Old BBC regional production studios

This section covers Pebble Mill, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton and Norwich

 

In the early 1990s the BBC had a medium sized production studio in three regional centres in England.  Five if you include the somewhat smaller one in Newcastle and even smaller studio in Southampton.  The rest were in Bristol, Manchester and the one that everyone over 40 remembers – Pebble Mill in Birmingham.  Who could forget Pebble Mill at One?  Even if you never saw it you’d heard of it.  In point of fact, it came from the foyer of the building, not its main studio but who cares?  It ran from 1973-1986 – with Donny McCloud, Marion Foster, Bob Langley, Jan Leeming, Judi Spiers, Peter Seabrook and a dozen or so other presenters who came and went.  Well, they’ve all gone now, the building is a pile of dust and the BBC’s Birmingham operation is from somewhere called the Mailbox – although there is no production studio there, just a small regional newsroom.  That’s progress.

 

 

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Pebble Mill
R.I.P.

 

Birmingham‘s studio A was the home of dozens of popular dramas – All Creatures Great and Small, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, Bird of Prey and A Very Peculiar Practice are some examples – but many light entertainment shows were made here too including Pot Black, Call My Bluff, Telly Addicts, Can’t Cook Won’t Cook, The Basil Brush Show, Relatively Speaking, 4 Square, Noel’s Addicts, Bollywood or Bust, two series of sMart and(who could forget?) Emu’s Broadcasting Corporation.  Of course, there was also Saturday Night at the Mill and the unimaginatively named Pebble Mill – the show that took over from Pebble Mill at One (I hope you’re following all this.)  High/low point of that series was undoubtedly Paul Shane’s rendering of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ in 1996A quick visit to YouTube is highly recommended.

 

The studio opened in 1971 and was 74ft x 64ft within firelanes, so quite a bit smaller than the medium/large studios at TV Centre.  It opened with four EMI 2001 cameras which were replaced in 1983 with five Link 125s.  In 1992 Pebble Mill bought four Sony BVP-370 studio cameras and two BVP-70 portable cameras.  In November 1997 work began on a major refurbishment of the studio.  It included a new production control room complete with 36-channel vision mixer, new lighting/vision control room and re-equipped sound control room with new Calrec Q-series 60-channel desk.  This £2.2 million upgrade took nine weeks and Studio A re-opened by the end of February 1998 as a fully digital widescreen facility complete with new Sony BVP-500 and BVP-550 cameras.

Despite this huge investment it was announced only two years later at the end of 2000 by Greg Dyke, the then Director General of the BBC, that the main studio at Pebble Mill would close.  (Quite a different philosophy from the fashion today where programmes are being moved from London to the nations and regions.)  Staff at Pebble Mill are said to have protested most strongly and suggested ‘mothballing’ the studio for a year in anticipation of the CBBC department needing a studio.  Despite their best efforts and the very recent £2.2 million refit and upgrade the BBC chose to close Studio A for good.  It’s perhaps worth noting that a year later the Corporation spent £1.7 million upgrading studio D at Elstree for CBBC.  So ‘rationalisation’ got under way at Pebble Mill and the next year Studio A was de-commissioned.

The following little tale will possibly come as no surprise.  It seems that the week after Studio A had closed, Countryfile had a massive story which required studio space.  Despite the fact that Studio A was at that time still fully equipped, the studio was prohibited from being used as it was ‘officially closed’.  The production team therefore had to hire in an OB unit and use the ‘conservatory studio’ once used by Anne and Nick for their daytime show.

 

Incidentally – one claim to fame for studio A is that it was the home of a new kind of floor paint.  For many years all studio floors had been painted with water-based paint, with disastrous consequences if any liquid was spilled on it.  Before a new colour or pattern could be applied, the floor had to be washed and dried with special machines.  This wasted valuable time during studio turn-arounds.  At Pebble Mill they developed ‘Pebble Mill Peelable’ paint, which did what it said on the can.  This enabled the next floor to be painted on top of the old one, layer after layer, until it grew so thick that the cameras were bumping over the irregularities, at which time it was simply peeled off.  Brilliant.  Job done.

 

As with all the regional ‘Network Production Centres’, Pebble Mill also had a studio B for local news and sport.  This one was 40 x 25ft.

The Pebble Mill studios were originally intended to have a third ‘drama’ studio – studio C – but this was never built.  The foyer became the third studio instead, releasing studio A to make popular dramas.  At first the foyer borrowed the galleries of studios A and B but in 1983 ‘gallery C’ was commissioned. 

