Monday, 17 November 2014

North Acton: A Very, Very, Very Rough Guide

I've not really done any geographical/tourist-type blog posts before... Actually I've never done such a thing before. Actually, this post isn't strictly in that category, but it is about a part of London which as a city, is a massive tourist attraction...

Anyway, Acton is situated in west London and as I write this I have lived here for almost 2 years. It's about 20 minutes from central London by tube and has quite a rich and varied history (I'm not about to cover it all, as it'd make this post ridiculously long, but do check out the Wikipedia entry for further details).

Many of you may know that Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of The Who grew up in Acton and it was here that they played many of their very early gigs before hitting the big time. Anyone familiar with Townshend's 1982 solo album, entitled "All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes", will be familiar with the track "Stardom In Acton". The video of which, was filmed in and around Acton High Street (I was going to include a link to the video here from You Tube, only it was made unavailable days before writing. Bugger).

There is one area of Acton that I'd like to draw your attention to, which is North Acton. This area in particular was historically linked with industrial companies of various kinds, no doubt helped by the close proximity of the A40 and several railway lines. Most of the traditional industries have long gone from the area, but the aforementioned transport links have helped more commercial and residential developments to take place. 

North Acton tube station is my "home" station, as it is the closest to my house for getting to work and over the years, there have been some rather interesting buildings within the immediate vicinity of it and it is these which I am about to tell you a little bit about, with the aid of some photographs I recently took.


The section of the A40 that runs through Acton is called Western Avenue and one of the main junctions on the North Acton part is called Gypsy Corner. It was on this section that the BBC's Visual Effects (VFX) Department had their main base from 1977 until 1993. 

A view of "Gypsy Corner", Western Avenue as it is in 2014. From what I can establish, the buildings pictured stand on the site that used to house the BBC Visual Effects Department between 1977 and 1993.
The BBC VFX department was a fascinating operation that in its day, was unique in Television. They created and supplied productions with all kinds of things, from "glass" bottles that would safely break, to space guns and even convincing body parts. Further to these, they became responsible for some of the most iconic and breathtaking model shots ever seen on TV. 

The building contained not only workshop space for everything to be created in, but there was also a filming stage that allowed them to create elaborately-detailed model environments for all sorts of programmes. The Doctor's TARDIS, Blake's 7's Liberator and the mining ship Red Dwarf all took flight in this building, but it was not just futuristic shows that benefited from such model work. For example, long-running medical drama Casualty required footage of a passenger jet crash-landing into an embankment and the most cost-effective and practical way of doing it was as a model sequence.

I've not done the department justice here, but if you with to find out more about this now-extinct part of BBC history, a fascinating book was produced in 2010 which is well worth buying!


To one side of the above site (Just falling off the left of the above picture) is Wales Farm Road, which runs down one side of the regenerated site that used to house the BBC VFX department, other BBC buildings and those of various industrial companies. About half way along Wales Farm Road are the offices of Carphone Warehouse (Currently morphing into Dixons Carphone after a recent merger).

Carphone Warehouse Offices on Wales Farm road in 2014. The wing on the left of the building displays the new name and logo for the company.
From what I understand, the BBC VFX department moved to this section of the site in 1993 into what was a much smaller BBC building that was originally built for and used by another department and according to accounts in the VFX book, it wasn't an ideal space. Further to this, the department had to move again around a year later due to various political/cost reasons (during the 90s, a lot of successful BBC departments found themselves being reduced in size or closed completely, due to controversial policies put in place by BBC management of the day. Thinly disguised rant over. For now...). BBC VFX then moved down the A40 to what became its final home.

Further along Wales Farm Road and on the opposite side is The Perfume Factory. A building that is currently divded into office spaces to let, but as you can probably gather from the current name, it used to be a... wait for it... perfume factory.

The Perfume Factory. No idea what this building originally was...
Back in the days of industry in North Acton, this building was the Elisabeth Arden perfume factory and among the long list of employees during this time was Declan Patrick MacManus - better known as Elvis Costello. This fact is commemorated by the current owners of the building in the form of a strange cube-type structure in the car park.

Strange structure in The Perfume Factory car park, marking the fact that Elvis Costello once worked there.
From what can be seen from the pavement, it reads "Elvis Costello worked here at the Perfume Factory when it was 'Elisabeth Arden'........ Elvis has left the building." and "In the 1970's, Elvis worked here at Elisabeth Arden and immortalised it in the lyrics of 'I'm Not Angry' as the 'vanity factory'" . 


