This is Elstree, part 1

By Roddy Buxton

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The origins of the Elstree Studios began in 1914, when three film makers required a site that was close to London and was easily accessible. A site close to Elstree, located at Borehamwood, was chosen and the Neptune Studios (as they were then known) were constructed. The studios were the first of their kind in Europe to not have a glazed roof - thus relying on electricity for means of illumination.

It was during World War I that the UK cinema industry suffered the first of many declines - caused by many of the actors and technicians being called up to serve in the Army. This resulted in all production ceasing in 1917. The site was then sold to the Ideal Film Company who remained using it until around 1924, when the pioneer of cinema sound, Ludwig Blattner, took the site over, He remained there until 1934, when he leased the site to US film producer Joe Rock. It was shortly after Blattner committed suicide in 1935 that Rock purchased the site outright and constructed the four main stages (A-D) that are still in use nearly 80 years later.

British National Films took over Rock Studios (as they were then known) in 1939 - which was bad timing, as the British Government immediately requisitioned the site and stages for war duties. British National Films regained ownership after World War II and remained at the site until 1948, when the studios closed for a 5 years. Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the American actor, was the next owner of the site, purchasing it in 1953.

Fairbanks renamed it the National Studios and used the site for the production of programmes for the American television network NBC. The initial contract was to produce around 40 films and also commercials - but it remains unknown as to how many were actually produced; but it was only after a few months into the contract that around 6 half-hour films had been made. Perhaps a legacy of this still remains on site today; one of the oldest buildings on site is known as ‘Fairbanks'. Fairbanks ran the studio site until 1958, when ATV took it over.

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The arrival of ATV
ATV took over the studios during the spring of 1958; with the intention of using them as film studios, producing large scale TV drama on 35mm film. One of the first series produced was William Tell. Myth has it that the series Robin Hood was produced by ATV at the site, but that series, produced by Sapphire Films, was made at a site close by.

At the time ATV were using sites at Wood Green in Hackney and Foley Street in Westminster for its television operations, but it was soon realized that larger, purpose designed studios would be required. ATV purchased a 7.5 acre site on London's South Bank, part of what was the 17th century Vauxhall Gardens, and plans were drawn up for a new TV production facility. By 1960 ATV had realised the plans would take too long to come to fruition and decided to convert the Elstree site for television production.

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Work soon began on converting the huge stages, providing spacious control and viewing rooms that overlooked the studio floor space, installing new lighting and electrical services and providing space for a studio audience.

Lew Grade (inspired by the success that the previous owner Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed) knew from day one that he wanted to produce programmes not only for screening on the ITV network, but also material that he could export worldwide. ATV subsidiary ITC produced most of its major drama series at Borehamwood, though not at its own studios. Much of the production work for shows such as The Saint, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk Deceased were in fact produced across the road at the Associated British Picture Corporation studios.

The studios will officially open shortly - but first a small strike
Since its beginning, ITV has been through its fair share of industrial disputes, strikes, walkouts and confrontations between unions and management. Even the official opening of the Elstree site had its share. The Elstree site, which had been in use since 1960, held its official opening during April 1961.

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Before the opening, issues had been raised by the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians members over pay and working conditions. Meetings were held with ATV in an attempt to reach a compromise, and in on 21 February 1961, a settlement was reached, minutes issued to all staff, and a document issued by the ACTT to its members.

However, on the afternoon of 6 April, ACTT staff members suddenly downed their tools to hold a union meeting. The meeting passed a resolution which expressed ‘bitter disappointment at the company's failure to honour the agreement reached following the recent negotiations'.

The ACTT alleged that ATV hadn't upgraded two members of staff as agreed in their meeting. ATV were soon to note that the issue concerning the two members off staff hadn't even been discussed, and didn't feature in the minutes or union documentation that had been issued following their meeting on 21 February 21.

A meeting between ATV and ACTT representatives was called that evening and produced no results other than a clear statement made by ATV that ‘[u]nder no circumstances would the company negotiate under duress, but would deal with issues at any time through the properly agreed procedure'.

