Pocket Films sat down, virtually, to talk with Martin Kempton, the man behind the unique web site TV Studio History. The site is a treasure trove of information about TV and film studios in the UK that Martin has documented during his long career as a TV cameraman, lighting director and cinematographer.
He launched the web site in 2006 and acknowledges the quirkiness and uniqueness of the site; the word ‘anorak’ pops up more than once and Martin admits “I know the whole thing looks terribly dated but I have created it using a clunky old software package called WebExpress that came out in 2000!” But the site is a remarkable organic resource, not just about studio history, but about the programmes, the artists and anecdotes associated with these facilities.
Pocket Films: How did you first get started in TV?
Martin Kempton: I trained for four years as a teacher after leaving school with drama as my main subject. One weekend I came home and found that my younger brother Chris had some info about working for the BBC. He had been given it by the careers teacher at school and to be honest, I thought that looked a bit more interesting than teaching so I applied as well. They suggested that I finished my degree course, which I did and then re-applied. Fortunately, they let me in and I was trained as a camera assistant for three intensive months at Wood Norton, near Evesham.
I joined a camera crew at TV Centre and one of the first programmes I worked on was I, Claudius. My job was to hold onto the very heavy camera cable for the senior cameraman, who took most of the shots. His style was to work very close to the actors with a constantly moving camera on a wide-angle lens, a bit like Steadicam but years before that was available. So I found myself standing right next to some of the top actors in the country as they performed this extraordinary drama.
On one occasion, when John Hurt’s character was dying at the end of a very dramatic and bloody scene all in one shot, the camera tracked towards him as he was gasping his last words. I could see that, unseen by Jim the cameraman, the camera’s pedestal was going to clip a pillar in the set so I grabbed the steering ring and gently guided it round. Jim coped admirably with the unexpected swerve and that was the take they used. When the director called ‘cut’ Jim threw down his headphones and turned to me demanding what the hell I thought I was doing. I pointed out that he would have hit the pillar and after a pause that seemed to go on forever – he grinned, slapped my shoulder and said ‘Well done lad.’ Phew.
Pocket Films: You are obviously passionate about the history of UK studios. How did that develop into your own web site?
Martin Kempton: In 2002 I resigned from the BBC and went freelance. I found myself working at places like TLS, Fountain and Teddington, all of which seemed to have long but very different histories of making television shows.
Fountain and Teddington had particularly unusual and interesting backgrounds. They both had roots in the film industry and also with the old ITV companies I remembered from when I was a kid – Associated-Rediffusion and ABC Television. I started to ask people who had worked there for many years what they remembered and began to trawl the Internet for information. There was far less info easily available than there is now so I began buying lots of old books, annuals and magazines to find out more.
To be honest, I assumed there would be several books about the history of the various TV studios but there was nothing available. Loads of books on film studios, several on the history of television but nothing on the studios themselves. So, I decided to create a website to fill this gap. It was only originally going to be a history of ITV’s studios in London but then I added TV Centre and later all the other BBC studios in London – and over the years it continued to grow! It now covers all the studios currently available in the UK plus several that no longer exist.
Pocket Films: You must have had some highs, lows and amusing times working in the studios – can you share any stories?
Martin Kempton: There have been plenty of highs. As a lighting director I got to choose the team I worked with and obviously, I chose people whose company I enjoyed. Clearly, they had to be very good at their job too! We spent many hours each day in our control room and some of that time was just keeping our eyes on what was going on but quite often the stress levels were very high indeed. Some shows just are really difficult and challenging from a lighting point of view and that’s when you rely on every member of your team.
Often the most enjoyable shows were ones that were not particularly noteworthy – just that the production team and on-screen talent made things so well-organised and stress-free. A good-humoured director who completely understands what every department is trying to do is essential to having a great day at work.
