NB – a brief report on ABC’s Didsbury studio is at the end of this section.
A-R’s main production centre back in 1955 was to be at Wembley Studios – taking over a film studio site then owned by 20th Century Fox and quickly converting the old stages into four TV studios.
The early film years…
Following the First World War it was decided to build a huge exhibition in Wembley to celebrate the British Empire. It cost 10 million pounds to construct and opened in 1924. No less than 26 million people visited it between 1924 and 1925. The famous twin-towered stadium dates back to this period. (Just pause for a moment to consider these figures. They are quite extraordinary!)
Upon closure, 35 acres of the land was bought by two businessmen – Ralph J Pugh and Rupert Mason. They intended to develop the ‘Palace of Engineering’ from the Wembley Exhibition and use it as a base for creating an American style film studio complex. Sadly, their finance fell through but the site was taken over by a distributor who named it Wembley National Studios. An ambitious title as there was only one small stage on the site at that time. Unluckily, this was destroyed by fire in 1929.
The ‘studios’ now occupied a much smaller part of the exhibition site than the intended 35 acres – and some years later BBC OBs would have their base here using some of the old exhibition buildings on the opposite side of the road from the film studios.
Following the fire a much larger stage of around 8,000 sq ft was built by I W Schlesinger who formed a new company – British Talking Pictures. This company merged with Associated Sound Film Industries – a supposedly wealthy enterprise with great plans for making movies. They were of course hampered by only having one stage but this was said to have the advantage of possessing the most modern grid with an ‘overhead gantry wiring system’ – whatever that was. Sadly, the ambitious plans for making dozens of films did not materialise and Wembley was soon leasing out its facilities to independent producers making quota quickies.
Fox Films from the US also needed to make cheap films in this country to fill its quota so in 1934 it formed Fox-British Pictures and took out a lease on the studios – later buying them in 1936. It is likely that further expansion happened at this time and a second stage was built.
In 1938 a new films act was passed by Parliament and the Fox board in America objected to some of its proposals. They decided to reduce their commitment to film making in the UK and closed Wembley – although oddly they did retain ownership of the studios. Also, rather surprisingly they decided to lease space at Lime Grove studios to make some films rather than use their own at Wembley.
During the war the studios were brought back into commission and used by the Army Kinema Corporation (yes it really is spelt like that) and the RAF to make training films. Unfortunately, stage 2 was destroyed by fire in 1943 but it too was subsequently rebuilt. Following the war some film-making continued by independent film makers. In 1947 Wembley was said to have two stages with a total floor area of 12,252 sq ft. The last film made in this period was The Ship That Died of Shame , in 1954, starring Richard Attenborough.
The arrival of television…
In 1955 A-R bought the site and impressively took only nine months to add the control rooms and other necessary facilities to enable the stages to be used for television. Stage 1 had control room suites built across the middle to form two new studios – 1 and 2 either side. They were ready for use on August 29th, just three weeks before transmissions began.
The addition of control galleries therefore reduced the size of the old stages – the largest, studio 1, being 80 x 54 ft wall to wall. Studio 2 was 80 x 40 ft, studio 3 about 42 x 20 ft and studio 4 was 75 x 42 ft. The grids of 1 & 2 were 30 feet and 20 feet in 3 & 4.
The old film stage 2 became studios 3 and 4, which were open by the end of 1955. Studio 3 was very small and only in use for a short time. However, Les Roworth tells me that it had the honour of producing the first show from Wembley. It was a children’s programme called Small Time and was transmitted at 12 noon on 23rd September 1955. The studio also produced another show, Mail Call at 22.30 the same evening. The first transmission was not exactly problem-free as although the pictures looked fine in the studio they were ‘ringing’ horribly on transmission. A hurried investigation discovered that the output cable to studio 4 was connected to the cable from studio 3. Fortunately, the second programme in the day looked fine.
In 1956 A-R were feeling the pinch financially – like all the new ITV companies – and they closed studio 3. The space was later turned into a telerecording area.