A further meeting was called for the next morning. During this, some ACTT members left their jobs at the Elstree studios to attend their own meeting. In view of this, ATV chose to adjourn its meeting with the union until those members of staff had returned to work. About one hour later, those members off staff returned to their workplaces, and, in light of the opening ceremony due later that day, ATV chose to re-arrange its meeting with the ACTT until later on that afternoon.

As the opening ceremony took place, the acting ACTT secretary announced that unless there was a ‘gesture' - the concession of one or both of its demands - then work would stop again. It wasn't too long before a handful of ACTT members stopped work again, and during the afternoon many other members also joined them in support.

Early that evening, an informal meeting between union representatives and ATV was held, and union representatives stated that they ‘would no longer use constitutional procedures in this matter'. ATV was quick to respond with that they would only be willing to continue negotiations if the strike was called off. During the late evening, ATV management met to ensure that the company's service to the public would continue and offered its support to those ACTT members who remained at work during the dispute.

By Saturday morning, an Emergency broadcasting schedule had been devised by management for ATV to continue broadcasting without a break until the following Sunday morning when striking staff planned to return to work. ATV were quick to announce that ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium' would still go out as advertised amidst much press speculation that the flagship show would be cancelled, and, as a result, cost ATV a small fortune in advertising revenue.

During the Saturday afternoon informal talks resumed with ACTT representatives and continued for some 5 hours into the late evening. At 10.15pm a joint press statement was issued:

“As a result of informal talks between ATV and the ACTT, the members now on strike within the Company will resume work tomorrow, when official talks will take place immediately. There will be an early meeting next week seeking to resolve outstanding problems. Both parties now look to a more constructive relationship in the future.”

A little optimistic perhaps?

Throughout the Saturday evening, all other ITV contractors supported ATV and transmitted its programmes - apart from ABC, which was running its own alternative schedule. Talks continued during the following weeks on more constructive terms with the outcome proving fruitful for both parties. A new framework for negotiating local union issues was set up, and later became part of the framework for an ACTT National agreement. It seemed all issues had been finally resolved; for the time being anyway.

Converting for Television
The first studio at the 31 acre site to come into service during November 1960 was Studio D, followed by Studio C during January 1961. It is perhaps ironic that Studio D would be ATV's first production space at the centre to come into use, and that the final ever recording under ITV, an edition of the game show Family Fortunes, was made in the same studio by Central in 1983, just before the site was sold to the BBC.

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It wasn't until September 1961 that Studio A came into service, followed by the final studio, B, which opened just before the Christmas 1961. As Studio A opened at Elstree, the site at Highbury which had served ATV since the spring on 1956 was closed down. The final production work at Highbury was with Emergency: Ward 10 on Saturday 30 September 1961, after which the entire set was moved to Elstree.

All four of the production studios were equipped with Pye Mk V Orthicon cameras and were capable of production in the 405, 525 and 625-line standards. ATV also installed generators that could if required supply all studios at the US 60Hz standard.


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Both ATV engineers and Pye worked on the development of the studio equipment. Everything installed was of modular, ‘building brick' construction, which meant future expansion and upgrade would be easy. If newer equipment later became available, the old equipment could be easily disconnected and the replacement plugged in with the minimum of disruption and requirement for a studio to be temporarily closed while the work was undertaken.

As well as converting film sound stages for TV use, ATV constructed their own production and technical offices on the site, known as Neptune House. Upon opening, the £4million complex offered these facilities: Studio A, 80ft x 80ft (24m x 24m) to give 6400sq ft (595m²); Studio B, 84ft x 80ft (26m x 24m) to give 6720sq ft (624m²); Studio C and Studio D, 116ft x 80ft (35m x 24m) to give 9280sq ft (862m²)

Studios C and D were identical in size and control room layout; Studios A and B, though much smaller, also had matching control room layouts.

As of 1961, each studio was equipped with: 5 x Pye 4½ inch Orthicon cameras; 34 channel sound mixer; gramophone playback and tape recording and playback facilities; ATV-manufactured vision mixing equipment and effects processors; 240 lighting circuits and preset control.

