ABC Television at Didsbury

Dicky Howett recalls a little piece of ABC Television at Didsbury.

In a residential street on the outskirts of Manchester there used to stand the production base of ABC Television. (You remember ABC Television? Come on now, that was back in the days when ITV was ITV!). Demolition, it seems, is the pre-ordained fate of most pioneer tv establishments. For example, A-R tv’s Wembley got razed and recently, the big double production space known as ‘Studio Five’. Teddington Studios became an upmarket riverside residential enclave; Television Centre – sold for a pittance; the London Studios are not what they used to be; Lime Grove bit the dust and Alexandra Palace… well who knows? However, redundancy is the name of the game and sentiment doesn’t enter the balance sheet.

Armchair Theatre

The aforementioned ABC tv home was originally a cinema called the ABC Capitol, and it was situated in Parrs Wood Road, Didsbury, Manchester. The Capitol Cinema once stood proud as the northern headquarters of ABC Television with its famous top-rated flagship drama programme, ‘Armchair Theatre’.

The Capitol at Didsbury was not the first choice for ABC Television. Hasty conversion of ancient theatres and cinemas into television studios was not considered ideal. But the management of the (then) new commercial television companies couldn’t afford to be fussy. ABC Television had to be ‘on air’ at the advertised date. Advertising cash dictated!

Howard Thomas in his book ‘With an Independent Air’ recounts, “We were due on the air in the North on 1st May 1956, three months after our Midlands opening. Lancashire was already promising to be a county of television addicts. ABC cinemas had several white elephants in the region which they would be happy to sell. One of their largest and best equipped cinemas (and one of the emptiest) was the Capitol at Didsbury which had been built as a combined cinema and theatre at a time when the industry was augmenting its film shows with lavish stage spectaculars.

This was the sixth cinema in the Manchester area I had visited. As I climbed to the projection booth high at the back I realised that this theatre, with its ample stage and auditorium, with dressing rooms and other facilities, was the right place for us. Adjoining was a vast car park, ideal for the housing of our three outside broadcast units and their satellite vehicles. But I did not regard ABC Television as fully on the air until we had the Manchester studios in operation. It was a tight schedule and our engineers, some of them poached from Marconi’s, worked all night to complete the final wiring of the Didsbury control room. We also constructed the main studio floor above the roomy stage and into the stalls, still leaving room for an audience which could be intimately close to the performers. The outsize cinema auditorium became one large television studio, with a second and more compact studio at balcony level, where we were able to produce less ambitious programmes such as panel games and advertising magazines“.

Handy Pub

The main studio (Studio 1) was approximately 100ft x50ft. It was also a rather irregular shape. However, the studio was a convenient production base with all amenities on tap, not least a handy pub called The Parr’s Wood located directly opposite the studio. After transmission, pressured thespians could (if they so desired) relieve tv tension at the drop of a pint. Famous stars of stage and cinema could be glimpsed often at weekends tottering across the road for a swift fag and a G&T. Unfortunately, the rigors of live weekly drama could take their toll. Actors could literally die for their art, as happened once at Didsbury during a 1958 live ‘Armchair Theatre’ production entitled ‘Underground’. An actor expired between ‘part one’ and ‘part two’, leaving the director William ‘Ted’ Kotcheff with no option but to wing it for the remainder of the play.

Eventually, ABC television drama production moved south to Teddington. The northern base was retained as an OB site and local programming facility. Latterly, when ABC and then Thames disappeared into the electromagnetic spectrum forever, the redundant Didsbury Capitol studios reverted to student-theatre use, run by Manchester Metropolitan University. Alumni included Julie Walters.

© Dicky Howett 2019.