Field notes from Granadaland
The Granada Building opened in 1962 after Granada House in 1956, and was designed by Ralph Tubbs - an architect renowned for his work on the Dome of Discovery for the Festival of Britain (1951). The exterior of the building is untouched, grey granite and built in a curtain wall fashion (according to the 20th Century Society one of the first Manchester buildings to be made that way). The planned redevelopment of the building as a hotel for St John’s is a remarkably fitting conversion given that the building was designed in such a way to allow it to function as a hotel if the TV studio failed.
There's an engineered notion of size here. Founder Bernstein had falsely created the illusion of a powerhouse of television to rival the BBC, long before it had actually earned that reputation, by bending the public’s perception of space - numbering the studios found in Granada House and Granada Television Building only in even numbers to effectively double the perceived size and capacity of the site.
The beacon that mounted the roof of the Granada building on Quay Street until 2008 was symbolic to a generation of Mancunians as their homecoming. Like the Polaris star, guiding people home to ‘Granadaland’.
Granadaland was the term coined for the reach of the TV network but it was something that transcended meaning, went beyond TV viewers; it was an intangible place and the beacon was a welcoming symbol to visitors; to sleepy children and long distance lorry drivers returning home in the dark, it was the ever familiar light on the horizon viewed through the window of a Salford high rise. The Old Granada Studios site has been a metaphor for home for millions and for decades.
The first commercial building to be built in the city following the war, the importance of this being how it was instrumental in setting into motion further quality post-war developments.
In this transitional time, before Old Granada Studios becomes St John's, Hayley Flynn and Andrew Brooks explored the site - from the underground canal to the relics of broadcasting that cling to the rooftops to this day. These notes document the experiences they had and are accompanied in the galleries by an extensive collection of fine art photography.
A long-read, with photos by Andrew Brooks.
We were beckoned by a ladder with a come hither look about it to somewhere we were not strictly meant to be - the roof of the Bonded Warehouse. Approaching the parapet, no longer obscured by the tops of the M-shaped roof, the modern city skyline rose around us.
When the warehouse was built, the view from here would have been only smog and perhaps tall chimneys breaking the surface here and there. Today the air is clear and buildings, like pegs in a Battleships board, stand to attention. The site itself is a crucial part of that skyline and of the city’s identity, although perhaps there are fewer physical reminders of that these days.
Tucked behind an out-building of sorts we discover a pile of sun-bleached, weathered Stymie Black Italic letters: the signage from the TV studios, iconic to the 60s. The washed-out letters have taken on a seaside hue; that salt-battered pink of a once crimson pier, two parallel bars of red run the length of the letters - the original deep shade protected from the sun by two strips of metal which had mounted them to the warehouse wall. Although not an exclusive font to the TV company this lettering was yet another element of the site that became part of a unique identity: a feeling of home.
Every inch of the former theme park entrance gates on Water Street has been painted cream, the integrated signage left over from the days of the theme park and tours is still visible but hidden in plain sight now by the monochromatic paint job. The entrance is defunct, although you can drive through the adjoining gate if you work here. This entrance faces Salford and pockets of land around the river that were part of the original development and part of a plan to expand the theme park out over the Irwell. The hotel, the car park besides it, and the entrance to the underground canal all connected to the site at one time. Much like the White City gates in Old Trafford, this former entrance qualifies as something a Japanese artist named Akasegawa Genpei christened Thomassons. A Thomasson is any sort of street furniture that is defunct but maintained regardless - for example, a handrail to a staircase that doesn’t exist but is still painted routinely. A vestige. The entrance has been painted and is looked after despite serving no purpose other than as an identifier, an icon, an artefact in a living museum.
As the city rose around the Old Granada Studios site one physical reminder kept it indelible in the mind of Mancunians and visitors alike - the transmission beacon. Today we find ourselves on the roof of the main building staring at a white base which resembles a rocket launch pad. The base has a spiral staircase built into it, or at the least the beginning of one. At one time the staircase would have continued up the transmission beacon to the very summit.
The site itself is like the corner of a map. It’s a bracket holding up the city centre in the north west edge. This accidental border adds to the uniqueness of the development, as do the layers of history that overlap each other here. Old Granada Studios was more than just a set or workplace; it was, and still is, a feeling, a strangeness and a belonging.