A-R were aware that none of the studios at Wembley was particularly big. To enable really large-scale shows to be made, the board decided in 1958 to begin the planning of a huge studio on the site, alongside the existing stages. This studio was to be capable of being divided in two using soundproof doors – enabling maximum use of the studio between the major productions. A contract for £500,000 was signed. The foundation stone was laid on May 7th 1959 and studio 5 opened in June 1960 – by coincidence the same month the first studio at BBC TV Centre opened. This was remarkable progress – especially since there was a national shortage of bricks at the time (maybe the BBC had used them all) and construction was hampered by discovering some of the very solid foundations of old Wembley Exhibition buildings.
Studio 5 was very busy in its latter years up to 2016 making programmes like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent when it was known as Fountain Studios. It was unique, consisting of two medium-sized studios each with a separate control gallery suite. The huge double thickness soundproof doors dividing it could be raised in 30 minutes. (A rate of one foot per minute.) Apparently the only motors that could be found that were powerful enough to lift the doors were some made for rotating the gun turrets on warships. I have climbed the ladders to visit the winch room at the top of the building myself and very impressive it was too – the huge doors being suspended on steel ropes wound round winches that have a SWL of 25 tons. Apparently the winch gear had to be checked at least once a year but studio manager Tony Edwards had it checked every six months. I asked him if he worried each time he pressed the button to raise or lower the doors whether it would work or not. The answer came as no surprise.
The space that resulted was about 13,400 sq ft gross – 134 metric feet long by 90 metric feet wide within firelanes making it at the time the largest purpose-built TV studio in the world.
TC1 opened 4 years later and was ‘only’ 10,800 sq ft. In case you were wondering, the only comparable fully equipped TV studios in the UK in 2020 are HQ1 at MediaCity Salford which is about 12,500 sq ft and studio 5 at Maidstone which is 11,600 sq ft. Stages 1 and 2 at Elstree Studios where Strictly Come Dancing is made do not have a TV lighting grid or flat TV floor but they do share a control room suite and each is 15,800 sq ft. LH2 – the huge rehearsal space that effectively took over from Fountain in 2017 – has a working area of 14,800 sq ft.
Wembley studio 5 was originally equipped with 8 EMI Image Orthicon cameras (4 per half studio) and there were 140 motorised lighting hoists with a total of 340 lighting circuits. Production, lighting and sound control rooms were at first floor level, with vision control (ie camera racking), apparatus rooms and make-up etc on the ground floor. Note that vision and lighting control were originally in separate rooms – as in the ATV studios at Elstree. This was a union requirement – engineers and electricians were not allowed to sit side by side. I kid you not. The lighting director must have done a lot of running up and down the stairs. Later, most of the ground floor rooms along the corridor became star dressing rooms and the apparatus room and vision control were on the first floor.
As will be recounted later on this web page, all that remained in the latter years of the old Wembley studios was this large double studio. Fortunately, all the essential areas such as dressing rooms, production offices and production galleries were not lost to redevelopment and were still there – as was the restaurant which produced some of the best food of any studio in London. To the rear of the studio was some covered scenery storage and a small car park. The galleries were well-designed and could either be operated separately, or each gallery could control both studios when the giant doors were raised.
The great TV director/producer Geoff Posner has written to me recalling the occasion in May 1966 when RSG! closed the show with The Rolling Stones singing Paint It Black. He was a teenager at the time and wondering what to do with his life. Seeing that number, with innovative camera moves and rapid live cutting (directed by Michael Lyndsay-Hogg) he was inspired to become a TV director and try to recreate the same excitement he had just seen on screen. In fact in 1985 Geoff directed a show called Coming Next at Limehouse Studios. The final edition of that series was a tribute to RSG! – shot in black and white and in the style of the original show.
Rediffusion also created two shows that were the predecessors to Monty Python – Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show. Other popular programmes included Educating Archie (’58 – ’59), The Dickie Henderson Show (’60 – ’65) and Our Man at St Mark’s (’63 – ’66). Drama series included Seven Deadly Sins, No Hiding Place and The Rat Catchers.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the days of Rediffusion is that it is hard to discover many productions that really took advantage of the size of studio 5. The opening night, however, was certainly an exception. The studio opened three weeks before Television Centre on June 9th, 1960 with a spectacular play involving music and dance entitled An Arabian Night. This certainly made full use of the space. It had a cast of 300 together with 10 horses, 8 camels, 6 donkeys, 4 goats, 2 mules, 2 snakes, 1 performing bear and (possibly) an elephant. Imagine the mess in the car park. According to one source, as well as the obvious technical requirements one of the specs for the studio floor was that it should be able to withstand the weight of an elephant. This proved to be useful on at least one further occasion.
