Westward progress 

20 July 2015 tbs.pm/6654

In March 1962, Practical Television sent an anonymous reporter to look into Westward Television’s studios in Derry’s Cross, Plymouth, in the run-up to the station’s first birthday. The resulting article is a little dry, as was the standard for Practical Television, but packed with technical information that people with an interest in the workings of studios will find fascinating. – Russ J Graham, Editor in chief

An artist's impression of the Westward Television Centre in Plymouth.

An artist’s impression of the Westward Television Centre in Plymouth.

When the war ended, the City of Plymouth was in a distressing state. Few of the impressive buildings in the shopping centre survived the blitz. The huge department stores were razed to the ground; the municipal buildings and the churches were badly damaged, but Derry’s Clock, a famous landmark for 99 years, survived. It was around this clock and the restored civic buddings that the new Plymouth was planned, and in Derry’s Cross, the “Piccadilly Circus” of Plymouth, Westward have built their television centre and studios. Little more than eighteen months ago, Derry’s Cross overlooked a piece of derelict ground, bisected by a road which, it was proposed, should be removed in the reconstruction plan.

The Time Factor

Almost everywhere in any television station, you are faced by clocks, large, small. illuminated, silenced, synchronous and slaved. But the most menacing of all are the large slave clocks with pulsed minute and second hands. The second hands of these clocks are the controlling influence of any station. Working on a time schedule to the nearest second is a fundamental requirement of any television network, but particularly the commercial stations, where interchange of programmes and insertion of commercials involves simultaneous switching operations in many Post Office and programme company’s centres.

The clocks start ticking long before a station opens, however. From the moment the ITA awards a regional concession to the selected syndicate, the fight with time begins. Probably in no regional area to date has the fight against time been so fierce as in the South West, where Westward have now completed a new, purpose-built television centre in the heart of Plymouth. It takes much longer to build new premises than to convert existing premises, and there lies the danger if the completion date is definitely fixed and immovable.

Fig.1 - A plan of the television centre: A - Master control room B - Technical area C - Scene dock D - Studio 2 E - Studio 2 control room F - Announcers G - Carpenter's shop H - Drawing office I - Technical maintenance J - Public viewing corridor K - Oil storage L - Green room

Fig.1 – A plan of the television centre:
A – Master control room
B – Technical area
C – Scene dock
D – Studio 2
E – Studio 2 control room
F – Announcers
G – Carpenter’s shop
H – Drawing office
I – Technical maintenance
J – Public viewing corridor
K – Oil storage
L – Green room

The First Stage

Even before the Westward group – headed by Peter Cadbury – had secured the concession, the syndicate decided to build new studios rather than convert an old building, and the architects had prepared preliminary plans and perspective drawings of the proposed buildings. These drawings were exhibited to the ITA and were part of the evidence produced to show the ambitious intentions of the winning syndicate (of the fourteen applicants). A splendid site had been
reserved near the Continental Hotel, not far from the Post Office Telephone Exchange, through which all vision and sound signals would come from the ITV network (via Bristol). In the reverse direction, these signals, integrated with the local production and commercials, would return on separate lines, to the Plymouth Telephone Exchange, to be fed to the transmitters at Stockland Hill (near Axminster) and Caradon Hill (near Liskeard).

The Second Site

The site seemed a good one, but before any building was starred the Estates Official of the Plymouth Corporation came forward with the offer of an alternative site, fifty yards from the one originally selected, but of a very different character. This new site, vaguely earmarked for a civic theatre to be built some time in the future, had a frontage on Derry’s Cross. But there was one disadvantage to this site: the end of Millbay Road, A38, together with telephone, electric power and other services underneath it, cut right across the frontage of the site and this road could not be closed to the public until September 1960. It was unthinkable to lose this wonderful frontage, but impractical to delay commencement of building construction until this date.

The outcome of a very lengthy debate one night at Plymouth between the architects and executives of Westward was a somewhat unconventional layout – shown in Fig. 1 – which would allow the studios and technical area and production offices, etc., to be built at the rear of the new site, clear of the public road, and for work on these to commence as soon as the plans were passed by the City Council. The “front office block” could follow, work to commence as soon as the Millbay Road section was closed and the public services under the road removed. The front office block and the technical area would be joined by a wing containing canteen, dressing-rooms and a few administrative offices.

