Television Comes to Camden Town in 1983


In February 1983 Breakfast Television was launched at new studios built in Hawley Wharf, just below the Hampstead Road canal bridge. Before conversion, the TVam Television Studios was built there were a collection of dilapidated garages on the canal bank. Terry Farrell, the architect, transformed the site as a post-modernist building and in doing so, breathed new life into Camden Town architecture.


Terry Farrell's Breakfast TV, now MTV, in Hawley Street, NW1

This is a description of the building as it first opened:-

 ‘The design brief had called for reception and hospitality areas, two television studios, control rooms, technical facilities and office space for 350 employees. The production facilities are on the ground floor level and the administration on the first floor. Linking these two floors is the central stair. Sitting in a sea of blue carpet and in the form of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, the central stair at half floor level became a platform from which the activities of the first floor could be seen, but more importantly this platform functions was a meeting place, a sort of street corner where employees could interact. Like the great Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley, this stair is not just a stair, but also functioned as a stage set for the studio’s programmes, which since the studio opened in 1983 was in regular use.’1

The building was aggressively modern and jolly, with fibreglass eggs four feet high laid along the parapet. They were bright blue and yellow, to challenge the local decay. A place deserted by industry was trying to make a living in any way it could. Other buildings were still gaunt and bedraggled. Large areas had been demolished or were empty, covered in weeds and rubbish, like a mass of old bomb sites. Here instead a building was thumbing its nose at decay. Immediately, parts of the architectural press attacked it, forgetting that this was Camden Town. Camden Lock and Dingwall’s had been holding street parties here for ten years, so people and even buildings could be encouraged to come in fancy dress.

Breakfast TV arrived in a flurry of media quarrels, with high profile presenters calling each other names. In view of all this, the building was only a part of the controversy. Now it has settled down in the centre of the Camden Town scene. Architectural students visit Hawley Crescent regularly to photograph Terry Farrell’s  TV building (later MTV) and Nicholas Grimshaw’s new Sainsbury one, in the same shot.

 

 

This photograph shows the new Breakfast TV building flanked by a derelict building, sums up the change, because Breakfast TV was one of the first signs of revival in the area. It was a sudden, startling apparition, with its minimalist gateway in curved tube work and a fascia like a nineteen thirties cinema.


MTV comes to Camden Town in 1988

MTV, the music television, cable and satellite station, was launched in Amsterdam on August 1, 1987 and took over the Breakfast TV building in Camden in February 1988. By June they had launched in Munich and Frankfurt; in July in Antwerp. By August 1988, their first birthday, they had 3.5 million subscribers. Numbers increased rapidly year on year, in country after country. By 1996 they had reached Azerbaijan and the expansion went on and on.

At the same time, more and more media firms began to crowd into the Camden area. In 1990, Getty Images established their headquarters in Bayham Street and took over Moy’s old engineering factory opposite as well. Getty Images is a world-wide picture agency with 900 active photographers on its books and offices in all major cities. Their collections include the Hulton/Getty Collection, which includes the Picture Post and other photographs, the BBC Archives in all their variety, Tony Stone Images, and Liaison, who are photo journalists based in New York. People ring in from all over the world for old pictures and photographers send in their new ones every day. Moy, who made films opposite, in Greenham Place, and took out dozens of early camera patents, would be delighted.

This was the situation 1999 when the book was first issued. A decade or so later the photograph and film web site is bewilderingly large.


Television in the 1990s

By 1995, the media was very active on the other side of the canal as well. World Wide Television News was in Interchange. Nearby were Henson’s, makers of TV monsters. Rush’s Motion pictures were there and Classic FM, which had been set up in 1992, was in Chermeyeff’s Gilbey building in Oval Road. Classic FM may or may not have known how Chermeyeff insulated his building against outside noise before they moved in, but it was certainly a good choice.

World Wide Television’s satellite dishes stand next to the tall columns of warehouse doors in the Interchange building. These loading doors, long shut, are the way goods were transported at the turn of the last century. Heavy crates were winched down to waiting carts or railway trains. At the end of the century, Camden’s profitable goods, which are photographs and television programmes, are carried in and out invisibly by satellite dish and cable. The media has solved Camden’s transport problems. Men with cameras and lighting umbrellas can be seen everywhere, while the battered old warehouse doors are still and silent, painted in designer maroon.

