Media: Thames, this is your afterlife: Sue Summers discovers how comedy is helping Teddington Studios to survive

AROUND the empty corridors of Teddington Studios is a chill no warm-up man can cure. For 26 years, as the production centre of Thames Television, Teddington was responsible for such hits as the Morecambe and Wise Show, Benny Hill and This is Your Life. But Thames loses its licence as an ITV broadcaster at the end of the month. Teddington, which employed 900 people, will now be lucky to employ 40.

It began in 1912, when a group of local actors persuaded the landlord of a house on the site, overlooking Teddington Lock, to let them use the grounds. The first studio went up at the end of the First World War. In 1929 British owners built the first sound stage and tried, unsuccessfully, to run it as Teddington Film Studios. Two years later, Teddington was taken over by Warner Bros, which sent Errol Flynn to make one of his first films there. But in 1944 a bomb almost destroyed the studio.

Teddington was reborn in the Fifties with the arrival of television. It became the home of ABC-TV, which amalgamated with Rediffusion in 1968 to form Thames. Such ground-breaking programmes as Sidney Newman's Armchair Theatre, Britain's first chat show (hosted by Eamonn Andrews), and The Avengers were made there. The studio's present marketing director, John White-Jones, was a cameraman on The Avengers, which went out live late in the evening. 'The reviewers used to talk about the subtlety of the soft-focus shots,' he says. 'That was because the cameramen had to wait for hours in the pub.'

Unlike the BBC's Ealing and Lime Grove studios, which shut down recently, there will still be life at Teddington. Thames's vast music library may be sitting in boxes on the floor of Studio Three, waiting to be auctioned off this weekend, but Teddington is being given a chance to survive. Next month it will become a stand-alone division of Thames, charged with making a profit by attracting production from the independent sector and even the BBC.

The world of television facilities is notoriously tough, and Teddington faces fierce competition from rivals such as LWT's London Studios. It cannot even bank on getting the programmes Thames itself will continue to make for the ITV network. 'We will only go on making shows like This is Your Life if we offer them a good deal,' says Mr White-Jones. 'Just because they are Thames shows doesn't mean we have a right to them.'

Even so, the signs are good. Not only has Teddington kept This is Your Life, it has already become the home of the BBC's Kilroy and Food and Drink. Last week it announced a three-year deal as the production base of SelecTV, the independent production group responsible for comedy shows such as Birds of a Feather and the forthcoming Thick as Thieves, Full Stretch and Tracey Ullman shows. SelecTV was previously based at Elstree, but Michael Pilsworth, its director of UK operations, says: 'Teddington is custom-made for sitcoms. We've already made pounds 1m of bookings there for next year, and we'll probably book another pounds 1m on top of that.'

One factor in Teddington's favour is that Thames was so confident about retaining its franchise that it invested millions in updating the studio's technical equipment just before the decision was announced. 'They have wonderful new cameras,' says Mr Pilsworth. 'And they've spent pounds 6m on post-production facilities. It will be the sitcom capital of Europe.'

Ewart Needham, Teddington's managing director, says the studio has a break-even figure of around pounds 4m. 'We will be exceeding that figure. We're budgeting for double in 1993. Will Teddington be a viable business? Very much so, we think.'

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