue/green screen production and Ultimatte was also fitted. I believe this might have been the first Ultimatte install in the UK. I remember the boys in Tech being very excited about it.’
B’s last ATV/Central programme was I Thought You’d Gone – a sitcom starring Peter Jones – which was recorded on 18th May 1983. Interesting that a studio this size should be used for a sitcom. The audience must have been very small. These days sitcoms are made in studios around 90 x 70 ft and usually have audiences of about 300 people and several sets.
When ATV left it was treated as a 4-waller by the BBC. It did, however, have dimmers installed in 2003 and is currently used as one of the EastEnders studios, now controlled by the gallery suite fitted out in 2016.
B’s gallery suite was unique in all London’s TV studios. The rooms were built in 1962, converted to colour in 1972 but since the BBC didn’t equip them, they sat there as they were left from 1983 to 2016, gathering dust – no carpet on the floor, just the plywood flooring panels. The production gallery, vision control, lighting control and apparatus rooms still had the original monitor racks dating back to the early 1970s and in the huge vision control room the control desk was sitting there in all its blue Formica and polished veneer glory. Sadly, all the monitors and equipment had been removed long before but one still had a sense of how these old control rooms looked. I visited in May 2006 and it was bizarre, walking from room to room in studio A’s control suite which was very smart and well-equipped – then walking through a door into B’s galleries and stepping back 30 years or more. I returned in 2012 and it was still all there – although the dust was thicker and the ceiling seemed to be about to collapse in one or two places.
In 2016 these galleries were rebuilt to create two control room suites for EastEnders and studio A’s galleries were closed. The new galleries can control cameras in any of the studios on site, giving a great deal of flexibility to the EastEnders schedulers. There is also a suite in Stage 1 which is usually used to control Stages 1, 2 or 3 but can also control action on the Lot.
The images below were photographed in 2006. Click on them to see them in high resolution and for some further information…
Incidentally – the reason that the sound gallery is not illustrated above is that it had become a producer’s room for EastEnders .
From 1985 studio B was occupied by the set for the Grange Hill school corridor along with its various classrooms, each room being re-dressed to become the art room/ history classroom/headmaster’s study etc as required. Previously, the show had shot its interiors in a studio at Television Centre and I was occasionally on the camera crew. When it moved to Elstree, Grange Hill was served by a three-camera outside broadcast unit supplied by BBC OBs. Then in 1998 a new producer, Diana Kyle, was appointed and the show adopted a more contemporary technique – being shot on single-camera Digibeta, often using Steadicam.
I was involved in implementing this new shooting style and lit many of the episodes that year – including the one where a child fell from a window and died. I remember how upsetting the scene was and how emotional the cast were. The sequence involved a fire which we shot in a set built in the scenery construction building as using real fire in studio B was not safe. Then we moved to the permanent set in the Elstree car park for the actual fall from the first floor window. Tragically and truly bizarrely the actress who played her, Laura Sadler, suffered the same fate in real life just five years later when she fell from the balcony of her boyfriend’s flat. She had become a regular character on Holby City for three years playing nurse Sandy Harper before her death.
During this seventeen year period, part of the car park next to Neptune House had been turned into the school playground and a permanent two-storey set of a section of the school was built at the end of the ‘playground’. This had an entrance lobby, stairs, corridors and a small classroom at first floor level with rooms off it. Another permanent set of a café was also constructed at the end of the workshop building opposite the studio site main entrance.
The series moved from Elstree to Liverpool in 2002 when Phil Redmond’s Mersey TV took over direct control of it, following that company’s loss of Brookside. The series finally ended in 2008 after 30 years.
Studios A and B are medium sized but can be linked. They have sliding doors about 10ft x 10ft that enable cameras to move between them. I am told that ATV frequently used the doors for a number of shows when programmes spread across the two studios. These were controlled from either gallery during the black and white years and from studio B after colourisation. The pair of studios was also used by the BBC in Feb ’92 for the last series of Double Dare – the popular kids’ gameshow. The question and answer rounds were played in front of an audience in A whilst the games were played in B. This saved huge amounts of time as the games could be set up and cleared away behind the closed doors, which then opened to let the cameras through. This series was one of the first things I lit when I became an LD – in fact it was my suggestion to the producer and director to use A & B, having previously worked on the show in TC4 at TV Centre and then realising how suitable these two studios would be.
The first floor corridor behind the gallery suites to studios A and B is quite interesting. Around 2012 it was decorated in NHS blue as an area within a hospital – complete with signs to various medical departments – I had assumed that this was for Holby City but in fact it was for an EastEnders storyline. The space is surprisingly large and had a nurse’s station and several chairs for waiting patients. Hopefully eagle-eyed viewers did not notice the old ATV transmission lights above the doors. The corridor on the ground floor is similarly decorated.
Other areas on site have been similarly signed and decorated but these were definitely for Holby – the lift lobby in Neptune House for example. Studio M and the corridors around it have also been Holbyfied and the old South East regional TV studio on the ground floor of Neptune House was turned into a hospital ward. The rear of the exterior of the building at ground floor level is dressed as a hospital entrance complete with space for ambulances. It is all very convincing!
Studio C is 102 x 68 metric ft at its widest point within firelanes. Again, one corner of the studio is taken up with the overhang from the gallery suite so about 475 sq ft is lost here.
The first TV programme was made in C on 3rd January 1961. During the days of ATV, C was the home of a number of big prestige dramas. This was the period when more TV drama was made in studios than on location and Elstree made many of ITV’s top plays with some of the great actors of the day including Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. Occasionally, it was used for audience shows with mobile seating if D was also in use for an LE show. For example, during a Christmas special recorded for American TV in 1977, David Bowie and Bing Crosby were recorded here singing ‘Drummer Boy’ in the middle of a July heatwave with the scene doors open because the ventilation system couldn’t cope. In fact, this turned out to be one of Crosby’s last ever performances.
I’m told that the record which is still often played around Christmas is the TV recording made in studio C. Apparently, they did go into a recording studio to do it ‘properly’ but the performance or recording mix was not as good so the TV version is the one we have. Naturally, the ATV staff sound supervisor who mixed it didn’t make a penny out of it.
The studio was initially equipped with monochrome Pye Mk5 cameras. Around 1969 the studio was colourised with EMI 2001 colour cameras. These remained in service until ATV/Central left. The last programme made by ATV/Central in C on 27th July 1983 was Getting On .
C was the first studio at Elstree to be used by the BBC when EastEnders started in February 1985. Work began on the series in 1984. The studio was equipped very much on the cheap with old kit from TV Centre that would otherwise have been chucked away. Any old ATV equipment that was left behind was brought back into use and the missing bits were sought from spares at the Centre.
ATV’s old EMIs were considered to be past it. (I have read they had been left deliberately damaged, along with other technical gear – as the BBC had only bought the building, not any equipment left behind. I’m not sure this is true.) Fortunately, TC3 at TV Centre had just closed for a major refurb so its 15-year old EMI 2001s were trucked to Elstree. Amazingly, the venerable EMI 2001s still produced great pictures right up to 1991. Not bad for a camera designed in the mid-1960s. By the time they were retired the five cameras in C had seen regular use for some twenty-two years. In fact – their cool, slightly desaturated and relatively noisy pictures were perfect for the gritty look that EastEnders sought.