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Artistes' Services Block - 31,087sq ft (9475m²)
This area contained 36 dressing rooms that were capable of accommodating up to 160 artistes including a special dressing room for any performing animals, with supporting wardrobe stores, workroom, fitting room, makeup and hairdressing facilities placed close by. A small wardrobe and make-up area was also provided that opened out onto the studio floor.

Studio Facilities Building - 75,790 sq ft (23,101m²)
Covering 3 floors, this building housed the scenic workshops with some 10,000sq ft (929m²) with machinery and workbenches and a further 10,000sq ft reserved for the assembly of entire sets. Also included were a scenic store, a props workshop and store and a paint shop with a paint-frame.

The paint-frame itself was a feat in engineering, being one of the largest in the country at that time, and was capable of handling backcloths as large as 140ft x 24ft (43m x 7m), which would be spread across three floors for ease of access.

Mechanically, the frame could also be used for much smaller cloths and items of scenery. Each section could be individually moved up and down between the floors. For a large cloth, all three drives could be locked together to enable one movement.

Upon opening, ATV owned nearly 4500 pieces of scenery and 7000 props, which could be transported to the nearby studios via small electric tractors and trailers. Goods lifts were also installed that were capable of fitting a full-sized furniture removal van inside to ease the transportation of set and prop items around the site.

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Transport and Workshop Facilities - 40,951 sq ft (12,482m)
Provided storage and maintenance facilities for ATV's fleet of vehicles, including Outside Broadcast trucks. The fleet consisted of 4 scenery vans, each 27ft long and 14ft high (8m x 4m); 5 Outside Broadcast units; and 2 Eagle towers which could extend to 60ft (18m) high for radio links. Also included was underground storage for 9000 gallons (40,915 litres) of petrol and fuel oil.

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Administration and Rehearsal Room Block - 81,500 sq ft (7572m²)
A seven story building that contained offices for production, administration, technical staff, reference libraries, design studios and 14 rehearsal rooms.

Restaurant - 16,500 sq ft (1533m²)
The restaurant was designed with both waitress and cafeteria service for all meals and could seat 500. Adjoining the restaurant was a lounge and bar area, complete with dance floor and stage. And outdoor terrace was also provided at the side of the dining and lounge area and was open for summer meals.

Supporting facilities
Other supporting facilities included a large orchestra theatre, and film dubbing and viewing theatres along with a large stock shot library (the programme library was located at ATV House), cutting rooms and a music library.

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Central Technical Area
Completed during 1962, this area contained all the necsseary distribution and switching equipment for each of the 4 studios, as well as the telecine, videotape and film recording departments. Additional space was also constructed to account for the future expansion for the arrival of colour TV.

Access to the numerous annexes at the site was via a small road network constructed between each of the blocks, totally covered by a glass roof.

The ATV D&M department
The ATV Design & Maintenance department played a huge part in the development of the studio site as well as bringing colour television to both ATV and ITV. This department of engineers employed by ATV was also responsible for the design and construction of numerous kinds of broadcast equipment. Many were recruited in 1955 by either being poached from the BBC or others were skilled RAF radar and communications engineers. With television being a relatively new technology, there was no proper rule book on how things should be done and there was no real hard scientific information available that had been tried and tested.

Marconi, EMI and Pye produced commercial versions of some of the equipment, but with huge orders from new ITV companies which needed to be fulfilled at very short notice there was a large backlog in research, development and testing. Pye was one of the original members of the consortium that formed ATV and it was Pye who were involved along with ATV engineers with the kitting out most of the ATV technical facilities.

ATV's own D&M department were responsible for all servicing and repair of technical equipment, as well as embarking on special projects in research and further development. This work increased as ATV took on the Elstree studio site and were working to producing programmes in colour, with colour production even during the early 1960s.

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Colour comes to Elstree - well nearly...
During the 1960s the whole concept of colour television in the UK offered much debate amongst studio technicians and engineers as well as TV station bosses, the Independent Television Authority and even the government itself.

