Pebble Mill Studios
Demolition September 2005
|Address||Pebble Mill Road|
|Town or city||Birmingham|
Pebble Mill Studios were the base of BBC Midlands Today and BBC Radio WM (West Midlands) located in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. The nine acre site was opened by Princess Anne on 10 November 1971, which contained two canteens, a post office, gardens, a seven storey office block and Outside Broadcasting (OB) base.
The audience entrance was at the front and centre of the complex. Post-production was split in two; a TV section and a Radio/Sound section.
BBC Networked programming made over the course of Pebble Mills' life featured Pebble Mill at One, The Archers (BBC Radio 4), Top Gear (Original 1970's to 1990's TV series) Doctors and Gardeners' World.
- 1 Early history
- 2 Television facilities
- 3 Post production, cesign, costume and make-up
- 4 Communications and signals
- 5 Outside broadcast – television and radio
- 6 Sound and radio
- 7 Programmes
- 8 The end and closure
- 9 References
- 10 External links
In the 1950s, BBC Midlands were based in offices on Carpenter Road, Edgbaston. The news studio was located in a separate building in Broad Street which remained in operation until 1971. In the same complex, the studios also recorded drama productions in a former cinema in Gosta Green. Over time, these studios were too small for the expanding region and were hampered by being spread out across Birmingham.
The BBC decided that a change in corporation policy was implemented to make networked programmes. This created the BBC English Regions, which consisted of: Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast. These locations were created as 'National Production Centres', to produce television and radio productions for the areas in which they covered. Pebble Mill was designed to be an addition to London's Wood Lane Television Centre (TVC or TC).
The lease for the site was acquired from the Calthorpe Estate on a peppercorn rent by the BBC. Plans for Pebble Mill were approved in 1967, construction of the studios began, which was designed by John Madin founder of the John Madin Design Group.
The original plan was to contain a Light Entertainment Studio (A) a regional news studio (B) and a drama studio (C) which was to be similar in size to TC6.
Studio A was the main studio 6,500 square feet (600 m2) (81 ft × 80 ft within fire lanes) in size, with three separate control rooms looking onto the studio floor: a production gallery, a combined Vision/Lighting gallery and sound control gallery. The studio had four EMI 2001 cameras, a fifth back-up camera and a Thorn Q-file lighting desk, all of which were replaced in 1983 with five Link 125 cameras and a single Ikegami HL-79D camera with a GVG (Grass Valley Group) 1600-7F vision mixer (later a Rank Strand Galaxy lighting desk).
During 1990/1991 at the urging of Producer John King the studios technical resource department toured the UK's other BBC, ITV and to Channel 4 studios to find new cameras to replace the ageing Link 125's. After a detailed selection process Sony BVP-370 and BVP-70 camera where chosen. It was also during this period that asbestos was removed from Studio A.
In November 1997, work began on a major refurbishment of the studio, which included a new production control room complete with 36-channel Sony vision mixer and DME, new lighting/vision control room. A re-equipped sound control room with new Calrec Q-series 60-channel desk.
This £2.2 million upgrade took nine weeks and Studio A re-opened by the end of February 1998 as a fully digital widescreen facility complete with new six Sony BVP-500 and two BVP-550 cameras.
Studio B was for local news and sport and was 40 × 25 ft in size. It had a combined control gallery with Lighting-Vision-Production and sound all sited next to each other. This studio was used primarily for Midlands Today but also produced Network East and other regional programmes.
The studios were originally intended to have a third 'drama' studio - but this never materialised. Instead, the main foyer became Studio C, as space was needed for Pebble Mill at One.
The 'Foyer' had the suspended ceiling removed and a scaffold lighting rig installed. Audience seating replaced the reception desk and interview seating installed by the main windows. Pebble Mill at One then ended in 1986 but in 1988, Daytime Live was launched. It used the same format as Pebble Mill at One and used the same content.
In 1992, Good Morning with Anne and Nick (Anne Diamond and Nick Owen - who were seen together on TV-am) replaced Daytime Live. Construction of a conservatory studio within the courtyard area was completed and was used for cooking items and interviews.
The daytime drama series Doctors was made between 2000 and 2004. The windows of the foyer were blacked out which was used to record the series. Despite the fact that there was a perfectly good television studio sitting empty, by then studio A had been closed. Doctors also used an additional space - radio Studio 1.
