Highbury studios were to be found at 96A Highbury New Park, Islington. They were built originally as a music conservatoire named The Athenaeum in 1882. The premises included a concert hall and a large rehearsal room. The main hall was reported to be 85 x 36 x 35ft high. The small hall was 45ft x 25ft and was at first floor level at the front of the building. Please note these dimensions! You will be tested shortly.
The site was converted in 1928 into a recording studio owned by the Metropole Gramophone Co Ltd. Metropole and Piccadilly 78rpm records were cut here and pressed at a factory in Hertford. The last recording session was in February 1932. (Many thanks to Hector Hill for this info. )
The building was adapted into film studios in 1933 and bought in 1937 by producer/director Maurice J Wilson. There was one main stage and a smaller one. The stages were soundproofed and equipped with the RCA recording system. I have read that for a while Highbury became famous for elaborate special effects spectaculars.
Interestingly, the stages were considerably larger than the original concert hall and rehearsal room, so some rebuilding must have taken place. The advert below, dated 27th May 1936, has the stages at 110 x 60 x 35ft high and 60 x 30 x 18ft high. It doesn’t look as though the original concert hall was extended – rather it must have been completely reconstructed as a film stage. Although the length and width of Stage 1 are much greater, interestingly the height was the same as the concert hall – maybe this was a planning restriction.
The original rehearsal room was at first floor level but in the later television years the small studio was referred to as being in the basement so cannot have been the same room.
For the two years until the outbreak of war, Highbury was leased to independent film producers making quota quickies and some modestly successful films for the British market. The studios were barely used during the war – in fact on 20th August 1948 there was a report in the Motherwell Times (no, really) of damage to the studios from a V1 flying bomb on July 2nd, 1944.
After the war the studios were acquired by the Rank Organisation. The first film to be made by them was Penny and the Pownall Case, in 1948. I’m sure we all remember that classic. It is possible that it took that long to resume film making post WWII because bomb damage repairs had to be made.
J Arthur Rank established his ‘Company of Youth’ at Highbury. (He called it that – everybody else called it the Rank Charm School.) However – it wasn’t at the studios themselves but in a grotty church hall just down the road. Young men and women were, in theory, trained for stardom – or at least to be stars in Rank’s films. However, these young people were not picked for their talent but for their looks, and very few actually made it into the movies. It seemed that, surprisingly to some, you did actually need to have some acting talent in order to be a star. Names who actually made it included Christopher Lee, Diana Dors and (ahem), Pete Murray – better known to most people as a 1960s disc jockey.
Of course, the British film industry went into financial crisis in the late ’40s and Rank were no exception to this. They sold off all their properties except Pinewood. However, they didn’t entirely give up their interest in Highbury as we shall soon see.
What may be surprising to some (it certainly was to me), it seems that in 1948 the BBC were seriously considering purchasing Highbury in order to give them at least one decent sized studio – the two at Ally Pally being relatively small. As it transpired, they ended up buying Lime Grove – a much larger studio centre – in 1949. A wise decision in my opinion.
In 1950 the studios were purchased by Norman Collins, with the backing of British Lion, The Rank Organisation and Pye electronics. Collins was an extraordinary gentleman who began his career in BBC radio. He was the producer of Dick Barton: Special Agent, and by contrast also created Woman’s Hour. (No, really. But then the first presenter was a man. Check if you don’t believe me.) Anyway, Collins became controller of The Light Programme (the original name of Radio 2) and in 1947 controller of the BBC Television Service at the time it was establishing itself.
In 1950 he resigned, with the strong conviction that there should be another television channel to compete with the BBC. He had visited America on several occasions and had seen that competition between the different channels there was driving up standards. He thought the BBC was lagging far behind what it ought to be offering the viewing public. He campaigned loudly on this subject and formed a company called High Definition Films, based at Highbury. The company was led by Collins and Terence Macnamara – formerly head of the BBC’s Planning and Installation department. They intended to make television programmes – initially for the export market but always with an eye to becoming actively involved in the new commercial television, whenever that might begin broadcasting. It was five years before the plans came to fruition.
In the meantime, Collins made some commercials at Highbury – real ones using existing products and showed them to MPs long before they were required for broadcast so they could tell what British ads would look like on the new ITV channel. Some politicians feared that the commercials would be like the worst kind of brash American ones but clearly Collins plan worked, as permission was eventually granted to create the new channel.