In the ATV annual report of 1965, Lew Grade made a point that the UK was a world pioneer in television, with the first regular broadcasts beginning in 1936 in black and white; by 1965, there were two tried and tested colour TV standards systems to consider; the USA had a flourishing colour TV service; and the UK was trailing behind, still in black and white. Grade went on to state that it was deplorable the way the UK had been allowed to trail behind the rest of the world.

The Elstree studios had been designed with further expansion for colour TV in mind, quite unlike any of the other ITV company studios. But prior to all of this ATV had already begun producing its filmed series in colour, thus satisfying export demand. This argument between the ITA, ATV and the Postmaster General rumbled on well into the latter part of 1966, with the issue of the ATV 1966 annual report. This time it was ATV's chairman, Lord Renwick stating the case.

Renwick pointed out that ATV could easily produce up to 20 hours a week of colour using the existing 405-line system if the Postmaster General gave permission. He called for the government to grant that permission to ITV to start colour transmissions and pointed out that such a decision would enable everyone in the UK to have access to colour TV broadcasts. At the time, the government had only authorised colour via the new BBC-2 service, which was due to begin broadcasting colour programmes towards the end of 1967.

Lord Renwick's comments did not go unsupported. Lord Hill, chairman of the ITA, backed up his case by making a formal request to the Postmaster General, Edward Short, for this to be allowed:

“I must refer to the chief anxiety which faces the Independent Television industry for the future of colour television. For the Government to restrict colour to the 625-line standard, and therefore UHF transmission, places the whole future of British colour television in jeopardy. This decision means in essence, that colour will be denied to ITV, a state of affairs which the public cannot long be expected to tolerate.
"Theoretically the 625-line picture is superior to the 405-line picture. Nevertheless, through sheer technical skills in transmission, the 405-line pictures of BBC-1 and ITV are comparable to those seen anywhere else in the world.
"The failure - total is scarcely too strong a word - of BBC-2 has nothing to do with the 625-line standard; it is in no way a reproach to BBC engineering. The disturbing and unpalatable fact remains however that, in actual operation, the UHF transmissions which carry the 625-line picture show results which are disappointingly inadequate when compared to those of the VHF transmissions which carry the 405-line picture. Colour confined to BBC2 will inevitably lead to the thoroughly undemocratic result that only a tiny percentage of the nation's viewers will receive any benefit whatsoever.
"If, in the light of the country's sad experience of UHF, the government would reverse the earlier decision that colour should be restricted to a 625-line standard (which implies the use of UHF), then the solution is simple.
"Colour on the 405-line standard could be made immediately available to the entire British receiving public in the existing VHF services. Those viewers content to only watch in black and white would remain unaffected.”

Regardless of the politics, ATV first began its experiments with colour TV during the spring of 1962, aimed at providing staff with valuable experience for use in the future when colour TV does begin in the UK and in the interim to be able to produce programmes in NTSC colour for the US market. ATV formed a colour committee consisting of leading figures such as Francis Essex and Bill Ward, as well as key technical staff and members of the ATV Design and Maintenance department.

The first experiments were carried out in Studio D, using Smith-Klien-French cameras and associated equipment, all monitored from an Outside Broadcast van. These first experiments were to test new lighting, makeup and set design styles and techniques.

Another problem encountered by ATV was that equipment manufacturers were still in the process of developing colour broadcasting equipment. This could have been partly due to the fact that the government still hadn't reached a decision on what particular standard would be eventually adopted in the UK.

Instead, ATV's own D&M department began developing their own equipment in conjunction with Pye. As part of this project, ATV also registered the name "ATV Colour".

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The new equipment was first put into use during December 1966 in Studio D recording sections for a special Aberfan programme which was due to be shown on ITV during 1967 in black and white, and in colour in the USA.

For this, a temporary colour control room was built on the studio floor, immediately below the existing control room. Three colour cameras were used alongside four Pye 405-line cameras, each fed to their own respective control room.

The temporary control room was built within 2 weeks, with the actual enclosure constructed over a weekend in November 1966. By the Monday morning, the ATV D&M personnel began installing and assembling the colour equipment. By the fifth day, the team were ahead of schedule, allowing for additional lighting tests to be carried out. Based on this design, ATV technicians began constructing a Mobile Colour Control van.