A typically modernist 60s office block, the main administrative building to the site is one of architectural merit, whilst at the same time one that blends into the background - rarely cited as a building to admire or credited in the city’s portfolio. As is the nature of office buildings the design of the place is never constant - a dated carpet in reception soon replaced; keeping up appearances and all that, so it’s with a keen eye we explore this building in the hope that a corner remains untouched, gloriously 60s.
There are elements that remain unchanged, mostly structural ones - a staircase is still obviously of its time, doors in the belly of the building are mounted with the original moulded numbers and likely painted in the same shades they always were. Other sets of doors on certain floors seem to be unchanged too - wooden doors with elongated oval windows, and although the signs in their famous Stymie Black Italic font are gone on the gable ends of the building their grubby silhouettes remain.
Inside the HQ we start in the boiler room and work our way upwards through control rooms, office floors, and onto an entire floor dedicated to the TV show World in Action. Outside a rooftop extends outwards and clinging to walls are old garden trellis and screens - evidence perhaps of the private roof garden sometimes talked about by former employees. This rooftop sits in the shadow of the remaining floors of the building, but gives good views onto the former Coronation Street set and out onto the rest of the site. The World in Action floor with its room after private room is from the days before open plan. Climbing back inside we continue ascending floors until eventually we come to the penthouse, and the roof itself.
The mirrored hallway. An infinity of tourists once reflected off these mirrored walls, the ghosts of them polar to those Victorian ghosts who live in your imagination - these hall of mirrors apparitions are dressed in popper pants and baggy jumpers, they have their hair in curtains like two gelled parentheses; they're middle-aged woman who’ve been overzealous with hairspray, and their husbands who admire their too-white trainers in the reflection. The space hasn’t really been used since those people were here, since the theme park closed.
The mirrors are lacklustre now - tarnished in the way old mirrors tend to be and in them the fake pillars and columns repeat until they fade into an indistinct horizon. Red and gold, red and gold, reflected in the mirrors repeatedly, until an oxidised, familiar green of aged glass clouds the focal range in the same way mountains eventually blur into the blue of distance.
The walls, ceiling and pillars are obviously plaster, not stone, and clearly just imitations of grandeur. In the strip lighting, the gold paint peels and flakes onto a rough concrete floor, whatever opulent flooring that was here before now ripped up, exposing the site, its naked form shattering the illusion - this is no palace, it’s a set.
In parts along this hallway the papered ceiling has been torn away, nature reclaims its territory with a slow-spreading outbreak of damp, and in these ripped up landscapes where textured wallpaper no longer holds fast, the greying plasterboard beneath is revealed. Everything feels brown, and beige, and dusty. It would be haunting here if the falseness of it all wasn’t so obvious. Fittings and fixtures are for the most part absent: removed; scrapped; repurposed. This sparsity makes the space seem disconnected - it’s because of the lighting and this barrenness of things that it's hard to imagine this hallway, nor any of the hallways leading to it, ever fooling anyone.
There are no signs here, they are noticeably absent from this entire building, and at the end of the hallway there are no grand entrances or indications to what lies beyond. At the end of the hall of mirrors are two inconspicuous doors. One to the right exposed now but there’s a suggestion that it was once hidden, and the other door - dead ahead, is left ajar and leads into darkness. Unlike the starkly lit hall of mirrors behind us the room before us is shrouded in blackness. Given time to adjust to the dark the strip lighting from the hallway bounces off the staircase leading away from us, down into a pit and the light reflects on the metal strips that line each step. As our eyes adjust the space reveals itself.
Panels of tobacco coloured, textured paper are bordered by gold, and the carpet and seats that make themselves known in the slowly diminishing darkness are deep red. The room is a shabby old theatre space, once decadent in appearance. Stalactites of rotten wallpaper drip down from damp ceiling panels. A particularly rotten panel at the top of the stairs has partially given way and drops of decaying plaster, rain water, and dust have set on the velvet-look seats below - their new yellowy crust splattered on the head rests like bird droppings. At the foot of the staircase, in the pit, it’s apparent that there once was a cinema screen rather than a stage. The screen is, however, long gone.