The technique developed by HDF enabled a 30 minute film to be completed in 48 hours. Using traditional techniques it would take several days of principal photography followed by a few more days editing. Sound dubbing would also have to be completed and finally captions, dissolves or any other effects added. It is easy to see how considerable savings could be made.
The method developed at Highbury was to shoot using three television cameras, which were cut by a vision mixer. In other words, the usual technique at that time of making television drama. However, the cameras would have to produce far greater resolution pictures than the normal interlaced 405 lines in order that they could be projected onto a cinema screen.
Initial experiments in 1949 in Cambridge using some American-made cameras had proved disastrous but the Pye electronics company were keen to make the system work. They employed Bill Vinten (inventor of the hydraulic camera pedestal) as DoP – he had lit the 1949 experiments and by May of 1952 a demonstration film had been produced at Highbury. Others followed, using progressively scanned pictures with around 625 – 834 lines. According to one account, they settled on a resolution of 650 lines. This may be true but I have been written to by Maurice Fleischer. He visited the studios and was told that the resolution was around 1120 lines.
However, they may indeed have settled on a less adventurous resolution for most of their work. Some of the ‘filmed’ dramas they ended up making at Highbury were intended for the US television market with its 525-line system rather than for cinemas. The rest were for the UK with its measly 405 lines. Perhaps there was not much point in creating pictures that were any sharper. Nevertheless, the overall resolution of the system was said to be an astonishing 12MHz.
Greater resolutions were tried out – up to 1,500 lines but the advantages were outweighed by the technical limitations of the components in use. In fact, publicity around the time claimed resolutions far greater – even up to 3,000 lines but this was just wishful thinking. Still, it is amazing that these cameras could produce pictures as sharp as today’s HD cameras – although of course they were in black and white and suffered the limitations of tubes rather than CCDs.
Today’s HD pictures on broadcast and streamed TV have 1080 lines. (4K UHD pictures have 2160 lines). These are the actual lines creating the image. In the old analogue days, each frame also had a number of ‘spare’ lines that were used to enable the image to scan and synchronise correctly – so standard definition ‘625 line’ TV actually has only 576 lines of picture information and the ‘405 lines’ of the 1950s had only 377 lines creating the image. Therefore a resolution of 650 lines of picture information in those days would have been much sharper than people were used to seeing.
The technology was pretty cutting edge for its time. The cameras used by HDF at Highbury were Pye Photicon types called Photo Electric Stabilised or ‘Pesticon’ (the engineers called them ‘pests’). Apparently when first switched on, the picture “emerged over several minutes from a mush at the bottom of the screen”.
The techniques for recording the television image onto film were also developed. This ‘telerecording’ technique was in its infancy but Collins’ company worked closely with Pye to produce the best possible final image using a Moy RP30 film camera filming a low gamma, high definition flat glass display monitor. The field pulses were generated mechanically with a synchronous motor spinning an aluminium disc called ‘The Whirling Spray’ which had a small magnetic insert generating a pulse. The line frequency was adjusted by a variable master oscillator, set by hand. The film camera was firmly bolted onto a massive bench to prevent the slightest vibration. It all sounds like primitive stuff but it was cutting edge technology for its day and most importantly – it worked!
High Definition Films was for the first few years little more than an experimental laboratory. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the obvious success of the system it was never used for its original purpose – making cheap feature films. Instead, by 1954 the company was going all out producing television plays and other programmes. Some were exported to the US but the main aim was to produce a valuable ‘bank’ of material for the new ITV companies that would begin broadcasting in a year or two. The programmes were made far more efficiently than would have been possible using traditional film industry techniques but with picture quality much greater than telerecordings made by the BBC using interlaced 405-line television cameras.
The plays filmed here starred famous actors of the day such as George Couloris, David Tomlinson and Dora Bryan. Bill Vinten was invited back to light an extract from Macbeth – directed by Orson Welles no less.
Unfortunately, most of the 30-minute dramas were not particularly well received in America. Undaunted, the company pressed on with making series for the anticipated new ITV channel. Perhaps surprisingly, these are said to have included early recordings of Double Your Money and Take Your Pick for Associated-Rediffusion. These series later transferred to A-R’s Wembley Studios as soon as they were up and running although Take Your Pick may also have briefly used the Hackney Empire.
