At the time when the Associated-British Picture Corporation decided to go into television in 1955, cinemas were closing all over the country, due to Entertainment Tax and falling attendances. It made sense for ABPC’s new venture to make use of some of the company’s redundant real estate as TV studios.
In the Midlands, where ABC was to provide programmes on Saturday and Sunday, with what was to become ATV taking care of the weekday schedules, the Astoria cinema on Aston Road North was set aside for conversion to a studio for both companies. Built originally as the Theatre Royal and opened on 7 August 1893, it had become the Astoria in 1927, after major reconstruction work. It closed finally as a cinema on 26 November 1955, reopening on 17 February 1956 as the Alpha Television Studios (or the “Television Theatre – Channel Eight”, according to the original sign on the facade). In time, three studios were carved out of the old pile: one of 3000 square feet, one of 1200 square feet and a presentation studio of 380 square feet. An extension was built in the early 1960s to house the technical areas, including the new video tape machines, and the studios continued providing Crossroads and The Golden Shot to the ITV network until 1970, when the new ATV Centre opened on Broad Street. The main auditorium was demolished, but the early 1960s extension was retained, becoming the headquarters of Birmingham independent local radio station BRMB in 1974. The story of ITV’s presence in the Midlands is told brilliantly and in great depth by the recently released From ATVLand in Colour DVD set from the Media Archive of Central England.
In the north, weekday programme providers Granada were committed to building their own studios from scratch at Quay Street in the centre of Manchester. ABC, as in Birmingham, had a cinema to spare, namely the Capitol at Didsbury. The Capitol, designed by architect Peter Cummings – later to design the Apollo at Ardwick – had opened originally on 21 May 1931 as an independently-run 1900-seater. Unfortunately, less than a year after it opened, on 25 April 1932, the building was gutted by fire. Some have suggested that the choice of film in the picture on the left was merely asking for trouble.
The conflagration could have meant the end for the Capitol. Instead, it was reconstructed in an even more lavish style than the original, re-opening on 16 August 1933. In 1936, the Capitol became part of the Union circuit of cinemas, then part of ABC when the chain rescued Union from financial disaster a year later. It found some use as a live theatre in the immediate post-war era, but had never been a great success. This, combined with its size and modernity, made it ideal for ABC’s northern studio, and it closed as a cinema on 14 January 1956, to be readied for ABC’s opening night on 5 May 1956. The Manchester offices were in Television House, located at 12 Mount Street, near St Peter’s Square. The building is still there, but has been reclad and renamed The Lexicon.
As in Birmingham, the building was divided into three studios. Studio 1 was located in the former stalls area with a floor space of 5000 square feet and audience seating for 600. The next biggest studio was was situated in the cinema’s former café and, at 1000 square feet in size, was suitable for small discussion programmes such as ABC of the North. Finally, there was a small presentation studio. Studio 1 was the location for the rather drably titled Inauguration of ABC’s Northern Television Studios (well, that’s what The Times billed it as, anyway – follow the link for some British Pathé footage of the opening) at 7.05pm on Saturday 5 May, lasting 15 minutes before the Midlands and North headed to the Crane Theatre in Liverpool with an ABC outside broadcast unit for Hometown Saturday Night with Robb Wilton, Beryl Orde and Frankie Vaughan.
From 1956 to 1968, the former Capitol was home to a wealth of television. Many of ABC’s Armchair Theatre productions came from Didsbury, including Underground on 30 November 1958, during the live transmission of which, actor Gareth Jones collapsed and died. Not all of the great drama came from ABC. When, on 28 November 1956, Granada staged a version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, it was decided that the existing studios 2 and 4 (Sidney Bernstein having decreed that studios should be given only even numbers, to make the complex sound twice as extensive) at Quay Street were too small, so Didsbury studio 1 was hired.
In light entertainment terms, studio 1 was home to Big Night Out with Mike and Bernie Winters, Doddy’s Music Box and the regional Comedy Bandbox/Saturday Bandboxstrand, in which both Les Dawson and Jimmy Tarbuck made their television debuts. Royston Mayoh was present at the opening night in a junior capacity and was the director of the final show to come from the studios. He remembers the opportunities for fun presented by the structure of the building. “At Didsbury, there was a circle. It had been a cinema. You remember how you could nearly touch the circle. [Nameless respected comedy writer known universally as ‘the Wig and Pen’] was talking to Mike underneath the circle. Over the top, a man called Dougie Howells tied a piece of string on his wig, and Bernie was to the side saying ‘Quick, you two here’. The wig stayed in place. I can see it to this day.”
