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The Greatest Show in the Car Park

Thirty years ago, a crisis at Television Centre forced the Doctor Who crew to decamp to BBC Elstree. As a result, the interiors for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy were recorded in a curiously authentic environment…
The cast and crew of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-89) in the big top set, which was erected in the car park of the BBC Elstree Centre in Borehamwood.

In the last week of May 1988, an alarming discovery was made during repair work in TC5 at BBC Television Centre – asbestos was embedded in the studios soundproof ceiling tiles and coated the trusses supporting the studio grids. The fibrous silicate mineral had lain there undisturbed for nearly 30 years, having been considered ideal for insulation, fireproofing and sound absorption in the 1950s when the complex was constructed. But by 1988, asbestos was a recognised health hazard, with prolonged inhalation of the fibres potentially resulting in fatal illness.

Virtually all of Television Centres production areas were shut down on Friday 27 May, forcing programme makers to move their shows off-site, many of them going to studios in Bristol and Birmingham. This was bad news for the Doctor Who production team, which had been preparing to begin the first block of studio recordings for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy in TC6 the following Tuesday.

“Wed already shot the location aspects some weeks earlier, which represented about a quarter of the show,” director Alan Wareing told Joe Nazzaro in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine in 1990. “Then we went into rehearsal for the studio aspects of the show and found out that the BBC Television Centre studios were going to be closed to clear the asbestos.” Five days of location recording for the Seventh Doctors visit to the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax had been completed at the English China Clays (ECC) West Knighton quarry near Dorchester, Dorset, on 18 May; now, though, the four-part story faced the very real possibility of cancellation. Producer John Nathan-Turner was informed in no uncertain terms that the serial could only remain in production if an alternative studio could be found for the first studio session. He subsequently learned that the serials second studio session, due to take place in TC8 a fortnight later, would also have to find a different venue.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

In 1963 Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson devised an ambitious concept that would stretch the BBC’s technical resources to the limit. In its earliest days Doctor Who was jeopardised by a fierce dispute over facilities. The programme survived, but never stopped demanding the very best from its studios and dedicated crews. This is the inside story of Doctor Who’s evolution from relatively primitive beginnings to the cutting edge of modern television production.