A doorway at the foot of the stairs leads into another room. This next room is darker still, an abyss of blackness stretches out and this time there is no direct route for light to travel, this room is concealed behind too many turns, angled behind doorways so that no outside light can find its way in. I shine a beam of light from a tiny torch straight ahead. Row after row of gigantic blue cinema seats rise from the unknown. Each seat connected to the one next to it in a great monolithic structure - one row leans to the left, the next to the right, each seat in sync with its neighbour but in opposition to the next row. It’s obvious that the seats were once capable of movement: a cinematic ride.
Each row has exposed mechanics and the back of each one gives way to a drop more than capable of swallowing up a person and trapping them beneath the jerking seats. The bulk of seats are coated in a very fine layer of dust, but as with much of the site the absence of life seems to have kept these dusty motes to a minimum. Because everything is abandoned but for the most part clean the whole site has a feeling of being set in aspic; the mosquito preserved in amber.
In the pit, before the screen are strange relics of events that have been and gone and have come to rot in this, the Motion Master cinema - a giant human-sized bottle of Cointreau stands like an usher looking up at the non-existent audience. Jellybeans are scattered in corners of the room, unmarked by time, protected by sugar and preservatives.
A shimmer of torchlight catches the glass on the projection booth above us and with no doors out of bounds to us now, and nowhere locked, we head in the general direction of the booth in search of a door. At the top of the stairs, behind that doorway we first encountered in the hall of mirrors, another door takes us up a set of stairs and into the projection booth. It’s darker here, if possible, than in the Motion Master and the place is littered with metal units. The first one is a filing cabinet of sorts, one of those beige metal cabinets to be found in 90s offices the world over, only the inside isn’t fitted with drawers and papers but a rack from which unreeled film hangs up, like negatives left to dry in a dark room. Shining a torch through the film reveals scenes from a sci-fi film, an alien looming large in the celluloid.
The projector itself is there, for the most part, parts are missing but it points out the glass window still. The other end of the room is less busy and a few strip lights have fallen onto the floor - in the darkness one pops under foot then its paper thin glass crunches into the carpet. It’s the loudest sound the cinema has heard in decades.
Back in the harsh artificial lighting of the building entrance so much of the floor and stairs are stripped back to bare concrete that all that remains now are walls of fake stones, in that tobacco tone again, and brown and green columns under a busy brown and yellow roof. A former lobby by the looks of things, and there’s a multi-purposing of space apparent here that will become more apparent as we enter each subsequent building, indications that this space lived on after the theme park tours in some capacity. Piles of sawdust here and there mean it was probably used as space to build film sets, and in one corner a fake doorway and window with a miniscule TV tucked behind it show evidence of filming. Behind the fake house facade is a dumping ground for old drink cans and crisp packets.
From the top of the external staircase looking down we are now opposite the building where the cinemas and hall of mirrors lie, and in a corner triangulated by the arches, the former Starlight Theatre and Grape Street. At first all that lies ahead seems to be tarmac: a car park, but as if staring into a magic eye poster the theme park tour, the TV, even the industrial history of the city, begin to reveal themselves piece by piece. Most of what once stood here is gone, that much is clear.
Signs on the arches are a strange sensory assault: what’s real and what isn’t? Fly posters for recent, very real, club nights are pasted onto fake shop fronts. An adjacent staircase tells us in true Metrolink colours and font that it’s this way for tram heading to Altrincham, but there’s no station at the top of the stairs. The fake tram station’s public toilets however transpire to be real - toilets for the tourists reappropriated for TV in later years. From here the back of the grand entrance gateway leads the eye to the road beyond it, and beyond that the river. We stand on the very border of the city - behind us the former TV studios and Manchester, in front of us Salford and beyond that Bolton and Winter Hill - all of it, Granadaland.
In the former headquarters of Granada, now a multi-occupancy office block and soon to be hotel for the new development of St John's, we find ourselves at the foot of a very ordinary staircase. Doors and corridors branch off to the right and to the left is a modern white door with small, unremarkable notices pasted to it. A firedoor seemingly.
