Wembley (Lee, Limehouse, Fountain)

Meanwhile, back in Wembley, after LWT left in 1972 the studios were unoccupied for a few years.  In 1977 the Lee brothers bought them and proceeded to turn them back into film studios. During the following eight years they were known as Lee International Film StudiosThey had previously been using their base on Kensal Road in North Kensington as a film studio, which they had owned since 1968.  Tommy and the film version of Steptoe and Son had been made there, amongst other British features.

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The images above show Wembley as ‘ Lee International Film Studios’. The photos were taken during the 1980s and were kindly sent to me by Maurice Dale.  The lower picture shows part of the original buildings that belonged to the film studios to the left of studio 5.
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Above is a shot of that building being demolished in 1989 after Limehouse took over – taken from the roof of studio 5.  I would love some photos of the original film studios in use – particularly during the Rediffusion years.  Can you help?

 

During their period of occupation, Lee removed all the television equipment – returning the old studios and studio 5 to film stages.  All the TV lighting bars were removed, leaving the grids bare.  The stages were renumbered or rather ‘re-lettered’ if there is such a term.  Thus the old studio 5 (called 3 and 4 by LWT) became A and B stages, studio 1 became stage C, studio 2 became stage D and studio 4 became stage E.  How very confusing.  One further small stage (F?) was upstairs (memories of those who worked there are a bit vague about where exactly it was.)  This latter one was mostly used as a photographic studio.  The painted ‘A’ and ‘B’ on the studio doors in Fountain’s time almost certainly dated back to the old Lee days.

The old TV control rooms for studio 5 were removed although the ones between studios 1 and 2 were left in place – but of course were not used for that purpose.  They were apparently useful on at least one occasion when a blue movie was being shot.  I’m told that a number of individuals made their way to the gallery suite and crawled towards the window where they observed the proceedings – the window apparently affording an excellent view.  The gentlemen in question did see the funny side of there being a row of heads peering over the bottom of the window frame, enjoying the view.  In fact, Clint Thomas, a relative of the Lee bros, has written to me to confirm that this story is true.  He has even told me who was involved…

 

‘…the culprits watching “the action” were in fact Benny Lee, my father Dyfrig Thomas and the studio manager Dennis Carrigan – who were caught out by my brother who was then invited to watch with them!!’

 

Having spoken to one or two of the chaps who worked there at the time it seems that the studios had a very happy atmosphere.  One electrician remembers treading on Charlton Heston’s foot and, remarkably, surviving to tell the tale.  There were apparently two bars on site which were both very popular with the crews.  So popular that detailed memories of what actually went on in the studios are said to be a little hazy.  I’m quite sure they are exaggerating.

The stages were used for various filmed dramas for TV and of course for commercials and pop promos.  The Professionals was based here – although almost all of it was shot on location.  However, the studios also attracted at least one major feature each year.  These included The Who’s Quadrophenia (’78),  The Elephant Man (’79), The Awakening (’79), Silver Dream Racer (’80), Time Bandits (’80), Yentl (’82), The Bride (’85), The Princess Bride (’86) and Terry Gilliam’s surreal epic, Brazil.  The latter was filmed in 1984, which seems appropriate considering the subject matter.  Perhaps most surprising is that some of The Empire Strikes Back was filmed here in 1979.  (Most was filmed at Elstree.)  Odd to think that Darth Vader may once have stood on the same spot as Simon Cowell when he judged The X-Factor.  Then again…

 

In 1984 the Lee brothers bought the much larger Shepperton Studios for £3.6m, also rather confusingly naming them ‘Lee International Studios’.  (Shepperton is covered in the ‘film studios’ section of this website).

The company kept both Wembley and Shepperton on for about two years whilst upgrading the facilities at Shepperton. They left the Wembley site in July 1986.  This move was not anticipated by the staff.  I spoke to one electrician who had a nasty surprise when he returned from his family holiday to find the building locked and empty!  In fact, the company had moved its lighting hire business to some premises in Barlby Road, at the top of Ladbroke Grove, in the old Sunbeam car factory.  This was also at that time the base for The Bill.  Thames Television occupied the left hand end of the building for several years before moving to Merton.  (The original base for The Bill was in Wapping before moving to Barlby Road.)  As is documented elsewhere on this site – Lee Lighting moved from Barlby Road to the old LWT studio in Wycombe Road in 1989.  I’m also told by Simon King that he worked on series 15 of Spitting Image as a freelancer in 1993 when it was made at some other premises in Barlby Road – but I digress.