CAR/TAR (Central Apparatus Room/Technical Apparatus Room)
During the 1970s until the general refit in 1983 TAR was part of the technical rooms suite on the first floor adjoining Studio A. (This was to be the central technical link between Studio A and Studio C) This area housed the 'Line Up' desks for Studio A and B, as well as a maintenance area, the dimmer room for the studio production lighting systems and TV signal generation equipment.
When the 1983 refit began it was decided that a Central area should be built combining both Studio A and B's island desks and the new Studio C area. The new CAR/TAR was in the comms area which had shrunk due to new technology making switching even more compact. Around the late 1980s early 1990s Comms Centre moved again giving Services Department a new centralised service centre in the old vacant comms centre. The new services area contained work benches for all the disciplines (Comms, VT, camera, Vision and Lighting control), a camera test area and a small mechanical workshop (situated just above the north riser with Studio C directly below. Any work in the workshop had to stop during programmes as noise would travel straight into the foyer).
At the rear of the OB base was a small studio space called BORIS. This space was used as a rehearsal room and for a brief period of time using Studio C's gallery, was used for the early Sunday morning Farming programme which later on became Countryfile, presented by John Craven who had just stopped presenting Newsround and latterly as office space and storage.
The Green Room was part of an extension into open space by the driveway to the rear car park. This new extension included workshop space for the TV lighting department, an extension to the Graphics Department, Production design and the Green Room for the Daytime Programmes produced at Pebble Mill.
Post production, cesign, costume and make-up
The centre was also home to the largest and most advanced BBC post-production departments outside London, including six VT edit suites, two dubbing suites, a small viewing screen and a multitude of Avid non-linear suites. Following the 1983 refit a vast Graphics centre was opened in the old site of TAR and contained Aston caption generators, Rank Cintel Slide Files, Quantel Paintbox and Harry's and other graphic systems.
The Wardrobe/Costume department had its home in the studios central basement area just below the long glazed front window. There was a large work room with another work room containing cutting tables and sewing machines. There was also an office with several dressing rooms either side. There where also several large extras dressing rooms in the basement.
Production Design had design offices in the central tower block until moving in the early 1990s to the new extension. Workshops where on the ground floor next to Studio A. Close by to the construction workshop where several props cages which contained all manner of items, even a Dalek.
Make-up had a large purpose built complex on the ground floor next to Studio A.
Communications and signals
Pebble Mill formed part of the BBC's communications and transmission backbone. London's Wood Lane Television Centre (TVC) had primary responsibility for most of the BBC's transmitted output and day to day transmission switching and presentation.
Pebble Mill was the Midlands Central Switching and Monitoring Centre, and would route national channels (2 television, 4 national radio and local radio) to the Midland transmitters at Sutton Coldfield, Ridge Hill and The Wrekin and to other parts of the UK as well as acting as a national back up to TVC in case of emergencies.
Outside broadcast – television and radio
In the late 1960s to the early 1990s Pebble Mill had a fleet of 'Links' vehicles that were used to relay vision signals from Outside Broadcasts' (OBs) back to the Communications Centre or 'Comms Centre' before being redistributed to London. All audio signals were sent via copper cable (Post Office/BT land lines). When satellite transmission of picture signals began in the mid-1990s, Pebble Mill gained satellite dishes and had fibre optics installed as permanent links to Birmingham's BT tower.
Pebble Mill had several scanners (a media term for an Outside Broadcast (OB) vehicle possibly dating back to World War II when it was an RAF term for mobile radar vehicles which the GPO and BBC used after the war)
During the 1970s 'Comms Centre' was located in the 'Foyer' at Pebble Mill, but by the 1990s, Comms moved around the corner in the studio and was situated in the link area between Radio and TV.
Pebble Mills' OB was home to a substantial fleet. This consisted of both Radio/Sound and Black and White Television Mobile Control Rooms. It was based at the rear of the building in its own garage space that was connected to the main complex.