Pebble Mill at One ended in 1986 but in 1988, Daytime Live was launched.  Essentially the same as Pebble Mill at One, it started at a different time and therefore had a different name.  This show also came from the foyer – now officially called ‘studio C’ – and was joined in 1992 by Good Morning with Anne and Nick which used a small area of this same studio.  Needing a bit more elbow room, it wasn’t long before the construction of a conservatory studio within the courtyard area was completed and Anne and Nick moved in.  Both programmes were controlled from Gallery C.

 

The daytime drama series Doctors was also made at Pebble Mill between 2000 and 2004.  Despite the fact that there was a perfectly good television studio sitting empty, they weren’t allowed to use it, so the windows of the foyer (studio C) were blacked out and that became the studio – with all its limitations.  A decision such as this clearly makes perfect sense if you are a very senior BBC manager.  Doctors  also used an additional space – radio Studio 1.  This was 62 x 44ft wall to wall.

Studio 1 began as the main audio/music studio at Pebble Mill with enough space to accommodate a full symphony orchestra.  Initially, it was used for sound recording sessions plus the twice weekly live broadcasts for Radio 3’s lunchtime concerts.  However, as well as radio this studio was equipped with a basic lighting grid and was used in its early years for the occasional television programme.  The studio lighting became controlled from gallery ‘C’ from the summer of 1983.

However, John Birt’s ‘Producer Choice’ agenda in the early 1990’s forced Pebble Mill to charge unrealistic rental rates for the studio and thus ensured that Studio 1 became too expensive for radio use.  Therefore Radio 3 moved out to Adrian Boult Hall in the centre of the city, with the newly developed BBC Resources turning Studio 1 into a full-time TV studio.  A scene dock door was added together with the installation of a more comprehensive lighting grid.

Soon after, Studio 1 was in daily use for the live transmission of  The Really Useful Show.  This lasted for three series, but I’m told that the long acoustic reverberation characteristics of the studio were not idea for TV sound.  Programmes to originate from Studio 1 included Daily Live, Anything You Can Cook and Front Room.  As mentioned above, in its final years Studio 1 was used as a sound stage for Doctors, although the associated radio cubicle continued to be used to produce Radio 4’s Farming Today until the closure of Pebble Mill as a whole (in May 2004).

 

With the main TV studio closed and the orchestra having moved out it wasn’t long before somebody decided that they might as well close the whole place down.  Local news and radio went to a building in the city centre called the Mailbox (or ‘shoebox’ as apparently the staff call it) and Doctors is now filmed at the ‘BBC Drama Village’ on the University of Birmingham campus at Selly Oak.

Pebble Mill opened in 1971, made its last broadcast from studio B in May 2004 and was demolished in 2005.

 

thanks to Mike Emery for much of the above info.

 

Postscript:  Just when you thought it was all over… in October 2011 the BBC announced that as part of their ‘Delivering Quality First’ cuts they were planning to move factual programming away from Birmingham to Bristol by the end of 2012.  At one time it looked as though Doctors would be moving too but that now seems relatively secure.  Thus, no peaktime network programming is currently made in England’s second biggest city.

 

 

 

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Bristol‘s studio A was the home of Tony Hart’s various art-based series as well as Animal Magic, The Really Wild Show, Why Don’t You…  and several other popular shows made by the Children’s and Schools departments.

Mike Emery has written to inform me that the advent of colour in the region at the start of the 1970s led to colour programmes being made in Studio A in conjunction with the West region’s CMCR3 OB scanner.  Also designated SW4 the scanner provided the necessary colour control room facilities together with its Philips PC-60 (LDK-3) cameras, which could always be recognised by their rich, warm tones.  Peter Christy recalls that this was happening in the summer of 1970 when he began working there.  He remembers Going For A Song being made in colour in studio A with the aid of the OB unit.

However, this was not an ideal operation.  The OB scanner would be on the road at the weekend often covering sporting events in the region, but on a Monday morning the kit was re-rigged in Studio A to provide the output from the studio – at least until the studio was eventually refurbished in 1979/80.  This included the commissioning of a colour capable control room suite and four Link 110 cameras.  A second smaller OB unit equipped with three Link 120P cameras was brought into service around 1977/8.  This was often used for the Antiques Roadshow amongst other things, and allowed the use of the Link 120P cameras in Studio A on an ad hoc basis, albeit generally in place of a Link 110.  In the early 1980’s Ikegami HL-79D cameras replaced the Link 120Ps in the OB unit, and again were occasionally used in Studio A.