The original plan was for the old ATV vision mixer (a Pro-West?) to be replaced with the BBC-designed EP5/512 from TC3. However, the mother-board was found to be cracked so Ian Trill informs me that a GVG 100 was installed instead – the monitor switching used banks of the old ATV mixer.
In July 1991 EastEnders moved to the newly created ‘Stage 1’ and Top of the Pops took over residence in C. The EMI 2001s were deemed unsuitable for TOTP so studio A’s Thomson cameras were trundled across the roadway and used each week for most of the ’90s. The production and sound galleries were much better equipped in A so the show was remotely controlled from that studio. The lighting gallery in C was used, however, and a Celco 90 took up residence alongside a Galaxy. This was joined each week by the latest moving light console – controlling the ever-increasing number of automated fixtures used on the show. This show thus became probably the only one in television with three console operators. The cameras were racked from A’s vision control room which was a far from ideal situation (back to the old separate ATV arrangement!).
The lighting gallery was very cramped and since the production and sound galleries were unused it was decided in the late 1990s to knock them into one and create a new huge lighting and vision control room. The camera controls were moved to this room and there was space for every type of lighting control desk you could imagine. It became the largest and best appointed lighting gallery in the country. Bizarrely, its walls were painted a pinky-purple – not exactly the neutral grey usually found in such areas – but then this was for Top of the Pops.
In 1999 the Kilroy programme moved into studio A which meant that TOTP could no longer make use of that studio’s cameras or sound and production galleries. An old BBC OB scanner was parked permanently in the car park to become the show’s production gallery and its rather long-in-the-tooth Sony cameras were used for the show. Unfortunately, the cameras had to be racked from there too so the camera control position in the new control room became redundant after only a few months. Sound could not use the scanner’s control area of course so the gallery in studio D was brought up to spec. This meant that D could never be used at the same time as C but with TOTP being so loud, its music could be heard on the other studio floor anyway.
‘Pops‘ came from the studio for most of the 90s and to my eyes this was the period when the show had its best sets and lighting. (But then as one of its LDs I would say that wouldn’t I?) Much of the PARcan rig stayed in from one week to the next – usually with a colour change and a few tweaks – whilst the ever-expanding number of moving lights were rigged differently depending on which acts were on that week. For a few years the record companies made a contribution to the lighting budget so that LDs were able to really show off. Sadly, this practice ended and more modest rigs ensued. TOTP left studio C in 2001 to tour clubs around the country, then go to Riverside for a few months and was then made each week in TC3 at Television Centre – the set and lighting rig being rigged and derigged for each recording. EastEnders moved back into C (as well as occupying Stage 1) where it still resides.
TOTP did not survive well the move from Elstree and audiences began to dwindle. Under producers Ric Blaxill and then Chris Cowey between 1994 and 2003 it had become a highly regarded show throughout the music industry in this country and indeed worldwide. Top acts took no persuading to appear on the show – I can remember lighting some shows in the ’90s with the most extraordinary line-up of artists sharing the studio. Chris in particular was highly respected in the music industry. He also had some ambitious ideas that nearly happened – including knocking the wall down between studio C and studio M – the music studio next door – to create more space for bands to perform. The two studios were linked by a small door and Chris turned M into a grungy bar area where guests could be interviewed or simply glimpsed chilling out before performing. When the show moved to TC3 at TV Centre, the Red tea bar was turned into the ‘Star Bar’ in an effort to recreate this.
In 2003 Andi Peters took over as producer and his approach was to turn it into more of a light entertainment show. Unfortunately, under his stewardship the quality of acts diminished – so inevitably did the viewers. Mark Cooper, highly respected in the music industry, took over as producer in 2005 but sadly it was too late. The final regular show from TC3 was in July 2006.
Despite the expensive refurbishment that was carried out to C’s lighting gallery, it is no longer in use. In fact, none of the control rooms in C are used any more. EastEnders uses studio B’s galleries to control studio activity in A, B and C. I’m told that directors usually work on the floor, seldom communicating much with the vision mixer as all cameras are recorded on separate iso feeds. The LD too works on the floor, relying upon the console op to balance the pictures.
It was never like that in my day! I was one of the regular LDs on the show for most of the 1990s working on it for 3 or 4 months each year. We only had 3 episodes a week to make back then so had much more time than now to light the sets and rehearse the scenes. Most recording blocks usually included at least one day on location too which was a great experience. Considering the rate at which they now make the show, the production values are extraordinarily high. In later years I often used to copy the lighting for TV Burp for the sketches where Harry Hill appeared to join the action in clips shown on the programme. Since this involved me analysing how the scenes were lit so I could match them I can say that EastEnders has consistently remained one of the best lit soaps in my opinion.
For a number of years the huge, beautifully furnished lighting control room in C had two rather lonely monitors in its otherwise empty stack and was used as an EastEnders producers’ viewing room. This space was taken up with switching facilities for the News department for use during election programmes. These of course used to come from TC1 but all the comms and other facilities had to be removed and rebuilt at Elstree when TVC closed in 2013. Yet another huge hidden cost associated with the selling off of the Centre.
Incidentally, studio C, not surprising given its film history, has a tank beneath the floor. This did come as a surprise to a workman from the Elgood company in 2001 when the floor was being re-laid. He was digging up the old lino, which had been laid on the timber film stage floor, when his Kangoo hammer suddenly shot out of his hands and disappeared into a large hole. Fortunately, he let go.
Studio D is 100 x 64 metric feet within firelanes, with a corner lost for the gallery suite but with permanent audience seating along one long wall. (TLS studio 1 by comparison was 89 x 68 metric feet plus its audience. In case you were wondering.) Built as a film stage around 1936, it re-opened as a television studio on 29th November 1960 and was the first of the four studios to be converted. The others followed soon after.
Back in the days of ATV, D was used for major showbiz spectaculars starring the likes of Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Julie Andrews (and Sesame Street), Max Bygraves and many big American names like Liberace, Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Junior. The early Morecambe and Wise series were made here between 1961 and 1968. Of course, The Muppet Show also famously came from this studio.
Some performers were easier to deal with than others. Jeremy Hoare recalls the occasion when Jimi Hendrix was performing on the Dusty Springfield Show in D and he was working on something in B. Hendrix’s guitar was so loud it could be heard through both studio walls and they had to wait till he had finished his number. Unfortunately the two dock doors face each other across the covered way and were perhaps not quite as soundproofed as they needed to be.
Standards converters were such poor quality in the ’60s that it was common to record programmes twice – once in 625 line PAL for the UK and then in 525 line NTSC for the US market.
The first colour production was a star-studded benefit show called The Heart of Showbusiness in 1966. It was made to raise money for the Aberfan disaster relief fund. A temporary ‘colour control room’ was built in the technical area on the studio floor beneath the existing control rooms. The show was recorded and shown in colour in the US and in b/w in the UK. Three colour cameras were used alongside the normal four b/w studio cameras. Sounds like a director’s nightmare to me!
