The rise and fall of Lenton Lane

By Kevin Chamberlain

Plaque outside Leyton Lane

I arrived for my first day at Lenton Lane as a Graphic Design Assistant in June 1984. At that stage the place had been operating for around six months, but I had no previous knowledge or experience of working in TV. Until then I'd worked in printing and advertising.

In those early days Lenton Lane was populated by three categories of people.

  1. Those who had been forced to move up from the old ATV studios at Elstree. They didn't really have any choice; if they didn't move they wouldn't have a job, because Elstree was closing down.
  2. Those who had moved over from ATV in Birmingham. That was a voluntary transfer because the Birmingham operation was continuing, but some staff were given an option of working at the new site in Nottingham.
  3. Local people from Nottingham who had replied to the adverts in the local paper which regularly used to appear with a list of available jobs.

In the beginning some Elstree people weren't happy at having to work at Lenton Lane. To keep their jobs they'd had to uproot their lives and families from just outside London and move to the unsophisticated Midlands. Some adapted to it better than others, but it was obviously a big move (physical and psychological) and caused problems and resentment for years. The pain was slightly lessened with the payment of large allowances for removal costs, legal fees, carpets, curtains, travelling and more; and there was also the realisation that house-buying money went a lot further around Nottingham than it did in Elstree, so that many transferees sold their average house down south and bought something much bigger and more glamorous in the East Midlands.

Most ex-Birmingham staff were happy to be there. Their reasons for moving varied from just wanting a change of scenery, getting away from someone/something they didn't like, or just the novelty of being in a totally new setup.

The local Nottingham people who got a job there thought they'd landed on another planet, both financially and with the “glamour” of working in TV. They were the happiest of the lot.

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I fell into the latter category. My first few months were quite a culture shock. I quickly learned that one of the basic principles of TV work is that you spend long periods of time doing very little, interspersed with shorter spells of being very busy. But some of those long periods of doing very little were very long. I spent the first months (maybe even years) at Lenton Lane feeling guilty if I wasn't busy every minute of the day, because that was the mentality I'd developed in all my years of non-TV working. But now I was surrounded by other more experienced people who were also not over-worked. And we were getting paid for it. And getting paid more than I would've been paid for doing a similar job anywhere else. So you learned to just shut up and be grateful.

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An example. In graphics, in the morning, the first move was to go down to the canteen for breakfast for about 30/40 minutes, eventually wandering back up to start work by around 9.45. The justification for this was “there isn't time to have breakfast at home before you leave for work, so you have it when you get here”. Then you did a couple of hours work in the morning. Lunch started approximately at midday, but if you wanted to go into Nottingham during your lunch break you went to the canteen early “because you don't want to spend your lunch time eating (!) if you've got to go into town”. Back to do a couple of hours work in the afternoon, and then begin to drift away by around 4.30.

Hard life? But things were even better if you worked in other areas of the company. One downside of Graphics was that there wasn't much scope for claiming travel/meal expenses or overtime. Some people were full-time specialists at filling in expenses forms and claiming every available penny that was going. There were stories (which I can't prove but I definitely believe) about staff who claimed so much in expenses that they lived on them as their weekly spending money, whilst their salary went straight into the bank and didn't need to be touched. The office which paid out expenses every day was a glass window in the wall (like a Post Office) along a corridor. There was always a queue of people hanging around waiting - and counting the notes. The carpet tiles wore out very quickly along there.

Lenton Lane was always described as being the most up-to-date studios in Europe. That may have been true in its construction date, but some of the technology inside the place was decidedly stone-age. In those days computers were still very primitive, PCs and Macs were a future dream, Photoshop didn't exist, and digital/electronic graphics were at a very early stage.

I started doing captions and graphics - mainly for the local news - by using a Masseeley hot metal press with white or coloured foil onto card: primitive even in 1984. And end credits were on a long roll of black paper which could run to 20/30 ft. Artwork and captions were created for the news using Letraset and cut-out shapes in card and paper. I was always impressed by the more experienced graphics people who could construct moving captions with card and paper using very complex arrangements of levers and sliders, like some kind of masterclass in origami.