 

In 1985/6 Studio A was completely refurbished, although the Link cameras remained.  The work included a raised roof and new grid with new lighting hoists and new sound and communications, together with a new three machine VTR edit suite with four machine capability.  The studio re-opened in June ’86.

Unfortunately, in a bid to save £25 million, in 1991 the BBC announced a studio closure programme and Bristol’s Studio A was one of six studios around the country that was to close, although much of the technical equipment was in fact left in situ.  Apparently for a while it was used to house some animals from Bristol Zoo.  No, I don’t believe it either but that is what I am told.  Can you confirm this???

 

Thereafter Studio A pretty much remained dark until 1996 when another redevelopment of the site led to part of the studio becoming the home of the regional news programme Points West which had previously originated from the tiny 480 sq ft Studio B.

David Croxson has written to inform me that…

‘…By 1996, the BBC mooted the idea of merging radio and TV news operations and Bristol was chosen as the place to try it as both TV and radio production facilities at the centre were in desperate need of refurbishment.  So what was the scenery workshop became the bi-media newsroom and Radio studios and what was Studio A became: a ‘new’ TV studio, a production gallery, multi-format tape dubbing and TX area, a presentation studio and graphics area.  The old Studio A was partitioned with a stud-wall to create the new gallery and production areas, but the grid remained intact. 

To this day, the studio is mainly lit with dual-source luminaires hanging from the 1986 refit barrels.  In fact it’s still possible to see the full size of the old Studio A by climbing the catwalk.  Many of the barrels above what is now graphics and edit suites are still in situ, though obviously they’re disabled.  The floor-level hoist and barrel control panels have the corresponding bits covered up.  It’s still referred to as Studio A and the old scene dock doors and studio audience entrance are still in use.’

David continues…

‘In 2005 when I last explored, the old galleries were still there, though the technical equipment had long been stripped out and they were used for storage (mainly of junk). When  Points West  moved into Studio A, Studio B closed and has since been demolished. The area where it used to be is now a part of the car park.’

 

I have never visited myself, but I gather that parts of the BBC Bristol complex could be described as rather quaint as it is essentially a couple of streets’ worth of attractive Victorian mansions all knocked together.  These old houses are to the right of the 1980s building shown in the photo above.  I am told that it has a genteel but rather higgledy piggledy feel as you walk from one house to the next, with grand staircases rising every so often to offices above.  Studio A is in what was once the back gardens of the two houses at the junction of the Tyndalls Park and Whiteladies Roads.  It had a scene dock and scenery workshop next door and a couple of quite cramped gallery control rooms in the 1st floor of these houses.  Studio B was a much smaller space and was used for the local news programme Points West and sport.

 

Of course Casualty was based in Bristol from 1987 (the first series was recorded at TV Centre.)  However, it was not made in these studios but in a converted industrial unit elsewhere in the city.  The show moved to the new BBC Wales Drama Centre in Cardiff in the autumn of 2011 – a very unpopular move at the time with many people but to be fair, it has settled in nicely at Roath Lock.

 

 

 

 

bbc manchester ext

 

Manchester‘s Oxford Road studio A opened in 1976 with four (plus two spare) EMI 2005 cameras – the only BBC studio to have the misfortune to be equipped with them.  Actually, not quite.  Stephen Neil has informed me that BBC Norwich had to suffer them too and Robin Vanags recalls them being at BBC Plymouth, where they were in use from about 1975 – 1988.

When an Ikegami HL-79D portable camera complemented studio A’s EMI 2005s in 1980 I am told that the pictures from it were such good quality they had to be downgraded by the vision engineers so they would match the rather dubious images produced by the EMIs.  However, I have been contacted by Mike Renshall who worked with these cameras and doesn’t remember it like this.  He reckons the 2005s were pretty good – just like 2001s but with 3 tubes rather than 4.  Certainly no worse than the Link 110 which was mechanically poorly manufactured.  Well – maybe.  The view I have heard mostly expressed is that the 2005 produced soft, muddy pictures and one would have expected it to be an improvement on the 2001, not a backwards step.

Robin Stonestreet also thinks the 2005s weren’t that bad.  He points out that recordings of The Old Grey Whistle Test, shown on BBC4, look pretty good.  Although the show was usually made at TV Centre, it did occasionally use studio A at Oxford Road.  Bands recorded here include Joy Division, The Selecta, Duran Duran and Talking Heads.  The point being that if sufficient light was used, the cameras worked well – it was in low light conditions that they struggled.

