This section covers Gillingham, Maidstone, Studio 1 Cardiff, Epic Norwich and Central Nottingham.
From the mid 1990s most production studios around the country owned by Carlton and Granada – eventually becoming ‘ITV plc’ – were sold off or closed down. These were in Bristol (HTV West), Cardiff (HTV Wales), Birmingham (Central), Newcastle (Tyne Tees), Carlisle (Border), Plymouth (Westcountry), Maidstone (TVS), Nottingham (Central), Norwich (Anglia), Southampton (Meridian), Albert Dock Liverpool (Granada) and Gillingham (TVS).
All right, it closed well before the mid 1990s so it shouldn’t be included in the list anyway. I’m just intrigued by an ITV production studio being built in a modestly sized town not previously or since particularly noted for its cultural output. With apologies to the good people of Gillingham, obviously.
The studio in Gillingham had originally been a 1931 Plaza cinema. It was quickly converted to a studio as the new Maidstone Studios would not be ready in time for TVS to begin broadcasting to the new South East ITV region on 1st January 1982. They called it the ‘TVS Television Theatre’. It had a useable floor area of about 5,400 sq ft, permanent audience seating for 260 and was equipped with five Marconi Mk IXB cameras.
The original intention had been to sell it off as soon as Maidstone was open but TVS hung onto it for a while, making programmes such as regional afternoon magazine Not for Women Only and from 1986 The Television Show, which was broadcast live from here on Sunday evenings across the ITV network.
Oddly, the show that kept the studio open was Muppets spin-off Fraggle Rock, which ran from 1983-1987. Once this ended the studio was hardly used so it was put up for sale early in 1988 and was purchased by Network One TV in June 1989. (This company also took over the Greenwood in 1990.) Masterchef was made here then, plus a handful of other shows. (Yes, that show really has been running that long – or at least, a version of it.) It closed as a studio in July 1991 and following a brief spell as a Quasar laser gaming centre (that’s more like it!) it lay empty for several years and was demolished in 2001.
Outside London, apart from local news studios only The Leeds Studios (Yorkshire) and the Coronation St studios at MediaCity in Salford are still owned by ITV. More on them later. However, it’s not all bad news…
The ex ITV studios in Maidstone and Norwich have fortunately survived as independent facilities…
Maidstone Studios were built by TVS in 1982/83. In fact, they celebrated their 40th anniversary on January 4th 2022. The four original studios were 1 – 2,000 sq ft; 2 – 6,000 sq ft; 3 – 500 sq ft and 4 – 250 sq ft. Of these, only studio 2 is still in use.
In 1993 Meridian Broadcasting took over the south-east ITV franchise but not these studios. TVS intended to continue operating as an independent production company but soon after were bought up by International Family Entertainment Inc who ran The Family Channel. After a while the building became the HQ for Flextech, the satellite broadcaster, and a number of channels were played out from here for a few years. The studios themselves though had little use. ITV Meridian continued to rent a news studio from the new owner until 2004, when they moved to a purpose-built HQ in Whitely, near Fareham, Hampshire. However, ITV continue to have an office with news crews based here at Maidstone.
Much of the building is now occupied by a data centre, owned by a company called Custodian. If you’re not sure what that is – apparently ‘Custodian is a Tier 4 equivalent data centre.’ According to their website, ‘ We are a self built and operated facility specialising in Colocation, Cloud and Networks.’ So that’s all perfectly clear then.
In 2001 the studios were purchased by a group of businessmen and experienced television producers whose aim was “To be a self-sustaining studio and media production centre supporting creative development with local, national and worldwide potential in the new millennium and digital era”. In other words, to attract programme makers away from their usual studios in London.
Soon after reopening, the studios attracted several children’s programmes including Ministry of Mayhem, Basil Brush, Escape From Scorpion Island and Art Attack. Matthew Hadley has informed me of a few other shows made here – Finders Keepers, Zzzap, It’s A Mystery, Motormouth, What’s Up Doc and WOW (Watch Out Weekend), hosted by Simeon Courtie and Sophie Aldred.