Planning for the programme had begun six months before. The director Mark Lawton’s brief was ‘to produce a show of bigger dimensions than anything ever televised in this country.’ By all accounts he certainly succeeded. The show was designed by John Clements and was lit by David Motture. In one corner of the studio was built a raised area for an orchestra – the space beneath being used for quick-change dressing rooms.
Bob Hart was an extra working on the show. He was training as a vet at the time but found himself looking after the liberty horses on this unique programme. He has sent me his recollections…
‘The animals were from Chipperfield’s circus. I honestly don’t recall the elephant. Our version was that the floor was accurate to 1/8th inch in 100 ft so that the camera dollies would run smoothly, not that it should support an elephant.
The only warning we were given was to watch out for cameras because they would not stop. Every second Arab was an asst. director with walkie-talkie directing ‘traffic’. The liberty horses were unshod but the studio insisted they be shod with rubber shoes to prevent damage to the floor. This was done by the Royal Vet College farrier. Quite an experience since they had never been shod before. They were housed for the week of rehearsals in a marquee in the open space behind the entry doors (behind the market set). The horses were all Arab stallions. I spent a couple of nights in there with them. Add to the production schedule the logistics of caring for that many animals!
There were also at least three stunt horses, two were to be jumped over a market stall, a 19 sec sequence which was unfortunately lost, or at least not broadcast, due to a timing glitch. Martin Benson rode another.
The sets were so realistic that we sunbathed on the dock set between rehearsals. Makeup calls were at 7am I think. Took hours to get 300 people made up.
TV folk didn’t understand that animals did not need a three hour call. 15 minutes was enough. The animals got bored being walked around outside. In fact, a mounted Martin Benson, a brave man since he didn’t ride, backed into the bear. Oops.
Camels are awful on a set, or anywhere. Pull them forward and they stretch out their necks. Push them back, and they fold them. Then they spit. Thank goodness none of this was evident in the production.
At one time we got so bored we decided to take the animals on set and stage another caravan. The director was delighted and wanted the sequence kept. A few minutes later it was rescinded – timing would be thrown out!
We were told the production would be live, although the final dress had been recorded, and it was our belief that it would be running simultaneously in case of disasters. I think that show generated more ulcers than any previous production.
Today no sane director would attempt a 3 hour live show of that magnitude involving so many unpredictable animals. It was a wild experience.’
However – the series that seems to really have made the best use of the size of the studio was Hippodrome. This was made in 1966 and proved to be surprisingly popular. It was an unlikely combination of circus acts and popular showbiz entertainers. A show might therefore amongst others include Dusty Springfield, The Everly Brothers, a high wire act and some performing bears. Extraordinary. During the ten weeks of shooting, the car park was typically occupied with trailers, caravans and cages housing – you guessed it – 12 elephants, 12 lions, 6 tigers, 2 pumas, 5 leopards, several dogs and all the various performing acts of acrobats, clowns, jugglers etc. And all while the World Cup was being played in the stadium next door.
Each show was introduced by a big American star. Bizarrely, on one show it was Woody Allen. (Not the kind of entertainment with which one usually associates him.) The series made full use of the space and height of the studio and was a genuine spectacular of its day.
Unusually, it was shot using two separate camera crews – the local crew using four EMI black and white cameras (the budget didn’t run to using all eight), and a crew from Intertel (more on them later) using Marconi BD848 colour cameras. The colour recording was for CBS in America, whilst the monochrome one went out on ITV. Amazingly, they somehow made each show simultaneously with two directors and two completely separate camera crews.
Despite the success in its day of this series, A-R seem to have used the studio mostly for far more modest productions. At Elstree, ATV were making big variety spectaculars in their somewhat smaller main studio but Rediffusion seemed to be happy making dramas, quiz shows and sitcoms. Arguably, the studio would not really come into its own until forty years or more later with shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.
I’m told that the cameras that Rediffusion were using at Wembley in 1968 when they lost their franchise were Marconi Mk IVs in Studio 1, Marconi Mk IIIs in Studios 2 and 4 and EMI 203s in studio 5.