 

For the next three years, once Lee’s had moved out the studios remained empty, although apparently still owned by them. It seems likely that there was a local planning condition that they had to continue use as film or TV studios but nobody was interested in purchasing them.

 

Above and below – Studio 5 at Wembley in 1989, after Lees had left and before Limehouse converted it back into a television studio.  Lees had renamed the two halves Stages A and B.  The dividing door is raised here of course but its impressive size is striking.
photos thanks to David Taylor

 

 

In 1989, Limehouse Television took over the Wembley site.  They had previously occupied a fashionable studio centre converted from a warehouse at the eastern end of Canary Wharf. 

The story of Limehouse Studios is to be found elsewhere on this website.  This highly regarded enterprise had found themselves without a home early in 1989 when the building they had converted into a state of the art TV studio centre was needed for redevelopment.

After a short spell at the Trocadero – Trilion, the parent company of Limehouse, purchased Wembley Studios on 9th June.  They bought the whole site announcing that they were going to demolish the old film studios and replace them with a ‘media village’.  Ten to fifteen commercial units were going to be built for production companies.  John Turner, Trilion’s manager of resources, was quoted as saying:  “It’s likely we’ll be building more studios to support independents who we want to attract to Wembley.”  Of course.

Guess what.  The old film studios were indeed demolished but replaced with – a retail park.  Interestingly, Trilion and Limehouse were in turn part owned by the Brent Walker Group, who around this time also bought Elstree Film Studios, demolished most of the film stages and built a Tescos.  Fancy that.  Actually, perhaps even worse, they just demolished the old Wembley Park film studios and used the space as a car park for a couple of years.  Ian Trill worked on The Word in November 1991 and remembers parking amid the rubble of the old studios.

 

Of course, all the TV kit in studio 5 at Wembley had been removed by Lee.  Thus Limehouse had to completely re-equip the studio.  David Taylor tells me that having already used up the equipment from the smaller Limehouse Canary Wharf Studio B in the Trocadero installation, the remaining studio equipment was brought out of its storage and installed in the Wembley Studio ‘A’ .  That was the cameras, lighting equipment and bars, the vision equipment and the Calrec 48 Channel desk etc.  When Studio ‘B’ at Wembley was proceeded with, it therefore required a new set of equipment.  The Ex-Trilion engineer Chris Cooper became the Limehouse Chief Engineer and was given the difficult task of making this a working studio again.  David says that Chris did a remarkable job, considering the Trilion owners of Limehouse seemed reluctant to spend what must still have been a massive amount that remained of the £25 million they received for Canary Wharf, after building the Trocadero Studio.

The first programme was recorded on 6th October 1989.  The new Limehouse Wembley was back in action – although I’m told the first few shows had to use an OB scanner for facilities as there was so much to do to bring the studio back into use for TV.

 

Limehouse set about re-instating the two sets of control rooms on the first floor between the pillars and the wall on the left.  New walls were built for Sound, Production and Lighting galleries for both studios, but initially only Studio 5A’s, at the far end were to be furnished with equipment.
photo thanks to David Taylor

 

More work was done on the site by Limehouse over the next few months – including constructing the workshop and storage areas that surrounded the studio buildings.  Trilion operated some OB units and these moved here (now with ‘Limehouse’ painted on the side) around the end of 1990 once the work was finished.

Some of the highly regarded staff had remained with the business (although understandably others had taken the opportunity to go freelance) and they did their best to bring the atmosphere of the old studios to the new ones.

 

Well-known shows made here at this time included Food and Drink (previously made in the old Docklands studios) and The Word (’90-’92).  Hat Trick had been using Limehouse in Docklands for most of their shows and this continued at Wembley.  Whose Line is it Anyway? was recorded here, as were the early series of Have I Got News For You?   The second series of Bruce Forsyth’s gameshow You Bet moved here from Shepperton for one series in 1989.

