History Focus – Teddington TV Studios

Visitors to Teddington Lock over the last couple of years cannot fail to have noticed the massive housing development going on at the site of the former Teddington Studios which closed in 2014. I have already written about the Studios in terms of the film production there (see Hollywood on Thames – Sept 2014) and now I hope to continue the story when they became television studios.

Warner Bros closed down their studios in 1952 and the premises remained dormant until 1955. 1954 had seen the birth of commercial television in the UK when the Independent Television network was established. ABC Television purchased the Teddington site and set about converting the studios for television production. The new company was responsible for many new innovations in television production such as video tape recording which put the studios at the head of Europe in such production.

A series of successful programmes were made in the late 1950s and in 1964 ABC made a remarkable signing when they enticed Eamonn Andrews from the BBC. This brought about a new kind of entertainment – the chat show, and “The Eamonn Andrews Show” commenced “live from London” but actually recorded earlier in that evening. Although there were several similar shows running in the USA, there had been nothing quite like this on UK television.

Andrews had made his name as a sports commentator and this was something of a very new adventure for him. He did not take naturally to the job and became famous for ad-lib gaffs which did not work such as “Speaking of cheese sandwiches, have you come far?” However the viewing public loved him and the show was famous for hosting well established stars as well as introducing  many up and coming artists and singers. It ran for five years from 1964 to 1969, so someone was doing something right.

Whilst that show was running, many other series had commenced, including the highly successful “The Avengers” which was to make its stars Patrick McNee and his leading ladies Honor Blackman and Dianna Rigg household names. At the start of the series, McNee shared top billing with Ian Hendry who starred in many other Teddington productions.

In 1967 ABC and Rediffusion merged to form Thames Television which handled the Monday to Friday programming with London Weekend Television doing Saturday to Sunday. This gave the studios their golden 25 years when they seemed to be producing the ITV ensemble. The number of comedy hits that were churned out is amazing: “Alastair McGowan”, “And Mother Makes Three”, “The Benny Hill Show”, “Birds of a Feather”, “Bless This House”, “Bremner Bird & Feather”, “Bring On The Girls|”, “The David Nixon Show”. “The Des O’Connor Show”, “Father Dear Father” – I could go on and finish this article with merely naming the other shows on the Thames comedy circuit.

There was also a steady roll of drama coming from the production line – I have mentioned “The Avengers”, there were also “Callan”, “Edward & Mrs Simpson”, “Hazell”, “Jenny Lady Randolph Churchill”, ”Napoleon”, “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”, “Van Der Valk” and “The World at War.” The full list is not quite endless but certainly unrivalled in programme making.

The effect of the TV Studios on the town was substantial. To start with, there were no alcohol bars in the studios until the late 1970s and so all of the local pubs benefitted from the custom of the stars and their entorages. Honor Blackman and her set were in “The Kings Arms” every Friday night. Ian Hendry gave forth in “The Anglers.” Jon Pertwee and his scriptwriters were to be found in “The Tide End Cottage.” Every pub in Teddington had its own celebrity(ies) and in the main this was good for business. Also every local hall in the area was hired for rehearsals which proved very lucrative. When working in Hampton Wick I happened to meet and befriend Windsor Davies in “The Old King’s Head” when he was making “Never The Twain.” A more charming bloke you couldn’t wish to meet.

Whilst the stars of the shows used to come and go, the technicians were permanent fixtures and most of them bought houses and moved into the area. This must have had a strong effect on Teddington house prices which has lasted to today. In fact it is still possible to see many familiar faces shopping, taking their children to and from school and following all the things in Teddington life.

Probably the most memorable comedy recorded was the Benny Hill Show. Having crafted his unique style of entertainment at the BBC, he switched to ITV in 1968 and joined Thames TV. Thames began their broadcasting in 1969 with the very first edition of the show for ITV. The Show featured Benny in various short comedy sketches and was full of slapstick, burlesque and double entendre. Each show closed with a sped-up chase scene involving Hill and a crew of scantily dressed girls, to the accompaniment of the raunchy saxophone playing of Boots Randolph’s great hit – “Yakety Sax.”

Benny Hill moved to Teddington to be nearer to Thames Studios. He was a regular at the King’s Head where he went for lunches and he willingly posed for photographs and signed autographs despite being essentially a very private person. He could be seen regularly walking around the streets of Teddington usually with a Tescos carrier bag on his arm.

In May 1989 Thames cancelled the Show’s contract. Benny Hill announced that after 21 continuous years at Thames, he was taking a year off. During his time there he had made them £100 million with audiences peeking at over 21 million. He continued living normally in Teddington but on 22 April 1992 he was found dead in front of his tv set in his flat at Fairwater House. He had suffered a massive coronary thrombosis and had been dead for 4 days. Ironically in the pile of unopened post was the draft of a new contract with ITV.

Another very popular show was the Dave Allen Show which moved on to Dave Allen At Large and featured the Irish comedian. Apart from some comedy sketches, there was always Allen’s signature joke – sitting on a high stool, smoking and holding a glass of whiskey in his other hand, with the lights turned low, telling a ghost story. Apart from all that he also undertook some death defying stunts on the show. One of these was escaping from a Mini car which had been immersed fully in a huge glass tank filled with water.

It looked as if the life of Thames TV would go on for ever. However there was trouble ahead and many ex-employees feel that its closure was the faulty of the Government. In 1988 Thames made a documentary called “Death On The Rock” which reconstructed the shooting a group of IRA bombers by the SAS in Gibraltar. The Thatcher government asked Thames not to broadcast the programme but they went ahead. Thames’ franchise fell due for renewal in 1991 and at a silent auction, they lost their bid and their services were no longer required. Could the Government have had an influence on this decision ?

Thames tried to soldier on as an independent maker of films and also hired out the studios to other film makers. Thames was acquired by Pearson Television in 1993 and was moved on in a succession of sales and takeovers to the extent that it lost its identity completely.

Teddington Studios carried on for some years without ever approaching the success of former years, despite being sold to Pinewood Studios who pulled out on 24 December 2014. The premises were then sold to a Hong Kong developer for housing, an ignominious end to one of the most successful film studios.

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