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ATV Memories

From the the early 1960's and onwards, the ATV studios became the Mecca for some American production companies when it became known that the facilities and technical expertise of the staff surpassed any other television studio, especially in the musical production field.Top American stars of stage and screen were regular visitors producing musicals specials and film dramas. This added to the myriad of programming that ATV turned out to satisfy their franchise agreement. In the very beginning, stars like Jo Stafford, Carol Channing, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Glenn Campbell, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Burt Bacharach filled the two larger studios with constant appearances. Music emitted from Studio D Band Room at all times of the night and day. This cacophony of top quality programming would continue until the early eighties when the Muppet Shows finally finished their fifth year and the production arm of the studios was compelled to move to Nottingham in the East Midlands of England in a political re-working of the license renewals. The studios were taken over by the BBC and extensively used, although the site is probably doomed to closure eventually as East Enders requires updating, sets and equipment-wise. In 1968, ATV lost its weekend London transmission franchise but increased the Midlands to seven days a week. This action prompted Lord Lew Grade to retain the Elstree site to keep making programmes for the Midland franchise whilst increasing the drive for the American and worldwide export market. An influx of world-class entertainers and film stars started to arrive. One such entertainer was Liberace who was to record 10 one-hour Specials for NBC. Because ATV was comprised of the most powerful impresarios in show business at that time, it followed that to fill the screen with hours of top quality programming was not a logistic problem. These impresarios owned theatres and had control of a vast army of performers through their talent agencies. Even as early as 1955, light entertainment and ATV became synonymous. The Saturday Spectacular live transmissions from The Wood Green Empire set the scene from Independent Television's inception. The Alma Cogan Show emanated from the Hackney Empire; while Emergency Ward Ten went out live twice a week from the Highbury Studios. This studio was also the home of the weekly H. M. Tennant one-hour dramas, employing the cream of British film and stage actors. When the Highbury studios and Wood Green and Hackney Empire theatres were closed the old British National film studios at Boreham Wood became the headquarters with the installation of the finest lighting grids and studio equipment that money could buy. The very first Light Entertainment show to emanate from Elstree Studio D was Cliff Richard & The Shadows, a series I worked on as a floor sound technician. I operated second boom on the first ever drama from Studio C, a live transmission of The Man Condemned in October 1960. Other memorable early productions were Emergency Ward Ten; Sgt Cork; The Larkins; The Planemakers; The Power Game; Mrs Thursday; The Fraud Squad; Mainly Millicent; The Arthur Haynes Show;George & The Dragon; Pipkins; Singalong with Max Bygraves; Edward The Seventh; Father Brown; The Cedar Tree; Sapphire & Steel; Shine on Harvey Moon; Timeslip; The Strauss Family; Clayhanger and many more. Studios A and B concentrated mainly on soaps, situation comedies, chat shows, schools, children's and religious programmes. The two larger studios C and D were used mainly for big stage dramas and musicals. Studio D had a capacious audience area. A huge back lot was also available, where the Shakespeare Theatre in the Round was re-created for a drama series on Will Shakespeare in 1976. For the 26 episodes of Clayhanger the back lot was transformed into a Stoke-on-Trent Potteries Street. Later, Honey Lane was a market stall soap opera not unlike the present day East Enders which now occupies the same back lot. For the Bing Crosby 1976 Christmas Show, it became Dickensian again for a sequence starring Twiggy and Ron Moody. The last ever ATV back lot programme was Auf Wiedersehen Pet in 1983. The Outside Broadcast units were also housed on site, usually preparing for the weekend football matches, horse racing or the perennial Sunday Night at the London Palladium. There were also scenery workshops and huge storage areas. Car parking was provided for everybody. A normal day would find all four studios, editing and dubbing suites and the back lot buzzing with activity. This quantity of staff, musicians and artistes gave no problem to the ATV canteen providing sustenance virtually sixteen hours a day throughout the entire year with self-service and waitress service facilities (and a well attended bar!). The friendly atmosphere existing among the staff and visiting artistes at the ATV studios was of the highest nature. People literally went to work whistling. At Christmas time, Lew and Kathy Grade toured the site speaking to everybody they came across before attending the legendary Christmas children's parties. For the staff, a well paid, secure job and a good pension scheme added to the happy working environment that epitomised the true glory days of British television production. It is doubtful whether this happens anywhere today in any business. No company was as tightly run as ATV. Over-crewing was avoided by a management structure comprised mainly of ex-technical people who `knew the ropes'. Careful scheduling offered the shareholders value for money. For a guide to this success it was generally estimated that at one time, the BBC employed more commissionaires than the entire staff of ATV Elstree! After the loss of the London Weekend franchise in 1968, ATV up-graded much of its equipment in readiness for an onslaught on the world markets. Thus the studios were equipped to the highest possible standard. But, long before the American producers arrived many ATV series were sold for coast-to-coast transmission in the USA.

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