The studios were used for a number of music shows, including various editions of MTV Unplugged with Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Paul McCartney and the Cure.  Some Queen promo videos were also filmed here in Feb and May ’91 just before Freddie Mercury died.  Other shows recorded at Limehouse-Wembley include Harry Enfield’s Television Programme (’90-’92).  Matthew Hadley has informed me that the second series of Masterchef, with Loyd Grossman, was also recorded here.  The previous series had been made in TVS’s TV studio in Gillingham.

I’m told by one of the engineers at the time (Steve) that a regular booking was a pop show for Fuji TV in Japan.  They insisted on live injects from a presenter in the UK so they needed two satellite hops.  The engineers used to chat to their counterparts in Japan during the ad breaks and one day decided to loop the forward and backward links so they could see their own pictures.  After four hops and two 1980s technology standards converters the pictures were so soft they were almost unrecognisable.  Duncan Borrowman informs me that the show was called Hit Studio International and also went out in English via satellite on Superchannel.

 

Limehouse had made a considerable sum of money in moving from Docklands, as the compulsory purchase compensation was very generous.  They also sold off the old film studio part of the Wembley site, which would itself have raised a tidy sum.  It is perhaps surprising therefore that so soon after moving, the company found itself in financial difficulties.  However, Trilion – the owners of the business, were not on solid financial ground.  Despite the best efforts of everyone working for Limehouse, Trilion folded in December 1992 taking Limehouse with them.  Of course they were not alone.  At this time the UK was in the grip of recession.

Nick Jenner was an electrician working for Limehouse at the time.  He had joined the company very soon after they took over the studios – he remembers that the TV floor had just been relaid – and he helped with the installation of the ex-docklands studios lighting hoists.  He tells me that when Limehouse folded as a company the studios rather surprisingly continued in operation – at least for a while…

 

‘…The studios did not close after the receivers moved in.  We actually had The Word running at that time and Planet 24, Sir Bob bless him, told the receivers in no uncertain terms that the show must go on.  So the, by now, ex Limehouse staff worked for Planet 24 and got on with the broadcast.’

 

It seems that The Word continued for some weeks – probably until the ownership of the studios passed into the hands of Fountain.  Then most of the technical equipment was removed from the studios – possibly being sold to pay creditors, although I have heard stories of some who were owed money simply helping themselves to various items. 

The Word, incidentally, moved to Teddington until that show’s demise in 1995.

 

 

 

The new Wembley resident, Fountain Television, was waiting in the wings to move in but they had a huge job ahead to make the studios operational.  The Fountain website described how the galleries and studios were in such a bad condition when they took over in 1993 that it took six months round the clock working to get them in a fit state.  To be honest, I found this hard to believe until I saw the photo below.  I mean – WTAF?

fountain gallery
This picture shows the condition of the technical areas when Fountain took over the studios in 1993. Looks like the final Word wrap party took place in this room.
With thanks to the Fountain website

 

Fountain already owned a small studio in New Malden, Surrey, which they had opened in 1985.  They continued operating both studios for a few years.  They took over Wembley studios in 1993, taking six months to complete the refurbishment and opening in 1994 with Esther Rantzen’s Hearts of Gold.  Wembley under Fountain made several medium scale shows, such as Bremner Bird and Fortune but was best known for the programmes that made full use of the studios’ huge size when the doors between them were opened.  Talking Telephone Numbers was an early success after Fountain took over and following that they were host to Don’t Try This at Home (’99), Winning Lines, Pop Idol, The X-Factor, The Cube, Over The Rainbow (’10) and several editions of Test the Nation.  In 1998 an episode of Friends was filmed here – which took so long to make that at three o’clock in the morning the audience were still there – having been provided with pizzas to keep them going.

In 2006 a show called Petrolheads was made here.  This light-hearted motoring-based quiz had a conventional set involving two panels of celebrities with a chairman seated between them.  This was positioned in one of the two studios along with the audience.  However, one of the rounds involved a blindfolded parking challenge and this was recorded in the other studio.  The camera panned to the right and with the huge dividing doors open we saw a space large enough to drive a car around in.  It’s hard to see how this could have been staged in any other television studio.

