The Viking Studio

From the time Associated-Rediffusion got the green light to begin broadcasting in London they were up against an incredibly tight schedule.  Not only did they have to convert existing buildings into television studios, they had to hire and train the staff to operate them.  They only had from January to September to recruit at least 200 staff and be in the position to transmit seven hours of television per day!  In May they began training in a small studio in Kensington known as the ‘Viking Studio’ that had been fitted out with all the equipment that would be found in the new studios.  Wembley Park film studios were being rebuilt for TV but the heads of A-R were worried that they would not be ready in time so they also started filming some programmes in April at Shepperton just in case.   (See the section on Shepperton on this website for more info on this.)

viking st mary abbotts place
St Mary Abbots Place in 2006. The studios were on the site of the red-brick building to the right of the white-walled
restaurant.
For those who like to collect snippets of useless information – I am told that the restaurant used to be owned by a gentleman called Pere Auguste, who was also the compère of a BBC Saturday Night variety show called Café Continental (’47-’53). He left in the mid 1950s – possibly when the series ended – and the restaurant became a coffee bar called the Kon Tiki. So there.


The Viking Studio
 was also known as ‘St Mary Abbots Place Studios’.  (I have checked – and there is only one T and no apostrophe.)  It was sited, not surprisingly, in St Mary Abbots Place which is off Kensington High Street – between Edwardes Square and Warwick Gardens.  Steve Arnold was kind enough to send me the clipping below.  It’s from the Kensington Post dated 7th February 1948 and reports that the studios were created from four houses in 1943.

viking old paper snip 7.2.48 300p

However, it seems more likely that there were three, not four houses involved.  The two facing the road are numbers 3 and 5 and number 1 was probably situated behind them and accessed via the side driveway.  Dave Walker’s fascinating page on Kensington and Chelsea’s ‘Library Time Machine’ website reveals that before becoming a film studio, the building was used as an artists’ studio run by a gentleman called Frank Calderon.

His work included running a school teaching the techniques involved in drawing and painting animals.  Apparently he had a collection of obliging creatures living on the premises.  A 1913 publication called The Family Friend includes photographs showing groups of artists at their easels, creating paintings of dogs in one photo and a horse in another.  So it looks as though the house at the rear had been converted into artists’ studios and would later be further developed into two small film stages.

viking old photo 1971 450p
Above is a photo of the two houses facing the road taken in 1971. Thanks to Dave Walker’s contribution on the The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s ‘Library Time Machine’ website for this. The passage on the left led to the third house behind.
viking new building 450p
Above is a photo I took in 2006. These new buildings were constructed in 1990.

The IMdB lists 14 films as being made here between 1947 and 1953.  The companies that created them included John Baxter Productions, Five Star Films and Tempean Films.  Date With a Dream (’48) and Melody Club (’49), both starring Terry-Thomas were typical examples.  Of course, not all the productions may have used the stages – some may simply have been based and edited here and shot on location.  The IMdB entry for I’m A Stranger (’52) points out that the film made full use of the contrasting architectural styles of the buildings in St Mary Abbots Place, with scenes being shot outside several different houses that are supposed to be miles apart in the story.  That would have saved a lot of filming and travelling time – very important on a low budget feature.

A document dated 1953 states that there were two stages, 1: 40ft x 26ft and 2: 35ft x 26ft.  Looking at the plan below, it appears that at some point these were knocked through to form one larger studio.  This probably happened in 1954.

The Melody Maker of January 26th, 1952 has an interesting headline on the front page.  It reads ‘Commercial TV films being made in West London.  Experimental studio built: MPs are shown results.’  The article goes on to reveal that light entertainment television shows had been made in this studio in order to demonstrate to MPs that the quality of the content on the proposed commercial TV channel would be up to the standard set by the BBC.  Many people were worried at the time that if commercial television was allowed it would be of poor quality.  The report includes the information that the production was made in premises in West London, where two adjoining houses had been converted into an experimental studio.  It doesn’t mention the name but this is almost certainly the Viking Studio.

It is probable that these TV programmes were in fact shot on film, rather than using TV cameras.  There were no video recorders available back then so anything shot using TV cameras would have had to have been viewed live (unlikely) or saved on film using a telerecording system.  This is equally unlikely in a small independent studio.  It would have been much easier to have used 2 or 3 film cameras and edit the show later.

As well as these experimental TV programmes, in the early 1950s St Mary Abbots Place Studios were used primarily for making advertising films for cinemas.

It seems that Powell and Pressburger, the famous film director/producers, had offices in the building during the 1950s and into the ’60s.  They made many highly regarded films under their company name ‘The Archers.’  However, it is probable that they did not use these studios to actually do any principal photography – rather using the site as a base for some of their productions and editing them there.  It appears likely that Michael Powell moved offices to Albemarle Street in the mid 1960s.  His son has contacted me and he believes that the studios were possibly owned by one of his editors and he rented the office space from him.