Studio 1 at Didsbury was also the venue for Les Dawson’s career-definining performance on Opportunity Knocks, on 20 May 1967, directed by Mayoh. Shortly after his Opnox success, Dawson was booked by Mayoh’s colleague Mark Stuart to appear in a technical non-transmission pilot for that season’s run of The Blackpool Show. He was such a hit that Stuart gave him a spot on the 30 July 1967 edition of the show. Once again, he stormed it, but over-ran. ABC’s head of light entertainment Philip Jones ordered that the tape be edited to bring Dawson’s act back down to length. Producer Mark Stuart argued against doing so, backed up by host Dickie Henderson who suggested cutting his song. Henderson felt so strongly about Dawson’s performance that he threatened never to work again for ABC if Dawson’s routine was cut. Stuart and Henderson prevailed, and let Dawson steal the show.
The Blackpool Show was the summer replacement for ATV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, transmitted from the stage of the ABC Theatre in the Lancashire resort. It was usually recorded earlier on the evening of transmission, rather than broadcast live.
The programme had begun life as Blackpool Night Out on 5 July 1964, hosted originally by Mike and Bernie Winters, who had made their names on Big Night Out, which was made at Didsbury. The shiny new Blackpool ABC had opened on 31 May the previous year, with Cliff Richard and the Shadows in a summer show entitled ‘Holiday Carnival’. It had been built on the site of the old Hippodrome theatre, which had opened as the Empire Theatre and Opera House on 4 July 1895, designed by architect JD Harker, adopting its new name in 1900, although ‘The Empire’ was visible in relief on the facade until it was demolished in 1960-1961.
After being taken over by Associated British Cinemas in April 1929, the Hippodrome was primarily a live venue with cinema capability. It was dark for several out-of-season periods in its life, ABC having the Princess cinema on the Promenade for year-round film exhibition. In the long term, its viability was helped by the reduction, in 1949, of the seating capacity from 2820 seats to 1878.
Eventually, the decision was taken to build a new theatre on the site, retaining some of the walls from the original building. The new ABC – designed by the circuit’s staff architect CJ Foster – was to have the same ‘theatre first’ priorities as its predecessor, but with one important difference. From the start, the theatre would be built with the needs of television production in mind. Camera points were provided around the luxurious 1934-seat auditorium and on the stage, such as this one, pictured on a visit to the ABC in 1998.
The main point of interest in the auditorium, from a design point of view, was the ceiling treatment, which combined a recurring star motif with recessed lighting. As Blackpool Night Out was to be the summer replacement for Sunday Night at the London Palladium it was only fitting that the ABC should be equipped with a revolving stage like that at its London counterpart. Although the revolve was no longer used when I visited in 1998, the stage having been taken out of use when the building was subdivided into a three-screen cinema in 1981, the controls remained in place, while the performing area was used for storage of film promotion material and popcorn.
For the 1966 run, hosted by Tony Hancock, Blackpool Night Out was renamed The Blackpool Show under which title it resumed for the summer of 1967, but there was to be no return in 1968, as ABC TV wound down operations in the north, and prepared to join with the TV arm of Rediffusion, to form Thames Television. However, the ABC continued through the 1970s in rude health, with hit summer shows including 1977’s ‘Holiday Startime’, a homecoming for the young comic who had forged his reputation on The Blackpool Show a decade earlier. Later, with visitor numbers declining, ABC decided to close the theatre and carve up the interior to create three cinemas within the space. The last show was on 31 January 1981, with the new-look ABC opening on 30 April 1981, with 728 seats in screen one – the former circle, 321 seats in screen two, and 231 seats in screen three. In this form, the ABC continued, changing name to Cannon in 1986, then MGM in 1993, before reverting to the ABC name in 1996. It closed as a cinema in December 1998, reopening in 2002 after extensive alterations as The Syndicate nightclub, which closed in 2010. The former ABC now stands derelict, with ‘TO LET’ signs on its facade.
The last programme from Didsbury had been Goodbye from ABC, a short valedictory clip show that went out from 11.55pm on Sunday 28 July 1968, hosted by announcer David Hamilton. The programme was thought lost for many years, until it emerged that Hamilton had taken home the broadcast master on 2-inch quadruplex video tape. The building passed into the possession of Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), which based its drama, film and television courses there, with students like Julie Walters and Steve Coogan passing through over the years. The end came in June 1998, when the MMU moved out. The former Capitol was demolished and replaced with a fairly uninspiring block of flats.
The television heritage of both buildings remained evident long after ABC vacated them. Didsbury retained the form of its studio days to the end. Meanwhile, at Blackpool, thirty years after the last television production to come from the ABC, Blackpool, there remained in the abandoned dressing rooms a designer’s chart. I hope it still exists somewhere, appreciated by its owners.