In 2005 they opened the new 11,600 sq ft studio 5 – a useful large space with which they hoped to attract big light entertainment programmes. It is licensed for an audience of no less than 2,400 – although clearly this is standing room only. Nevertheless, there is room for an impressively large seated audience.
In 2018 this studio was more logically renamed studio 1. The original studio 1 and studios 3 and 4 no longer exist as studios but are occupied by the data centre mentioned above.
Studio 2 is a very useful space being approximately the same size as Riverside’s studio 1. It is 81 x 58ft within firelanes and has partially equipped galleries on the ground floor and a lighting rig with 116 motorised bars. Catchphrase and Blind Date with Paul O’Grady have been typical recent bookings but it would be ideally suited to panel shows and other comedy productions as well as gameshows.
In October 2018 I had the pleasure of lighting a live Halloween edition of the dark comedy drama series Inside Number 9 in this studio. Well, not just in the studio itself, we also shot in the corridors, make up room and scene dock. The experience convinced me that studio 2 deserves to be a lot busier than it is.
Studio 1 is 40m x 24m or 133 x 80 metric feet within firelanes. It was originally constructed relatively cheaply but over the following years had some much needed money spent on it. At first, it did not have its own production galleries but borrowed those of another studio as and when required. A dedicated gallery suite was opened early in 2007, a short walk across in the main building.
The studio opened with a very basic lighting grid but is now partly equipped with motorised trusses. These are a great improvement but are not as flexible as the bars or monopoles to be found in other studios. For example, it is not possible to replace a blown bulb or rerig a lamp without the use of a scissor lift mobile hoist once the studio set is in place.
Bookings for this studio have included the first series of Duel, Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, 1 vs 100 and the BBC’s Making Your Mind Up – which became newsworthy for all the wrong reasons when Terry Wogan announced the incorrect winner in 2007. Productions during 2010 included ITV1’s Easter Special gameshow The Door (which I had the experience of lighting), Got To Dance for Sky1 and Five’s talent contest Don’t Stop Believing.
Bookings in 2011 included ITV’s dating gameshow Take Me Out which returned every year until 2019. In February 2020 ITV announced that they were axing the show, which will have come as a disappointment to Maidstone. When TV Centre closed in 2013, studio 1 became the regular home of Later… With Jools Holland and the Hootenanny. Later returned to TC1 in 2019 with a new set and changes to the style of the show – another loss of work for these studios. However, some good news was that Supermarket Sweep returned in 2019. Children’s drama Hetty Feather has also used these facilities as a sound stage. In 2021 the studio was used for the revival of BBC1’s classic gameshow, Blankety Blank.
I mentioned above that The Door was a bit of an experience in 2010. Certainly, I have never worked before or since in such an extraordinary whiff caused by rotting vegetables, animal and fish carcasses, and with such an alarming range of creatures including snakes, rats, spiders, scorpions and tens of thousands of flies. Some of the above escaped at one time or other but most, I believe, were recaptured. Not the flies, obviously. And I’m told a snake was discovered hiding in a pile of cables during the derig. The studio management were extraordinarily relaxed about all this going on in their studio. Good for them. I can think of one or two managers in other studios who would have had a small but spectacular explosive fit.
The studios were given a smartening up in 2021 and work began on a new studio – Studio 3. I’m told this is a new build with its own gallery and is roughly twice the size of the original Studio 3, which would make it about 1,000 sq ft. It is aimed at greenscreen shoots, interviews or perhaps sports-type presentation. It is due to open some time in 2022.
The management of Maidstone is keen to see the studios succeed and continue to invest in them. They deserve success and with the demand for studios now being so great they will no doubt continue to attract more work.
The old HTV Wales main production studio (7,500 sq ft) at Culverhouse Cross opened in 1984 and in its latter years until its closure in 2014 was operated by NEP Cymru simply as Studio 1.