Even as a beginner, this surprised me. Modern equipment was available - or could be acquired - but the stumbling block was trades unions and their refusal to allow new technology without agreements. Until then, television had been very manpower-intensive, but the new gear which was hovering on the horizon was going to vastly reduce the number of people needed to do many jobs. For instance, starting to use an Aston for captions meant one person could do what previously was done by several. It was also about a changeover in the power balance. The Graphics Department would now produce the material and control the play-out and use of that material. That play-out work had previously been done by the scene hands/props who used to handle the card captions, and now they would have nothing to do - and hence ultimately no jobs. In many cases, the modern technology was in the building but it sat unused for several years, meaning that in its early life Lenton Lane was actually one of the most technically backward studios, still using card graphics when digital equipment was available. Eventually, agreements were thrashed out and Astons, Paintboxes and Digital Picture systems were introduced. I became the main Aston CG operator within the building, so now I got to work in the galleries during transmissions or recordings, and into the post-production edit suites. Finally, this was proper telly.

In those first 10-12 years of its life, Lenton Lane was a lively, busy place, whatever the technology. The key to it was the fact that this was still Central TV (as opposed to Carlton, or ITV plc, which it became part of later). The place specialised - by accident or design - in doing the trashy but popular game shows; Blockbusters, The Price is Right, Bullseye, Supermarket Sweep and others which have been forgotten. They attempted drama and/or comedy but often didn't get it right. Who now remembers The Bretts or Connie or Cue Gary? At least Boon and Peak Practice were successful for several series, although they were location-based with very little studio work.

In those days you could still get a buzz from walking around the building, seeing the audiences queuing for recordings of Blockbusters or The Price is Right. It may not have been the most tastefully sophisticated output, but it had a tacky glamour and I genuinely liked being there. Walking along the corridor and passing a celebrity started out as a novelty but became an everyday occurrence. For a few years it was just like I'd imagined it would be; unfortunately that wasn't going to last.

There was always an element of negative cynicism from some people within Central towards the Lenton Lane site. From some Elstree exiles there was the attitude that Lenton Lane “isn't proper telly, because we used to make real programmes at Elstree but this is just a mickey mouse building”. I heard that mantra for years.

And from those who had remained in Birmingham we often heard “Lenton Lane won't last. They'll close it down soon and everything will come back to Birmingham”.

What actually happened came as a surprise to many. Obviously Elstree wasn't going to be resurrected, and eventually most its former residents who came to Lenton Lane grew to accept it as their new home. The staff in Birmingham who were always keen to predict the end of Lenton Lane had a bit of a shock in 1991 when Central effectively closed the Birmingham site (just keeping news, transmission and some local/documentary work) and transferred the majority of all work - and remaining staff - to Nottingham. Totally the opposite to what they had always imagined would happen. For a few years after that, Lenton Lane became even busier because it was now also handling work which had previously been done in Birmingham.

That closure surprised even staff who had become hardened to the constant possibility of redundancies in ITV. Companies were always “restructuring” or “rationalising”, and job security was always a short-term concept. Possibly the most unfortunate victims of that were those who had moved up from Elstree in 1983/4, because just a few years after going through this upheaval, some of them were being made redundant from Lenton Lane, only six or seven years after being dragged 120 miles up the M1.

There were a number of staff culls at Lenton Lane during its life, and I was caught in one of them in 1991. But... in a way which could only happen in television, it became the best thing that ever happened to me. I officially finished as a staff person on a Friday, and by the following Tuesday I was back working as a freelance in the same building doing the same work for more money.

Being a freelance I ended up working on a wider variety of work because I was being “hired” by different departments within Central. I could do a few days on the news at Nottingham, then a few days on news at Birmingham, then in an edit suite in Nottingham, then in Production in Birmingham, then a few days on news at Abingdon - the newly established Central South region. So although I had an increase in mileage (finally I could claim a few expenses, like the experts) I was working in different locations doing different jobs.

central_gates.jpg

The gates to the Broad Street studios, photographed after closure and Central moving operations to Gas Street

Visiting the Birmingham site in those days was an interesting experience. This was just after the 1991 redundancies, so the Broad Street building still existed but with a greatly reduced number of staff. It was like being in one of those post-apocalypse films where there are very few people but the infrastructure is still in place and everyday items are still lying around. You could wander along deserted corridors and never see another person; go past rows of empty offices with no occupants, just the desks and filing cabinets; occasionally you'd come across a room with a light on and someone working there - almost spooky; you'd find a corner of activity with a couple of people working on an edit for something, surrounded by darkness. I'd never really known the place when it was busy, so I could only imagine what it had been like a few years earlier, but now it was just a ghost town.