The studio is very well equipped for making big showbiz spectaculars. It has a permanent seating area with comfortable plush audience seats. This ‘auditorium’ was constructed along one of the long walls of the studio around 1968 at the same time as the central technical area. The width of the seating block is 70 ft, making it the same size as a standard studio audience with about 350 seats, but of course it doesn’t take up any valuable floor area. I’m told that sound supervisors like the fact that the audience is somewhat boxed in like this as it enables a better separation of live sound and audience reaction. Astonishingly, audiences did not use the seating from 1993 to 2010 – the chairs simply gathered dust hidden behind a black drape, smelling of rats – or so I’m reliably informed.
This area was previously occupied by a plasterers’ workshop as Richard Greenough recalls…
‘The Elstree Studios before we moved in had been film studios. There was a large shed containing hundreds of plaster moulds of cornices, columns etc. Television had never had plasterers or used plaster as the film industry did because there was never time to build the set in the studio which was necessary when plaster was used. Sets for television had to be constructed in the workshop, then broken down and transferred to the studio and re-erected, there being only time to tape joints in flats and touch up. Mostly, for big shows, three studio days were allocated. On the first, the set was built, the second day was for rehearsal and the third day to record on videotape.
I tried very hard to keep these plaster moulds to use perhaps for plastic vacuum moulding which had come in. Unfortunately, I was unable to achieve this and they were destroyed and the shed had to be demolished to make way for the auditorium which we built as part of Studio D.’
The studio also has a groundrow trough sunk into the floor enabling a cyclorama to be lit with an invisible join between it and the floor. This facility is not available now in any other studio. (The proposed TC9 at TV Centre was going to have one and the only other example in the UK was in Studio 7 in the old Central Studios in Nottingham – now part of the local university.) There was also a counterweight flying system installed but that was not used for many years and has now been removed.
Jim Henson’s Muppeteers arrived in 1975 from New York to make their first series and stayed for about 6 years. According to staff who worked there at the time they were very happy days for everyone; a family atmosphere existed throughout the studio site. The Muppet workshop was established in the equipment store under the seats and it extended to the area around this space which later became a green room, editing suits, a seating area and a small kitchen. Very rarely did the Muppets leave D, on occasions they moved to B or C for logistical reasons but D was their home, where audiences were treated to sketches and large production numbers featuring big name guests – a different one every week. The show might use a live orchestra and if so, they’d be out of sight in the band room (now studio E) with Jack Parnell in charge. Typical guests included Bob Hope, Elton John and Raquel Welch.
It would be over 30 years before the Muppets would return to this studio. Well, not actually ‘The Muppets’ – that name and the original characters now belong to Disney but in 2013 Brian Henson, Jim’s son, spent several weeks recording That Puppet Show in studio D for Saturday nights on BBC1. Some of the puppeteers (Muppeteers?) were the same and when I happened to walk through the studio one recording day it did look as it must have all those years ago. The sets were raised 4ft in the air and all the camera peds were fully extended, just like the photo below. Glancing at the monitors one couldn’t help expecting to see a green frog or a pink pig but no – these were PUPPETS – definitely not the ‘M’ word.
ATV initially equipped D with Pye Mk 5 Image Orthicon cameras. Towards the end of the ’60s a few programmes were made in colour using an OB unit but in 1969 the studio was equipped with its own EMI 2001s. In the mid 1970s these were replaced with dual-standard Philips LDK 25s. Apparently, the US channels preferred their pictures, finding the EMIs too cool and desaturated. The EMIs were moved across to studio B, to replace its old PC60s.
In researching this website I have discovered that towards the end of the ’60s most TV companies seem to have explored the possibility of making programmes on colour film using combined film and TV cameras. It seems that ATV were no exception. Guy Caplin has sent me this…
‘In 1966? Studio D was fitted temporarily with 4 American style film cameras with TV viewfinders. The film start/stop mechanism for each camera was controlled by the vision mixer. Unfortunately the British film labs could not or would not match the American style of overnight developing, neg cutting and printing so that the show could be viewed the following day. ATV was unwilling to go ahead with this method of production without the full co-operation of the labs and the cameras were removed.’
Somebody else has also written to inform me that the 35mm cameras used for this experiment were the Addavision ones borrowed from Gerry Anderson’s Slough studios where he made Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. And you thought those series were filmed on little miniature cameras.
The last show made in D before the BBC arrived was Family Fortunes , on 29th July 1983. After that, the whole site was left in the care of a handful of maintenance workers until a buyer could be found.
The BBC took over the site at the beginning of 1984 and Ian Dow has sent me some recollections of how he found studio D.
‘I was involved in the first BBC show from Elstree, which was an OB using their rehearsal rooms as a location for a programme on Noel Gay. On the recce on 7th Feb 1984 there were still 8 ex-ATV employees looking after the place before the BBC moved in for real. We did a second recce a month later, and recorded on 20th March 1984. We went into the big LE studio, with the groundrow pit, and everything had been left just as the crew switched off for the last time and walked out. Camera peds not locked down, half drunk cups of tea, scripts on the floor. Boldly we threw the main breaker and everything came on! Cameras worked, pictures appeared on the monitor stack.’
In fact it turns out that Ian was probably not the first person to switch it all on after ATV had left. John Wardle has written to me. He was one of four people from the BBC’s Technical Investigations Department who visited Elstree towards the end of 1983, before the BBC had bought it. They spent three or four days on site checking out what was there. He recalls going into the Central Technical Area and discovering that many cables had been cut through with bolt cutters and there were no lines out. Having eventually got some power on, they moved into studio D and worked their way round the system, getting mixer, sound and cameras working to give pictures. He recalls seeing the Thorn Q-File lighting desk, which interestingly seemed to have come from the Grand Theatre in Leeds – a venue known to John when he was a student. He also remembers that they were puzzled by the hissing sound in the grid, which of course turned out to be the hydraulic hand drills used to raise and lower the lighting telescopes – a very familiar sound to any LD or electrician who has worked in those studios!
For the first few years of BBC ownership Studio D was used as a training studio using the old LDK 25s ATV had left behind. Dave Buckley worked with the Television Training Dept and he recalls his early days at Elstree:
‘One item I had to remove from the production gallery was a large heavy duty push button inserted into the top of the desk in front of where the director sat. It was marked ‘applause’ and when pressed would have lit up signs over the audience! For some years afterwards, this push button assembly was lying round Television Training’s maintenance room just off the roadway opposite the canteen/club entrance.’
For those who don’t realise – this use of ‘applause’ signs was never found in the BBC where audiences were and are encouraged to clap by the floor manager waving his or her arms about. To my knowledge it has not been used in the UK for many years and even then was probably only used by ATV. (Unless you know different!)
Dave doesn’t recall things being left in quite the same working order as Ian Dow does…
‘In the sound control room, the fronts of the monitor LSs (LS8s I think) had been removed but the cases were still in the wall. Luckily, the Quad stereo amplifiers which fed the LSs, where one half fed the bass and the other the treble, hadn’t been taken. The main talkback distribution amplifier had its multiway connecting plug damaged, such that I had to replace it, and throughout the studio, any switch that could be turned off (and some were in very odd places), had been! I heard similar comments about equipment being switched off from studio C, where a couple of engineers had started to install ex-TVC cameras etc ready for the start of EastEnders.’