CM1 (Colour Midland 1)
CM1 was a Type 5 Scanner built by Link Electronics. This was an eight camera vehicle and had a complement of 5 X Philips LDK5 cameras. CM1 would service big sports commitments and other large events around the Midland region such as the snooker at Sheffield, Grand Prix from Silverstone Race Track, Songs of Praise and many others and it was an integral part of the BBC's nationwide TV OB fleet. Eventually CM1 was sold to ex-Pebble Mill OB crews who started Transvision Outside Broadcast.
CM 2 (Colour Midland 2)
CM2 was a 'Topical News & Drama', two-camera vehicle equipped with Philips LDK-14 cameras connected to LDK-5 CCUs (Camera Control Unit) and based on a Dennis TK chassis. In 1982, Boys from the Blackstuff, an English Regions Drama production, was shot on CM2 in Liverpool. The director, Philip Saville, was breaking lots of conventions (not least shooting wide-angles and close-ups at the same time) and presented Ramon Bailey (Sound Supervisor) and his sound crew with lots of challenges.
CM 3 (Colour Mobile 3)
CM3 was a Single camera vehicle based on a Renault Master van and was similar to modern SNG vehicles.
The TV OB Fleet was the first to succumb to the accountants’ spreadsheet logic, and its demise was the first tangible indicator of Pebble Mill’s televisual decline. The vehicles were sold off in 1992 despite being some of the most efficiently scheduled of the BBC’s entire OB Fleet.
Pebble Mill had a BBC Type-B Vehicle mainly tackled live religious programmes such as Radio 3’s Choral Evensong, or Sunday Worship. A typical B-type, features a CALREC S-Series 40-channel sound desk with LS 5/8 speakers and nearfield monitoring. Birmingham's Type B is still operational from the Mailbox.
SCV6 is an articulated Sound Control Vehicle which managed Radio's 1 & 2 popular music OBs. As one of only two SCVs in the country, it is used for live and recorded shows. The SCV is fitted with an ageing SSL 4000 console (with automation) and a Pyramix digital multitrack system.
The Type-C ‘ice-cream van’ broadcast Any Questions & Sport i.e. Test Match Special and Athletics.
Sound and radio
The centre was responsible for a large output into mainstream network radio and was also home of the local radio station Radio WM. WM had studios on the first floor linking the Comm's centre and the news room.
The two radio studios and Local Radio Operations Room overlooked the central courtyard and between them provided all of Radio WM's production base for 35 years.
In addition to WM the complex also had some of the finest sound studios outside of Broadcasting House in London.
Studio 1 was the main music studio at Pebble Mill with enough space to accommodate a full symphony orchestra. Initially, it was used for sound recording sessions plus the twice weekly live broadcasts for Radio 3's lunchtime concerts. However, as well as radio this studio was equipped with a basic lighting grid and was used in its early years for the occasional television programme. The studio lighting was controlled from gallery 'C' from the summer of 1983. However, John Birt's 'Producer Choice' agenda in the early 1990s forced Pebble Mill to charge unrealistic rental rates for the studio and thus ensured that Studio 1 became too expensive for radio use. Therefore Radio 3 moved out to Adrian Boult Hall in the centre of the city, with the newly developed BBC Resources, turning Studio 1 into a full-time TV studio. A scene dock door was added together with the installation of a more comprehensive lighting grid. Soon after, Studio 1 was in daily use for the live transmission of The Really Useful Show. This lasted for three series, but it is understood that the long acoustic reverberation characteristics of the studio were not idea for TV sound. Programmes that originated from Studio 1 included Daily Live, Anything You Can Cook and Front Room. As mentioned above, in its final years Studio 1 was used as a sound stage for Doctors, although the associated radio cubicle continued to be used to produce Radio 4's Farming Today until the closure of Pebble Mill as a whole (in May 2004).
Studio 2 was a large popular music studio with an SSL 4000 console and a reverb time of about half a second. This is where aspiring music balancers were trained, but regrettably there will not be a music studio of any kind at Pebble Mill’s replacement facility, The Mailbox. Studio 2 in the 1990s was used mostly by Radio 2 as its midland sessions studio and many popular musicians performed there.
