Development threat to the palace, where television was born

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The Independent Online

Just over 70 years ago, on 2 November 1936, the following words by the BBC presenter Elizabeth Cowell were beamed out over London: "This is direct television from Alexandra Palace." It was a moment that changed history, ushering in the television era.

Now, the future of the disused original studios at Alexandra Palace, the extravagant Victorian structure and London landmark which can lay claim to being the birthplace of television, is in doubt.

Haringey Council, which owns the building through a trust, plans to lease it to Firoz Kassam, an entrepreneur and property developer, which has caused widespread concern among senior BBC figures, historians and conservationists, who fear a vital part of broadcasting history may disappear.

And English Heritage, the government body which oversees historic buildings, is considering upgrading the listing on the building, which could restrict any plans to radically alter "Ally Pally". Dozens of objections have been lodged with the Charity Commission, which is in the middle of a month-long public consultation over whether to allow the trust to lease the building to Mr Kassam's Firoka group for a multimillion-pound redevelopment as a hotel, leisure and exhibition complex. Mr Kassam is a former chairman of Oxford United football club and owns hotels and conference centres.

Objectors fear the long-empty, but still-intact studios in the building's tower could be lost because the proposed lease does not cover their preservation, despite Mr Kassam's promise to create a broadcasting museum on the site. They want public access to the studios guaranteed and the whole building handed over to a national body.

Jacob O'Callaghan, conservation officer of the Hornsey Historical Society, which is among those leading the campaign, said: "These studios are of historic importance; it is the birthplace of television, the place where the global village began. They should be retained for posterity."

Lynne Featherstone, the local Liberal Democrat MP, has tabled an early-day motion, and written to Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, the BBC and the Royal Television Society for backing. She said: "The TV studios are a piece of history, for our country, and indeed the world. The first public television broadcasts are a milestone that need to be commemorated, and I was shocked to discover no thought has been given to the preservation of the original studios."

John Trenouth, the former senior curator at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, said: "I don't think future generations will forgive us if they are lost."

Alexandra Palace opened in 1873 as The People's Palace, a recreation centre on a hill in acres of parkland. Destroyed by fire within two weeks of opening, it was rebuilt in two years, a vast building, containing banqueting halls, art galleries and function rooms, centred on the Great Hall, dominated by a steam engine-powered organ.

In 1935, the BBC took over part of the building because the television transmitter aerial could be sited on top of its tower, giving the necessary 600ft elevation. News broadcasts stopped in 1969 and Open University programmes ended in 1981, when the equipment was stripped out and the studios shut.