The New Rays of Light 

1 January 2004

In the 1950s, as the BBC was expanding its television operations and the various commercial companies were going on air, a variety of buildings were pressed into use as studios, some more likely candidates than others.

Tyne Tees Television converted a former warehouse in Newcastle’s City Road for its base, while Anglia took over the Agricultural Hall in Norwich, converting it extensively to provide office facilities and several studios within its cavernous mass. Only Granada built anew, commissioning Ralph Tubbs – architect of the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain – to design its studio centre in Manchester.

The result beat BBC Television Centre to the title of first purpose built TV studio complex by about 4 years even though the ‘concrete doughnut’ had been planned in the early 1950s.

Meanwhile, the most popular choices for the companies with a production presence in London were the various former film studios that were becoming available. The BBC took over the Gainsborough/Gaumont British complex at Lime Grove in Shepherd’s Bush and the Riverside Studios at Hammersmith, while ATV eventually (1962) took up residence at the National Studios in Elstree, formerly owned by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

A source of redundant studios was to be found in the large number of complexes set up in the 1920s and 1930s by American companies such as Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox, to make ‘quota quickies’. These films, often of low quality and short duration, were designed largely as B features designed to fulfil the statuary minimums of British-made material and to provide an ‘in’ for the companies’ main efforts from Hollywood.

With the disappearance of this requirement after the war these studios were surplus to requirements, and Warner’s studio at Teddington passed in the late 1950s to ABC, in which WB had a controlling stake, while the former 20th Century Fox setup at Wembley became the main production base for Associated-Rediffusion. However, not every city with a new television station had a film studio, let alone one in need of a new owner.

Many of the regional operations, as well as some of the London-based companies, turned to the other end of the entertainment chain – the point of sale – and former cinemas and theatres. These buildings were in plentiful supply, as attendance had gone into freefall, the process hastened, in a neat piece of circularity, by the growing popularity of the goggle box.

Another reason why the cinemas and theatres came to the fore was because many of the companies taking up ITV franchises had attracted investors from the cinema and theatre business, many of whom had a vested interest in finding buyers for their surplus properties.

ATV, while dominated by Lew Grade and his brothers – powerful showbiz agents to a man – also included Prince Littler, the owner of Moss Empires, at that time the nation’s premier circuit of theatres, music halls and variety houses. It is hardly surprising, then, that ATV’s first studio when it opened for business as the ITV contractor for London weekends was a former Moss property – the Wood Green Empire.

As well as being a production behemoth, ABPC owned one of the two main cinema circuits in Britain, and it created studio facilities at the heart of its two weekend franchise regions – Midlands and the North – by converting two of its worst-performing cinemas: the Theatre Royal/Astoria at Aston in Birmingham and the Capitol at Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester.

The other main force in cinema, The Rank Organisation, which owned the Gaumont and Odeon chains as well as extensive production facilities at Pinewood, took a significant stake in Southern Television, which began its days in the old Plaza at Northam, in Southampton.

Granada, with a rather smaller portfolio of ‘theatre’ holdings (despite the overwhelming cinematic bias of the company, it had been called Granada Theatres from the outset, and Sidney Bernstein was always punctilious in referring to his properties as such), was able to call upon two of its more venerable buildings for any work that needed to be done in the capital: briefly, the Metropolitan variety theatre in Edgware Road was brought into service, while a more permanent role was found for the old Chelsea Palace in the King’s Road. It became a major asset to Granada in its first few years on air, even acquiring its own position in the somewhat eccentric numbering hierarchy of the company’s studios.

Of the cinema-bankrolled companies, only Tyne Tees, which was part-owned by the Black family, who owned many cinemas and theatres on Tyneside, didn’t call upon its benefactors to provide it with shelter, although it certainly made the most of the family’s connections when it came to booking on-screen talent. Other broadcasters bought old cinemas and theatres, not least the BBC – which took over Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Golder’s Green Hippodrome – and Scottish Television, which moved in at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Some converted extensively, others made minimal alterations (sometimes with unintentionally humorous consequences).

All, however, left their mark on television history, and over the next couple of issues, we will be taking a fond and detailed look back at the big stages and the big screens that gave themselves over to the small screen.

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