How the BBC’s studios nearly ended up opposite Platt Fields Park in Rusholme
Here in Manchester, New Broadcasting House is being demolished. But back in the mid-1950’s, when the BBC decided to build new northern regional headquarters, this famous location on Oxford Road wasn’t the first choice.
At the beginning of 1956 the BBC was scattered across eleven buildings in the Manchester area. In Piccadilly, space that the Corporation had rented above a bank since the 1920’s provided a studio for talk productions and another for television interviews (staff there witnessed the fatal Woolworths fire next-door in May 1979). The BBC’s main TV studio was in a old church on Dickenson Road in Rusholme. While another former church nearby, on the corner of Birch Lane and Plymouth Grove, was used as a garage for the outside broadcast lorries.
Variety was based at the Playhouse Theatre in Hulme, while the BBC Northern Orchestra could be found at the Milton Hall on Deansgate. The music, religious and publications departments were in different offices across the city centre.
Commercial television was due to launch in the middle of the year. Weekday content would be broadcast by Granada, while ABC would handle weekends.
THE BBC BUYS LAND FROM A PLUMBER AND ANNOYS THE CITY COUNCIL
In March 1956, Mr J B Mathers, a Rusholme plumbers merchant, told The Guardian that the BBC had expressed an interest in four acres of land that he owned on Wilmslow Road opposite Platt Fields Park. Later articles state that the BBC bought the land that year.
The site had been vacant since 1948 when five cottages which were nearly two-hundred-years-old had been demolished. Mr Mathers had intended to build a large hotel and block of flats but the project had been abandoned. He understood that the BBC planned a building that would cover the entire site and be two or three stories high.
The site at Platt Court on Wilmslow Road in Rusholme where the proposed BBC studios would have been built. Seen here from within Platt Fields Park.
The Manchester Corporation (City Council) wasn’t happy with the BBC’s proposals. It wanted the site to be residential. However the BBC said that the site was the only one that was both suitable and immediately available. The dispute was taken to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and, in August 1956, the Minister decided in the BBC’s favour.
The BBC planned to keep on the studios in Dickenson Road even after the new building was completed. These studios, in a former Methodist Chapel, are widely known about, because they were the location for the first Top of the Pops and earlier had belonged to Mancunian Films. What’s less well-known is that before it bought the Chapel (in 1954) the BBC apparently had TV studios in a building in Ladybarn.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the BBC had TV studios in this building in Ladybarn, according to information from Manchester Libraries. But there seems to be some confusion; photos that show the inside of a BBC studio are dated 1949 and have the caption “Dickenson Road” — a building which apparently the BBC didn’t buy until 1954: photo 1 | photo 2 | photo 3. Perhaps these images show the studio at Ladybarn? Photo 3 shows a sloping roof which would seem to be too low to be the inside of a ground floor studio in the Dickenson Road chapel.
The Manchester Corporation suggested an alternative site in the Oxford Road area. But at the end of 1956 the BBC Board of Governors rejected this offer and said that it still considered the Platt Court site to be the most suitable. Also the Minister confirmed his previous decision giving permission.
However, nothing was built and in June 1960 The Guardian reported that the BBC had abandoned its plans. It had decided that the Platt Court site was too small and far away from the city centre and had asked the Manchester Corporation to reserve a site north of a new road which would become known as the Mancunian Way. In other words, the Oxford Road site.
By 1961 Platt Court was scheduled for residential housing (two council tower blocks would be built eventually) and in 1962 it was reported that the BBC had commissioned architects but that details of the new building were not yet available.
However still nothing was built.
OXFORD ROAD NO SHOW AS STAFF CONTINUE TO SLUM IT
In August 1966 The Guardian published an article which has a slightly sarcastic tone “Old chapel will continue to serve BBC in North.”
Staff in the north-west were not surprised that the BBC had “shelved” its plans to build “smart up-to-date North regional headquarters” it says. Most had refused to believe that the Corporation would spend £4.5 million on what was merely the first stage of the project.
In fact, officially, the BBC was saying that the proposed date of 1971 had merely been put back by two years and that work would start as early as possible.
“According to some authorities,” the article continues, “the London view is that the North will get its new headquarters when it proves it can produce the ideas and imagination to justify expensive studios.” While the Northern view was that new ideas and programmes would come when the staff were “concentrated in a congenial environment.”
“It is a set-up that annoys the staff, some of whom regard their offices as hardly better than slums.”
Earlier in the year, the North Regional Controller, Mr R Stead had said “we have the finest collection of old chapels.”
To be fair you can’t blame the BBC staff. It must have been maddening to see Granada build brand new studios and offices at Quay Street in 1960.