The original stages were at some point converted into a fully equipped television studio by the Marconi company – probably in 1954 or early 1955.  The cameras were Marconi Mk IIIs, which came onto the market in 1954.  Marconi Television’s Demonstration Unit originally intended it to be used to assist in sales of their equipment to the BBC and the new ITV companies so it was equipped with all their latest kit.  However, it also found use as a training studio.  It seems that at first the studio was hired by the BBC to do some directors’ training courses – with Alvar Liddell and Bill Cotton Jnr amongst others, and Ron Koplick looking after the lighting.

Around spring 1955 this small studio became Associated-Rediffusion’s main training centre for the staff it was to take on over the following months.  Very few of the people who would begin to make programmes for A-R in September 1955 had any television experience whatsoever.  They came mostly from the worlds of theatre and cinema but television is very different from both of those.  A handful of ex-BBC employees rapidly trained them all in about four months – cameramen, engineers, boom operators, vision mixers, make-up, wardrobe, set designers – all had to learn how things were done in this new and mysterious world.

viking during a-r training 300p
The Viking Studio during A-R training.
The original pilot for Strictly Come Dancing perhaps?
viking gallery during a-r training 300p
The gallery of the Viking Studio. The fashion of the day was to place the monitors above the studio window so the producer (as the director was then called) could see exactly what was happening on the studio floor.

 

By the late summer of 1955 the job was done and the new staff and technical crews were on their own.  The studio became available for operational use and was hired by A-R during the week and ATV at weekends. 

On the morning after ITV began transmitting (a Friday) there were two programmes that both came live from this small studio.  At 10.45 was the first edition of a daily soap called Sixpenny Corner, followed at 11.00 by Hands about the House – what we might today describe as a ‘lifestyle programme.’  Well, you might – I wouldn’t.  Within this show was a gripping item on ‘how to make a frame of flowers’.  According to Joan Kemp-Welch, who was producing the show (in other words, directing) she was so nervous that at the end of the programme she forgot to give the instruction to fade to black.

The following day – Saturday 24th September – ATV hired the studio and more live shows were transmitted.  Thus began a regular pattern every weekend for the next few months.  Saturday morning started with Weekend Magazine, a live programme that went out between 9.30am and 10.30am presented by Daphne Anderson and David Stolle.  The first show included an interview with Gracie Fields.  I have been told by the vision controller working that day that her manager apparently complained because the cameras were too sharp and unkind to the great star – so stockings had to be put over the lens to give a more flattering look.  I can’t imagine anything like that happening with any of today’s stars.  No really.  Absolutely not.  Not a single name comes to mind.

At 4pm the studio was back on the air with another live show – Home With Joy Shelton.  This had a duration of 20 minutes after which the cameras turned round and transmitted the ABC Children’s Club.   This ran for 10 minutes, at which point I assume the crew collapsed in a heap of nervous exhaustion.  For a tiny studio like this to produce an hour and a half of live TV with, one assumes, little or no rehearsal was quite an achievement.  Particularly since most of the production team and crew had minimal experience.  Of course, after a couple of weeks the ABC Children’s Club altered its name to the  ATV Children’s Club when the company name was changed.  (More on this below.)

 

This pattern of live television from the Viking Studio continued every Saturday.  Typically, the morning magazine show would be followed by a number of 15 or 20 minute programmes later in the day – a Philip Harben cookery slot, Rolf Harris doing some sort of act involving ‘Ollie Octopus’ (ahem), Doris Rodgers presenting an ad mag, Leslie and Joan Powell performing a 15 min comedy routine – all recalled by Stu Wilson, a house engineer at the time, who was kind enough to contact me.  Others programmes, like The Randals were made here on Sundays.

 
From the first Monday of ITV’s transmission, A-R broadcast the second edition of their regular 15 minute live soap – Sixpenny Corner.  This went out from 10.45 – 11.00 every weekday.  It had a schedule during the week of run through, dress rehearsal, line-up and transmit every morning – reset, light and stagger through every afternoon.  At weekends, as there was no storage area at Viking, the  Sixpenny Corner  sets moved out into large trucks parked in the road and ATV moved in with their sets. 

ATV used the studio until 17th March 1956 – another edition of  Home With Joy Shelton was the last one made here.  Towards the end of 1956 Sixpenny Corner moved to A-R’s Wembley studios and Granada moved in – using the studio to train their staff.  They were not there for long – indeed, early in 1957 the BBC were to take over.

 

However, around this time the studio was also used to make at least one film – a 56 minute drama called The Devil’s Pass.   It starred stalwart actor of the period, John Slater and was directed by Darcy Conyers.  Its intended market may well have been television or simply as a B-movie to support more popular cinema features.  It was released in April 1957.  Incidentally, Darcy Conyers went on to direct The Night We Dropped a Clanger (’61) and  In the Doghouse (’62).  In case you were wondering where you had heard of him. No, me neither.