The first broadcast BBC show to use Studio D was ‘Allo ‘Allo in 1988. This popular programme had been given a unique commission in the history of BBC sitcoms. An extraordinary 26 episodes were ordered in one series. Previously the show had been recorded at TV Centre in the usual 6 week runs. However, there were hopes of selling it to a US network so the set took residence in studio D for several months. Since the old ATV Philips cameras were well past it and the mixer only half worked, a GVG 100 vision mixer was installed and some old EMI 2001s were brought to the studio from TVC for the last few months of their working lives. TC1 closed for refurbishment in 1988 so it seems likely that this was the source of the cameras.
The village square was built as a semi-permanent set in the end of the garage building – the space that in future years would become Stage 1 for EastEnders .
In the summer of 1989 the studio’s sound desk was replaced with a Calrec M series – the previous 20 year old Neve desk was sent to the film and TV museum in Bradford. The sound gallery itself was extensively rebuilt. According to the BBC Engineering department’s quarterly magazine ‘Eng-Inf’, Thomson 1531 cameras were also installed.
Going For Gold was in the studio from September of that year. The show itself ran from 1987 to 1996 – it was first made at TV Centre, later moving here to studio D and series 7-10 were made in Studio A, BBC Manchester.
A few useless Going For Gold facts… The first winner was Daphne Fowler – many years later to become one of the Eggheads. The title music was written by Hans Zimmer – now an award-winning Hollywood film composer with titles like Gladiator to his credit. The opening shot of the show was a wideshot behind the audience but this was always the same shot as there was no audience at each recording apart from the friends and families of the contestants. To record the original shot they scoured the Elstree centre to get people from the kitchens, offices, cleaners etc to sit in for 10 mins and the backs of their heads were seen on every show.
The new cameras and improved sound facilities enabled the studio to be used for Opportunity Knocks with Les Dawson which was recorded from March to June in 1990. It followed the three previous series with Bob Monkhouse that had been recorded in TC8. This show utilised all the facilities of the studio – its floor size and separate audience seating proving ideal for a big Saturday night show. I was console op on this show – the last few were lit by me when Dickie Higham, the LD, gave me the opportunity to see what mess I could make of it. (This kind of training seldom happens now sadly.)
The studio had also shown how suitable it was for comedy and between 1990 and 1993 it was used to record You Rang M’Lord? – a spinoff from Are You Being Served set in a stately home and made with very high production values more akin to drama than the typical sitcom of the day. As a contrast, in 1993 and 1994 studio D was the home of Hanger 17 – a kids music and variety show. 1993 also saw children’s gameshow Incredible Games being made not only in D but also occupying A and B. An unknown David Walliams was the voice of the lift in this series. I kid you not. The second series was made at Shepperton.
Jim Davidson’s snooker gameshow Big Break was made here from 1991 before moving to TC1 at TV Centre. Martin Kisner, the LD on Big Break, has informed me that the final edition recorded in D was on 16th November 1993. This was probably the last time an audience sat in the seating – until 2010.
In 1994 EastEnders went to three episodes a week and studio D was required in addition to Stage 1. I was LD on EastEnders at the time and had the dubious honour of lighting the first scenes recorded in this studio. According to my diary, I lit the sets on 18th March and we recorded on 19th. The programme had to record on different days from TOTP as the noise penetrated from C next door. EastEnders’ own Ikegami HL79s were used during this period.
In 2001 EastEnders moved back to C. Studio D was put on a five year hire contract to BBC Children’s department. In 2002 the studio was given a much-needed digital widescreen refurbishment and equipped with four (only four?) LDK-100s.
In 2004 VR ‘targets’ were installed in the grid and the children’s virtual reality gameshow Bamzooki was made here, as was at least one series of SMart and several shows for the CBeebies channel like Tikkabilla. Around 2005 the studio was hired out as a 4-waller to a production company making a single-camera children’s drama. Often, however, during the five years of Children’s TV use, studio D was empty for long periods between productions and ‘mothballing’ it was seriously considered.
The contract with BBC Children’s department ended early in 2006 and the studio became available to be hired by any production company for all kinds of programmes. It was a while before production companies cottoned on to what a superb studio this is and frankly it was very poorly marketed by BBC Resources, the department who then owned it.
The amount of useable floor available is similar to what studio 1 at TLS had and greater than TC1 with its old audience seating pulled out. Meanwhile, for sitcoms there is much more space available for sets than in, say, stage 9 at Elstree Studios, TV-two at Pinewood or HQ2 at MediaCity. In fact, the gross area of the studio including the audience is an impressive 11,800 sq ft whilst TLS studio 1 was only 8,350 sq ft including its audience, although I must admit I do find these figures surprising.
In the middle of June 2006 I was lucky enough to light the first show in the studio since its ‘reopening’. It was a gameshow pilot for ITV1 on a huge scale – also using studio E. Sadly, a series was not commissioned but the production company were very impressed by the studio’s potential. I understand that a panel game series was recorded in the late summer of 2006. One or two other shows used the studio but none making use of the audience seating for the next few years. A children’s drama was using the studio for several weeks early in 2007.
In 2009 the studio made its first HD multicamera programme – using hired in ‘flyaway’ kit. It was the Children’s series Relic – Guardians of the Museum. Some of the series was shot on location but the games and chromakey sequences were recorded here. Thirteen 30-minute episodes were made over two weeks.
Finally, some sense prevailed. BBC Studios and Post Production (now BBC Studioworks), who managed the studios here, discovered rather late in the day that they had a superb studio sitting here doing very little. D was marketed more positively and in 2010 won a very interesting booking. It was a show called Odd One In – a new gameshow transmitted on Saturday nights on ITV1. It featured a large studio audience so the seating block was at last brought back into use. Not only that, but some serious money was spent. The musty old brown chairs were replaced with smart new red ones and the walls of the ‘auditorium’ were painted black. For this show there was also seating on the studio floor and on camera it looked huge – bearing comparison with Studio 1 at TLS. The sound desk too was replaced with a Studer Vista 5 and ‘key customer areas were refreshed.’ These included production gallery, dressing rooms and green room. In 2010 the studio was also used as a 4-waller for Sadie J and Rock and Chips.
The follow-spot gantry across the front of the audience seating was removed at the end of 2010, opening it all up and improving sight lines and camera shots of the audience. Further bookings followed. 2011 saw A League of Their Own for Sky 1, Show Me Show Me for CBeebies, another series of Odd One In for ITV and the return of Sadie J. 2012 was also a busy year.
On this website I have banged on rather boringly for many years that this studio is ideally suited to making sitcoms. Well, fancy that – in April 2012 I was asked to light a new sitcom pilot here – for ITV1 as it happens. (Lew Grade would approve I’m sure.) The show was a great success and despite a series not being commissioned I think my point was proven. Three big sets were spread across in front of the studio audience with loads of space behind to build more if the script had needed them. In fact, I can’t think of any sitcom I have lit where there has been so much space around the sets. In 2016 I returned to D to light series 8 of Not Going Out, which also worked extremely well in this studio.
