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BBC ponders sale of its Elstree studios

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BBC ponders sale of its Elstree studios

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Broadcast reports that the BBC is considering selling off its studios in Elstree, Borehamwood.

The corporation is yet to decide on whether to proceed with any sale, however, real estate consultant Lambert Smith Hamilton has surveyed the site. The studio complex could be worth up to £70m if it is transformed into housing, according to Broadcast magazine.

If the Beeb goes ahead and sells off the site, it would have implications for one of its flagship shows, EastEnders which uses six out of the seven studios at the site. Broadcast notes that a long-term lease would need to be put in place for BBC Studios to continue making the soap opera at Elstree.

“While we always keep our property portfolio under review, the BBC has not made a decision to sell the site. We have of course made long term commitments for its continued use.” – BBC Spokesperson

National Film Studios 1950s information

The corporation has been under fire for the costs involved in building an entirely new backlot for the long-running serial, following declining ratings and increasing costs. The redevelopment of ‘Albert Square’ the fictional setting of ‘Enders is now £27m over budget and is almost five years past its original opening date. In that time ratings for the saga have plummeted, although it still is one of the top ten BBC One programmes, putting it in a difficult position. If the costs outweigh the viewing figures, eventually the accountants will be asking why the programme is still on air.

Land in Elstree is currently hot property for studio developers with plans for two further film and television operations currently in the pipeline. The Borehamwood location, in the east of England, is near to London which makes it a perfect location for such developments. It is also home to the Elstree Studios, formerly operated by EMI.

The BBC Elstree site is the oldest operational studio in the area having first opened as a movie complex in 1914. The studios were home to a number of film companies including Neptune Films of which the complex took its name, followed by Ideal Films and finally British National Films. The studios lay un-used for five years before being briefly home to a new type of movie – those specially made for television broadcast. Renamed the National Studios they were once more in operation between 1953 and 1958. These ‘for TV’ films were made by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr for American broadcaster NBC. When Independent Television launched in 1955 edited versions of these programmes were aired by Rediffusion Television for the ITV network.

The film studios buildings, 1960 (ATV)

In 1958 ATV bought the complex with the intent of carrying it on initially as a film for television studio centre. ATV paperwork of the late 1950s shows that the company was still undecided on where to build their television facilities which were to replace several converted theatres in the London area – these were being used as make-shift television studios.

In 1959 ATV Executive Prince Littler told the annual meeting of directors that;

“Plans are currently under review for the Company’s permanent studios. From the outset the staff has been working under considerable difficulties in temporary accommodation converted to television production purposes and it is remarkable that programmes of such excellence should have been produced in the existing studios [former theatres].”

ATV Elstree project 1958.

He added: “The consolidation of the London production facilities has been consistently postponed until the company’s financial position warranted the expenditure involved.” In the same speech, Littler noted the ATV Midland facilities would be improved – although the main studios there would continue to be based in a former theatre until 1969.

In 1960 ATV decided against purchasing land on the Southbank in South London and instead felt it would be more cost-effective to convert part of the National Film Studios at Borehamwood into fully equipped television facilities. Another consideration was that the site at Vauxhall was proving a problem in obtaining planning permission.

The conversion for television included some demolition and re-building work (studio B was demolished and replaced entirely, with others modernised and adapted). The pride of ATV was their new office block – Neptune House, named after the founding film company on the site. Neptune House would become a famous landmark of fictional television locations, but more on those later…

When completed, archive figures state that the rebuild cost ATV £4,000,000. In the publicity for the grand opening, ATV Executive, Prince Littler was notably proud of the conversion from film to television at the newly named ATV Elstree Centre, he said:

“Many of the great television programmes of the future, not only on British screens but on small screens all over the world, will show what will become a famous caption “An Elstree Programme.” We always planned, from the beginning of our contract with the Independent Television Authority (now Ofcom), to have an imaginative yet highly functional group of buildings which would give the greatest possible scope to free enterprise television to create programmes of the highest quality.”

His speech continued, “Now, here at ATV Elstree, on 31 acres, one can see this conception taking shape and, down to the last detail, the organization has been undertaken by our own executives. Now we are ready to give the best programmes to an expanding British television service. To give scope for their abilities to script-writers, to give producers and directors the last word in service, and to actors the best possible facilities.”

The television studios were partly designed on production facilities in North America and boasted “many new and valuable devices”. The ATV Elstree studios were proud to state, that they had by the opening day in 1961, broadcast and recording facilities for both the British system as well as the USA and Canadian standard. This led to some programmes having two crews – UK cameras and USA cameras running side by side!