New housing has been built on the railway land and the whole site transformed. The red Interchange building has been re-roofed and looks new, while the railway buildings, in old London Stock bricks, still appear as gaunt as ever. By the sides of the doorways are curious pottery hemispheres let into the wall. They are the remains of old fashioned door-pulls which visitors to these Dickensian offices must have tugged at long before even electric bells, let alone satellite and cable, were invented.

By 1998 the new housing was occupied and had won awards. Safeway’s was open from both the Oval Road and Ferdinand Street ends. The whole area was beginning to settle down after forty years of turmoil. Years ago the large piano firms had attracted to themselves a mass of smaller, specialist firms. In the same way, the large TV companies and media firms have attracted many others, large and small. Their massed logos make an impressive display.


Logos from only some of the many media firms now in the Camden Town area.

Film making in Camden

Camden, so near the centre of London and the film studios, offers a wide variety of film locations.  Sites vary from Hampstead Heath, apparently deep in the country and full of 18th century landscapes, to grimy railway arches and fashionable restaurants: the diversity is endless.  As a result, film and TV cameras are everywhere.2 In the future our only record of some streets may be the backgrounds to old films.

Filming can be a source of income to the Borough, but also a nuisance to local residents. Camden has set up a special department to liaise with both film companies and residents associations. Well before a shoot they leaflet local households about the nature of the film and the dates, make arrangements for equipment and catering lorries to be parked, remove modern street furniture, replacing it as the film lorries depart, and provide a dozen other services. Camden has printed a booklet to assist film makers, listing the help available and such local facilities as casting agencies, film equipment suppliers set construction, catering, restaurants.3


The Camden Town Sculptures

Terry Farrell’s Breakfast TV building had yet another effect. The yellow and blue eggs and eggcups gave rise to a new art form. Out of the breakfast eggs were to appear all the fibreglass figures of men on motorbikes, silver skulls, aeroplanes and giant boots, which now adorn the shops in Chalk Farm Road.

Some are very dramatic – a new form of pop art, to rank with the painted murals which appeared suddenly, on bridges and house gable ends, in the 1960s. And these fibre-glass figures are always changing, growing, altering. First, a motorbike burst through the front wall of a shop, to the delight of the tourists. Where had it come from? What had happened to the people in the house? What was a motorbike doing at that level, high above their heads? It was photographed again and again. After a few years it was removed, to be followed by a different bike which crashed through sheets of corrugated iron, and, in 1997, a camouflaged tank followed. What will come next is difficult to guess, but I am sure they are working on it.

Other displays are equally startling. Boots the size of boats; pairs of jeans two-storeys high; a chair to fit Goliath. There is no end to the fantasy, but few of these figures have permission to be there, and the Council is split on the subject. The figures add a sense of gaiety to the street. They help trade. The tourists love them, yet the figures should not be allowed to spread too far. While there is a tacit acceptance of them north of the Tube Station, in 1988 the Council refused permission for a display in the conservation area, south of the Tube Station. It is all matter of balance. The huge aeroplane which dive-bombed Chalk Farm Road, is a classic example of Camden Town shop art. According to gossip, Camden Council required it to be removed, but the shopkeeper protested. The plane had been far too expensive to be trashed after only two years. If this rumour is correct, the two sides must have come to some sort of agreement, because the aeroplane is still in place, but now painted in different colours and the shop has changed its name to ‘Army & Navy’.

Other shops seem to have a different strategy. Every few months a new figure, or a different boot, or an extra skull appears. Pieces of the display change. New performers come on the stage and old ones are retired. The scene never stands still.

It is an extremely difficult problem to control and would take money and time, which the Council can seldom afford. Court appearances can be frustrating. When did the display start and when did a particular item first appear? Where is the evidence and which particular figure is in dispute? Is it the individual item, or is the group in question? There are no ends to the games which could be played and the only people who would gain from taking the displays to court would be the lawyers.



++This was the position at the end of the century and is an historical record many people will remember with affection. I think we should keep it and write a new section about the present position, with extra photos. I have left the old layout for you to sort out.


Footnote

  1. Terry Farrell.

  2. Camden Citizen, March 1998.

  3. The Informer: a directory of services for film makers, by Dionne Walker, 1966, London Borough of Camden.
Stables Market and
the Stanley Sidings

Camden Town Conservation Area