Saturday 17 December 2016

Farewell to Wembley's Fountain Studios

Guest blog by Phiip Grant
While Brent’s Planning Committee were approving more big development schemes on Wednesday evening (see Martin’s “Public denied access …” blog below), a party to celebrate 60 years of TV production at the Wembley Park Studios was taking place nearby. I was lucky enough to be invited, as a (very minor) contributor of material to a film about the history of the studios, which was shown as part of the farewell gathering of staff and television people who had worked there over the years.

Martin broke the news in January that the studios had been sold to Quintain LINK . Like other TV facilities in London before it, rising property prices had made Fountain Studios more valuable as a redevelopment site, despite being a popular and profitable venue for independent production companies to make their programmes. Before it is forgotten, I would like to share some of the studio’s story with you.

After the British Empire Exhibition closed in 1925, new uses had to be found for its huge site and the numerous reinforced concrete buildings it contained. Cinema was a fast-growing business, and some of its leading lights suggested that the 13-acre Palace of Engineering or slightly smaller Palace of Industry should be converted to film studios, as Britain’s “Hollywood”.

Eventually, in 1928, it was the former Lucullus Restaurant, the BEE’s poshest eating place, where dinner for two (at 25/- a head) cost as much as the weekly wage of the labourers who constructed the building, which became the studios for British Talking Pictures Ltd.


By the 1930’s, the Wembley Park Studios had been taken over by (20th Century) Fox Films. As part of laws to protect the British film industry from American competition, they had to make as many films here as they imported, so Wembley turned out one low-budget “B” movie drama every three weeks. These “quota quickies” provided a start in films for many British actors and actresses who would go on to become famous, and even win “Oscars”.
After being requisitioned during the Second World War for making Army and RAF training films, a small number of independent films were made here up to 1954. By that time television was the big new source of entertainment, and the start of Independent Television saw the studios converted to be the production centre for the London region’s weekday ITV channel, Associated-Rediffusion, which went on air from Wembley Park in September 1955. The old building had enough room for four small TV studios, but something bigger was soon needed, and Studio 5, the largest purpose-built TV studio in Europe, opened in 1960.

Apart from two short periods in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the studios were unoccupied, and seven years in between when they were mainly used for feature films again (including The Elephant Man, Quadrophenia and Time Bandits), Wembley Park has produced top quality TV programmes. If you have watched television during the past 60 years, you will almost certainly have seen some of them, even though you may not have known they were made locally.
If drama is your thing, the detective series “No Hiding Place” or period saga “Upstairs, Downstairs” were filmed here, as well as a famous 1960’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (with Benny Hill as Bottom). Britain’s first quiz programmes with cash prizes, “Take Your Pick” and “Double Your Money” were made here, as were the first series of the mega money doubling show, “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” Older fans of popular music will remember “Ready, Steady, Go!” (yes, I was a teenager in the 1960’s), while younger readers may recognise “The Word” and MTV’s “Unplugged”, all made at Wembley Park.

Comedy series that were filmed at our local studios include “On the Buses”, and Wembley’s own stellar TV family “The Kumars” (at No. 42). Satire has also featured on the production schedules over the years, from “The Frost Report” (including Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese) to “The Day Today” (an early outing for Steve Coogan), along with “Bremner, Bird and Fortune” and the early years of “Have I Got News For You”. But in more recent years it has been the big light entertainment shows, which make good use of the studio’s huge size, which have dominated the output of what became Fountain Studios in 1993, including “Pop Idol”, “The Cube” and “Britain’s Got Talent”.

Fountain Studios literally had “The X Factor”, and the 2016 live semi-final on 4 December was the last programme ever to be filmed there. Its closure means the loss of a number of highly skilled technicians’ jobs, a loss of business for the nearby shops and restaurants which served those making the TV shows and the audiences who came to watch them, and the loss of a special place with an almost 90-year history of producing films and TV programmes in Wembley Park. Joni Mitchell was right when she sang ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ (showing my age again!). Perhaps the site will become a “parking lot” for a few years, then Quintain will probably put up more blocks of flats, to add to Wembley’s new “City of Concrete”.

To mark the passing of Wembley Park Studios, I will be giving an illustrated talk about its history on 20 January 2017. Watch out for more details in the New Year, if you would be interested in coming along, and please feel free to add any memories you have of the studios in the “Comments” section below.
Philip Grant


Anonymous said...

Thanks Phillip.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this clear history, Philip.

This sell-off comes at a time when there are reports that the market for luxury developments is vanishing, whereas much of what has hitherto come out of those studios has 'borne the test of time' as well as given professionals a start to glittering careers; and the studio has boosted local trade; all as you report.

Those features -- especially boosting local trade -- should surely feature in the remit of a local authority, in my opinion.

Alan Wheatley

Meg Howarth said...

Fabulous, Philip! Thanks. Hadn't even heard of Fountain Studios, so a nice history lesson for me.

Anonymous said...

How about a TV show for the 21st Century entitled 'Who wants to be an affordable housing tenant?'

Alan Wheatley