Early in 2012 it became apparent that following the closure of TV Centre in April 2013, studio D would be one of several studios in Borehamwood that would at least partially hold the fort before TC1 – TC3 reopened in 2017. In fact, due to high demand, this studio will continue in use for the foreseeable future even though TV Centre has partially reopened.
In January 2013 the galleries were stripped to the walls and completely rebuilt. Production and lighting swapped over and an HD installation was carried out using equipment from TV Centre’s studio 6 and cameras from TC3. Although the Galaxy console was moved across to the new gallery it was later replaced with a Vector.
Studio D has had multiple comms and tie-lines installed enabling it to become the BBC’s main ‘hub’ studio for Children in Need and general elections (although interestingly, the 2019 general election programme came from Broadcasting House.) Its first live show for decades came in August 2013 when the new Doctor Who was announced in a special hosted by Zoë Ball. The set and lighting were suitably spectacular and the studio looked huge. The investment certainly paid off and it was great to see that London had this superbly equipped TV studio available.
More recent productions have included Keep It In The Family, A League of Their Own, Lip Sync Battle UK, Blockbusters, Christmas Top of the Pops, Romesh’s Look Back to the Future, Ball & Boe: A Very Merry Christmas, 8 out of 10 Cats, Take Off with Bradley & Holly and Crazy Delicious.
During ATV’s days at Elstree this space was used as the band room for Studio D so was constructed in 1968/9 as part of the audience seating/central technical area development. It has a heavy, soundproof door leading into the corner of D and also access to the covered roadway between the studios. It is about 30 ft square with a relatively low ceiling. It was originally L-shaped with the extra section separated by a partition. This was used as a booth for vocalists and backing singers. The floor had a number of troughs criss-crossing it that enabled microphone cables to be laid round the room without creating too much of a trip hazard. This was all covered by a very basic vinyl floor when it became a TV training studio.
When the BBC first moved into Elstree in 1984 the Television Training Department moved to the site from their very cramped facilities at Woodstock Grove in Shepherds Bush. For the first two years or so they used studio D but then E was converted into a fully equipped TV studio. The lighting grid uses short bars that slide on runners giving a surprisingly good degree of flexibility – although not much height! The original vocalists’ booth was converted into a combined production and sound gallery. Much of the studio equipment was brought to Elstree from the old studios in Woodstock Grove.
Dave Buckley helped to fit out the studio…
‘While Studio E was being built, Television Training’s handyman had to sort out the cyc cloth. To take the creases out of it, he hung it from a spare cyc track in Studio D. We all had a laugh as the cloth was not more than 15 feet in height and against D’s full size cloth, it looked like a pelmet.’
As well as training the television directors of the future, the studio was on rare occasions used to make some ‘real’ programmes…
‘…the first time being in 1987 when Cecil Parkinson MP was interviewed down the line during the General Election programme. (In addition, the studio also took part in the two rehearsals on the Sunday/Monday evenings prior to election day). The other times were for Newsroom South East when their studio wasn’t large enough for the item concerned. (When the NSE studio was being refurbished, they moved their cameras into Studio E and presented the programme from there. However, the overall programme was still controlled from NSE gallery in CTA). The studio was also used for a number of pilot programmes.’
In 2001 the studio and control room became part of the BBC Children’s Department ‘production village.’ James Taylor has written to me with his experience of this period…
‘We used it for the very last series of Short Change (children’s consumer affairs programme like Watchdog) as a 4-waller. It was the summer of 2005 and with the lights and low ceiling it was ridiculously hot to work in! We had it kitted out a bit like a cool attic in a converted warehouse with funky Ikea furniture and fake bricks on the wall and a wood-effect lino floor. The show had previously been filmed in the Short Change office in East Tower, but producers wanted a change – we ended up with Studio E at Elstree because it came as part of the long-term CBBC lease on Studio D, hence much to the delight of the penny pinchers, we effectively got it for free.’
I had the experience of working in there in 2006, making a gameshow pilot with Jerry Springer that used both D and E. I can certainly vouch for the inefficiency of the air conditioning!
At some time during the CBBC occupation, the control room was converted into an off-line editing suite. The studio is thus now only a 4-waller but holes have been punched through the wall enabling cables to pass to studio D. Thus, it is possible to use the studio as an annexe of D – or even stand alone using D’s galleries if need be. I gather it is mostly used as a prop store now.
This was a large music studio situated alongside studio C. It was capable of accommodating a full concert orchestra and had its own control room with mixing and recording facilities. It was also connected to the sound desks in all four studios so could work as a band room.
When the BBC moved in it was simply used for storage for a few years but TOTP producer Chris Cowie brought it back into action during the late ’90s as an overflow from studio C. The studio was dressed as a fairly grungy sort of bar – with sofas and odd-looking chairs and it became an interview area for brief chats with the stars on the show. It was connected by a small soundproof door and often the DJ would go through the door on camera and discover the members of the other acts lounging around in the ‘bar.’
When the programme moved back to TV Centre they insisted that they had a similar arrangement so the red assembly area was transformed into the ‘Star Bar.’
Studio M later became part of Holby City’s empire.
This area on the ground floor of Neptune House was a rehearsal room in the ATV years.
Studio G was the official name of the BBC’s Newsroom South East studio and was the home of local news to London and the South East from 1989 to 2001. It was actually a studio and newsroom – the studio end (next to the Grange Hill playground) had the newsroom as its background as was the fashion. Occasionally, things were rotated 90 degrees and the presenters were backed by a flat. A drape was used to help muffle the inevitable chat from the newsroom. The studio had three Thomson cameras – there was also a small (310 sq ft) studio with a single camera in the Central Technical Area for local news bulletins.
There was an editorial edict at the time that the local news should not be too London-centric (sound familiar?) but should include stories about the counties surrounding London who also received their TV from the Crystal Palace transmitter. That all went away when the studio moved to Marylebone High Street in 2001 and was re-packaged by design agency Lambie-Nairn as BBC LDN. That name did not last long (well I never) and the programme became known very sensibly as BBC London News. The local news moved again in 2009 and now comes from New Broadcasting House.
Studio G later had a Holby City hospital set built within it.
This space was originally part of a huge warehouse used for scenery storage, workshops and an OB garage by ATV. The building itself is very long (444 ft) and stretches across almost the whole Elstree site, divided into several internal areas, some about 100 feet long or more. Although it was designed as a workshop and storage space it would later become the location for many thousands of hours of prime-time programme making. ATV used part of it as a ‘studio’ between 1963 and 1965. David Petrie wrote to me and explained how…
‘One of the better home-grown British dramas of the 60s was ATV’s The Plane Makers which told of the life-&-death struggle in the fictitious Scott Furlong aircraft factory. Created by Wilfred Greatorex, the series was built around the late Patrick Wymark as John Wilder – the company’s bullying managing director. Wymark was a gentle man in real life. His wife once said that he was “the most inefficient, dreamy muddler in the world”. Not a ruthless and dynamic tycoon then.
Wymark himself confessed that he disliked Wilder, calling him “a bastard”. His 12 year old daughter Jane was also unimpressed, claiming the series was boring and adding “I’d rather listen to The Beatles”.