In recent years some stand-out shows have included the live Inside No 9, the live Not Going Out and pretty well all of Upstart Crow. The Goes Wrong Show series and Peter Pan Goes Wrong were also an absolute joy to work on although they were really challenging from the lighting point of view. TV Burp was another show that was really busy but great fun. I have been lucky enough to be shortlisted on a number of occasions for various awards and even picked up a few trophies but we all know that it’s often the show itself that gets noticed rather than the work done by the various nominees.
Bad experiences have fortunately been rare – but without letting on too much, I once took over a regular series from another LD [lighting director] who found working with the main on-screen talent very challenging indeed. He and his wife had been trying for a baby for quite a while and the doctors recommended that he avoided stress. So, I discovered that he was quite right – this particular person was one I decided to avoid in my future career once the series was over. In the meantime, the predecessor’s wife became pregnant with twins, so it was worth it!
Some things seem funny at the time but in the retelling, maybe less so. However, one experience I had early in my career still makes me cringe. I was lighting a sitcom that was being made by a production team that quite rightly considered that what they were creating was a cut above the usual run-of-the-mill stuff. As many people in the industry know, there is nothing more serious than comedy. This production was very funny – but the making of it was serious stuff indeed.
Unfortunately, and unforgivably, one week I was a few minutes late to the ‘tech run’. This is the rehearsal in a church hall that all the HoDs attend and take notes as the whole show is performed from start to finish. I snuck in at the back a couple of minutes after it had started and hoped nobody had noticed. Five minutes into the run, my phone went off in my pocket; bad enough – but the day before, I had selected a new ‘amusing’ ring tone. From the depths of my trousers in the middle of this room full of very serious-looking people came the unmistakable melody at full volume of the theme tune to Terry and June. Not one person in the room found this funny. Not one.
Pocket Films: How about some not-many-people-know-that” snippets from your knowledge of studios?
Martin Kempton: Some quite interesting facts I have discovered include…
• Studio 1 at Teddington (a film stage at the time) was destroyed by a V1 ‘Doodlebug’ in July 1944. Sadly, three people were killed – it would have been more but the bomb fell in the evening after most people had gone home. The ghost of one of them was said to haunt the studio and people were still describing odd occurrences well into the 21st Century.
• The Harry Potter films were shot in a factory that used to make Halifax bombers in World War II.
• The H stage at Shepperton was originally located at Isleworth Studios and was moved there around 1953. It is still one of the largest in the country and is the only one where the entire floor can be flooded with water. This has been very useful on many films involving ships or boats at sea. The bat cave for Batman Begins was built in it – complete with a flowing river.
• The construction of Studio 5 at Wembley (later Fountain Studios) and BBC Television Centre were both held up because in 1959 there was a national shortage of bricks.
• The Greenwood Theatre (a TV studio during the ‘80s and ‘90s) was built in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital after a benefactor left the hospital some money in his will. There is a story, often repeated, that he had left the money for a ‘theatre’ but he actually meant an operating theatre. Sadly, the story is a myth and he rather boringly left the money to build a lecture theatre for medical students that could also be used for theatrical performances.
• J Arthur Rank, who owned Pinewood and Denham Studios, purchased MGM studios in Borehamwood when they came onto the market in 1939. However, he had no intention of using them to make films. He knew they were better designed than his own studios and wanted to make them unavailable to prevent them from attracting work. In fact, he rather cynically leased them to the government for storage. It was only when he began running out of cash that he reluctantly had to sell them – and they did indeed become the best studios in the country when they reopened in 1948. They were closed in 1970 when MGM was in desperate financial straits – partly because of the cost of making 2001: A Space Odyssey, which occupied the stages in Borehamwood for several years.
• Sound stages 8 and 9 at Elstree and the F and K stages at Pinewood were all built in 1966. In a rare example of forward planning, they included rooms that could be used as TV control galleries in case they were needed in the future. These stages were also equipped with TV-friendly lighting grids, not normally seen on film stages. It was decades before they were used to make multicamera television but all four are now some of the busiest TV studios in and around London.
Pocket Films: Many thanks, Martin, and long may you continue to add to this valuable resource.
Credit: Photo by Bruna Araujo on Unsplash