At the end of Wales Farm Road, just after The Perfume Factory, is the junction with Victoria Road. Right on the corner of the junction and back on the site that used to house various BBC departments, is what is now one of the oldest buildings on said site: The Castle pub.

The Castle. The forgotten "hub" that spawned many ideas for BBC shows in the 20th century...
Back in the late 20th century, when BBC VFX were based here, there was also another famous (or infamous) BBC building: the BBC Rehearsal Rooms, which was a facility that allowed various BBC shows to rehearse their studio-based content before the sets had been built in the studio (more on this building further down the page). As a result, The Castle actually became a very useful meeting place for BBC staff. 

Say, for example, a Doctor Who story was being rehearsed in the Rehearsal Rooms. The production team (who would be part of this process) are contacted by someone from VFX who is about to start work on a model sequence for another story and they want to discuss their ideas with the producer. As a result, they decide to meet at lunchtime in The Castle, as it's in easy walking distance and nice and relaxed. Ideas are discussed, more are born and most probably, a few drinks consumed ("the good old, bad old days", as the time has been described).

Further to this, it was often used by various stars after (and in some cases, during...) a long day in rehearsals. From various accounts by people who worked for the BBC at the time, it sounds like it was a great place to be. The walls inside the pub used to have signed pictures of the various artistes who dropped by over the years. Sadly, since the BBC moved away from North Acton, the pub has been redecorated and the pictures removed, but as it is today, The Castle is a beautiful place and indeed a very nice pub to visit. if you happen to be in the area. See for yourself on their website!

Towering over The Castle in the picture above is a recently-built student accommodation block with a couple of other businesses attached. Before this building existed, the aforementioned BBC Rehearsal Rooms occupied the site.

The tower block on Victoria Road that now occupies the site of the old BBC Rehearsal Rooms.
Opened in May 1970, the BBC Television Rehearsal Rooms (TRR) - also known as the "Acton Hilton", provided much-needed rehearsal space for the huge number of studio-based programmes in production at the time (back in those days, the majority of TV shows tended to be either fully or partially studio-bound, including big, prime time dramas), as the only real option up until that point was for productions to hire cold, cramped church halls or Army drill halls - the number of the latter in existence was in the process of being reduced considerably under new government legislation at the time.

Over the years, many famous faces rehearsed their shows here, many of them having publicity photos taken outside the distinctive building (I have no photos of the TRR myself, but there is a link coming up in this article which contains many, I promise!). Memories of the place are mixed, but it was certainly seen as a useful facility by many.

This forgotten sign indicates the existence of  the BBC TRR. It is located along one of the entrance/exits of North Acton tube station.
Sadly, by the late 90s, it was taking fewer bookings (due to a gradual reduction in the number of shows using studios, along with - yet again - the "brilliant" plans put into action by the BBC management-types of the time, who had no idea how TV production worked) and the rooms were converted to other uses - mainly storage for the BBC Wardrobe and Wigs department and for general office space. Some of this was reversed in the 00s, allowing a small number of shows to rehearse once more, but by the end of the decade, the building was empty and the BBC sold it. If you'd like to find out more about this unique facility, there is a brilliant little website that provides plans, photographs, memories and more besides. You can find it here (told you there was a link coming up).

Although the BBC no-longer have anything to do with this part of North Acton, they do still have some facilities further along the Central Line in the Park Royal part of the area. Converted from part of their Outside Broadcast vehicle garage, it first became the final home of the BBC VFX department. After the closure of that department, it was converted into a standing set for Waking The Dead and after that series ended, it became the current standing set for long-running drama Silent Witness.


Here, the tour comes to an end. I hope those of you who stuck with it haven't been bored to tears. It's a shame that so much has changed in the area to an extent, but I guess times change, even though a lot of those changes happened because of the short-sighted, ill-informed, greedy decisions of past BBC management. Some of you probably know that this is a subject that angers me, especially with the whole saga over TV Centre, but that's for another time.

All that is left for me to say is that I'd love to hear from anyone who has any memories of the places I have discussed in this post and indeed, if anyone can put me straight on anything I may have got wrong! I'd also be grateful of any photos of the old buildings, so long as the copyright is yours.

Oh and most importantly - thanks for reading!


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