Away from the studio floor, discussions were still rife on what system to adapt. It was during 1966 that nearly 700 delegates from 79 countries attended a four week conference in Oslo, at the end of which Britain stood firm in support of PAL, and this would be the system which BBC-2 would use when colour was expected to start towards the end of 1967.

At the time Britain and 17 Western European countries, including West Germany, Holland and Italy, had all picked PAL. But France, Monaco, the Soviet Union and 9 Eastern European countries opted to use the French SECAM system.

Technically PAL and SECAM are around 95% similar, each being a development of the USA NTSC system. The British view was that PAL transmissions are better on normal black and white receivers, and the PAL colour TV sets were less complicated than the SECAM counterpart.

But still, the decision to give colour to BBC-2 was met with much criticism both with the ITV companies and TV receiver manufacturing industry. Lew Grade, Managing Director of ATV Network, called it an insult and said that there would be little incentive for people to purchase colour TV sets merely to watch programmes on BBC-2.

ITV and the ITA kept the pressure on the Postmaster General to grant them permission to begin broadcasting in colour using the 405-line system. This was rejected, so towards the end of 1966 the ITA pressed the government for a second ITV channel, using 625-lines, the same as BBC-2. The ITA again lost out when a White Paper on the future broadcasting was introduced, hinting that colour wouldn't be coming to ITV for at least three more years. Despite this, ATV continued to produce all of its major filmed series in colour, along with recording programmes on videotape in standards suited for both the British and US markets.

In the end, ATV didn't have too long to wait for authorisation from the Postmaster General. During February 1967 the announcement that ITV would begin colour broadcasting by the end of 1969 was made. Lew Grade was quoted as being “delighted. And that there are no restrictions on the number of hours we put out. ATV is perhaps better equipped than most to provide colour programmes”.

Another major development for ATV was the design and construction of a purpose designed Mobile Colour Unit - which again was designed and built by ATV engineers. ATV had been the first UK commercial TV company to be able to produce colour TV programmes for the US market using its own designed equipment.

The new mobile colour control unit, housed in a 32ft (9.75m) trailer took 6 months to build, it was fully air conditioned and able to accommodate up to 12 members of staff. Initially this unit was designed for recording in the 525-line NTSC standard, but was later adapted to include equipment for recording in the UK 625-line PAL system.

As well as serve OB work, the mobile colour unit was also used at the Elstree studio as a temporary colour recording unit.

The ATV Housing Scheme
With the official opening of the studios, ATV was concerned with the effect this sudden influx of additional members of staff wanting to move to the area would have on local housing, and population.

In November 1961, ATV announced its plans for a housing scheme for ATV employees. After negotiations with the local authority, ATV purchased 8 acres of land (once used for shooting William Tell) close to the studio complex to be transformed into a staff residential area- which would be complete by the spring of 1963.

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The scheme provided for a total of 96 residential properties: six two-bed flats; 12 three-bed flats; 20 two-bed terraced houses; and 58 three-bed terraced houses.

The properties could be purchased at £3,350 (£31,225 in today's money) for the flats and the two-bed houses and £3,555 (£54,391) for the three-bed houses. The flats could be rented on short term leases at £268 (£4,100) per annum, and additional garages were available at £195 (£2,983) to purchase, or at 15/- (75 new pence or £11.48 allowing for inflation) per week.

Construction of the area began during March 1962, with half of the 96 properties being made available by September of that same year. The first property was occupied during November 1962, by a props driver, Roy Rusted and his wife.

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Expanding into 625-line UHF Colour - at long last!
Politically it seemed quite a bumpy ride for ATV to even get any permission granted by the Postmaster General to begin broadcasting in colour. However, ATV had been producing filmed series in colour, via its subsidiary ITC, and other productions onto videotape exclusively for export to the USA in 525-lines since the early 1960s.

But it wasn't until 1968 that Studios C and D at Elstree were finally being equipped with permanent installations for colour. The first area being equipped was Studio D, which came back into service during March 1969. Studio C was closed between May and October 1969 for work on installing colour equipment.