The clipping below shows that A-R also used Highbury to make a series of comedy shorts in 1955. Thanks to Hector Hill for sending it to me. Of course, since they were recorded on film it is possible that they may still exist somewhere.
It seems hard to believe but I have been reliably informed that on at least one occasion the BBC ‘lent’ a camera crew to Highbury to work on an HDF drama. Whether the play was subsequently transmitted by the BBC is not currently known. However, a crew headed by Colin Clews also contained cameraman Ron Francis. Ron mentioned this to Jeremy Hoare, who was interviewing him and he was kind enough to write to me to let me know.
Another somewhat unlikely series ‘filmed’ here seems to be Noddy. Certainly, this was shown regularly in the first months of ATV’s transmission and Guy Caplin has written to me with some interesting info…
‘Rex Firkin (producer and director Plane Makers and Power Game) told me that he worked on the Noddy series at Highbury for ATV on the High Definition system. Two versions of 35 mm films were made – one with normal English voices and the other with just an M & E (music and effects) track. This latter version, accompanied by an English script, was sold all around the world. Incidentally, the cameramen hated the Pye HD cameras as the viewfinders showed the progressive 25 frame per second pictures which flickered and were really wearing on the eyes.’
I have lit many shows using HD cameras and almost all have been made using interlaced scan. (That means that the pictures look like ‘normal’ TV). I have however, also lit a few sitcoms with the cameras set to progressive scan (or PSF) – to make the end result resemble film. The cameramen did find it more difficult to hold focus on moving actors but somehow they coped! However, modern viewfinders are LCD screens which don’t flicker, unlike the CRT viewfinders they had at Highbury. Working like that every day must indeed have become pretty tiring on the eyes.
This group of stills is taken from a promotional film made by HDF in 1954. It shows a car arriving outside the building and someone entering the studios. It gives us a tantalising glimpse of how the studios looked. I’m told that dressing rooms were in the house on the left. In its basement was a small room in which a GPO engineer would sit, checking that the live feed from the studios was OK leaving him. The studio was behind the house on the right. The passage between the two houses was used for cricket practice by the crew.
Back in 1955, Norman Collins had hoped to gain an ITV franchise in his own right. His company – ABDC – did indeed win a franchise. However, he could not secure the necessary finance so his company was forced to merge with the Grade/Littler ITC company to form the ‘Associated Broadcasting Company’. Nevertheless, this did mean that the new company already had a TV studio centre up and running – even though it was fitted out with non-standard cameras and equipment. As it turned out, ATV didn’t use the studio to make any programmes until a year later in October 1956. From early in 1955, Highbury was busy making ‘filmed’ TV dramas produced by Harry Alan Towers and for the time being it made sense to let him complete his contract to supply this useful programming to the company.
Harry Alan Towers was on the board of ITC. During their franchise application he had been brought in by the ITC group to bolster up their film expertise. He ran a production company called Towers of London, producing a mix of quota quickies and low budget British features.
According to his autobiography, Towers became Programme Director for ATV when they were awarded the franchise. As well as commissioning several other producers to make shows for the new channel he also awarded his own company a contract to deliver 39 television playlets under the generic title Theatre Royal (’55 – ’56), and longer 60 minute dramas for the Television Playhouse slot. These were directed by Desmond Davis, who had been poached from the BBC. Towers made these dramas at Highbury, taking advantage of the efficient shooting system there. Some HDF material even went out on the first night of ITV. It was an excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest, made at Highbury with Edith Evans giving her ‘Lady Bracknell.’
Wearing his ‘Programme Director’ hat, he also travelled to America and purchased several series to be shown on ATV including I Love Lucy, Liberace and Dragnet. I’m not sure what Lew Grade’s responsibility in all this was – Towers refers to him as ‘my fellow director in ATV.’ My guess is that Mr Grade may have actually been rather more influential in the commissioning of programmes than Towers would like to have us believe.
As producer of Towers of London he booked Marius Goring to play The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955-56) in new television adventures that were commissioned by A-R. These however were not made at Highbury. In yet another string to his bow, Towers founded another company to make commercials, converting an old cinema in Barnes to use as a studio. A young Ridley Scott was an employee.