Before leaving A-R’s time at Wembley it is worth including some information sent to me by Bill Lee – A-R’s leading lighting director. As you will discover if you read more on this site, around the end of the ’60s several studios in London were carrying out experiments in shooting programmes on colour film but using traditional television camera techniques. It seems that A-R were no exception…
‘ Associated-Rediffusion were very involved in making colour productions for the Americans, long before studios were equipped for it in Britain. They used the remote facilities of Intertel and followed the Hippodrome production with a series of plays for the American producer David Suskin that involved American actors and rehearsed in America, although with a British director and an A-R crew. A-R were also very involved in experiments of using Arriflex cameras running with film and modified to offer a television picture simply for production staff to use for viewing. The idea was to produce good quality colour productions, shot television style on film and by television crews. Along with other crew members I lit a trial half hour play in Munich, which was quite successful. The project was inevitably scrubbed when A-R lost their weekday contract and were amalgamated with ABC to form Thames Television. Interesting I think to speculate what the outcome might have been had they not lost their contract.’
In fact, David Petrie has contacted me. He has a magazine article of the period describing this system which was called ‘Molec Mobile 35’. It did indeed combine an Arri 35mm film camera with a Plumbicon tubed TV camera, enabling multicamera TV techniques to be used to produce a programme on 35mm colour film.
A small postscript… Some years ago the restaurant was enlarged by creating a glazed extension about 10 feet deep along the wall facing the road. At one end a corner was formed and the original engraved stone marking the laying of the foundations of the new studio found itself indoors rather than outdoors. This stone is the only physical record of the old Rediffusion days. For a while it was hidden behind a chocolate bar vending machine but I am glad to say that when I looked in May 2006 the machine had been moved and the stone was there for all to see. Oddly, the contestants of The X-Factor, which I was lighting that week, didn’t seem that interested.
The next successful company to win a franchise was ABC Television, which was to broadcast in the Midlands and the North at weekends. They were initially reluctant to become part of the new independent television as they saw it as a competitor to their film business. Nevertheless, they were persuaded by the ITA to get involved when another company’s bid fell through.
Their Midlands service began on 5th May 1956, eight months after ITV began in London. ABC TV was an offshoot of the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), which owned hundreds of ABC cinemas up and down the country and also made a number of modestly successful British movies. They had a large film studio in Borehamwood (Elstree) but decided to keep this new TV subsidiary completely separate. It is said that the unions did not want television programmes to be made in their film studios but the management too were probably happier keeping them separate, with their very different conditions of service, hours and rates of pay.
For its Manchester base, ABC converted a cinema it already possessed – the Capital in Didsbury. This was a large cinema with a big stage that could be used for live shows when required so was ideal. The stage was extended right out into the stalls area to create one large studio – where many episodes of Armchair Theatre were made, amongst other dramas and light entertainment shows. Famous stars of the day who regularly appeared there included Mike and Bernie Winters, Bruce Forsyth, Matt Monro and Ken Dodd. The studio was also the home of two of the earliest pop shows on British TV – Wham! and Boy Meets Girl! The Beatles are said to have played on TV here for the first time. Well, mimed probably.
There were also two small studios. One was in the former restaurant on the first floor and apparently used for local news and small productions like panel shows – the other for continuity. ABC kept this site on until they lost the franchise and became part of Thames. The last programme made here by ABC was Opportunity Knocks in 1968. Yorkshire TV briefly took over the building, then it was sold to Manchester Polytechnic (Julie Walters was one of many students educated here). It was demolished in 1999.
In Birmingham ABC TV shared a studio centre with ATV at Aston, which had also been converted from an old cinema. This site was known as Alpha TV Studios and later became the HQ of BRMB radio. The building contained one studio at first of around 2,000 sq ft – facilities were provided by an OB scanner. In 1961 the building was extended and another studio of 1,100 sq ft was added. ATV and ABC also each had their own presentation studio.
Neither company saw Birmingham as being particularly central to their operation and each concentrated their main network productions in their other studios. However, a few shows were made here that many will remember such as Lunchbox (with Noele Gordon), Tinga and Tucker, Thank Your Lucky Stars and an early version of The Golden Shot. The studios closed in 1969.