 

Fountain Studios converted to digital widescreen in the late ’90s with 14 Sony BVP 500 cameras.  In 1999 Fountain won the Broadcast Award for Best Studio facilities – a considerable achievement considering the state the building had been left in when they took over.  In 2007 they took the plunge and began the expensive conversion to HD – purchasing ten Sony HDC 1500 cameras.  A ProBel Sirius HD router was purchased soon afterwards and in July 2008 a Sony HD vision mixer was installed in B’s gallery.  The production and lighting galleries were equipped with Ikegami HD CRT monitors.  The first HD production here was a sitcom – Clone – which was recorded in July 2008.  The first live HD show was Noel’s HQ in January 2009.  The studio became fully equipped for HD with its own kit during 2009. 

 

I worked in the studios myself on a few occasions – for example, covering the regular LD on a couple of X-Factors, a few editions of Over The Rainbow and lighting a sketch show series with Al Murray in the summer of 2008.  The sheer scale of the double studio was quite something.  For example, on the sketch show the designer was able to fit in no less than 8 sets (some very large) as well as a studio audience.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t paid any more for having to light twice the number of sets I normally would for such a show.

Fountain was regularly used in its latter years for The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent plus other large scale productions like Big Star’s Little Star, The Cube, The Voice: Battle Rounds and the British Comedy Awards.  However, the dividing doors were occasionally closed and smaller scale shows made here too.  These included ITV quiz 1000 Heartbeats and series 2 & 3 of  Taskmaster, which I lit in 2016.

 

Incidentally – I had thought that Teddington was alone in having a supernatural presence but I have been told that the grid of Studio A was believed to be haunted.  It was occasionally much colder than the other grid and several people reported feeling that ‘they were not alone’ up there!  One ex-electrician who worked there in the late ’90s told me a story of how he was in the grid doing some maintenance on a quiet day and the handle of the steel door connecting the grids between the studios moved up and down and rattled.  He thought he was alone in that part of the building but called out to the only other person on duty that day.  There was no reply and when he descended he found his colleague in another room in the studios.  In fact, it turned out that nobody could have moved the handle as they discovered that the door on the opposite side was locked.  (This  was  a pair of doors with a gap of about a metre between them.)  He doesn’t believe in ghosts but admits that the incident left him shaken and has no explanation as to how it could have happened.  There is, it seems, a story that someone fell to their death from the grid in the days of Lee International although I have no way of confirming this.

 

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Richard Fearne took this photo the day after the announcement of the imminent closure was made.  He had a meeting booked to discuss upgrading the dimmers.  Sadly, he didn’t make a sale that day.

 

and then came the really bad news…

 

Very unexpectedly, on 12th January 2016 Avesco, the owners of Fountain Studios, announced that they had sold the studios to Quintain – a property developer who were already building hundreds of flats in the Wembley area.  Apparently, although the studios themselves were operating profitably, Avesco were able to reduce the net debt on their balance sheet by making the sale.  The land and buildings were sold for £16m (which doesn’t sound much to me since Quintain were at the time selling large numbers of 2 bed flats in Wembley for £1m each.)  It was a sale and 5-year leaseback arrangement.  However, the lease was to be capable of termination by either party on not less than six months’ notice, expiring no earlier than 31st December 2016.

What this meant in plain English is that the studios were going to close at the end of 2016.  ITV were not keen on booking a studio that might not be available in 6 months time – even though the chances of that happening were minimal, since the building was highly unlikely to be redeveloped for at least another 6 years.  The staff were given legal warning of redundancy notices on the day the sale was announced.  Britain’s Got Talent went ahead in June and then The X-Factor returned in the autumn for the last time, ending just before Christmas.  I’m informed by Matthew Hadley that the last recorded item made in the studios was an interview between Sir David Jason and Sir Michael Palin about the time they worked together on Do Not Adjust Your Set, back in the Rediffusion days.

 

 

Over the following couple of months, all the technical equipment was removed and either sold off or scrapped – including the lighting hoists, dimmers and cabling.  Fountain ceased trading in February 2017.  (Some of the lighting bars were subsequently installed in studio 2 at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.  I have no idea what happened to the rest of them.)

Another serious loss to the industry.  This superb studio is certainly missed.

What is particularly galling is that at the time of writing – August 2021 – the studio building still stands and is likely to until at least 2024.  Work can’t take place anyway until all the leases in the small retail park next door expire.