 

The studio was initially only 66 x 53 feet within firelanes so quite a bit smaller than Pebble Mill’s studio A.  The small size of the studio proved to a be a problem – limiting the range of shows that could be made here.  In 1989 an 18 month project was begun to lengthen the studio.  The area under construction extended into what had previously been part of the car park and increased the length of the studio by nearly 40ft.  As well as increasing the floor area the height of the studio in the new section was raised too, increasing its volume by some 80%.  A new 28ft high cyc rail was installed in the newly constructed end of the studio enabling wide camera angles to be used without shooting off the top of the cyclorama.  Once complete, Oxford Road Studio A became the largest BBC studio outside London, at 94 x 66ft within firelanes.

 

Whilst the refurbishment was going on, productions moved to a temporary studio at Brunswick Dock in Liverpool where they made two series of the kids show On The Waterfront, the BAFTA Craft Awards for 1988 and a few sequences for Red Dwarf, amongst other things.

 

The £6 million re-build and refurbishment was completed by April 1991.  The old EMIs were replaced by four new Ikegami HK-355 studio cameras and three HK-355P lightweights.  (These were replaced by Sony BVP-570WSP lightweight cameras in 2000.)

 

Although the first programme to use the ‘new’ studio A was Saturday morning kids show The 8.15 from Manchester, that show had in fact had a 22 week series the year before using the scene dock between studios A and B as a studio.  Alan Yardly, director, has written to me quite rightly pointing this out.  Props cages were draped with tinsel, and one area was turned into a very effective stage upon which all the top pop bands of the day performed.  This area became known as studio D.  The scenery in the scene dock was shifted into Studio B on a Friday night, then moved back out again later on the Sunday.

 

For many years studio A specialised in entertainment and comedy.  It was the home of Michael Rodd’s Screen Test, some series of Record Breakers, yoof programme The Oxford Road Show, The Travel Show, Cheggers Plays PopFax, Jossy’s Giants, Why Don’t You…?, A Question of Pop, Joker in the Pack, That’s Showbusiness with Mike Smith (’91-’96) and The Sunday Show (’95-’97).  Bob Monkhouse’s gameshow Wipeout  came from studio A before moving to Granada’s Quay St studios and the first series of Pass the Buck was also made here in 1998. 

Its most famous sitcom was probably Red Dwarf (after the first few series this moved to Shepperton) but one of its other shows – A Question of Sport – is still going strong, having subsequently been made at Granada (3sixtymedia) or sometimes at TV Centre then becoming one of the first shows to be recorded in the new MediaCity studios in Salford.

Robin Stonestreet has been kind enough to inform me that studio B consisted of three elements – the main studio floor, then an annex which could be separated by a sliding sound-proof door, then the Presentation studio.  The camera for this sat in the annex looking through a window.  The annex had its own gallery, which became ‘gallery C’ during the rebuild of studio A.  Studio B was used for Open Air and then Daytime UK.  Those shows used the regional studio in the morning before it was handed over to local news.

 

Unfortunately studio A was another victim of the Director General’s red pen and it closed in 2000.  The studio’s new Sony cameras were moved into the OB trucks still based in Manchester.  The BBC and ITV formed a new company – 3sixtymedia – to run studio operations in Manchester, with ITV having an 80% stake and the BBC 20%.  The BBC’s studio staff, or some of them at least, found themselves walking up the road to the great rival Granada to become part of the new business.

Studio B (2,500 sq ft), continued in use for regional news and sport programmes crewed by BBC staff.  Studio A was closed completely but curiously the scene dock area – studio D – continued in use for The Heaven and Earth Show through to 2004 which was broadcast live on Sunday mornings.  These programmes were crewed by 3sixtymedia staff who I’m told particularly appreciated the 6am call time.

Although studio A closed completely for a few years, in 2005 it became part of 3sixytmedia’s portfolio, albeit as a 4-waller.  It was then used for shooting several single-camera dramas including both series of Life On Mars and Channel 4’s Longford

The last programme came from Oxford Road on Friday 25th November 2011.  It was an edition of North-West Tonight.  All staff left the building and moved to MediaCity during 2012.  The Oxford Road building was demolished in 2013 and the land became a car park.

 

thanks to Mike Emery for much of the above info.

 

 

 

 

 

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BBC Newcastle
photo by Gary Richardson

Newcastle‘s studio centre was built in the mid 1980s, with the main TV studio A eventually opening in 1988.  The local BBC team moved to these very smart premises from less than perfect facilities in a very old building in the city centre.  The new base was nicknamed the ‘Pink Palace’ (see photo above) and contains a production studio of about 65 x 40ft (2,600 sq ft) that was intended to be used for some networked programmes as well as local shows.