Given the geography of the site this is where the building ends, and assuming it just an ingress between us and the street it seems of little interest. As it happens it’s probably the most exciting door on site, if not this entire district. A notice reads that it must not be opened without first contacting Greater Manchester Police, having been sealed up by them during a political party conference. We have permission to break that seal.
From the 60s glamour of a TV studio's headquarters moments later we are in an air raid shelter of the second world war, and the further we walk beyond the door the further back in time we travel, stopping in the late 1800s. The door led down, beneath the street we thought we’d emerge onto. We are in a dark, damp, cavern - an underground canal. The tow paths here are narrow, stalactites form above us, and spindly roots from weeds in the pavement above break through between the brick work. There’s one artificial light at the end of the canal tunnel, before that we rely on torches alone. The canal itself is still full, fuller than average due to rain, and lichen moss grows in tiny patches at waist height. On closer inspection a mesh of minuscule stems radiate out like a series of mossy universes, every inch of lichen representing a period of 25 years growth.
The drip of moisture from the tip of the brick arch is the only sound in this black tunnel, it’s steady and quiet and is undeniably the sound of a cave. The light is so dim it’s hard to make out what the structure becomes in certain places - there are extensions made to the canal in places, small rooms below our feet, bays, partly submerged by water. At the end of the tunnel a gap in the tow path reveals a set of submerged stairs, there is an 80 year old plank of wood propped up across this sudden drop connecting the tow path to the roof of one of these newer rooms beneath us. Alternatively you can drop down onto the steps and walk around a corner where another staircase awaits. This, like the rest of the tunnel, is abruptly cut off, sealed up, it leads us nowhere.
The core of the site seems to be the Bonded Warehouse, it’s certainly the most Mancunian - in-fitting with those dark satanic mills, an industrial building that has been built around and incorporated into the site. This is an interesting aspect of the site, evident not just by the presence of the warehouse but of the canal and of the arches too. Not only has the site been developed piecemeal up until now, with new structures going up when the former TV studios needed to extend but older elements of the site have been adapted, or built around.
Sometimes the space between buildings is simply that, space, other times it’s the route of a street that predates Granadaland. A street, like Grape Street, still traceable on maps and known by name but officially no longer recognised by the city, a ghost. The Bonded Warehouse has a curved outer wall on one side which indicates that it too was built upon or around something else, likely a train track. The upper floor retains its great pulleys and the original windows aren’t sealed - one of them I notice doesn’t quite close, left ajar a decade ago; a century ago, longer.
Above one doorway on that curved wall of the warehouse two kestrels make their home. They’re the two feathered night watchmen and security guards are grateful to have them around because seeing those birds on an otherwise deserted building grounds them. When they guards are done patrolling the grounds for intruders and their minds are full of the myriad ghost stories that have haunted the site as long as it’s been occupied, the kestrels preening their feathers and stretching their wings are the ordinary gestures that bring them back to normality - welcomed signs of life.
A oversized painting of Ena Sharples from Coronation Street hangs in the ground floor reception of the warehouse, the scale of which serves to highlight the scale of everything on this particular floor - it’s twice the size of the others with a ludicrously oversized fireplace against one wall. The warehouse plays with you - the ground floor is only that by name, in fact it in parts the gradual incline, so gradual you miss it, means that it draws level with the third floor of neighbouring buildings. The topography of the site can transport you from underground to above ground without you ever leaving the same corridor.
Next to the warehouse stands a modern erection of corrugated metal, like an aircraft hanger. Beyond this we can keep walking until we are in the Coronation Street houses, we peer out of letter boxes onto the street where a new generation of tours are taking place. We watch the tourists with no interaction, they don’t see us. We are behind the fourth wall.
A camcorder recording fizzes and flickers into life; white noise lightning scars the screen. The picture clears and a woman with Brookside Close hair grimaces at the camera. This is one of a collection of home movies on YouTube filmed by tourists who came to the TV studio tours.
Show business and glamour are really the farthest thing from your mind when Manchester in the early 90s boots up before your very eyes. An older actress here to greet the tourists cuts through the crowd with the airs and graces of Marilyn Monroe, dressed in furs, hair set - she is her own living memory of what an icon should be.
