Setting the Scene for TV 

11 April 2022

FREDERICK LIDSTONE takes you on a first visit to the giant TV Centre, where the just-completed Scene Block begins a new era in television production.



Cover of TV Mirror

From the TV Mirror for 31 July 1954

“ALL that—for a tiny little picture!”

The remark, made within my hearing one day in the entrance hall at Lime Grove, came from a woman visitor who had just seen something of the great studio building in action. I could have replied knowingly:

“The size of your television picture, Madam, has little to do with it. Everything has to be produced life-size, and in one week of TV there are over thirty different studio productions, all of which require hours of rehearsal. As a matter of fact, I have just been talking to some officials who were bemoaning the lack of studio space. They’re longing for the time when the big new Television Centre down the road is complete.”

Part of it is complete now — the Scenery Block. I went to see it the other day, and this time it was my turn to be surprised: a chance for someone to say to me in superior tones: “Don’t you know that making and storing scenery for television calls for a building covering at least an acre of ground, with two hundred offices for designers, administrative staff, and so on? And you’ll be lucky to find any space that isn’t in use!”

Quite a stroll

I fancy, though, that Richard Levin, head of Design, is used to the surprise of visitors, and he finds that the best way to give a clear picture of what is going on in those workshops and offices — the drawing, hammering, sawing, plastering and painting — is to show you the production chart on the wall of his office.

The main difference between this and many charts one sees on the walls of business executives is that it is as plain as a pikestaff.

Here are columns marked off with dates for some weeks to come. Against those dates coloured cards are inserted carrying the name of a TV play, documentary, variety or children’s show, together with the name of the producer and set designer. Against each card is a figure indicating the estimated time needed to build the set.


A man holds a plan in front of a half-complete painting of a country house

In the Scenic Artists’ Studio a realistic back cloth of a stately mansion is approaching completion


And how does one arrive at that estimate? By studying the set design and deciding how much of it can be adapted from existing materials and how much will have to be made entirely new.

If you want to know the extent of the “existing materials” it’s time for you to inspect the workshops and storerooms — and that will be quite a stroll.

For example, the scenery storage space. Row upon row of “flats” (painted scenes) and doors of all shapes and sizes; thousands of them. The scenic property store — shelf after shelf crammed with every conceivable thing — the back end of a horse (once, presumably, seen sticking out through a stable door in a play), a telephone box, a notice reading “Stage Door Entrance,” a bath chair, a brass bedstead. The small property store can supply such things as a vase, a winebottle, a revolver, a radio set, gas clothes boiler, dummy roast chicken, a cutlass — but you wouldn’t expect me here to name the lot, considering that it totals fifty thousand!


A view down into a workshop

Beneath the floor where the Scenic Artists work is a thirty-foot drop. There is a gap between floor and wall so that the frames carrying the backcloths can move up and down


The scenic artists’ studio, where they paint backcloths or pieces of set decoration, might give you a queer feeling in the tummy, for the floor, half-way up the tall building, seems to be suspended in space. All around the edge is a gap with a rather dizzy-looking drop below. This is so that the big frames carrying the backcloths can move up and down the walls leaving the part which the artist is working on at floor level. Electric switches on a panel in the middle of the studio control all the movements.


Scenery rolled up in a big store

You can tell by the size of the men stacking this scenery that it’s a pretty big place. Perhaps the gates give a clue – it’s actually a giant lift working between the two floors of the Scene Block


Waste of time?

Fascinating, too, is the “setting space” — a huge area where whole sets can be erected exactly as they will be used in the studio and given their finishing coats of paint. A huge space, yes, but the sets jostle one another so closely that it’s a job to see where one finishes and the next one begins.

Taking a walk through them is like going through a crazy architectural maze. You pass from a schoolroom into a country cottage, on to a laboratory, past a street scene with a whole row of front doors and into a saloon bar. Beyond that is a police station leading to a log cabin.


The Grove Family kitchen set from behind the cameramen

A familiar setting from an unfamiliar angle. Yes, it’s the Groves in their kitchen, with a break in the wall to allow for camera movement, and a realistic brick exterior for outdoor shots


Watching the painters at work, one strange thing might strike you — they’re working in carefully-chosen colours. Waste of time on black-and-white TV? Not so, say the producers. The psychological effect of acting in a setting painted in shades of grey would be deadly for the actors.

These settings, so far as Scenery Block is concerned, are the “end product.” All too soon, it seems, the date on the slip of card on Mr. Levin’s chart becomes TODAY, and studio space at the Lime Grove studios is all ready to receive the new setting. It is loaded on one of the vans and sent on its way, with all the bits and pieces needed to “dress it.”


Men working at desks

In this room the caption writers work – and it’s only one of Scene Block’s two hundred offices


But one day — and not too soon for those who present your TV entertainment — the Scenery Block will be adjacent to the new main studio block. Outside those studios will be a continuous enclosed runway along which the scenery will pass direct to its destination.

Still later the whole of the thirteen-acre site will be occupied by buildings the sole purpose of which will be to bring continuous hours of entertainment to your screen.

And the odds are that by then the demand will be for still more space. Television is a hungry monster!


Two men carry a doric column

Time for a completed setting to go by lorry to Lime Grove – and the items on the list include a “marble” column and a bowl of flowers


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