The main studio here was closed by ITV but operated independently as Studio 1 Facilities from the spring of 1993 until the autumn of 2006. This very small company ran the studio within the huge ex-HTV site on the outskirts of Cardiff. They mostly made programmes for S4C but the studio was also occasionally used for some of the Christopher Eccleston Dr Who episodes as a film stage. In 2005 I had the pleasure of lighting an Aled Jones music special here which went out on Christmas Day (in fact I’m rather pleased to say I won a Welsh Bafta doing it.) I lit a chat show with Rob Brydon and the cast of Little Britain for BBC3 later in 2005 and returned in 2009 for a series with opera and West End musical singer, Shan Cothi.
The studio had a most unusual lighting grid – with monopoles (telescopes) and a complicated system of cross-over tracks where scopes had to be ‘parked up’ (don’t ask). It was also somewhat restricted by a number of enormous ventilation tubes that were distributed across the grid.
The ex-HTV site was for a while owned by media company UBM but apart from studio 1 and regional ITV programming in studio 2 the buildings were mostly empty. In 2006 the whole site was bought back by ITV plc to be developed as a media centre and an expanded base for ITV Wales. Studio 1 had seen very little investment for many years and attracted less and less work. Eventually, towards the end of 2006, Studio 1 Facilities Ltd. ceased operation.
The studio was then let on a seven year lease to Barcud Derwen, the Welsh TV facilities company. The site was run by Barcud’s HD OB management arm, Omni TV, and was renamed ‘Omni Studio‘. It continued to be used for various entertainment series and gameshows, mostly for S4C and was booked by the BBC’s Mastermind. It was also used as a 4-waller for shooting commercials and as a rehearsal space for rock tours. The studio was sometimes booked by local production company Presentable (now part of Zodiak) for their Late Night Poker programmes, which they made for Channel 4.
Sadly, in June 2010 Barcud Derwen went into administration. Their base in North Wales was closed down but the Omni division of the company, consisting mostly of an HD OB scanner and the lease on this studio, was purchased by US company NEP Broadcasting to become NEP Cymru. They returned to the old name of ‘Studio 1’.
No technical facilities remained and all the lights were sold off but the studio operated very well as a 4-waller using an OB unit for facilities as and when required. The dimmers and monopoles remained and the old prop room was used as a lighting gallery, which actually worked better than before since it was closer to the studio floor. The studio continued to be used for S4C’s music, entertainment and quiz shows.
From 2008 Studio 1 was the home of popular BBC Four/BBC Two quiz show Only Connect with Victoria Coren-Mitchell. There were an impressive 116 episodes made here. However, the series made in 2013 used the BBC’s drama studios at Roath Lock and since 2014 it has been made in the Enfys studio in Cardiff.
In August 2013 ITV announced that they would be leaving Culverhouse Cross and establishing a base for local news in Cardiff Bay next to the National Assembly by June 2014. The old HTV studio centre was to be demolished and the site used for housing. However, ITV’s plans to redevelop the site were opposed by local residents and by those companies renting space in the building. There were about 35 media-related businesses based on the site. Planning permission was refused so the studio remained open for the time being. The plans were revised and resubmitted to the Vale of Glamorgan council who announced in March 2014 that permission had been granted.
The studios have now been demolished but I have yet to establish what the last programme made here was – and when. Can you help??
Meanwhile – ‘from Norwich‘ as the quiz of the week used to proudly boast – there was a bit of good news. The old Anglia studio centre in Magdalen Street was purchased by Norfolk County Council in 2006 and over £1m was spent on upgrading the facilities. It was initially marketed as the East of England Production Innovation Centre (EPIC) but is now known simply as Epic Studios.
When I contacted them I was informed that…
…it will function as a “Creative Industries Enterprise Hub”. In that role it will have three main functions: to provide first class production and post production facilities to local, regional and national production companies and broadcasters; to support new or existing production and production related businesses, particularly by offering production space on ‘easy in’ and ‘easy out’ terms to companies and start-ups; and to help produce the creatives of the future by providing training and education facilities which will be used for related courses by local H.E. colleges and other providers.
