The Riverside Studios in Crisp Road are due to reopen in August this year following the closure of the old studios in 2014. The former Studios and the neighbouring Queen’s Wharf have been replaced by a new state of the art theatrical and media building across both sites with apartments above it.
This modern building is a far cry from the two engineering works that were originally there, built on the site of the former residence known as The Chancellors. In 1867 the brothers, John and Henry Gwynne, both civil engineers, had founded the Hammersmith Works on the southern part of the site and in 1874 Rosser & Russell, also an engineering company, took a lease on the Queen’s Wharf to the north, later purchasing the freehold.
In 1933 Triumph Films bought the Gwynnes site and for the next twenty-one years, the studios passed through a succession of moderately successful film producers. Some famous titles were made there including The Seventh Veil (1945) starring James Mason, The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) starring Margaret Rutherford and Father Brown (1954) starring Alec Guinness.
In 1954 the studios were bought by the BBC and it made considerable alterations to the buildings in order to convert it into the country’s first purpose-built television facility. The row of cottages along Crisp Road were demolished and a box-shaped construction was erected. In the photograph below, the three parts of the building can clearly be seen: in the foreground the ugly concrete and brick BBC addition, behind that the original Victorian warehouse and beyond that the end of one of the old storage sheds, modified during the Triumph Films days to become the stages and dubbing theatre.
The studios were acquired as a “temporary” solution to the BBC’s recording needs whilst BBC Television Centre was being built but they continued to be used after the 1960 opening of the Television Centre, probably because it was regarded as a superior recording space. It was particularly important to the development of colour broadcasting.
Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother officially opened the BBC Riverside Television Studios in 1957.
The facility was in continuous use until the early 1970s. Some of the most famous programmes made there include Hancock’s Half Hour (1957-60), Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) and Z Cars.
Dixon of Dock Green was unmissable viewing in its day. It went out at 6.30 on a Saturday evening, attracting audiences of around 14 million in 1961 and ran from 1955 – 1976, most of the early series being made at Riverside and transmitted live.
It always began with a filmed sequence of PC George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, in a street at night, walking up to the camera, gently saluting and saying the immortal words “Evenin‘ all.” He’d then have a chat with the audience about the latest case he’d been working on. The programme then cut to the live studio for the rest of the episode.
Several episodes of the first five series of Dr Who, starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton (1964-8), came from the Riverside. Indeed it is said that Dr Who shared his police box Tardis with Dixon of Dock Green.
More than 500 editions of Play School were shot at the Riverside Studios before it moved to the Television Centre in 1968 and towards the end of the 1960s Blue Peter was also made there. Blue Peter was probably the last live programme to be made at the studios by the BBC – around March 1970.
By the mid-1970s, Riverside was no longer required by the BBC, as Television Centre was fully operational. But after the studios themselves had closed, the site did remain in use for some time for the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race: its terrace provided an excellent location for a camera with fine views up and down the Thames.
In 1975, after the BBC moved out, a charitable trust was formed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council to take control of the building. It became a local arts centre. Two large multi-purpose spaces were created from the two main sound stages, to be used for a mixed programme of live theatre, music, dance and film. In 1976, Peter Gill was appointed Riverside’s first Artistic Director and soon established the Studios as a leading London arts venue.
Riverside Studios developed a reputation for staging highly regarded innovative theatrical and dance productions. On two occasions during the early 1980s, Samuel Beckett rehearsed productions at Riverside, later describing the venue as ‘a haven’. An influential gallery also flourished under the direction of Greg Hilty, hosting exhibitions by such luminaries as David Hockney, Antony Gormley and Yoko Ono.
The dubbing theatre had been converted into a good cinema in 1976. After refurbishment in 1987 it began to operate as a successful repertory cinema and quickly became highly regarded by film buffs. It enjoyed this reputation right up to the end and the new building will include a cinema with a similar remit. The cinema had both 35mm and digital projectors in its final years – these will be re-installed in the new cinema so it will be one of the few cinemas in the country still capable of projecting actual film.
Funding was a problem. It lost its funding from Hammersmith & Fulham Council in the mid 1990s. Actors and supporters lobbied for it to remain open but it could no longer survive financially as a venue for live performance.
William Burdett-Coutts took over as artistic director in 1993 and the following year closed the centre for six months for a major refurbishment. The show that put Riverside back on the television map was Chris Evans’ Channel 4 show TFI Friday which ran from 1995 to December 2000. In more recent years, The Apprentice: You’re Fired! and Never Mind the Buzzcocks were filmed there.
Funding problems increased with the loss of its Arts Council grant in 2012. However, during 2009 and 2010 the trustees of Riverside Studios had been negotiating with the owners of the derelict office block next door (Queen’s Wharf) on a plan to redevelop both sites. The negotiations continued and eventually at the end of August 2013 a scheme was announced to redevelop the two sites and build a new arts centre along with TV studios, cafes, flats etc. Planning permission was granted just before Christmas 2013.
The original buildings seen from across the river in 2006. The cream office building is Queen’s Wharf and the white ‘warehouse’ to its right is the old Riverside Studios:
The studios closed at the end of September 2014 and building demolished. The Fulham Society visited as the building was taking shape:
The Riverside Studios are due to reopen in August 2019. The former Studios and the neighbouring Queen’s Wharf have been replaced by a new building across both sites. Riverside Studios will boast three flexible studio spaces for television, theatre, dance, opera, music and comedy as well as a cinema, screening room, archive, community & rehearsal space and a local events and entertainment space. The new Riverside will also offer a variety of places to eat and drink.
As you can imagine Riverside Studios have amassed an enormous amount of material over its 40 years including photographs, programmes, audio and video tapes, posters and production notes. They had not been well looked after but the development has provided an opportunity to ensure the material is properly conserved and made accessible to researchers and the public. They have plans, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, for a purpose built archive storage and a public reading room.
I would like to thank the Design Architects, Assael Architecture Ltd, for the two views from across the river; Guy Hornsby at the Riverside Studios for his help and the use of the photographs from the Riverside archives; the old photograph of the engineering companies came from the LBHF Local Studies & Archives; and the remaining two are my own.
Hammersmith & Fulham, Local Studies and Archives volunteer