Rather than use a TV flooring specialist company, a local contractor was used.  Strange as it may seem, none of the cameramen knew just how flat the floor should be in the new studio as they had only been used to the old studio that had ancient floorboards under the lino.  They could tell the new floor was flat… but was it flat enough???  They decided to call for a cameraman from Television Centre to come up and test the floor.  Unfortunately, every decent cameraman was busy so they looked around for someone who wasn’t doing much and sent me.  No really.

The year was 1985 and the concrete and asphalt base had just been laid.  It had to be perfectly level so that when the lino was laid on top there would be no disturbance to the picture when the cameras tracked across it.  When I arrived at the building site I expected to meet just a couple of BBC suits but what seemed like the whole of BBC Newcastle plus a dozen or so managers and engineers from the construction companies were there to meet me.  Highly embarrassed, I felt like the man from Del Monte as I slowly tracked a camera ped back and forth across the whole surface, looking for bumps.  Not as easy as it sounds, I can assure you.  It only took a couple of hours but I was emotionally drained by the time we finished.  I did find a few little ridges and holes which I think justified my trip.  Funny old world.

 

The studio, with its perfectly flat floor, went on to specialise in Children’s programmes including Jackanory and, of course, Byker Grove.  To think that Ant and Dec (or ‘PJ and Duncan’ as they were then) trod the floor I had checked.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Local man Gary Richardson has informed me that other network shows made in the early days of studio A included the children’s gameshow Knock Knock, the regional contributions to Children In Need, daytime request show Happy Memories with Cliff Mitchelmore, and the revival of Juke Box Jury with Jools Holland complete with studio audience.  Jools of course was no stranger to Newcastle having famously presented The Tube down the road at Tyne Tees Television on City Road in the 1980’s.

 

During this period, the studio was also used for the regional magazine programme Look North when network shows weren’t booked.  When A was unavailable, Look North decamped to studio B – a much smaller space that was designed for the daily regional news bulletins.  It is large enough for two presenters complete with a scaled down version of the news desk.

Around the turn of the millennium, the studio ceased any pretensions of being able to make programmes for network TV and was handed over to Look North on a permanent basis.  This saved it from closure.  It had the curious advantage of not being too big – so it could be used for a programme like this.  If it had been larger like the studios ‘A’ in Manchester or Birmingham it would almost certainly have been closed down for good like they were.  On Sundays the studio is also used for the regional version of the Politics Show.

 

 

 

 

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Southampton

 

David Croxson has pointed out to me that like Newcastle, BBC Southampton also contains what could be described as a production studio.  The centre was built slightly later than Newcastle – opening in 1991 – but by the same contractors and within the same BBC climate of wanting to be able to produce more networked programmes from around the UK.

Southampton studio A is slightly smaller than Newcastle’s studio at about 1,900 sq ft.  The working area is 50 x 36 feet with some additional space near the scene dock door.  It is apparently audience capable, has a large scene dock and store, separate lamp store and three dressing rooms.  The lighting grid has 60 motorised hoist pantographs on tracks which are also motorised for moving along the grid (that’s clever) with mainly dual-source lanterns.  Again like Newcastle, there is a studio B which was the original home of the Oxford sub-opt when it started in 2000 but its cameras went to Oxford when the sub-opt moved there in 2005.  These days studio B is apparently used once or twice a year when A has its grid safety inspections, but otherwise is used as a meeting room.

Unlike Newcastle, by the time the studio was commissioned, the idea of producing programmes from smaller centres was out of favour and only one networked programme ever came from Southampton – The Midnight Hour – (unless you know differently).  Since then though, thanks to yet another BBC management idea that after a few years was quietly forgotten, they’ve been blessed with an excellent and somewhat over-specified news studio.

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A corner of Studio A, BBC Southampton. Smart floor!

 

 

 

Around 1988, BBC East in Norwich was also planned to have a similar sized studio costing £4m which would have enabled the occasional network programme to be made.  It was due to open in 1990.  The plans were publicly announced and featured on the local news programme.  Sadly for them it never happened (another victim of Michael Checkland’s red pen) and instead they moved to The Forum in Norwich, where only a small news studio was built.

 

Of course, the BBC still have regional newsrooms in many major towns in the country but as far as multicamera production studios go there are none outside London apart from those in Glasgow and a 4-waller in Belfast.  (The MediaCity studios in Salford are not owned by the BBC but by Peel Media.)  Cardiff’s studio C1 is now closed and the much smaller studio in the new city-centre building is only intended for local programmes.