Phew! You might have guessed that the previous words were not mine but those of Mark Wells, its centre director.
When the studio first opened as ‘EPIC’ it was advertised as being 80 x 60ft within firelanes and about 6,000 sq ft overall. However, according to the Epic Studios website in 2020, studio 1 has a floor space of 10,000 sq ft. I’m not sure how this has happened but maybe it has been enlarged or is being measured in a different way. The studio can it seems be ‘scaled’ to a small, medium or large configuration and has the capacity for a seated audience of 1,000. I gather the facility was originally a bowling alley so its grid is not as high as one might perhaps hope for in a studio of this size. It was refurbished following a £1.5m grant and has fibre infrastructure and cabling for up to 12 HD cameras. Additional facilities include a viewing theatre and dubbing suites with 5.1 and Dolby Atmos.
Six Sony HDC-1500 cameras were originally purchased for the main studio (it added one more later) and all three studios became fully HD capable in September 2008. Of the two small studios, one was originally marketed as a ‘discussion studio’ – equipped with four JVC HD cameras and the other as a ‘virtual’ studio – an Orad Smart Set system was installed in April 2008.
The main studio was mostly used initially as a 4-waller for shooting drama, commercials etc but Question Time has used the studio. In June 2010 an edition of Frank Skinner’s Opinionated was recorded in this studio. The show returned in 2011.
In 2012 Epic Studios was acquired by Norwich-based production company Extreme Video. The studios are now very well equipped and supported by experienced and enthusiastic local crewmembers.
Disappointingly, very few programmes for the main broadcast channels have been made in these studios. Probably their relatively remote location is the reason. However, the centre has found its niche as a venue for music performance – the added value of being able to televise concerts with the studio’s HD kit and either stream onto the Internet or record DVDs of live concerts is an added bonus.
Encouragingly (although perhaps rather surprisingly), Epic Studios were chosen to stage ITV’s new WOS Wrestling series in the summer of 2018. Since 2019 a new Broadcast Facilities arm has been based here.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that these studios are not the original Anglia House centre that opened in the 1950s. That is still located on Prince of Wales Road. That centre had four studios which perhaps surprisingly weren’t enough for this small company so in the 1990s they expanded and took over this property in Magdalen Street, moving their news operation here. In 2006 they moved the local news back to Anglia House and sold the newer studios to the local council. It is these that are now Epic Studios. I do hope you’re following all this.
Quite why Anglia needed so many studios (they even took over an old post office building next to the original studios) is a mystery yet to be solved. As far as network multicamera shows go, all I can remember coming from Anglia are Sale of the Century, Gambit, Tales of the Unexpected, The Time The Place and Trisha. Of course there have been a few single camera dramas too like The Chief so maybe that’s why they needed studio space.
Anyway, the local ITV news is now rattling round in the original studio centre. I understand the old studio 1 was divided into two news studios when the department returned in 2006.
Central Studios, Lenton Lane, Nottingham(1983-2004)
These studios were in some people’s opinion the best that were ever built in the UK. They certainly drew upon the wide experience gained in other studio centres and incorporated many well-designed features. The buildings still exist (hence their inclusion here) – although no longer as a working studio centre. They are part of the University of Nottingham. Most of the site is now occupied by their Manuscripts and Special Collections department. However, they do in theory still offer the largest studio as a 4-waller, although to my knowledge it has very seldom been used to make any multicamera TV shows.
The studios were built to a high specification and were much loved by those who worked there. They began operating on November 4th 1983 with a recording of Family Fortunes with Max Bygraves. As well as local news studios there were three main production studios – studio 6 (72 x 46ft), studio 7 (89 x 88ft) and studio 8 (89 x 79ft). They had motorised lighting bars and studio 7 had a groundrow trench in the floor for lighting ‘infinity’ cycloramas. It’s worth pointing out that both 7 and 8 were much larger studios than the norm at, say TLS or TV Centre. About the same length as most studios but very usefully nearly 20 feet wider. There was also a music studio that later became studio 11 (53 x 40ft gross) and studio 8X (43 x 35ft gross) that was converted from part of the scenery store in 2001.