According to the BFI’s website Towers is said to have virtually invented the British TV movie with a typical example being a 90 minute special, The Anatomist (tx. 6/2/56). This drama had Alastair Sim recreating his stage performance as Dr. Knox in James Bridie’s play about body snatchers Burke and Hare.
Bernard Sendall’s book ‘Independent Television in Britain’ recounts that Towers suddenly resigned from the board of ATV on 27th January 1956. According to Towers’ autobiography, he returned from a trip to Australia attempting to set up a commercial TV channel there but on his return he discovered that he was, in his words, ‘in big trouble.’ He writes that his fellow directors had gone behind his back and decided to ‘diminish his responsibilities.’ To be fair, he admits that he had ‘ridden too hard and antagonised some of my colleagues.’ He also says that he had failed to control the finances of the many operations he was involved in and left them in a precarious position.
And so he left ATV and Highbury and it seems the studio probably closed, although Richard Greenough recalled to me that he left around March so maybe his contracted dramas continued to be made without him up to that date.
In any case, Towers was a man who quickly bounced back. Whilst living in New York he returned to London to make Martin Kane – Private Investigator at the alarmingly rapid pace of 2 episodes a week at ABPC Elstree studios. Gerry Anderson worked for him as a director on a couple of episodes between making Twizzle and Torchy.
He continued to make series for TV under the Towers of London name in various film studios around London. An example is Tales From Dickens (1959), with Robert Morley playing Micawber and Hollywood star Basil Rathbone as Scrooge.
Harry Alan Towers died on 31st July 2009 and received an obituary in The Times. He never stopped working throughout his varied and colourful career and had several ambitious projects on the go when he died.
It has proved quite difficult finding detailed information about the studios themselves. One couple, Jean and Cliff Ainsworth, joined ATV in 1957 and have given me some information. They recall one main studio (stage A) and a smaller one in the basement used for experimental and training purposes during the days of HDF. Richard Greenough – head of design at ATV – also remembers a second smaller studio. He has provided me with a plan for studio A which I reproduce below.
Writing this history has constantly thrown up seemingly impossible contradictions that eventually solve themselves, although in some cases that has taken years. Just when I thought I had the studios here nicely tied down, I discovered copies of the Kinematograph Year Book dated 1942, 1953 and 1954. In them, Highbury studios is listed as having two stages – one at 113 x 60ft and the other at 60 x 30ft. Similarly, the advertisement for the studios near the top of this section has the main stage at 110 x 60ft and the other at 60 x 30ft.
This does seem incompatible with the drawing above – it is the designer’s plan for the main studio as used by ATV so must be accurate. I have had it confirmed by Euan Downing that the control rooms were built within the stage at one end so the difference in length can be explained – reducing it by about 30 feet – but the width is more problematic. The firelanes are about 3 feet wide so that would make the wall-to-wall width 52ft 6ins. A difference of 7ft 6 in (about 2.3m). Possibly, unlikely as it may seem, the old stage was demolished and replaced with this somewhat smaller one in 1954. No, not very likely I agree. The only other explanation is that Highbury Studios fibbed about the size of their main stage – ’rounding up’ the feet in order to attract business and hoping that nobody would notice. To be honest, a little bit of that still goes on. I can think of no other explanation – unless you can help!
Colin Russell has also contacted me – his father was an electrician at the studios and he recalls visiting as a small boy…
‘I remember that Highbury studio was in a road of large 3 or 4 storey Victorian houses and there’d be an ATV OB van in blue and yellow parked across the front of the studio building. The house next door was part of it; it had a flight of wide steps and balustrades up to the front door, (probably the house shown in the images above) and inside a seemingly large hallway with hard linoleum floors, which echoed all the way up the open staircase. I think the hallway must have been the reception area, with seats and a TV in the ‘front room’. Upstairs were offices and dressing rooms.
Between the two buildings was a gate access wide enough for a vehicle, and walking down the yard there was a scenery dock on each side I think. The Electricians Workshop was halfway down on the right, down a flight of steps in a basement somewhere under the studio floor. At the back of the site was the canteen.
My father was a keen club cricketer, and he gained a reputation for impromptu net practice in the alleyway at Highbury during quiet moments; fielding was difficult if it went amongst the scenery.
