Paradise Lost: The ATV Centre Story – Part I
23 Sep 2008 0 comments. tbs.pm/2207
Today, it’s scheduled for demolition, but when Roddy Buxton visited it, back in 1997, the old ATV Centre in Birmingham’s Broad Street had just been used for broadcasting for the last time. Roddy’s task was to help a colleague examine and inventory equipment prior to its auctioning off – and help him remove any items he bought. In this extensive article, Roddy takes us round the ATV/Central studio headquarters, opened by Princess Alexandra in 1970 as the most advanced television production facility in Europe.
The 1990s saw many changes in the face of ITV, beginning in 1990 with the abolition of the IBA, removing what proper regulation the channel had. Along with this, the way ITV franchises were awarded also changed, which proved quite a controversial move on the part of the Conservative Government of the time.
Under the old system, the IBA looked at each franchise application very carefully, and then awarded licences to companies who met certain criteria. These criteria included financial stability, having a studio base in the region it was to serve, and not having too much of a monopoly. The applicant also had to provide an outline of the company’s plans for network and regional programme output in the coming years. This ensured that the viewer was provided with a good balance of quality, varied entertainment.
Under the new system, however, franchises were auctioned off in a ‘highest bidder wins’ affair, without really taking into account the viewer or any of the previous IBA criteria.
From the 1990 auction four ITV contractors were lost. TV-AM, the breakfast franchise-holder, lost to GMTV; TVS (who replaced Southern in 1982) was replaced by Meridian; TSW (who replaced Westward in 1981) was replaced by Westcountry; and most controversial of all was the loss of Thames Television, a major contributor to the ITV network for over 25 years, which was replaced by Carlton Television.
This was only the beginning: some ITV companies were given the green light to merge – Yorkshire and Tyne Tees being some of the first to take advantage of this opportunity.
Also early on in the 1990s, Central Television was floated on the stock market, with Carlton having something like a 40% share. It’s understood that Carlton had also applied for the Midlands franchise during the 1980 renewal round against ATV but had been unsuccessful.
In 1994, Central Television was taken over fully by Carlton, and from day one, it was apparent major changes in Birmingham were just around the corner – literally.
Not too far from the Central TV base at Broad Street in Birmingham, Carlton had acquired land on Gas Street to construct a modern digital studio. It soon became evident that from the size of the land acquired, the new studio would only be a fraction of the size of the complex it was set to replace. The new studio began construction around 1994, and alarm bells began to ring at the Broad Street studios – it was a possibility that job losses were also lurking around the corner too.
By the end of 1996, facilities were being wound down at Broad Street, some production work and staff had been transferred to the Lenton Lane studios in Nottingham, and other staff had either taken retirement or had been made redundant.
In a memo from Central’s Managing Director, Ian Squires, dated 9th of May 1997; news wasn’t due to switch over to the new facility until week commencing 2nd June 1997, with the transmission switching over during the weekend of 12/13 July 1997.
Towards the end of August 1997, Central News-West announced that the Broad Street studios were closing and stated that from the following Monday, the building would be open for viewing from 9am, and an auction would be taking place on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
I was asked by a colleague to visit the Broad St studios to assist with viewing the equipment, and then help remove and re-install equipment that he had purchased from the auction.
Note that unless otherwise mentioned the equipment listed here was what was installed as of 1997.
Life before ATV Centre…
ATV began their Midlands operation in February 1956 – in fact ATV only provided programmes on a Monday to Friday basis, whilst ABC Television looked after the weekend slot. Both companies shared the makeshift technical facilities and studios, which were based in different locations around Birmingham. The main studio and transmission area was located inside a converted cinema at Aston, while further offices, news operations and film library were housed over at Edmund Street – only a few minutes walk from Broad St.
This arrangement continued until 1968, when ITV underwent its first major upheaval of contracts.
As a result of these changes, ATV was given control of the Midlands region for the full 7 days, while ABC was forced to merge with London’s Rediffusion to form Thames Television.
It is quite interesting to note that architects began work on the new ATV Centre as early as 1967 – some months before any franchise changes were announced by the ITA. Did ATV know something everyone else didn’t?