The plane featured in the series was the ‘Sovereign’. Viewers wanted to buy it but inside the 5½ ton aircraft was just scaffolding – no engines, no controls and no room for seats. The only time it ever “flew” was when it was once towed across Hendon aerodrome in a high wind. It got three feet off the ground and nearly landed on the jeep that was towing it. After 50 episodes about management and union disputes, ATV boss Lew Grade agreed with Jane Wymark that The Plane Makers was boring. “Who wants machinery and the noise of a factory when they get home at night? ‘Move out of there’ I said”. So the action switched entirely to the boardroom, where it improved further as The Power Game in 1965.’
Within a few years of the BBC’s arrival, they too began to use the workshop building for more creative purposes:
At the end of the building nearest the main gate, the café set for Grange Hill was constructed and used as an on-site location for a number of years. Behind that was a badminton court that was used as a holding area for TOTP audiences. Further along the building was a large space that was turned into a prison for an EastEnders storyline in the late ’90s.
Back in 1988 the far end of the building was converted into a studio space by constructing an internal Plettac (scaffold) frame which was padded with soundproofing. This was in order to create an area where the village square scenes could be shot for ‘Allo ‘Allo. No galleries were built but a lighting rig was suspended from the frame and the set built inside. The reason it was not constructed outdoors was because so many night scenes had to be shot for the 26 episode series.
In 1991 it was decided to move EastEnders out of C and into a dedicated studio of its own, equipped with Ikegami HL79s. These had to be fitted with Promist filters to try to emulate the gritty ‘look’ of the old EMI 2001s.
The Plettac frame was increased in size, a new roof built and a studio 154 metric feet long by 60 metric feet wide was created. (These dimensions are within the Plettac frame – the fire lane surrounds this and there are several openings in the frame giving access. This is, incidentally, a greater working floor area than TC1.) A resin floor was installed and a suite of small control rooms built alongside on the ground floor. Beside the studio in the area where the ATV OB vehicles used to park, a prefabricated block was constructed containing dressing rooms and green rooms for the cast. This building sits between Stage 1 and the Lot so much time was saved in getting actors to and from sets.
The control rooms were originally used when shooting on Stage 1 and after a year or two also on the Lot – cables and weatherproof boxes were installed all round Albert Square enabling cameras and sound leads to be plugged where convenient. (Around 2000 another control room suite was built on the Lot so that both areas could be used simultaneously, but I gather the Stage 1 control room is still used in preference.)
The lighting rig on Stage 1 hangs on drop arms from the simple scaffold grid and lamps have to be rigged and derigged via ladders. This has always been very slow but fortunately the studio has a number of permanent sets in it including the Vic, the launderette, the café and for the first few years, the Fowlers’ house. About a third of the studio has sets that come and go from time to time depending on the changing storyline.
In 2015, following replacement of the entire roof, two more stages were created for EastEnders within the same building – stage 2 and stage 3. These are lit entirely with LED fixtures.
One of the features of BBC Elstree is its large back lot. For about 37 years this was occupied with the exterior set for EastEnders. Three sides of Albert Square were the first part of the set to be built and as it was assumed that it would only be there for a couple of years it was not built to last. The steel frames of the houses were of course pretty solid (although reportedly rust began to affect them in later years) but the facing was only plywood and plaster and after a few years this all had to be refurbished. However, these renovations had deteriorated significantly by about 2010. The set was extended in several phases until by the end of the nineties it included the tube station, fish and chip shop and other shops/restaurants that changed hands in the story over the years.
Most of the buildings were simply facings with no rooms inside. This made shooting conversations in front doorways rather challenging. Sometimes the shots looking towards the Square were recorded first, then a week later the conversation was recorded all over again in the studio looking the other way into the house. (Actors were not allowed to change their hairstyles in the meantime.) Actually, most doorway scenes were shot looking just one way with no reverse angles or people kept their front door almost closed behind them so you couldn’t see into the house.
Scenes in the café are usually shot in Stage 1 but in the late nineties the set on the Lot was rebuilt so that in theory it could be used for shooting interiors. Matching the look of the two sets proved to be the nightmare everyone had said it would be so it was rarely used this way. The garage under the railway arch was on the Lot as was the fish and chip shop, the community centre and one or two other shops/restaurants but most interiors were and still are shot in one of the studios.
According to the official statements from late 2020, the new somewhat controversial Albert Square set at the front of the BBC Elstree site was due to open (at last) in April 2021. You may recall that planning permission for the new Albert Square set was granted in 2015. The original back Lot set was due to be cleared to make way for a new set, consisting of different streets and buildings, increasing the flexibility for shooting new EastEnders storylines.
Unfortunately, the new set was not available at all during 2021. It was due to be used for the first time in January 2022. The hold-up was said to be a shortage of scenic artists to break down and weather the new brickwork. I suppose, given the choice of dabbing paint on acres of brickwork in Borehamwood or painting a set for the latest Marvel blockbuster at Pinewood I can guess which I would choose. Sadly, this sort of stuff is an absolute gift for the tabloid press who are always looking for ways to knock the Beeb.
As for the future of the original back Lot – it seems very unlikely that the planned new set of additional streets and houses will go ahead. I think it is much more probable that the BBC will sell off this land for housing, hoping to recoup some of the immense costs of constructing the set on the front Lot. With finances being squeezed ever tighter, the idea of spending yet more millions on a new set seems highly unlikely. I’ll bet they wish now they had left Albert Square where it was and simply renovated it over two or three years.
Walking round the old Albert Square set was always an impressive experience and I’m sure the new one will be too – even though it is somewhat smaller. The railway bridges were very realistic but of course the only trains ever seen on screen were added later as a CGI effect. (This only happened on a handful of occasions, as it was of course very costly and hardly crucial to the storyline.) The buildings were all very convincing, despite mostly being made of painted fibreglass and plastic panels. The only thing not quite right was the width of the roads and of course the lack of traffic.
Originally a small van known as a ‘Studio Insert Unit’ was employed as a 2-camera control vehicle when shooting on the Lot. This was also used for location work off-site for a number of years. The van was incredibly cramped. For shooting, the driver’s seat was reversed and small uncomfortable chairs were crammed in the tiny cab to provide space for director, PA, vision mixer, sound supervisor and racks engineer. The legs of the three behind wrapped round the two sitting in front.
It had to look as little like an OB vehicle as possible. The BBC’s outside broadcast department were known to be very suspicious of any vehicle resembling an OB scanner taking what they considered was their work away from them. However, the EastEnders production department were insistent that they should use the same studio crew for the Lot and location work so this was the way round this little political problem. A second SIU van was constructed a few years later – ostensibly for use on the location work on ‘Allo ‘Allo but it saw use on several other comedy and drama series subsequently – much to the chagrin of the OB department at Acton. For example, I lit a couple of series of The Brittas Empire using this vehicle for location scenes. Both Studio Insert Units were garaged at Elstree and because of their sensitivity were never officially mentioned or referred to except by those in the know!