Like this video, the memories most prominent all around the site are very much entrenched in the 90s. Architecturally the headquarters are 60s modernism but the carpets, the colour schemes, the very feeling you have on site are from the peak of light entertainment. A time before reality TV but only just; a time of tea and biscuits and settling in for a night of whatever the TV threw at you; a time before internet in every home.
As television became more of a way of life it too became more encumbered by its own success, and it cheapened itself in its prolificacy; lost any footing it once had alongside silver screens and icons and instead made bedfellows with increasingly tawdry newspapers and magazines. The studios are empty now, like great bell jars they somehow preserve what they once contained. The Mastermind studio, University Challenge, Stars in Their Eyes. The numbering and labelling on site is, in a way, the essence of show business: the studios begin at Studio 2 and are numbered evenly from there on. It’s pure smoke and mirrors. Studio 1, 3, 5, 7, 9…they’re all implied but none exist. It was a ploy, a trick to give the illusion of a much larger scale operation, one to rival any other TV studio in the country.
In the Starlight Theatre there’s that same intangible feeling you get the whole site over - one of a presence, or more of a lack of one. It’s easy to see why so many people talk about ghosts here. It’s the absence of people that were so full of energy that seems to fill the room somehow even now. It’s impossible to be in a vast empty space like this and not conjure before you a camera man rolling along his rig, and a chaos of runners quietly panicking as a show plays out smoothly before them. A recollection of what was here before crackles and bursts into life.
In this room a replica of the House of Commons operated as an interactive tourist attraction for many years, and was used for a film set for all manner of stars from local TV star to icons such as Meryl Streep in Iron Lady. The set was relocated to another film studio several years ago, and more recently it sold on eBay to a private buyer.
A doorway leading outside leads to a space between the theatre and the fenced off edge of the site, and the faded and peeling paint of a multi-coloured Sooty Show facade shows the passing of the years in each wind and rain battered edge, or sun-faded wall. A box with a hinged lid is built into the wall for a puppet-covered hand to emerge from and entertain a queue of children.
Around the back of the theatre we wander beyond the faded entrance to take a look at the origins of the old train line which ran out of the Bonded Warehouse, across the theatre site, and over to a bridge that was being assessed by a team of abseilers ready for demolition. A flimsy wire fence marks the boundary between us and the Museum of Science and Industry to the left. Ahead of us a sparse wall of buddleia bobs its collection of heads in the wind, nodding in approval at our arrival. No one ever visits the corners of a map yet here we find ourselves packed into the tightest intersection of one and on this tarmac stretch hidden behind the theatre we are in the hinterland. Here you can feel that Manchester is running out. The city falls down into a tangle of giant hogweed along the riverbed, the River Irwell swallows its dirty edges and when it rises again on the opposite bank it has become Salford. “Afternoon” A man appears on the other side of the fence as if we’re stood in a perfectly social spot. He’s one of the abseilers from the bridge demolition. He’s wandered further along the tracks, not to chat to us but to look for birds “There’s two kestrels up there, see?” The kestrels groom themselves as we watch. Staring at them in the recess above an office window a scowl of office workers stare back at us, wondering why we’re in this unlikeliest of places, and mistakenly believing we are staring back at them. The kestrels separate, one joins us on this side of the fence the other heads towards the bridge that will soon be only a memory that joined two cities.
In the Bonded Warehouse, on a floor formerly occupied seemingly by offices, a kind of lobby area with garish carpet and multi-coloured walls has a peculiar feature to it. On one wall, a false wall, there’s a hole - one that has been punctured accidentally or ripped away for a purpose unknown. The hole in the wall isn’t extraordinary but when we shine a torch through out of sheer exploratory habit, the space behind it, small and pokey like a space for wires, is painted like a cloud spattered sky.
Why would a sky mural be hidden behind a false wall in a lobby area of an office? This strange discovery is truly indicative of the whole site - a mish-mash of layers, where every space is reused in some way, a sign of evolution of the site, and of budgeting, and ingenuity. Why create a new space for a set when you have a perfectly good corner of an office? Why film on location in a hospital when you have a perfectly good corridor on the way to the canteen? The layers don’t stop there, there are those historical ones too that reveal the manner in which the site was constructed: piecemeal. These overlapping layers and uses mean that the site is a puzzle to the senses, like Escher’s House of Stairs, and there’s no knowing at times what is real and what is fiction.