 

So why was all the equipment removed?  The following was posted by someone on Facebook who knew the background to what went on in the dying days…

 

The reason why the hoists went was because when Avesco decided to close the studio after X-Factor, the site was going to be taken over by ATG.  They wanted the dimmers and hoists but Quintain refused to pay for the kit despite charging ATG for them, so two weeks before closing it was decided to rip out the hoists and give them to any studio that wanted them rather than let Quintain profit from something they were not willing to pay for.  ATG walked out of the deal at that point leaving the site without a tenant.  By the time the studio closed there was no TV stuff left including almost all of the cabling which took the last two months of the tenancy.

 

What a shame that an arrangement could not be found to leave all this irreplaceable equipment.  The industry as a whole has subsequently suffered.

 

Meanwhile, on 12th September 2017 Troubadour Theatres lodged an application for a new premises licence to use the studio as a music, entertainment and wrestling venue.  They were reported to have a 7 year lease.  Unfortunately, the venue has not been particularly busy – often remaining dark for several weeks between bookings.  It is now known as Wembley Park Theatre.  Attempts have been made to persuade Troubadour to offer the studio to TV companies again but they have appeared to resist this for reasons best known to themselves.

As an aside – Troubadour also opened a very large modular structure theatre with two auditoria at White City in July 2019.  Only one production was staged and the theatre was dismantled early in 2020.  In the spring of 2021 Troubadour also opened a new film studio site in Enfield using large temporary stages.

 

 

In the spring of 2020 the studio was used as a film stage for 1950s Chicago gangster feature The Outfit, starring Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale, when they were unable to film in the US due to the Pandemic.  Surprisingly, this was the first time these two acclaimed theatre actors had ever worked together.

In November 2020 the studio became a TV studio once again – temporarily – for the live broadcasts of BBC1’s show Little Mix, The Search.  All the technical facilities had to be brought in for the show – nothing of any use had been left from the Fountain days.  The double gallery suites enabled Covid-safe distancing, which was a bonus.  Vision and sound equipment was provided by Gravity Media and Terry Tew respectively.  Interestingly, the project management was by BBC Studioworks – the show was originally due to be made in George Lucas stage 2 at Elstree but it was occupied by Strictly.  Rumour has it that Studioworks were very keen to see this venue become a proper TV studio again until it is eventually redeveloped, which would of course be a very good thing for the industry.

In October 2021, Fulwell 73 used the studio for Channel 4’s Stand Up To Cancer show.  The old galleries were once again brought into use with derig facilities provided by CTV.  Sound control was provided by the Zen mobile (formerly the Red Tx truck).  Plus 4 Audio supplied all mics, monitors and PA.  Terry Tew supplied the Riedel comms, Boleros and walkies; PRG the lighting kit.  (Thanks to Gary Clarke for this info via Facebook.)

 

 

 

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On with the history of ITV…

Back in 1968 the ITA had a problem.  They had decided to award the weekend London franchise to LWT.  ATV would still remain in business – servicing the Midlands but now 7 days a week.  Thus ABC lost its weekend franchise.  It also lost its weekend franchise in the north as the ITA decided to give the north west to Granada and the north east to new company Yorkshire Television. 

The public had seen both Rediffusion and ABC as popular and successful companies so the ITA were reluctant to lose them.  They were, however, not impressed with the way that Rediffusion had neglected the local element of its responsibility, particularly regarding local news.  Thus, the solution was to force them into a ‘shotgun marriage’ to form a new company.  That company of course was Thames.

Actually, what had happened was that ABC was in effect promoted into getting the lucrative London weekday franchise.  Rediffusion found itself subsumed into the new company and lost its Wembley base to the new company LWT.  Many people there were very unhappy at this outcome – particularly as they were the company that had kept ITV going back in the dark days of 1955/56.

Thames took over the Teddington site and for a while also kept the old Rediffusion headquarters at Kingsway.  An understandable rivalry was said to exist between the old Rediffusion staff there and the old ABC staff at Teddington.  The ‘Thames’ logos at the end of programmes were even different depending on where the show had been made.  In effect, most Thames entertainment, drama, comedy and children’s programmes continued to be made at Teddington by the ABC staff whilst a far smaller number of ex-Rediffusion employees made the current affairs programmes at Kingsway.  This obviously did not make for a happy relationship between the two parts of the new company.  (The ex-Rediffusion staff at Wembley were, of course, making the entertainment shows for the new LWT.)