Interestingly, Albert Square was not the first East End set to be built on the lot. In 1969 ATV made a drama series that they hoped would run and run called Market in Honey Lane. A cobbled street was constructed but the show did not catch on after all and only six were made. The cobbled street was rebuilt in 1974 to become Victorian Stoke-on-Trent potteries for Clayhanger. These roads and buildings were converted into sixteenth century London Streets for the six part major drama Will Shakespeare in 1976. For this big-budget series a complete Shakespearean theatre was also constructed which was adapted to become the various theatres he worked in during his career. Finally, in 1983 the lot became the building site in Auf Wiedersehen Pet. The remains of this set were still there when the BBC moved in. Eagle-eyed viewers of old repeats will have noticed that Albert Square shares the same skyline as a construction site in Dusseldorf.
The ATV film department
Glen Cardno was an assistant editor at ATV Elstree and has written to me quite rightly pointing out that the studios were also the base for ATV’s film department. It was responsible for many award-winning network documentaries during the ATV years. Although the documentary head office was in in Portman Square and then Charlotte St W1, the editing block was situated opposite the canteen at Elstree. Award-winning documentaries by Ken Loach, Tony Snowden, Antony Thomas, Denis Mitchell and Norman Swallow were made here.
ITV won its first Golden Rose for The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and that was edited here, as well as the exterior inserts for many studio-recorded plays and comedies in the years before lightweight video cameras replaced film for that kind of work.
During the nineties I spent many months at Elstree working on EastEnders, TOTP and briefly, Grange Hill. In my experience it was a very pleasant and relaxed environment. Even the air is fresher than in Shepherds Bush. (Actually, too fresh at times. Albert Square in January has its own microclimate and I know for a fact that it is the coldest spot on the planet.)
Elstree was – and still is – a very busy studio centre with an atmosphere quite different from TV Centre. In the 1990s the management at TVC always seemed to view it with varying amounts of confusion or indeed suspicion. It was – shall we say – misunderstood. With the exception of Studio A and Stage 1, for many of the early years it never got the proper investment in equipment it deserved, and relied upon the dedication and good will of the staff based there to make it all work. During the mid nineties there were management schemes to sell it all off, then to sell only a part of it – with an infamous blue line being drawn across plans of the site. As the practicality of this was investigated the line moved further and further until sense prevailed and the idea was quietly dropped.
To be fair, in recent years the studios have received quite a bit of investment. Unfortunately, the lighting grids in B, C and D are still very slow to operate but the control room suites in B and D are now very well equipped. (A’s control rooms are now closed and C’s production gallery is an election switching centre.)
ATV/Central were making programmes here from November 1960 – July 1983. The BBC took over in Jan 1984 and therefore have now been at Elstree for much longer. Interestingly, for many years the BBC S&PP website made no mention of Elstree, all the information related to TV Centre. However, since the summer of 2010 Studio D has been marketed more strongly and with its new audience seating is now a very attractive venue for set-standing quiz shows, gameshows or sitcoms. Since Television Centre closed in 2013 studio D has of course become even more crucial to London’s programme makers.
post postscript re Channel 5 at Elstree (shock horror!) :
Mike Emery has sent me a couple of very interesting documents. One consists of a written application from Channel Five Holdings to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) to take over the franchise for the proposed Channel 5 and the other is a plan of an area within the BBC Elstree Centre that the company intended to occupy.
In November 1994 an invitation was announced by the ITC, hoping to attract some takers to run the new Channel 5 and there were several applicants who met the deadline of May 1995. These included Virgin, UKTV, New Century Television and Channel 5 Holdings Ltd – who won.
The document and plan shown below indicate that Channel 5 Holdings were hoping to occupy most of the Central Technical Area as well as taking over the studio that was currently housing Newsroom South-East. They also, it seems, intended to occupy three floors of Neptune House.
The document includes the following paragraph…
‘The centre will contain a dedicated studio (Studio 1) with a useable floor area of 964 sq ft capable of fulfilling all presentation and promotion commitments, together with any live current affairs or other production if required. A small single camera studio, (Studio 2) with a floor area of 310 sq ft will also be available to the presentation control room. We will also have access whenever required ( my emphasis ) to a 5,795 sq ft studio adjacent to our own premises. This studio is indicated as Studio D on the plan. A number of other large studios on the site are available for hire as required when studio D is in use.’
Note that they seriously underestimated the size of studio D. It is about 8,000 sq ft plus the audience rostra. In fact BBC Studioworks now refer to it as 11,800sq ft!
As a BBC staffer I had absolutely no idea that this was in the wind, even though I was working regularly at Elstree on EastEnders and Top of the Pops at the time. However, it turns out that most of the Newsroom South-East people did know about it. That programme occupied their studio (G) at Elstree from 1989 – 2001 so they would certainly have been affected. However, it seems that moving the local news out of Elstree in the available time before C5 needed to move in proved impossible, so the idea went away. It wasn’t until 2001 that they moved from here to Marylebone High Street.
It is interesting though that Channel 5 saw themselves not just as a publisher but as a maker of programmes too. If they had had studio D available to them, the channel might have ended up rather different from the three Fs it did become. (‘Films, Football and F*****g’ – in case you’ve forgotten – that was what the director of programmes in C5’s early days proudly proclaimed her channel was all about.)
Final postscript…the end of BBC Elstree? Not quite yet. Or maybe…
During the summer and autumn of 2007 stories began to circulate that the BBC was seriously considering selling Elstree to developers. These were not just rumours but were supported by articles in the Metro and the Sun, so it must have been true(!) The story was that most of the site was to become housing but the old Fairbanks building would have to be retained as it is listed. This unfortunately came as no surprise, since following a disappointing licence settlement the BBC had to find several millions to pay for all its plans.
This, it seems, coincided with a need for EastEnders to replace much of its technical equipment which was worn out after many years of continual use. The programme also planned to move into High Definition and to a system of tapeless recording and post production. In addition, the exterior Albert Square set on the lot was in urgent need of refurbishment. It seems that a choice had to be made either to spend a great deal of money on new sets and new HD equipment and stay at Elstree, or to do the same and move elsewhere. Since the first option would only cost money but the second would also raise money from the sale of the site it is not surprising that the latter was looking quite attractive. However, the cost of rebuilding Albert Square and renting new studio space over the coming years would also have to come into the equation so it was not quite that simple a sum.
The timescale was not said to be immediate but possibly within the following two years. Setting up a new base and reconstructing Albert Square would, it was thought, take about a year. (Ha! Building the new Lot set has taken around 6 years so far and in the summer of 2021 it is still not ready.) Pinewood was said to be the most likely option – there was space on site to construct a new exterior set and three existing stages would be converted into TV studios to take the interior sets – I was told that stages L, M and R had been earmarked. I became aware that discussions were indeed taking place with Pinewood in the autumn of 2007 and the various options costed up.
Regarding Holby City, the plan apparently was for this to move to Cardiff to join Casualty which transferred there from Bristol in 2011. (In fact, the axing of this show was announced in June 2021, to make way for a new long-running drama to be set in the north of England. The final scene was shot in December 2021.)