At first they were very busy making local and networked programmes but Central was a very different company from ATV and the big spectacular entertainment shows that made ATV famous worldwide were simply not made any more. By 1990 drama too was no longer shot in TV studios but on location or film stages. However, some sitcoms such as The Upper Hand and Barbara were made here.
Lenton Lane became known in particular for its gameshows such as Blockbusters, Catchphrase, Family Fortunes, The Price is Right, Supermarket Sweep and Bullseye. Celebrity Squares was revived here too between 1993 and 1996. Matthew Hadley has kindly pointed out some other shows – The Midas Touch with Bradley Walsh (’95-’96), The Freddy Starr Show (’94-’98), Crazy Cottage (’96-’98), Mad For It (’98-’00), Body Heat (’94-’96) and Pot of Gold – a talent show fronted by Des O’Connor between 1993 and 1995.
Sadly, in 1994 the studios became part of Carlton’s empire – a company that apparently had little interest in making programmes themselves and running a studio centre was not something they particularly wanted or needed.
By 2001 the studio utilisation was relatively low but a lifeline came when Crossroads was recommissioned after many years. All the production studios except 7 were used for this show with high quality permanent sets – parts of the exterior of the centre becoming the famous motel. Unfortunately, that show was axed in 2003.
The writing was on the wall and the owners of ITV were ruthless in their disposal of what to them seemed surplus property. The last shows to be made here in 2004 were Doctors and Nurses – a sitcom for BBC1 by Phil Hammond, starring Ade Edmonson and David Mitchell and Beat The Nation, a quiz for C4 with Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The site was sold to Nottingham University, the deal being completed in March 2005 and became known as Kings Meadow Campus.
Incidentally, the motorised lighting bars or ‘boats’ from studio 8 were purchased by AFM (now Panalux) for possible installation in one of the two TV studios at Pinewood. However, perhaps following a lukewarm response by various lighting directors at the prospect, this never happened. (Most LDs said they preferred monopoles, which is the system still in use at Pinewood.) The current whereabouts of the studio 8 boats is unknown.
Most of the studios are now used for storage, offices and lecture space but Studio 7 still exists and can be hired – but seldom has been by TV companies. I was told a few years ago that the galleries for studio 7 are still there but all the equipment and monitors had been removed. Some of the lighting bars (and dual-source lights) still exist but many have been removed. Studio 7 has been used by Question Time on several occasions. Holes have been knocked through the walls for cabling through to an OB truck and/or generator. Question Time carries its own lighting rig on trusses from venue to venue so none of the studio’s facilities would have been used for that show.
The studio has been used occasionally for filming dramas but TV bookings are very rare. Feature films have included Control (’07), Bunny and the Bull (’09) and Goal III (’09). No, me neither.
Barry Wilson has kindly written to me – he worked on an edition of The Big Question with Nicky Campbell in February 2008. Like Question Time, this show travelled all round the country with its own OB unit and lighting rig. It is likely frankly that the cost of paying for travel and accommodation for a whole crew, plus hiring all the necessary technical facilities would outweigh any other advantages of making a TV series here now rather than in an established studio elsewhere.
In 2014 it was being marketed again. The University advertised the studio as ‘Studio 1’ on the Creative England website and stated that it had ‘recently reopened to cater for major film and television production.’ I can find no record of any bookings. Another search in 2021 revealed that the studio has gone back to being called ‘Studio 7’ and is being marketed as a venue for conferences and events. It appears to have a regular booking by Heart Church. It is still used by the University on occasions – as an exam hall.
In the Spring of 2021 studio 7 was used as a centre for administering Covid-19 vaccinations. Many local people were surprised to discover that this large TV studio still existed.
Studio 8 is used by the University as a temperature-controlled store for documents and rare books and is not accessible to the public. The old music recording studio (2,120 sq ft), located between studios 6 and 8 is now called Studio 11 and is advertised as a venue that can be rented for meetings etc.