1 July 2001

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Although the bulk of the former cinemas and theatres converted to television studios were in the London area, the withering of variety and the decline in cinema attendances nationally also provided the fledgling ITV companies and some regional outposts of the BBC with buildings which, if not ideal, were at least partially suited to television.

In Manchester, the BBC had been using the Playhouse and the Hulme Hippodrome for radio programmes (most of which featured Alyn Ainsworth and the Northern Dance Orchestra) since the early 1950s. Although the main TV studio for BBC North was a converted church at Dickenson Road, Rusholme, both theatres saw some television service, although little more is known.

Rather more enduring and well documented was ABC and ATV’s joint association with the Astoria at Aston on the outskirts of Birmingham. Built in the late 19th century as the Theatre Royal, this building had been rebuilt by architects Satchwell and Roberts in a more modern style in 1927 and reopened as the Astoria for cinema use only.

It became part of the Associated British Cinemas circuit in January 1929, but by the mid-1950s, it was performing poorly. It would doubtless have been sold outright by ABC for redevelopment had the chain not been in the process of establishing its own television operation in Birmingham.

After closure on 26 November 1955, ABC took over the Astoria, and due to the split nature of the franchise, decided to offer weekday usage of the building to its fellow Midlands contractor Associated TeleVision.

To this end, the companies formed a jointly owned subsidiary called Alpha Television, which owned and ran the studios. ATV was the first to broadcast from the studios on 17 February 1956. According to ITV 1968, there were three studios in the complex – one of 3000 square feet, another of 1200 square feet and the smallest, just 380 square feet.

The building remained in television use up to the 1970s, when the new ATV Centre on Broad Street was opened. The former Astoria was subsequently demolished, although the 1962 extension, built for master control and technical, survived and became the home of Birmingham ILR station BRMB.

In Manchester, ABC took over the Capitol – a 1930s built ‘super cinema’ situated in the suburb of Didsbury. As with Aston, the Capitol was an example of a property being cascaded from ABC’s stock of surplus buildings. It had opened originally on 21 May 1931 to the designs of Peter Cummings (later to design the Apollo, Ardwick), 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, which he did in a more ornate style, and it re-opened on 16 August 1933.

The Capitol passed to ABC through the ill-fated Union chain, which it took over in 1937. Again, it was a poor performer by the mid-1950s, so it was with some relief that the cinema operator assigned it to its television cousin.

The last film show came on 14 January 1956 and the studio complex reopened on 5 May with ABC’s first broadcasts as the weekend contractor in the North. The main studio – situated in the former stalls – had a stage area of 5000 square feet and seating for an audience of 600. The second studio, situated at the level of the former circle was 1000 square feet in size.

Unlike Aston, the building was solely for ABC’s use, the weekday contractor Granada having enlisted Festival of Britain architect Ralph Tubbs to design a purpose-built studio complex – the first in Britain – in Salford. However, before their studios were completed, Granada did hire the largest studio at Didsbury to stage a TV performance of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne.

The Capitol remained in television use until ABC lost the northern weekend contract. For a short while until its Leeds HQ was complete, some Yorkshire Television programmes came from ABC’s old home across the Pennines. The building then passed to Manchester Polytechnic, which used it as the base for its drama and performing arts faculty until 1998, since when it has been demolished for a residential development.

At Southampton, Southern Television began life in a former cinema, the Plaza – which had been built in the 1930s on reclaimed land at Northam. Southern was owned 37.5% each by Associated Newspapers and the Rank Organisation, with the balance of shares being held by Scottish comic publisher DC Thomson. It was from the Rank connection that the Plaza emanated, having been operated as one of the Odeon Associated Theatres chain until its closure on 30 November 1957. The company built further facilities around this core until, by the late 1960s, the Plaza had been superseded by these modern studios and was demolished.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, Scottish Television took over the Theatre Royal, which had opened in September 1895 to the designs of renowned theatre architect CJ Phipps. Scottish theatres firm Howard and Wyndham had long run it when the company decided, in the mid-1950s, to invest in the new broadcaster.

In the words of Bruce Peter, whose book Scotland’s Splendid Theatres (Polygon), required reading on this subject, H&W “forcefully offered” the Theatre Royal for conversion to television and the house closed on 16 February 1957 with the pantomime Robinson Crusoe. The raked stalls floor was filled in with concrete for camera tracking, and the building was subdivided to provide five studios, the largest of 4000 square feet and the smallest of 180 square feet. The total floor space of the complex was 9100 square feet.

The building continued in this form until 1969 when an extensive fire broke out. Repairs were made, and broadcasting continued, but by this point, STV was already building its new studios almost opposite. So it was that the Theatre Royal went dark in the early 1970s. However, in 1975, Scottish Opera bought the theatre from STV for £300,000, and with a budget of £1.5m set about returning the faded gem to its former glory. This they did and the building thrives in this form 26 years on.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, television companies used theatres for occasional outside broadcasts and the odd long-running series, such as London Night Out from Thames, which came from the London Casino, now better known as the Prince Edward Theatre.

When rebuilding its Hippodrome at Blackpool in the early 1960s, ABC ensured that camera points and the requisite wiring were included, and as a result, the theatre was used for shows like Blackpool Night Out. However, the heyday of the converted theatre-as-studio was over.

Or so it seemed. In 1981, having won the south and south-east England IBA contract from Southern, TVS decided to supplement Southern’s Southampton HQ. It had commissioned a purpose-built set of studios in Maidstone from Norman & Dawbarn – the firm founded by Graham Dawbarn, the architect behind BBC Television Centre – but these were not due to be ready until 1983, a full year or more after the company took up its franchise.

So it was then that in August 1981, the company bought the 1931-built former Plaza cinema in Gillingham, Kent and had it converted in time for the first day on air – 1 January 1982. The architects for the conversion were Masini Franklin Partnership. The Maidstone studios were completed within 69 weeks, but the Plaza (renamed the TVS Television Theatre) soldiered on until 1988, providing a home for programmes like Fraggle Rock.

After its disposal, the Plaza became, briefly, a Quasar laser gaming centre, but that venture closed in the mid-1990s. As a result of the extensive conversion work undertaken for TVS, the building was deemed to be not worthy of listing and succumbed to the wrecker’s ball last year.

So ends the story of the cinemas and theatres that went over, ostensibly, to the enemy. Or does it? With television becoming increasingly deregulated, perhaps there is life in the conversion concept yet…

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