Tucked away in a small room was the telephone exchange which was staffed by lady telephone operators, except on Sundays which seemed to be quiet, the board would be cross-plugged and mostly everybody had the day off. On Saturdays, or when the board was staffed, my dad would leave me in the care of the telephone staff. I can remember one young lady showing me how it all worked and I’d help her do the keys and plugs; I was about 8 years old, her name was Jean and she was destined to marry my mother’s brother and become my aunt.
Of course, sometimes it would be very busy, as everything was done live then and the atmosphere was like theatre. As well as Emergency-Ward 10 there were all sorts of programmes from plays to adverts, all going out live, which is why my dad worked funny hours; he’d only get home at night after ‘Ward 10’ was off-air and everybody had left. The first time I ever looked at the dead stare of a TV camera was when I went to a transmission of a talent show called Carroll Levis’ Discoveries, and I was in the small audience. It was the forerunner of new talent shows.’
Steve Bailey was a 16 year-old runner employed by ATV. He worked mostly at Wood Green and Hackney but does recall one day he had here in late 1959 or early 1960…
‘ One Saturday morning I was requested to go to Highbury. I had never been there before and I remember walking down the road thinking I must be in the wrong street, nothing looked like a TV studio. You can imagine my surprise (and relief) when I saw a large Victorian house with a blue and yellow ATV van parked outside.
My memory is not clear regarding Highbury. I can remember being asked who I was and producing my cardboard ATV ID card with my photo on. I was very proud of that and I think it was the only time anyone wanted to see it. I remember walking outside between buildings and seeing what looked like a small warehouse or extra large shed in what I presumed was the back garden. The large doors were open and I could see cameras, Pye Mk 3s. I walked in to find the Floor Manager.
There were sets all along one wall and across the bottom of the studio, with lights and cameras and microphone booms, the whole place looked very crowded. The production was a play.
One of my jobs on the show was to lead the actors between sets without tripping up on the cables etc. The show was being done live to tape (this is an interesting snippet of info) so unless there was a major tragedy we didn’t stop until it was finished. I also had to do a sound effect in the middle of the studio. I sat on the floor with a board on which was mounted a large door knocker, and on cue from the Floor Manager I had to do two loud knocks, twice. You can imagine my pride sitting at home with my parents when the play was transmitted waiting for my sound effect.’
To recap – it seems likely that ATV took over ownership of the studios early in 1955. However, they did not make their first programme there until 13th October 1956. It was an edition of the magazine programme Home With Joy Shelton. (Thanks to Richard Greenough for this information. He was head of design at ATV and drew up the daily schedules.) Thus, in the meantime Harry Alan Towers continued to fulfil his contract to make dramas using the HDF cameras. However, Towers left Highbury in January when he resigned from ATV although the studio may have stayed open until March. It is likely that the studio was closed for the next few months as a cost-saving exercise. ATV were in deep financial straits, as were the other ITV companies, and were looking to save money.
However, fortunes looked up and within a few months the studio was brought back into service using conventional 405-line cameras, at first controlled by an OB scanner parked at the front of building, later the old HDF galleries were fitted out.
It is probable that HDF had ceased operating as a separate company in 1955 when ATV became owners of the studios. Some of the staff are said to have had their contracts bought out and they dispersed within the industry. Some stayed on to work for ATV. Pye took over the small studio B for a short while as a demonstration unit for their equipment. What remained of the HDF Development Group moved into a back room in a Pye radio factory in Tottenham, possibly taking some of the old HDF equipment with them. However, at Tottenham they used new Pye Mk3 cameras which they blimped with a sound reducing hood to reduce the turret motor noise. These cameras were capable of operating at 405, 625 or 819 lines. It seems they also painted these cameras army green for some reason. (One of them still exists and is owned by Paul Marshall.) An American entrepreneur had apparently convinced Norman Collins that there was still a market for films made using the HDF system. Thus the new studio was set up but the project collapsed. It is unlikely that any programmes or ‘films’ were ever made at Tottenham.