A site located in Birmingham’s city centre was chosen; located on the corner of Broad Street & Paradise Circus and was donated in 1965 by Birmingham City Council. At the time the area was the site of a Masonic Hall, which was once acquired during WW2 by the Ministry of Food – but in more recent times was used for Exhibitions and conferences.
A Gaumont Cinema and large car park was also located here well into the mid 1960s.
In a previous life, the site also played host to a travelling circus and was also the site of a goods wharf linked to the Birmingham Canal.
Architects began planning the site – known initially as the ‘West End’ site in early 1967. At the same time, rumours circulated amongst ATV staff at the Alpha Studios about the company joining forces with RCA to construct what then would have been Birmingham’s largest hotel complex. This sparked yet more rumours amongst staff about the future of ATV as a company and Midlands contractor – and also the security of their jobs.
Initial construction work began on the site during the autumn of 1968, in the form of work for the new studio complex, attached hotel, Alpha Tower block and NCP multi-storey car-park.
It’s quite amazing to find that, within a year of the initial work starting, staff had more or less moved in fully to the new ATV Centre and live programmes were being broadcast from the facility. Its first output was the local news programme Team at Six and continuity announcements.
During the planning stages the site was known as the Paradise Centre (being located close to Paradise Circus) but this was soon changed after Lew Grade held a competition for local viewers to suggest a suitable name – the prize of £250.00 was won by a Birmingham resident for suggesting the extraordinarily imaginative “ATV Centre”.
However some evidence does exist that post-1969 the film library was still housed over at the original Edmund Street base, in fact until around 1972 – this could quite possibly be due to that only the main production areas were completed first and that some other supporting technical areas were not yet ready for use.
Show me the way in…
It’s perhaps a good place to mention that both Central House (located on Broad St), and the Exhibition area opposite Alpha Tower were never fully occupied by ATV.
The Broad St entrance was leased during the 1970s by ATV- but never really used; it wasn’t until late 1981 that a link bridge was added between the canteen & existing studio block so the area could be used as additional office space and an entrance for the new Central TV.
Up until then, the only entrance from Broad Street was a ramp which ran parallel to the Broad St building and ATV Canteen- this provided vehicle access for News, Staff and Film Unit cars to a purpose built car-park located under one section of the hotel & exhibition area.
The main audience entrance and reception was located in Central Square (opposite Suffolk Street) – which would later also give access to the Exhibition Hall area.
The technical entrance was located on Bridge St- via a security post (seen in the Tiswas opening titles with Chris Tarrant emerging naked from a postage sack – see below); also access could be gained by via a ramp up to the Studio scene dock.
Another entrance located below the scenic dock provided access, a parking and storage area for OB trucks, equipment and additional Film Unit cars.
Building Technical Facts
ATV Centre was a custom built television studio complex, built to ITA specifications, and also specifically designed to provide facilities for every aspect of television production.
It cost around £3 million to equip and was part of a £15million project to construct a large hotel and entertainments complex on the former Car park and Cinema site.
The Architects were R.Seifert & Partners, based in London. Today, they are still proud of the Paradise Centre and adjoining Alpha Tower project – they feature on the company website alongside other achievements such as the NatWest Tower in London.
The initial engineering and construction work took into account a number of factors:
Soundproofing, not only from traffic and neighbouring buildings, but also from the Birmingham New St to Kidderminster, Redditch and freight railway lines that run under the city, and clip a small corner of the site.
The building was also constructed on the side of a hill, which at one point in time was a goods wharf linked to the Birmingham Canal, which still runs into the city centre today, so flooding could pose a problem. To overcome this, part of the building was constructed on large concrete stilts, thus lifting the technical areas from any real danger.
Inside the building, all of the production and technical areas were spacious and also offered the facility to expand if so required: this in later years proved useful as newer technology became available.
All flooring throughout the building was constructed on a rostrum framework and thick soundproofed 50 x 50cm tiles: this provided a large void where large cable trays were laid throughout the entire complex. This idea made easy work for installation of additional circuits – basically cabling could be installed from any studio, control room, VTR area to just about any location in the building with minimal disruption.