When the ribbon was cut at ATV Elstree on April 7th 1961 there was still work to be done, a further two studios, A and B, were still under construction.

A promo for the new ATV Studios in Borehamwood.

The press release states: “The second pair of studios will go into operation this autumn. These two further studios are planned to be even more advanced than the two now in operation. In early 1962 the central technical area will be complete. It will contain all the equipment necessary to coordinate the TV activities including the recording on telecine, videotape and film.” The total studio space with A, B, C and D combined was an impressive 340,000 sq. ft.

For those who like facts and figures the press release adds: “The technical facilities consists of some 20,000 sq. ft. Each studio has between 12,000 and 15,000 sq. ft. of technical service areas and we have a production building of some 76,000 sq. ft. housing the carpenters’ and painters workshops for scenery creation and a props department which also includes a warehouse to store the set props for future use. At this moment a producers’ building is under construction which will cover an area of some 82,000 sq. ft. It will be home to ATV’s producers, directors, production assistants, libraries and provide 10 rehearsal rooms of a combined floor space of 17,000 sq. ft.”

“Wardrobe, make-up and dressing rooms take up another 20,000 sq. ft. and ATV is particularly proud of the dressing rooms provided for artists appearing at Elstree – there is even a separate dressing room for animals which may perform at the complex. In the transport building, all 41,000 sq. ft. of it, we have garage facilities for ATV’s fleet of transportation and outside broadcast vans. Also modern workshops provide ATV with in-house created specialised studio equipment. Finally, so that nobody has to go hungry, we have a canteen geared to serve food to 700 people at one sitting.”

The ATV Elstree Centre may have officially opened in April 1961, however as far as television viewers were concerned it wasn’t business as usual. A strike by staff at the complex took all the live programming from the centre off the air on that date. The studios had been producing, unofficially, shows since November 1960. Before the official Elstree launch the complex had already been host to one unexpected strike by technicians.

The first walk-out took place earlier in the same week at the Elstree press launch. The second walk-out took a live episode of the medical drama Emergency Ward 10 off the air when 40 crew members refused to work. Those in dispute with ATV included cameramen, lighting and sound techs who were all part of the ACTAT Union.

An ATV statement read: “We believe the ACTAT members held a token strike earlier this week because they feel the company, Associated Television Limited, had not honoured an agreement set on conditions of work and pay laid out in February of this year. A second disruption yesterday, at greater length, was for the same reason.”

The statement continues: “Representatives of ATV and the union held discussions lasting over three hours last evening, however, we regret to confirm that both parties failed to settle the dispute. At this moment there are no further plans to resume talks and therefore there is a possibility of further repeated performances of disruption to live programmes over the weekend.”

Elsie Watts, one of the original ATV Elstree ‘tea ladies’ serves Frank Beale, Philip Dorté, Lew Grade and Val Parnell

ATV Elstree produced some of the best-known ITV television productions of the sixties and seventies, it also boasted a host of productions made for broadcast in the UK and America. This would lead to ATV’s downfall as an ITV broadcaster when the company was accused of being more interested in creating programmes for Birmingham Alabama, rather than Birmingham West Midlands. Today of course ATV would be seen as a leader in its market. Back then the regulator, unlike today, cared about local ITV and clipped the company’s wings.

Under ATV’s management, it wasn’t just television shows that the ‘entertainment studio’, Studio D, was home to. In 1966 a celebratory luncheon was hosted in the studio for the World Cup Winners, the England team’s meal of course was also transmitted live to viewers keen to see the nation’s heroes. Eamon Andrews fronted this event. Another lunch held in Studio D happened a year later in 1967 when ATV Network was issued with a Queen’s Award to Industry – the first time an entertainment company had been issued such a gong. They would get another two, the last in 1971.

In 1979 ATV Network started plans to give a new lease of life to ATV Elstree in the 1980s. The regulator had published plans to launch a new ITV breakfast service. ATV founded a spin-off company, Daybreak Television Limited, and submitted plans in 1980 to use Elstree as the base for the Daybreak programme. In the end, ATV were unsuccessful with TV-am winning the contract. This decision would lead ultimately to Elstree leaving the ownership of ITV.

In 1981 ATV Network went off the air, however, ATV Elstree continued to be used by incoming – and at that time part-owned by ATV’s parent company ACC – Central Television who continued to produce ITV programming at the complex until 1983. Central re-located to their newly built white elephant in Nottingham – selling ATV Elstree to the BBC in the same year. The television success has continued with the corporation continuing to use the facilities, producing some of the nation’s most popular programmes at the studios now known as BBC Elstree.

ATV Elstree.

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