Studio 3 and M3
Pebble Mill's radio drama studio, Studio 3, provided much of Radio 3 and 4's drama output – it was the home of The Archers, the world's longest running radio soap. The last Archers programme from Pebble Mill was on 13 September 2004. The Mailbox (Pebble Mill's replacement) has a smaller radio drama studio, but incorporating a larger dead-room with an anechoic ‘snail’ for long, outdoor approaches. The Archers transferred to the Mailbox studio at the beginning of October 2004 and the drama studio was designed by Mark Decker. The adjacent facility (M3 - Midland 3) was a small edit studio and had a SADiE and was primarily used for editing The Archers, Radio 2 specialist music shows, and Radio 4’s Midlands-based Features and Rural Affairs output.
Studio 4 and M4
Studio 4 was the chassis of a studio that was never installed, but it had an edit suite associated with it called M4 (Midland 4) where most of the Radio Drama was edited. This is where the first AMS Audiofile DAW was used in radio and was then equipped with both Audiofile and SADiE in the mid-1990s.
Studio 5 was the General Purpose studio – over the years it had done every form of feature or ‘strip’ programme, from Woman’s Hour to Radio 2’s Ed Stewart Show on Sunday afternoons. The studio was refurbished at least twice and was home to The Richard Bacon Show, live Saturday and Sunday nights on Radio 5. Radio 2’s specialist popular music such shows as The Best of Jazz, Paul Jones, and Stuart Maconie’s Critical List where recorded or transmitted from there as well.
Studio 6 was not equipped until about 1995 but was where Radio 2 Through the Night originated – presented by Janice Long, Alex Lester and Mo Dutta. The Mailbox has facilities intended to replicate the functionality of Studios 5 and 6, as well as the M3 & M4 editing facilities.
According to the floor plans of 1971 there was a seventh sound studio on the first floor adjoining the local radio studios. This studio was never commissioned and became an office and later became an electronics room for comms centre.
The Mailbox has facilities intended to replicate the functionality of Studios 3, 5 and 6, as well as the M3 & M4 editing facilities.
BBC Birmingham and BBC Midlands, from their initial conception, were to provide local interest and national programme output for the Midland Region. Over Pebble Mill's 35 years of operation the studios produced some of the BBC's most iconic programmes and was second to Television Centre for total output. The following is a small list of the total programme output of the complex. There were many single and short run documentaries, OBs and pilots which have come and gone over the years many of which will never be remembered.
Pebble Mill housed Radio West Midlands (Radio WM) but also produced programming for Radio 2, 3 and 4. Most of Radio 4's 1990s dramas came from Pebble Mill. Radio programming included over the years Woman’s Hour, The Ed Stewart Show on Sunday afternoons. The Richard Bacon Show, live Saturday and Sunday nights on Radio 5. Radio 2’s specialist popular music shows such as Best of Jazz, Paul Jones, Stuart Maconie’s Critical List and Radio 2's Through the Night, presented by Janice Long, Alex Lester and Mo Dutta. The world's longest running radio soap, The Archers was produced in Studio 3.
News and documentary
Midlands Today the midlands region news programme, Inside Out, Points of View, The Chequered Flag about the history of Motor Sports. The John Gau Productions/CBS/TBS coproduction 'Reaching For the Skies' a documentary series on the history of aviation. Also in the 1990s a News department programme The Midlands at Westminster, a local politics strand broadcast at Sunday lunch time on BBC 2.
Telly Addicts, Top Gear Motorsport, Noel's Addicts, The Great Egg Race with Professor Heinz Wolff, A series of 2point4 Children, An Actors Life, The Golden Oldie Picture Show, May to December, Don't Wait Up, Going for a Song (the 1990s version), Call My Bluff (1997-2005 revival), Eat your Words, Date with Fate, Blizzards Toys. A series of Can't Cook Won't Cook, A Song for Christmas, The Basil Brush Show (1970s version) and Best of Brass, a brass band competition.
The Clothes Show, Gardeners World, local music programme 'Look Hear', On the House a series on DIY where an entire house was built from the foundations up and the work done inside the house presented by Harry Greene and Patty Coldwell. Countryfile, Farming, Kick Start, Junior Kick Start. Pebble Mill also developed lifestyle programming with Style Challenge and To Buy or Not to Buy.
BBC Birmingham was also responsible for a popular BBC2 programme for much of the 1970s-1990s the Snooker programme Pot Black, which was generally shown most Fridays throughout the year at 9pm.
Throughout its 35-year history Pebble Mill productions of BBC drama was quite extensive.