The main reason the Birmingham site still existed was to produce and broadcast the “Central News West” version of the local news, but even that had undergone major changes. Until the late 1980s, all ITV regional news had come from a “proper” studio using full crews. This was obviously expensive with an overkill of people and equipment; so all ITV companies built their own dedicated news studio with dedicated crews, taking advantage of modern equipment and reduced manning levels

When that happened at Lenton Lane it finally signalled the arrival of the 20th century. The equipment in the news studio (known as Studio 9) was much more up to date. Cameras were remotely operated by the engineer who did the tape rolling and the lights; studio directors did the vision mixing; no such thing as floor manager or scene shifter; graphics, gallery and edit suites were all digitally connected for pictures and sound.

The reason it became Studio 9 was a continuation of an established system. The Birmingham site had Studios 1-4. When Lenton Lane opened the Nottingham Studios were numbered 5-8, to demonstrate a link and continuity. 5 was the smallest studio, used for local news bulletins (not the main programme) and in-vision continuity when that still existed; 6 was the medium-sized studio used for the main local news programme and a few other productions which could be squeezed in (the news set was a permanent fixture, so there was a limit to what could be changed); 7 and 8 were the big studios used for game shows, dramas and whatever else came in. So when the News got their own studio it logically became the next number available - Studio 9.

Around that same time, the main studios were also upgraded from the equipment which they had used since the building first opened, to a level which was reasonably state-of-the-art. Finally, the old claim about “the most modern studios in Europe” was closer to the truth than it ever had been in the early days. But it never managed to capitalise on that position.

Just when it looked like things were improving, Central were taken over by London media-types Carlton who weren't interested in making programmes, they just wanted to run a television channel (and there's a big difference). Central made programmes in their studios; Carlton sat at desks in London and bought programmes made by other people. I heard tales of Lenton Lane-based staff having telephone conversations with Carlton people in London, and the Carlton-ites didn't even know that the company they worked for had a studio site in Nottingham; they just thought they had an office in London where they controlled a television station. With a mentality like that, it's not surprising that the number of programmes going through the Lenton Lane studios started to drop off considerably.

There was also the problem of what the place was actually called. In the beginning it was known as Central TV studios. At one stage Central tried to market it as an semi-independent production facility and named it Television House; that was abandoned and it went through a number of other names including East Midlands Television Centre; then it became something else; then Carlton Studios. Even though I was working there during all this time, I can't remember all the name changes it went through.

It's best summed up by the direction signs on the roads leading to the site. In the early days when the name changed, the local council changed the road signs to reflect the current name. After it had changed so many times, they stopped trying to keep up and the road signs just said "Television Studios".

That says it all really. It never quite knew what it was, or what it wanted to be, or what it should have been. Arguably it was out of date before it opened. Lenton Lane was designed in the early 1980s when there were still only three channels, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV (not even Channel 4 then). The ITV monopoly of TV advertising still existed, and it was still a licence to print money. Nobody saw the coming of multi-channel satellite and cable TV; they didn't see the move away from large studio-based productions towards location-based single camera programmes. It was designed for an era which was just about to come to an end. From the early days there were regular rumours that it was going to close down (people in Birmingham were eventually right), but those rumours were wrong until the Granada-Carlton merger in 2003. It's surprising the place lasted as long as it did because it was always fighting a losing battle. And it was clear that the management (whichever company they were) weren't trying to utilise or prolong the life of the place. It was an exercise in constructive closure by neglect.

In the end the place was a ghost town; it was like the Birmingham site ten years earlier. I saw Lenton Lane start, peak, and fade away. In many ways it was symbolic of the whole history of ITV.

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Article ©2010 Kevin Chamberlain

Compilation ©2010 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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