The same Marconi engineers that worked in the Viking studio in 1956 were also looking after a studio in London Zoo.  They often swapped roles – one day being a cameraman, the next a boom op, then a racks engineer.  One day a week they produced  Zoo Time  for Granada, presented by Desmond Morris.  I’m pretty sure I remember it – but I was only a toddler back then.  Perhaps it’s just the theme music I recall (Peter and the Wolf).  That and the chimps – I definitely remember the chimps.

Anyway, the studio was nicknamed The Den and was effectively a large shed.  It was serviced by an OB truck that was parked outside.  John Winn recalls that they used new OB scanners as they were coming off Marconi’s production line – the show was a sort of proving test for them.  Unfortunately, sometimes they had all been sold and there wasn’t a scanner available so they had to improvise and much of the time the show came via a rapidly converted 30cwt van.  Desmond Morris referred to it as the ‘bread van.’

The show was of course live.  There were usually 3 cameras – 2 in the ‘studio’ and one somewhere in the zoo.  It would typically be on the end of a 1,100 ft cable which was technically too long to be reliable but needs must if the programme needed it.  John recalls a particularly hairy show when the camera went down and spares had to be biked over from the Viking Studio in the nick of time.

Although  Zoo Time  ran from 1956 – 1959, this arrangement with the Marconi crew only lasted for 6 months.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Granada staff and union objected to other people doing their work.

On 18th February 1957 the BBC’s Tonight programme began broadcasting.  For about three years before it moved to Lime Grove it came from ‘studio M’ which was the BBC’s name for the Viking Studio.  This raises a couple of interesting questions.  Why did the BBC need another studio?  Why call it studio M?

 

Ivan Burgess has written to me to confirm the following:

The first answer is that Tonight was the programme with which the BBC filled the new space in the schedule created by the ending of the ‘toddler truce.’  This was the close-down between 6 o’clock and 7 o’clock that up until then had allowed parents to get their children to bed.  Astonishing but true.  Under great pressure from the ITV companies, the government agreed to abolish it.  The BBC were somewhat caught on the hop and without a vacant studio to be occupied every weekday all year round.  The Lime Grove Studios were all open but busy making other shows. 

A redoubtable BBC producer named Grace Wyndham Goldie was friends with the producers of Highlight – the much shorter predecessor to Tonight that was made in Lime Grove’s presentation studio.  The producers of that show – Donald Baverstock and Alastair Milne – were working on plans to develop it into a much longer and more entertaining current affairs programme, if given the chance.

Grace knew of the plans for the new programme.  She went to see Cecil McGivern, who was the channel controller at the time.  She was most insistent that the show would be ideal to fill the toddler truce but he tried to fob her off by pointing out that the BBC had no available studios.  He concluded by saying ‘if you can find a studio, you can do it’ almost certainly assuming that that would be the end of it.  Quite by chance, Grace happened to live in – you guessed it – St Mary Abbots Place.  She knew of the studio and also knew that it was currently not booked.

So she had her studio and Tonight was born.  Astonishingly for the time, the BBC agreed that it could be crewed by the Marconi employees – albeit with a BBC engineer in charge.  John Winn was an apprentice at the time – he tells me that most of the Marconi crew were from the radar division ‘having a quiet time.’

The show developed a unique style, partly said to be because it was away from the influence of the BBC at Lime Grove.  After each show there was a post-mortem in the local pub. Tonight was watched by millions and became a huge success.  It was superbly researched, often irreverent and highly entertaining.

So why studio ‘M’?  The obvious explanation of course is ‘M’ for Marconi.

viking tonight 350p
‘Studio M’ during the transmission of Tonight.
The cameras are Marconi Mk IIIs
with thanks to David Petrie

 

John Winn recalls working on a 6-week series about astronomy for ITV in November 1957, which is interesting as it means that the studio was not only used for Tonight.  The astronomy programme went out live at 11pm so they must have turned the studio round after Tonight came off the air.

Tonight moved to Lime Grove in 1960, when the opening of TV Centre freed up studio space at the Grove.  After that, Studio M was used to train a few producers.

John also remembers making one or two ad-mag (advertising magazine) programmes for ITV – he tells me that he nearly hit Hughie Green with his boom once.  I’d say he should have tried a bit harder.  John doesn’t recall the studio making any more TV programmes after the ad-mags finished.  This happened within a few months of the Pilkington report being published in June 1962.

The Viking Studio is listed as a film studio in the British Film and Television Yearbook throughout the 1960s.  The only film I can find credited is The Reluctant Nudist (’66) which the BFI describes as ‘propaganda for nudism.’  And why not?  I have heard that it may have been used by an American TV news company during the 1980s.  One wonders therefore what happened during the 1970s.  If you can shed any more light on this – please get in touch.

In fact, Nicholas Young has indeed got in touch – many thanks to him.  He informs me that as an actor he appeared in a TV commercial in the early ’70s directed by Terence Donovan, which was filmed here.  The actual product has slipped from his memory but he does recall the great man himself arriving in his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.