Picture Box (part 2) 

1 March 2001 tbs.pm/1938

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Many of the buildings used as studios in the pioneering days of British television were former theatres or cinemas.

In London, ATV had access to the Hackney and Wood Green Empires, both Frank Matcham-designed former variety houses, while Granada had the Chelsea Palace in the King’s Road (known internally as ‘studio 10’ – studios 2, 4, 6 and 8 were in Manchester, the use of even numbers having been decreed in the very early days by Sidney Bernstein in order to make visitors think that the company had twice as many studios as it actually did) and, very briefly, the Metropolitan (better known as ‘the Met’) in Edgware Road.

In time, ABC would itself use Hackney for some of its London-based programmes, most famously Jack Good’s Oh Boy!, but for its regional centres, it was able to convert two of its worst-performing picture houses.

In Birmingham, the chosen building was the Astoria at Aston, which had been open as a cinema since December 1927. Previously, it had been the Theatre Royal, dating from the late 19th century, but the cinema conversion involved an entirely new interior by architects Satchwell and Roberts. Part of the ABC circuit since January 1929, it had long been a problematic venue, having been farmed out to the company’s second-string Regent chain between 1933 and 1935.

It closed as a cinema on 26 November 1955, less than three months before it reopened as Alpha Television Studios – shared by ABC and weekday contractors Associated TeleVision – on 17 February 1956. The first programmes to come from Aston were made by ATV, with the first ABC shows going out from the studios on the following day.

The cinema chosen at Manchester was a much more modern affair – the Capitol in Parrs Wood Road, Didsbury, dating internally from 1933 with the exterior dating from 1931. Why the difference? The 1900-seat picture house had opened on 21 May 1931 to the designs of Peter Cummings, but it had been gutted by fire on 25 April 1932, leaving only the walls and entrance standing. Cummings was re-enlisted to rebuild the stricken cinema, and it re-opened on 16 August 1933.

It became part of the Union circuit in February 1936, which in turn was absorbed into ABC in October 1937. It had seen some limited use as a live theatre in 1948/1949, but it soon reverted to cinema usage, in which form it did a disappointing trade. The final closure as a cinema came on 14 January 1956, and the work of converting it into ABC’s northern studios began, ready for the first broadcasts on 5 May. Later in the year, it was borrowed by Granada, which felt its own largest studio at the time was too small to accommodate its production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. The exact attribution of the conversion plans at Didsbury is unknown, but in the opinion of this writer – based on a site visit in the former Capitol’s last week as an outbuilding of Manchester Metropolitan University – stylistic details indicated that it was probably the work of C J Foster, Glen’s successor as ABC staff architect.

The studios at Aston and Didsbury are so much brickdust now, both having been demolished. However, a third building converted by ABC, is, happily, still in studio use today – being the former Warner Brothers studio complex by the River Thames at Teddington, Middlesex. The exact date on which ABC began broadcasting from Teddington is uncertain, but it is likely to have been around 1958/1959.

When the weekday/weekend split was abolished for the Midlands and North regions, ABC found itself being forced by the ITA into a ‘shotgun marriage’ with Rediffusion to create a company that would take over the London weekday contract. The resulting operation, called Thames, was 51% owned by ABC, and 49% owned by Rediffusion, with Teddington becoming the new company’s main studio base for light entertainment and drama programming. Teddington Studios were owned by Thames until the mid-1990s, when they were sold by the company’s current owner Pearson to Barnes Trust Media, which continues to run the complex as an independent studio facility.

Warner Brothers’ involvement in ABPC ended at about the same time as the TV holdings were metamorphosing into Thames. According to Allen Eyles, ABPC had long feared the withdrawal of the Americans. In the early 1950s, the founding brothers had almost sold their company to a San Francisco financier called Louis Lurie. While there was relief when the deal failed to materialise, the consternation was redoubled in 1956, when Jack, Harry and Albert Warner finally did sell out, this time to a group headed by Serge Semenenko. An approach from Granada with a view to buying the Warner holding in ABPC was rebuffed by Semenenko.

The final, long-feared break came after WB was bought by independent producer Seven Arts in 1967, with the new owner selling what was now a 25% holding in ABPC to Britain’s EMI group. Later, at the end of 1968, EMI announced its intention to make an offer for the remaining shares, to which 90% of shareholders responded positively. As a result, EMI took control of what had been John Maxwell’s former empire and Warner Brothers’ colonial outpost – the cinemas, the film studios and the latterly-added television venture – on 27 February 1969, renaming ABPC the EMI Film and Theatre Corporation.

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