Ever Decreasing Circles 

1 February 2003 tbs.pm/1882

In a TV world where more and more programmes are made on location because of developments in technology and the high costs of studio space, studios are suddenly a dying breed.

Like the dinosaurs before them, these are usually vast monsters with very little purpose in life once the previous patterns of existence have gone.

ATV Centre is a good example, a number of acres of prime real estate in one of the most sought-after locations in Birmingham. This was part of the charm of the building and staff like Roger Cook remember with fondness their time working there, even after the name above the door became ‘Central’.

In his autobiography, Cook he remarked that the studios at Lenton Lane, Nottingham, which he was moved to towards the end of the ‘Cook Report’, were like a ‘factory on an industrial estate’. On the other hand he loved working out of ATV Centre, walking straight out of the production office and into the centre of Birmingham, the studios being in the heart of the community they served.

Thanks to Crossroads

ATV Centre was billed at the time it was constructed as Britain’s first ‘purpose built’ colour TV studio. When programmes like Family Fortunes, Bullseye and the Cook Report moved to Nottingham, the poor relation was resigned to the fact that if it weren’t for Crossroads the place would be dead.

In 1988 the death warrant was signed anyway, when Central started buying Home and Away and served when Carlton got its hands on the place during the mid-nineties.

However even if Crossroads were still being made at Broad Street and Central were still independent, the studios would still have been closed. A victim of that 1960s disease known as concrete.

Not only was Birmingham’s contribution to the architectural world an eyesore to many, but also that modern wonder material tends to rot away. So I now pass the ATV Centre in a state of decline, a building that has seen better days and probably does need pulling down.

The only action ATV Centre has seen recently was when Bill Clinton visited Birmingham for the G8 summit and his presidential car was secretly stored in Studio 1, of all places.

Consolidation and desolation

With the consolidation of ITV on the way and a general view that there is over capacity in studio space across the regions, the safe money would be on the next studio closure being one belonging to a former regional ITV company.

Going back to that ‘factory on an industrial estate’, it’s ironic that Crossroads appears to be keeping Nottingham in work. However, let us assume for a minute that Crossroads III is another flop. Will Lenton Lane also become a victim?

It’s also ironic that Carlton should be the pioneer in ‘modern’ studios and that the shoebox more commonly known as ‘Gas Street’ should be the model looked at by other TV companies.

Certainly the last few TV studios to be built for major broadcasters have been away from city centres and are no bigger than a newsroom, presentation suite and a couple of studios – not forgetting a few radio suites if you’re mentioning BBC Nottingham.

The winners of the ITV franchises ten years ago certainly didn’t build production centres. Meridian and Westcountry only built newsrooms and a small studio, so very little downsizing can to be done there unless regional news is scrapped. Carlton and GMTV borrowed production capacity from London facilities or went out and bought that factory space in Nottingham.

Countdown to closure?

Next on the list are Yorkshire and Anglia. After all if it weren’t for Countdown what would they do at Kirkstall Road? Anglia, of course, relies on ‘Trisha’, which in the current environment could be moved to the London Studios.

Our Welsh friends are probably safe due to the strange ownership structure at HTV (broadcast owned by Carlton, production by Granada) and because of the commitment to make Welsh language programmes for S4C. This also goes for studios north of the border and those in Northern Ireland, which are always referred to as a special case.

As a production facility I always find Tyne Tees hard to understand, I’m sure the bean counters in Manchester are looking at it as we speak.

For all this, I don’t actually think Henry Butcher Auctioneers will be setting up stall in another ITV studio in the immediate future.

At the moment the big deal is to create ITV plc so anything that could create negative publicity or take their eye off the ball will be shelved. However, with the time scales required in finding land and getting planning permission, don’t be surprised if the plans are not being hatched right now.

Mill to Mailbox

The BBC has recently announced that a new production facility in Birmingham will be based in the interestingly named Mailbox. The move will mean the closure and redevelopment of Pebble Mill.

It seems logical, after all the only TV being made there is ‘Midlands Today’ with Nick Owen, who ironically was keeping the place in work during the early nineties along with Anne Diamond. Pebble Mill was referred to recently by a member of staff as a ‘Ghost Town’. The recent closure and sale of the props store at Selly Oak certainly adds weight to the argument that studio drama in Brum is dead.

When the plan to shut Pebble Mill got into the press a few years ago (some call this ‘selective leaking’), Birmingham City Council were up in arms, as well they might.

But realistically, there was little they could do about it. After all, does the BBC really need a concrete aircraft hanger like Pebble Mil to make regional news and ‘The Archers’? Then again, if Birmingham wants to have TV spectaculars made in the city, they can be done in one of the City Council’s venues. Just look at LWT’s Gladiators or the EBU’s Eurovision Song Contest.

What is radio for?

I understand the concern that Birmingham might loose productions like those mounted by Radio Four’s drama department forever, but with tight budgets and broadcasters’ need for different requirements to those when these places were built, the argument is very lightweight.

This is especially true when you consider the amount of money the BBC is spending on keeping an ageing building like Pebble Mill in working order.

However, it’s a damning indictment of current TV policy that Britain’s second city won’t have a home for the annual visit from Question Time. It’s also an interesting fact that Midlands TV studios originally built for the age of colour are now being abolished in the age of digital.

It was obvious that New Broadcasting House, BBC Manchester’s home, would be next. The Pebble Mill affair is the model for broadcasters and the BBC is continuing to ‘downsize’ studio capacity. Its partnership with Granada means Manchester suddenly had too many studios standing idle.

Studio closure, of course, leads on to the issue of regional production. Regional production is vital to the media economy and needs to be shared across the country. It will not be if larger facilities are closed and not properly replaced.

Gas Street in Birmingham had big problems accommodating just regional news, sport and CITV for the first few years of its life.

Regional identity

There’s also a question of the regional identity that can be stamped on a programme depending upon where it is produced.

Would Coronation Street be the same if it was produced and filmed in Elstree? Could it be that Crossroads II was the flop it was because it was Birmingham’s soap being produced and filmed in Nottingham? And if anyone did voice these concerns, would they be even half-listened to or simply ignored?

I confess the anorak-wearer in me does feel a little sadness when studios close. I was very disturbed when I went round ATV/Central’s studios Birmingham during the auction of fixtures and fittings to find Central presentation staff still working in the main TX suite whilst the desks and monitors they were using were going under the hammer.

Was this echoing the immense sadness the staff were feeling, or just because a studio complex I remember watching for many years was closing? I wish I could answer.

One thing I can answer. This was the first major TV fixtures and fittings auction in this country – and the question is whether it will be the last. It won’t be. And it won’t just be ITV that will be the seller in future.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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