Fire protection was provided both by a sprinkler system with heads fitted in all major areas, and corridors – but (obviously) not in technical areas. Automatic fire detection was provided throughout the entire building via high voltage smoke detectors (which operated at 220v DC) controlled by (then) the first known automatic fire alarm system to use smoke detection. As refurbishment and alterations took place in later years, additional fire detection equipment was installed. Perhaps the most recent and sophisticated was installed in the multi-cart area of the LMS suite on the 4th floor – this system was installed to protect all four multi-cart machines and associated equipment – and linked to the main fire detection system.
This system worked via a system of pipes (that ran through the multi-cart systems) which contained small pin-sized holes. The pipes were connected in a ring circuit (one out from and another that returned to the control panel): this circulated air through the pipes, sampling the air for traces of combustion. This type of system is installed in many computer rooms, telephone exchanges and even in prisons as they can be set to be sensitive enough to detect the slightest of combustion – even a match being struck.
The studio doors were of a new design (in 1970), using special pneumatic-style closers, which controlled the speed of the opening and closing the doors to reduce the noise, so anyone could enter the Studio without disturbing filming.
Studio Block – Ground Floor – Workshops, Storage, Loading bay, Preview Theatres
Also known as the Basement, this area ran parallel to Bridge Street, contained a lower loading bay (below) and indoor parking area – mainly used for OB trucks – an area to prepare equipment for use on location, a scenery store, a general stores, a woodwork shop, 16mm dubbing theatres and a dual 16mm/35mm preview theatre served by one centralised projection suite.
As of 1970, the Basement contained a total of three viewing theatres- two small 16mm dubbing facilities and one larger dual 16/35mm viewing theatre.
The Basement was also home to numerous small video viewing suites, a small reception area, a large drape store, two additional sound booths (attached to the dubbing theatres), a separate green room and film interview suite, four cutting rooms, an OB staff room an office a technicians’ locker room, a stills and film processing lab, and a negative inspection area.
Both ATV and Central also had a staff Sports & Social Club which was based in the front of the exhibition hall next to the main reception, and housed a bar and games room. To complement this, there was also a staff film society, which made regular use of the preview theatre to show commercially-released theatrical films.
Projection Room, Main Theatre and Dubbing Theatres
The projection suite for this area consisted of 2 x Zeiss Ernemann dual 16/35mm projectors, fitted with optical and magnetic sound heads and a Xenosel 1600, Xenon 1600watt, arc lamp. These machines were fitted in 1970, and had been kept in fantastic condition: they ran as quiet as if they had just rolled off the production line.
To complement this, the theatre (above) was fitted with a Dolby Laboratories Cinema Surround processor – to me it looked like one of the early models, so could have perhaps been installed around 1981/82. It had been upgraded to a CP55: this would have been from around 1984 onwards.
The original Dolby unit would have only given a Left, Centre and Right channel behind the screen and also featured the trademark noise reduction system (that reduces noise and hiss from the soundtrack). The CP55 upgrade gave the main theatre, a Left, Centre, Right channel behind the screen, and also a mono surround channel through speakers mounted around the audience.
Both styles of processor could run any type of film soundtrack (Stereo/Mono), Variable Area, Variable Density and also Magnetic. The processor was separate to the dubbing facility.
In addition, on the ceiling of the Theatre, was a Sony VPR video projector, which was connected to a small patch bay, so any VTR machine with either a composite or component output could be connected to it.
The 16mm theatre was less luxurious than the former, was also much smaller, and really only gave room for a few of the production staff, mixing desk and audio equipment!
In the Projection room, this theatre was fitted with a Philips LCB0016/14 16mm projector, fitted with optical sound head, sep-mag follower, and a 700w Xenon lamp. Again, this machine was in very good condition, and one of the more rarer Philips machines made in the early 1970s – exclusively designed for use by the television & film production industry.
Also on the ground floor was the woodwork shop – this enabled scenery to be constructed in house and had access to the studio block on the floor above, via either the loading bay / ramp or via a scenic lift. I found the whole environment at the studio to be very much like that at a Repertory Theatre, where everything is done in house.
This floor also contained the House Maintenance workshop, and also a full photographic facility, including a lab and dark room for processing photographic film & slides, and a facility for processing 16mm news film. The latter area was a casualty of the many cutbacks at Central in the 1990s.
To be continued…