Andrew McKean has written with an interesting postscript regarding what happened to the HDF cameras and equipment…
‘By 1962 the Pye factory at Tottenham had ceased all production and it was used by Pye TVT as a base for storing and repairing a number of Mk3 Image Orthicon cameras and an RCA 3 x Image Orthicon Colour Camera and associated equipment. This was hired out with crew to various organisations including Granville Television. There were about five Australians working there, all from Television Stations in Australia, mainly GTV9 and HSV7. (See the Granville Theatre entry in this section of the website for more on this.)
I remember a large area in the Tottenham factory where the HDF equipment was stored. I often walked through this area and was amazed at the equipment as I had never seen anything like it before. It was all very solidly built and well designed. It seemed such a waste of money and effort for it to end up in a disused factory.
I assume that the Pye Mk3 Image Orthicon cameras that we used in 1962/63 were originally part of the HDF inventory.’
It seems probable that the scanner continued to be used at the front of the building for some time. However, Euan Downing has contacted me. He worked at Highbury as an engineer from 1960 and says that when he joined, the galleries in the studio were in use – not an OB truck. He recalls that one CCU operator racked camera 1, a second racked cameras 2 and 3 and a senior engineer kept an eye on both to ensure picture matching. (Euan recalls an occasion where a cameraman came into the control room after a transmission intending to punch the operator – he claimed he’d deliberately opened up the camera’s iris on shot, causing him to lose focus. I suggest that possibly he didn’t understand that the shot would otherwise have been underexposed!)
Euan also remembers that there was a film camera based at the studios, used for inserts into dramas. The film equipment was kept separate from the TV area. He was part of the team that removed all the ATV kit when the studio closed and he confirms that the cameras were Pye Mk 3s, definitely not Marconis.
One cameraman has told me that he recalls operating Marconis at Highbury but I can only conclude that after all these years he must be confusing this studio with one of ATV’s other ones at Wood Green and Hackney, which did indeed have Marconis. Unlike the Pyes, those cameras could be switched to 525 lines, enabling programmes to be recorded for the US market – something Lew Grade was very keen to do.
All kinds of programmes were made here with quick turn-rounds from one to the next. Most went out live with some recorded ‘as live’ from about 1960. I am told that these included live adverts. It seems that an advertising magazine programme was a regular booking at Highbury each Saturday. It was called Home With Joy Shelton. Paul Faraday has sent me some memories of it…
‘Home With Joy Shelton’ starred Joy Shelton, wife of Sidney Taffler, and her Dog (a Dachshund), was used in the titles. I was very young then and one of my duties, apart from looking after the products and packshots was to take that b****y dog for a walk! It was like Miss Shelton’s (that is how I had to address her) little Baby. Harry Alan Towers was spoken about a lot though, so either he was still around or had not long gone.’
Early in 1958 Highbury became the home of the most successful hospital soap for many years to come – Emergency-Ward 10. The series had begun its life at the Wood Green Empire in 1957. The show was broadcast live from the studios each Tuesday and Friday at first. Later, it went out live on Tuesday night and was recorded ‘as live’ on Wednesday. That released the studio to make other dramas for the rest of the week. (I’m told that cocoa was often used for blood as it showed up well in black and white.) Incidentally, when recording the dramas ‘as live’ the crew were given an actual break when the commercials would be on so they could, well, take a comfort break. When Highbury closed on 30th September 1961 with an edition of the popular soap , the programme moved to Elstree.
‘I worked on Emergency-Ward 10 at Highbury as a very junior tracker. My main memory is when two of the three cameras went down on the live transmission, so the remaining one was faded to black, rushed to the next set, faded up and so the show went on. It was no doubt considered odd or avant-garde by the public, if they noticed of course! My other memory is of the lead actress, Jill Browne, who drove an Austin Metropolitan in aqua green and white – wow, was she trendy, sexy and way out of my league!’
A small postscript… In 2001 George Lucas claimed he was breaking new ground by shooting his Star Wars feature film Attack of the Clones using a high definition video camera. Well, in some ways of course he was – but fifty years earlier at Highbury they had been attempting to do almost the same thing.
It’s been pointed out to me by Mitch Mitchell that George wasn’t even the first in recent times. A handful of films were made in the nineties using the Sony hiVision 1125-line analogue HD system. One striking example was Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, made in 1991.
I am particularly grateful to Dicky Howett for much of the above information on High Definition Films and to Charles Sturridge for information about Harry Alan Towers.