The Hansa recording studio existed, as one music producer points out, “on the outpost of western civilisation”, standing virtually alone in a flattened wasteland beside the Berlin wall. One day, sound engineer Eduard Meyer turned one of the lamps out of the window and poked his tongue out at the guards. David Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti dropped to the floor and hid under the desk, recalls Meyer, with glee. “We thought we were going to be fired on by machine guns,” says Visconti, laughing.
The feature-length documentary Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90 (Sky Arts, 9pm) was so evocative you could almost feel the herringbone flooring of the beautiful early 20th-century ballroom, AKA Studio 2, pulsating beneath your feet. It had everything – Bowie, Iggy Pop, a bit of geekery (details about then-state-of-the-art recording equipment) and Fish from Marillion relishing memories of his escapades in the city (“I was single,” he says, with a thrust. “And I have no qualms about admitting I took full fucking advantage of every fucking scenario that came my way”).
It is a brilliant subject for a documentary, and film-maker Mike Christie does a magnificent job. Hansa, says Barry Adamson, who played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “has a darkness in the dust. Something you can use.” The building, says music producer Flood, “is as much an instrument as any guitar, drum, synth”. It was playground and laboratory; a buzzing, humming nerve centre of creativity. Depeche Mode’s producer Gareth Jones recalls running cables up and down the stairs between studios to get reverbs and delays. “We were throwing beats around the whole building in a really fun, very noisy way,” he says, eyes gleaming.
We begin, as does Hansa’s legendary status, with Bowie, who had gone to West Berlin, “the most arduous city I could think of”, in 1976 seeking inspiration and escape, and the film makes the city look like the most thrillingly creative place on earth. Bowie recorded Low and “Heroes” at Hansa; engineers recall the building ringing out with the guitar riff from “Heroes”, and Visconti tells how he inspired the lyrics, after Bowie watched him snogging a backing singer outside the studio by the wall. Back in the studio, Bowie was smiling. “He finally got the lyric out of himself,” says Visconti. Iggy Pop made Lust for Life, with Bowie producing, in Studio 3, that feverish drum beat magnified, the engineers recall, by setting the drum kit up in the middle of the room and surrounding it, with “more mics than we would normally use”.
The studios, and the strangeness and desolation of its setting, had an alchemical effect on the artists who came through its doors. The building was the scene for the destruction of the bands Wire and the Birthday Party, and the make-or-break point for U2. They arrived at Hansa, remembers Flood, “on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The tension was palpable – day-in, day-out confrontation.” Instead, they recorded Achtung Baby, which is, as everyone knows, their best album.
The film could easily have been serious and reverential, the documentary equivalent of a music bore, but there were light notes throughout. The sound engineers worried that the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten would go through the floor with the power hammer they were using as a percussion instrument. Mick Harvey, then in the midst of recording with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, remembers with a laugh that they weren’t bothered about watching the wall come down from this prime spot because “we were busy”.
REM recorded much of their final album at the studio, and knowing they’d never tour it, filmed a performance in Hansa’s hall – a clip shows frontman Michael Stipe brought to tears at the end of the final song. “You can wonder,” says Stipe, wise and beardy, “is the spirit of the people who recorded these fantastic, incredible, life-altering, transformative songs or moments, is that imbued in the wood, in the grain of the fabric of the place? Maybe.” Resonant and romantic, the film is a treat.
It was the people who provided the interest in the otherwise rather dull quiz show Britain’s Brightest Family (ITV1, 8pm). Three family members battled it out against another team to reach the final. They had to buzz in to nominate one of their relations to answer, and then they were shot into the air on a kind of hydraulic armchair, an Ikea hack gone too far. The questions were tedious – working out the value of a handful of coins, counting consonants in a word – and easy, even for the youngest participants. More interesting were the family dynamics under pressure. “That’s three questions and we’ve not scored any points yet,” said Jack, 15, pointedly, as his mother, who wasn’t quick enough to answer questions, smiled awkwardly.