PLANS CUT TO HALF THE SIZE
In August 1971 it was reported that the city planning committee had approved detailed plans for the new headquarters on Oxford Road. But the project had been hit by BBC budget cuts in 1969, so it would be half the size originally intended. However the BBC had agreed to a suggestion by the Manchester Corporation that the building should be planned in such a way that it could be extended some time in the future.
New Broadcasting House finally opened in 1975. Just under 20 years after the BBC bought the land at Platt Court. Though regional news didn’t leave the studios at Piccadilly for another six years.
Back in 1956 one of the objections the Manchester Corporation made was that if permission were granted for the BBC scheme at Platt Court it would be difficult to refuse consent for other commercial offices on similar sites. But the Minister replied that there was a difference between “a well designed building for the BBC which would not conflict with present buildings in the area” and commercial offices.
You have to wonder what the Minister would have made of the building that was finally constructed on Oxford Road. Archive shots from the construction in 1974 suggest that it was never really attractive: photo 1 | photo 2.
Matters weren’t helped when the slanted BBC logo and 1980s squiggle motif were replaced, leaving a dirty shadow that remained until the end.
In recent years the studios on Oxford Road became something of a focal point for protests. Often these had little or nothing to do with the BBC. However in 2008 Chinese students demonstrated about the “masters of distortion”.
The small size of the main TV studio — 66 x 53 feet within fire lanes — proved to be a problem. In 1989 it was extended considerably to become the largest outside of London. Unfortunately by this time, television drama was deserting the multi-camera studio in favour of location filming, so there was never much chance that it would be used for that purpose. In 2000 it was mothballed. Five years later it began to be used as a “four-waller”. In other words a soundproofed location rather than a multi-camera TV studio.
On May 17, 1989, I visited the BBC on the docks in Liverpool where they were recording the children’s programme On the Waterfront. These studios were used while work was underway to enlarge the main studio at Oxford Road.
At the same time as the studio extension, or possibly a few years earlier in the 1980s, extra buildings were constructed at the rear of the site adjoining Upper Brook Street. These seemed to be a garage for outside broadcast vans and adopted the then-popular “Noddy In Toytown” style, with square windows and small balls atop columns (shown below).
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
It’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently.
Perhaps the Manchester Corporation was right to fight the proposals? On the other hand, if it hadn’t, maybe the BBC would have built its new headquarters much sooner, it might have escaped budget cuts and been a more attractive lower building at Platt Court?
This could have given Manchester a lead over Birmingham, which became a centre for drama once Pebble Mill opened in 1971. However the construction of Pebble Mill also took many years. The lease for the nine-acre site in Edgbaston was acquired in the 1950s but the plans were not approved until 1967.
Certainly Platt Court would have been a more pleasant location for BBC staff and no doubt the park across the road would have been used in programmes. The presence of the BBC in Rusholme might have driven up property values. If so, would the Asian community have been able to settle in the area to such an extent in the 1970s? Perhaps the “curry mile” (below) might have ended up somewhere else?
Maybe BBC staff would have spilled out into offices in some the grand houses in nearby Victoria Park? Would the Manchester Corporation’s fears have proved true: would the area have become less residential? That didn’t seem to happen at Pebble Mill.
But maybe Rusholme would have ended up very different to what we see today?
IT’S A KNOCKOUT
In the late 2000s, when the BBC announced plans to relocate, there were two possible locations. One at Medlock Street, just down the road from Oxford Road. The other further afield at Media City, on the banks of the Ship Canal in Salford. This time Manchester City Council didn’t get what it wanted and the BBC moved to Salford.
After the BBC decided on Media City rather than the Medlock Street site, the City Council set up shop there in this new building. There are now plans for The Corner House and Library Theatre to move there too.
One major difference is that the BBC doesn’t own the studios at Media City and some people question whether having to pay a hire fee each time it uses a facility is good value for the licence fee payer?
If, as expected, Granada moves to Media City in the near future, it will be the first time for nearly 60 years that a major TV company hasn’t been based in the city of Manchester. Is this another sign of Manchester’s decline?
As well as being the home for Radio Manchester and local news (from 1981), politics and sport day in and day out, the Oxford Road studios produced many familar national programmes.
In television these included the childrens’ film quiz Screen Test, live daytime magazine Open Air, the Travel Show, documentary series MOD (Ministry of Defence) and youth programmes such as The Oxford Road Show and No Limits. Although they were outside broadcasts, the Good Old Days and It’s A Knockout were put together by Manchester.
In sound broadcasting, the studios were a production centre for music concerts (including those performed by the BBC Philharmonic) and for hundreds of drama and factual programmes for Radio 3 and Radio 4 each year. Including Woman’s Hour, You and Yours and File On 4.