Rose for Winter, Jane Eyre, Fosdyke Saga, Airbase, Tycoon, Bird of Prey, and A Very Peculiar Practice (first series). Owen MD, Lord Peter Wimsey played by Ian Carmichael, and Diary of a Madman. Episodes of Z-cars, The Moonstone, The Roses of Eyam, Prometheus, Sophia and Constance, The Battle of Waterloo starring Warren Clarke, Poldark, Martin Chuzzelwit, and Angels, Adaptations of Charles Dickens work, Shakespeare Plays, Dalziel and Pascoe, Vanity Fair (1987).
Soap operas and serials
A series of Pobol Y Cwm in the early 1970s, Doctors, Dangerfield, Trainer, Kinsey, Triangle, Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock in 1977. All Creatures Great and Small, Howards' Way, Juliet Bravo, This Life, The Brothers starring Jean Anderson, Spy Trap. Pebble Mill produced Specials a short series about a group of Special Police Officers in a fictional Midlands Town. and the anthology series The Afternoon Play.
Rentaghost and one series of HartBeat with Tony Hart, SMart the replacement for Tony Hart's children's arts programme. The Adventure Game, Bodger and Badger. Also editions of Play School and Jackanory.
During the early '60s, BBC Birmingham pioneered television programmes for the Asian community. These were presented and produced by Mahendra Kaul and directed by Ashok Rampal, and broadcast on Sunday mornings. The programme, Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye ("Make Yourself At Home") aired on Sundays at 9am for half an hour and Empire Road (1978–79) was shown on BBC2. During the late '70s and '80s Network East (An Asian Unit Programme) was produced both in Studio A and B providing both music and interviews for the Asian community in the Midlands.
BBC Birmingham utilised the main foyer of Pebble Mill for television entertainment and magazine programmes, mostly for BBC1. One fixture of the schedule, Pebble Mill at One became a popular British afternoon chat BBC1 show, though it started originally on BBC2. The idea to use the reception and foyer for programmes was borne out of the fact, all the other studio space was either fully used for Birmingham produced, or for BBC TV's network needs for the various London based programme departments. Pebble Mill at One ran from 1972 until 1986, was then one of few daytime magazine programmes, hence its popularity at the time. There was at least one Pebble Mill spin-off during the 1970s, when BBC1 rested its main Saturday chat show, Parkinson. BBC Birmingham was commissioned to produce a late night chat show. Saturday Night at the Mill, was the result and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were the regular house band, and they performed the show's signature tune. The programme was directed and produced in Birmingham by Roy Norton and Roy Ronnie. In 1981 an early evening version of a hit show from the sixties on BBC1 called Six Five Special re-surfaced during the Mill's summer break, presented by Donny MacLeod and Marian Foster.
The Pebble Mill format returned in 1988 as Daytime Live, renamed Scene Today followed by Good Morning with Anne and Nick all broadcast from Studio C. And finally Pebble Mill a programme broadcast from Studio A presented by Alan Titchmarsh and Judi Spiers in a format similar to Pebble Mill at One.
The end and closure
Problems with the lease and changes in the way television is produced, as well as some small sections of the building suffering concrete cancer led the BBC to vacate the premises and move to new studios at the Mailbox, completing the transfer on 22 October 2004 after just 33 years at Pebble Mill. Remaining fixtures, furniture and technical equipment were auctioned at Pebble Mill a few weeks later. The studios were demolished the following summer, with developers planning to develop a technology and science park on the site. Construction of the new Birmingham Dental Hospital started in 2014 .
The decision to relocate was controversial. Indeed, not long after the decision was made to move to the Mailbox, it was discovered that there was not sufficient strength in the foundations to construct the area of mezzanine floor as originally planned. Some departments had to be relocated to a second site (notably the drama department) which became known as the 'Drama Village'.
- Madin, John. John Madin - Architect & Planner. An Illustrated record p. 58
- Sparks, R.A. A.R.I.B.A., F.R.S.A., 'REGIONAL STUDIO CENTRE, BIRMINGHAM. BBC ENGINEERING, No. 87, July 1971 p. 3
- Wilcox, Louise. MIBS 'Goodbye Audio units. Line Up, Nov/Dec p. 18
- Doherty, Andy (March 14, 2009). "BBC Pebble Mill – Edgbaston".