Studio A was never converted to colour under the expansion plan, so the production galleries lay unused. However, the floor space was often used, with either a colour OB truck or connection to the gallery in Studio B to record in colour.

For all companies within ITV, and not forgetting newcomers to ITV in 1968, it was a massive financial outlay to equip studios for colour, even for the larger ITV stations such as ATV and Granada.

For ATV, the costs were daunting; initially to convert the Elstree studios to 625line colour, it was estimated that it would cost around £1.5million (£15,420,000 allowing for inflation); in addition to this ATV had to find an additional £6million (£61,680,000) to construct and equip a brand new studio complex in Birmingham for its Midlands commitments.

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By 1974, the Elstree site after further expansion, boasted:

A84x80ft/6700sq ft(25.6x24.4m/622.5m²)Not initially converted
B84x80ft/6700sq ft(25.6x24.4m/622.5m²)4 Philips PC60 camerasConverted 1972
C116x80ft/9280sq ft(35.5x24.4m/862m²)4 Philips PC60 camerasConverted 1969
D116x80ft/9280sq ft(35.5x24.4m/862m²)4 Philips PC60 camerasConverted 1968

By 1977, the PC60 cameras had become obsolete, and were due to be replaced with EMI2001 colour cameras. The picture below shows the camera crew of Studio B, during the final use of the LDK Cameras, recording the final episode of ‘The Cedar Tree' in 1977.

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Two music theatres, with 100 channel mixing and 16 track recorders, were added. Each of the studios could be linked as required to any of the main production studios. Also added were two sound effects and dubbing studios; eight VTR Machines, plus Sony and Philips cassette recorders; a Sony Video Reply suite; two VTR viewing suites; and a computerised video editing suite that could be linked to 2 or 3 VTR machines and vision mixer (developed by ATV). A Fernseh Optical Standards converter was installed in 1972, which could convert to and from the 625-line standard.


Photographic department
By 1974, much of the supporting facilities that ATV had housed at ATV House in London, or outsourced to local businesses, had been brought into Elstree. The photographic unit was manned by 4 staff photographers, plus a handful of freelancers. They were backed up with full lab facilities. In black and white, they could process, copy negatives, produce slides, make colourform, autone and sepia prints, and produce enlargements (including line film and paper) up to 40” x 30” (101.6 x 76.2cm). In colour, they could provide transparency and negative processing, internegs, copy negs and printing to 10” x 8” (25.4 x 20.3cm) and 12” x 10” (30.5 x 25.4cm).

In part 2: ATV becomes Central but not Daybreak; the unions protest; and Elstree's future is in doubt

Points from the Post

No mention of the architect of these state of the art studios then? I think you will find we are related

Jane montague

Posted 10:51 PM, 21 February 2013

Reply to this comment

If you know who the architect was, please let us know! Architects are too easily forgotten yet so very important and they deserve to be better recognised.

Russ J Graham

Posted 6:27 PM, 24 February 2013

Reply to this comment

Just picked up your response....my thoughts entirely. They are too often forgotten. My father, Henry/Harry Montague was the design architect for much of the development at the time. Sadly deceased since 2007 - you can read his obituary in the RIBA Journal records

Jane montague

Posted 11:55 PM, 26 March 2013

Reply to this comment

DOn't suppose you happen to know which of the buildings in the aerial photos or the architects plan was the photographic departments studio?

Richard

Posted 5:14 PM, 29 November 2013

Reply to this comment

As a former vision engineer at ATV Elstree I was very interested to read yr article.The are however some errors.
Studios D & C were never equiped with Philips PC60 cameras but with EMI 2001.When studio D was re-equiped with Philips LDK 25 cameras I believe around 1976 the EMI 2001 cameras from studio D were installed in Studio B.
Also yr picture of the last show in studio B with the PC 60 cameras has the vision crew and not the camera crew .

Mervyn Watts

Posted 7:18 AM, 21 December 2013

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Article ©2010 Roddy Buxton

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