Back in the main office block as we’re about to exit the west side of the building we encounter, at the bottom of a set of stairs, the rear of a film set. To get outside of the building one must first pass through the bogus building. We find ourselves, briefly, in a police station reception. The glass panels in the main doors ahead of us are frosted in parts with signs for Weatherfield Police - the fictional setting of Coronation Street. The next set of internal doors to our left lead back into the real functional parts of the building, and the main doors take us out onto Grape Street. Grape Street is actually a real and historical street although it is made redundant as such by its location deep within the belly of a former TV studio. It doesn’t look much like a real street now, there are no pavements and no traffic can pass through and yet the street clings on to its surroundings like a wrinkle on otherwise pulled-taught face.
Further into Grape Street, onto the car park, we encounter signage that further baffles the senses- “Trams to Altrincham and Bury”, “Use Left staircase to Baker Street, Coronation Street and Moll Flanders Set” and “No entry - lift access via ‘Future Vision’”. We stand amongst a canvas of real signs, like the ones that direct you to fire doors; real signs but ones which are long since obsolete, like directions to vanished attractions; real signs that form part of unreal scenarios, like the signs for real club nights and festivals that are used purely for realism in the background of TV shows; and then there are fake signs that are pure vestiges of a film set or theme park.
In Granada House - a small block located besides the visitor car park and security lodge, the first building on the site to be purpose-built for TV, we wonder why we’ve been brought to an ordinary-looking former reception area. In here we find unknown depths. An engineer we meet there grabs a set of stepladders and climbs them. He pushes on the false ceiling tiles, looking unsure as to his choice of tile. On the second attempt he pulls the tile away aa gnd points upwards to a red girder of sorts, then we spot another crossing at intersections with the next, a grid of metal beams. Amongst the grid are masses of wires, and as the light permeates the space above the missing ceiling tile, a whole new room seems to divulge itself to us. The false ceiling has covered up the rigging and remains of a much larger room for many decades - what we’re looking at is the original layout of the site’s first TV studio. Suddenly we are in the room in which The Beatles made their first television appearance. As the ceiling tile is replaced we are jolted back to the here and now.
In the heart of the site lies the most cavernous of spaces - the studios. Here in these chambers, light melts away from the edges, cables and wires lay themselves down like roots breaking through the ceiling above and they dangle down sporadically, their connections no longer complete.
The corners of the studios blur into a man-made darkness, into walls of ebony soundproofing. The crisp air suddenly absorbed into the sods of foam, dampened and thickened to nothingness so that the next ventricle along can perfectly replicate the first; another studio awaiting a show of its own. The outside world never leaks in, and so the studios become microcosms.
In the production room television monitors munificent like the eyes of a spider cluster together in rows. Across from them a control desk spans the length of the room and in some corners of the control panel lights continue to flicker. Behind us hangs a forgotten framed photograph of Richard and Judy on location at Albert Docks in Liverpool. Television ephemera like this punctuates rooms and passageways, faces of light entertainment beam out at the faces framed on the walls opposite them, and on and on the polished faces grin and gurn and some, more sentimentally valued than others, have been removed and taken home to cherish leaving the walls hole-punched like a tideline teeming with razor clams.
In another corner of the site a long corridor lined mostly with locked meeting rooms and offices hides a space rendered in that same dense blackness of the studios, this time it’s only the floor thick with that tar-coloured coating. Upon its smooth surface are lines of neon tape which seem to mark out the foundations of a fictional house: labels written directly onto the tape read: “Cupboard” and “Living Room”. Upon this map a conjure a vision of production staff and actors, cameras and cables, eddying across the surface of the blackness. Outside of this rehearsal space the corridor mutates back into an ordinary office space.
The more one explores the site the more it reveals itself as a factory, a production line. Ventilation shafts branch out over the rooftops and lie supine like fallen chimneys, and in place of a smog, TV signals would billow out into the air, drifting on the wind until a reciprocal broadcasting dish picked them up.
People too were produced here, they were made-up, transformed, polished. People came into the building ordinary and, like in the diamond-producing bowels of the earth, were high pressured into a precious commodity - actors into celebrities and assistants into executives.