London Belongs To Television 

1 May 2001

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The first theatre/music hall to become a full-time television studio was also the last to be decommissioned: the Shepherd’s Bush Empire which was taken over by the BBC in 1953 and used by them – as the BBC Television Theatre – until the summer of 1991.

The Empire had been built in 1903 to the designs of Frank Matcham, the pre-eminent theatre designer of his generation. It is perhaps a reflection of his prolific output that of the buildings turned over to full-time TV use, several were Matcham buildings, most notably the Empires at Hackney and Wood Green (more of both later), all of which were distinguished by the baroque styling and ornate plasterwork typical of Matcham.

Whether the Corporation made alterations at Shepherd’s Bush immediately is unknown, but certainly by 1958, the ornate balcony fronts were boxed in and fitted with lights typical of the period. In addition, a false floor was laid over half of the stalls at stage level, in order to allow the cameras to undertake tracking shots.

Further extensive modifications took place around 1968, with the building of an extension on the Rockwood Place side of the building to house technical facilities and improved dressing rooms. The BBC vacated the TV Theatre in 1991, as part of the same property rationalisations that spelled the end for the former Gaumont-British studios nearby in Lime Grove.

The last programme to come from the Empire was an edition of the chat show Wogan, in which guests reminisced about the building’s past, both theatrical and televisual. This show brought to an end 38 years of television, which had included shows such as the Billy Cotton Band Show, the Black and White Minstrel Show, and Jim’ll Fix It.

Once vacated by the BBC, the proprietors of London’s Borderline club moved in and undertook extensive works – including recasting much of the plasterwork that had been mutilated in television use – to return the building to something like its original condition. It is now a thriving music venue.

Wood Green Empire was the second theatre to switch, going live in September 1955 as the first home for ATV’s London operations. Viewers who were interested in such things got a brief glimpse of Wood Green’s stage door in The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a surreal series made on film by ATV in 1960, starring Anthony Newley in the title role.

At the start of one episode, Newley is caught in what appears to be a domestic situation – surrounded by nagging wife, brattish kids and a nosey neighbour. This, however, is soon revealed to be the set of a TV soap opera, which Newley walks out of in mid-broadcast, pursued by the floor manager (played by a very young Geoffrey Palmer).

The Wood Green Empire had been opened by impresario Oswald Stoll on 9 September 1912, with a capacity of 1840 and a stage 54’ wide by 37’ deep. It was on this very stage, in March 1918, that the ‘Chinese’ magician Chung Ling Soo (real name William Robinson) received a fatal injury while performing his (in)famous trick of catching a bullet between his teeth.

As well as the live (and dead) entertainment, a Bioscope projection box was installed and the Empire became a full-time cinema for a while in 1929 to show Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, after which a policy of joint cine-variety bills prevailed until the mid-30s. From then on, the stage was in full-time variety use except for Sunday film shows. The Empire closed in January 1955 after a season of the pantomime Cinderella starring ‘Monsewer’ Eddie Gray and Arthur English.

It then remained derelict for a short while before being equipped for television and taken over by the fledgling Associated Broadcast Development Company, which went on air in September 1955 as ABC, before being forced to change its name to ATV by the cinema chain which was about to launch its own television service. Wood Green was to remain ATV’s main London studio in its early years on air, but it was soon joined by a second venue.

The Empire in Mare Street, Hackney, had been another scheme promoted by Oswald Stoll and designed by Frank Matcham, and of the three that found their way into television use it was the most venerable, having opened on 9 December 1901.

Built initially for a seated capacity of 2158 with a further 691 standing, the Hackney Empire remained on variety for its first 54 years, closing in February 1956 with a bill headed by G H Elliott – who, as the dubiously-named “Chocolate-Coloured Coon”, had been working the halls since the turn of the century. ATV took over later that year, installing a flat floor over the entirety of the stalls at stage height for the benefit of the cameras. The TV audiences were seated in the dress circle.

Although ATV were the main occupants at Hackney, with a sign on the side wall bearing the legend “Associated TeleVision TELEVISION THEATRE”, the facilities were also leased to other ITV companies as and when they needed them. Before Teddington came on stream in 1958, ABC used Hackney when it needed a London studio: both series of the rock and roll show ‘Oh Boy!’ came from the Empire. Although its main base was at Wembley, with further facilities at Highbury and at the Viking studio in Kensington, Associated-Rediffusion also made occasional use of Hackney in its early days, for programmes such as Take Your Pick.

Television came to an end at both Wood Green and Hackney when ATV took over, converted and extended the former National film studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire in 1962. Wood Green stood derelict for a couple of years before the auditorium was demolished to make way for a Sainsbury’s supermarket: the facade is just about recognisable, albeit much simplified, in its current guise as a branch of the Halifax.

The story at Hackney was, however, much happier. Mecca took it over in 1963 and converted it into a bingo hall, restoring the original level of the stalls. Although their stewardship of the building was not without its problems – insensitive paintwork obscuring the original decoration, removing of the ornate glass canopy and dismantling the pair of domes that had topped the facade – Mecca at least kept the building open.

The bingo operation closed in November 1986, re-opening as a co-operatively-run theatre/arts venue just a month later, on the 85th anniversary of the building’s first opening. Following action from the Department of the Environment, the canopy and domes were replicated and reinstated. It is now a Grade II* listed building, and it has secured Lottery funding to restore the building to 1901 condition, with the exception of the stage which is to be reconstructed extensively to meet modern needs.

As well as augmenting its main facilities with the odd visit to Hackney, Associated-Rediffusion made use of the former Granville Theatre at Walham Green, Fulham. This was another Matcham building, dating from 1898, particularly notable for a pair of fishscale domes atop the facade.

However, the internal conversion of the building, in early days at least, was not quite as extensive as those carried out at Shepherd’s Bush, Wood Green or Hackney. For one thing, no immediate effort was made to level the floor. Former A-R man Ray Bradley (now sadly deceased) remembered with amusement the cameramen using sheer brute force to stop the dollies on their Marconi mk IIIs from sliding down the stalls rake. The Granville remained in television use long after it was vacated by ARTV, becoming a well-patronised independent facility until its demolition in 1971.

The last of the great London theatre conversions was that of the Chelsea Palace in King’s Road, which was converted by Granada to augment its purpose-built Manchester studio centre, as was the Metropolitan Theatre in Edgware Road (the famous ‘Met’ music hall), although this latter was a very temporary arrangement.

Chelsea was so much a part of Granada that it became ‘studio 10’ in the company’s eccentric hierarchy, in which Sidney Bernstein stipulated that studios were to be given only even numbers to create a heightened impression of grandeur. The Chelsea Palace of Varieties, as it was known upon opening in April 1903, was designed by the architectural practice of Wylson and Long, and it had a capacity of 2524. A circuit called Variety Theatres Consolidated bought it in 1925, and it came under Granada Theatres control in 1951 when Bernstein acquired a stake in VTC.

Although it never operated as a Granada cinema, it took the circuit name for two weeks in August 1957, immediately before closure as a live theatre. Granada’s television operation took over immediately and began conversion for broadcasting purposes.

Chelsea Palace continued in this mode until the mid 1960s, providing a home for programmes such as The Army Game and the prestigious variety showcase Chelsea at Nine, as well as for one-off spectaculars such as a 1963 concert featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

When Granada eventually vacated the Palace, it was taken over by developers who built a branch of the furniture store Heal’s on the site.

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