These stories re-appeared in national newspapers in February 2008. However, an article in Ariel, the BBC’s staff newspaper (19.02.08), attempted to clarify the situation. The official line was that EastEnders and Holby City ‘are not about to be relocated.’ The paper stated that ‘it is likely to be at least another year before final plans are known.’ Zaril Patel, group finance director, was quoted as saying…
‘…selling up is just one proposal under consideration. At the moment there is no buyer on the horizon and even if there were, it would have to be at the right price. If someone was offering £500m I’d think about it; if they were offering £10m I’d say “try again mate.” It’s hard to speculate but my guess is that, given the credit crunch, nobody is going to pay fancy money [for Elstree] in the next couple of years.
It’s also a planning matter and if a buyer or developer comes along, Borehamwood council will want a say in the future use of the land. One very credible option is to stay exactly where we are.’
In fact, in March 2010 new Sony HSC-300 HD cameras were ordered. These allowed EastEnders to move over to tapeless HD production. Interestingly, they use triax cables – enabling the existing infrastructure between control galleries and the Lot to be retained as well as the cabling within the studios themselves.
Most significantly, a new five-year resources contract was signed by the production with BBC Studios and Post Production (now Studioworks). This guaranteed that Elstree would remain the home of the programme until at least 2015. Meanwhile, film-making rapidly expanded at Pinewood with all its stages fully booked so all thoughts of converting any to TV studios went away.
Perhaps with this date in mind, Studio D was refurbished in the summer of 2010 with new audience seating and smartened-up galleries, dressing rooms and green room. Then of course the galleries were completely rebuilt in 2013.
An interesting story emerged in September 2011. It was reported that the BBC had for months been in secret negotiation with the Olympic Park Legacy Company over taking over part of the International Broadcast Centre after the games. This, it was said, would have included moving EastEnders there from Elstree. However, the BBC said that they could not commit to that site in the medium term and that there were no plans to relocate any time soon.
A new twist emerged in the long-running story of these studios when Broadcast magazine revealed in August 2021 that the BBC had instructed Lambert Smith Hampden to survey and value the Elstree site with a possible sale in mind. This came as a surprise, with some assuming that the area would be sold off for housing and EastEnders would have to move.
The BBC were swift to correct this rumour. It seems that the sale of the site is being considered as part of the drive to off-load its property portfolio, especially inside the London area. However, the new owner would have to agree a long term lease to BBC Studioworks, enabling EastEnders to continue on the site. So what would be in it for the new owners? It is my understanding that the planned new EastEnders set on the old Lot will be scrapped, the new Albert Square set having cost so much. That area could be sold and used for housing, assuming that planning permission was granted of course. EastEnders is sadly not as popular with viewers as it once was so it no longer holds the financial clout it did have with the BBC over many years. Indeed, it is now associated with controversy and enormous cost – perhaps unfairly – so one can see the appeal to senior BBC managers of raising some funds from the sale of the Lot and avoiding the cost and controversy of building another large outdoor set.
Some people have assumed that Neptune House will be demolished and that part of the site sold off for housing too, now that Holby City has been axed. However, the building contains the offices of BBC Studioworks and EastEnders and is very much linked to the rest of the studio buildings so it’s hard to see how this could be practically achieved.
The E20 saga…
In January 2013 the BBC announced that they planned to rebuild a large part of the EastEnders exterior set on the Lot. It was due to be increased in size by 20%. While the work was being done a temporary set would be built in the car parks between the main gate and the club/restaurant block to enable production to continue. A planning application was made but received complaints from local residents. The plans were revised and eventually permission was granted late in 2015. However, in the meantime somebody asked the obvious question – ‘Why spend a great deal of money building a new Albert Square set and then spend a load more money doing exactly the same thing again only a couple of years later?’
So – the decision was taken that the new set would be permanent. Interestingly, far from being much larger than the original one, it will be considerably smaller. All the main buildings are still there of course but turn left along Turpin Road after the bridge and it now ends much sooner than the old set did.
It is worth pointing out that the reason Albert Square needed to be rebuilt was that the original set consisted mostly of steel frames with plywood and plastic or fibreglass facings. This was all intended to last 2 or 3 years – in fact it just about lasted 36 years. However, much of the set was in very poor condition and dangerous in high winds – panels had blown off and some of the steelwork was very rusty. Scenes had to be restaged as the backgrounds looked so bad. In fact, the cameras on the Lot were switched to SD in order to reduce detail so they saw fewer of the tell-tale faults. Obviously the set had also been costing a great deal to maintain and keep as safe as possible.
Of course, this all begged the question – what was going to happen to the old Back Lot? An interesting rumour I heard was that two new TV studios were to be built there, enabling Studioworks to leave stages 8 and 9 over the road at Elstree Studios. However, it then transpired that the plan was to construct another exterior set with additional streets ‘more closely representing the modern East End’, enabling shooting to happen on both Lots at once. The intention was that fewer scenes would need to be filmed off site in real locations, which would save time and money. Some of the cast and production staff were shown a model of the proposed streets and buildings in 2016. Of course, construction could not begin until the new Front Lot set was complete and the existing one demolished. This Back Lot set was expected to be completed by May 2023.
All the improvements to the EastEnders facilities in recent years come under the ‘E20’ title. These include the two new production galleries controlling studios A, B and C and renewal of the site’s electrical supply equipment and heating boilers. The work on the galleries and boiler house was delayed when asbestos was discovered. The galleries (costing £1.4m) were completed in August 2016 and the new boiler house (costing £9.7m) in November 2017.
Newspapers often quote the figure of £87m and imply that this is the huge cost of the new Front Lot set. In fact, this is the total cost of the entire E20 project.
In May 2016 the National Audit Office (NAO) noted that 5 major BBC projects including E20 were behind schedule. They identified ‘weaknesses’ in management processes. In August 2016, more than 70 design change requests to the Front Lot set were submitted – this was after the design should have been frozen. In March 2017 the head of the E20 Programme resigned, ahead of the Front Lot construction taking place. He had reportedly been in this post for almost four years. A new date of 2020 was announced for the completion of the scheme.
Preparatory work eventually began on the new set in November 2017. Unfortunately when ground work commenced, a large underground tank was discovered which was lagged with asbestos. This inevitably slowed progress. Ground clearance was eventually completed in May 2018 at a cost of £3m. Construction firm Wates commenced work in September 2018 at a fixed cost of £24.2m, £9.5m more than originally budgeted in 2015. I am told that the cost of the steelwork spiralled tenfold.
In December 2018 The NAO produced another condemning report on progress and cost overruns. The BBC blamed high inflation in the construction industry for the cost increase.
The delay was apparently partly caused by long discussions and negotiations over the type and supply of the bricks to be used on the set, which clearly had to look old and weathered on camera. I gather that these were purchased from India – but when they arrived they didn’t comply with UK standards so had to be tested – an expensive process taking several months. Unfortunately, when the buildings were constructed, they still looked brand new so would have to be painted over by scenic artists. Due to the high level of filming activity in the UK, these skilled painters have been very difficult to find so the set has remained unused through 2021. I gather the set will at last be used from January 2022.
Please note, I have been told the above information in confidence from several sources. I cannot prove that all of it is true but I have no reason to doubt it.
NB – most of the figures and dates above are taken from the December 2018 NAO report.