Unexpected Advantages

In the meantime, a number of additional advantages for this site had become apparent. It was in the heart of the theatre precinct of Plymouth, very close to the Civic Centre, the A.B.C. Cinema, the Drake Cinema and the department stores. These were all within 1,000ft and could be covered for outside broadcasts without the use of an O.B. truck. On the adjoining site was the Plymouth Institution and Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society, who were putting up an impressive building to house lecture rooms, library, photographic dark rooms – and a small theatre seating 356 persons.

The construction of this theatre – the Athenaeum – had only just commenced and the Plymouth Institution Management Committee were willing to make structural modifications in the interest of its regular use for television. Westward suggested the provision of a modern revolving stage and a compound orchestra lift which visually added an 8ft apron to the front of the stage; also the provision of additional power supplies for lights, permanent camera,
sound and control circuits and even a clock slaved to the master clock system in the Westward building!

This was agreed to and finally, it was decided, that if the Athenaeum was to be regularly used by Westward, an underground connecting passage should be built to enable artists to walk straight from their dressing rooms in the Westward building to the stage of the theatre. All of this was a most valuable excursion into supplementary facilities.

A view of the front of the television studios when nearing completion.

A view of the front of the television studios when nearing completion.

The Challenge

The fact that the plot of ground chosen for the Westward building faced the busiest thoroughfare in Plymouth was a challenge for the architects to design a frontage which would fit in with the enlightened architecture of the reconstruction area of Plymouth, to harmonise with the dignity of the Civic Centre, without clashing with the gay facade of the Drake Cinema, nor the contemporary loftiness of the big stores in Royal Parade. And – at the same time, to preserve a functional up-to-date building.

The first step was to proceed with the planning of a modern regional television studio centre and technical area layout. This is where the past experience of the architects, Treadgold and Elsey proved most valuable. This firm had previously designed Pontcanna studios at Cardiff and Arno’s Court Studios, Bristol, for TWW. A plan was evolved which provided a main studio (50ft x 50ft), a presentation studio (23ft x 17ft) and an announcers booth (14ft x 8ft), with studio control rooms, master control, telecine and film departments all grouped in convenient relationship. Advantage was taken of the considerable slope of the ground, which was 22ft higher at the back of the site than at Derry’s Cross frontage.

The main studio was planned to be built at the rear of the site, partly below the ground level but still leaving a 28ft gap between it and Notte Street for future expansion. The film department was to be directly below “telecine”, with a hoist between. Production and technical offices were to be grouped around the technical area. This rear part of the premises was completed in time for the opening of the station but the remainder of the premises have only recently been finished.

A Westward Television film editor at work in one of the film cutting rooms.

A Westward Television film editor at work in one of the film cutting rooms.

Technical Facilities

A wing joining the studio block with a front office block, houses the restaurant on the lower ground floor, dressing rooms on the ground floor and a number of offices on the first floor. The from block contains reception and the sales department on the lower ground floor with the administrative offices above.

The main television equipment contract was arranged with Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Ltd., who supplied five 4½in. image orthicon cameras, a vidicon camera, special effects equipment, etc.

Local Programmes

The anxiety of the early days of Westward, with temporary offices for staff, improvised hook-ups for wiring, the continuous tattoo of hammering, the perils of cement dust on the equipment should be over now, but Westward have already commenced the construction of additional premises on the Notte Street side of their building, mainly to cope with the constantly expanding staff required to produce more local programmes. Under the guidance of Stephen Mitchell and W. H. Cheevers, several local programmes have achieved high ratings for non-peak periods of the evening, notably “Spin Along”, “Ordinary People”, “Westward Diary” and a very well-edited local news service, with film inserts.

A few weeks ago, film scenes of a big warehouse fire in Plymouth were on the Westward News within forty minutes of being photographed. Not much time for processing, editing and adding a commentary, with all technicians clock-watching to complete a red-hot news assignment by 18.06 hours precisely!

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Richard Jones 9 September 2015 at 1:25 pm

Great article! Thanks for sharing it!

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