By Sarah Street
When Denham Studios opened in May 1936 it was hailed as Britain’s largest, most up-to-date film studio, located on a 193-acre site on an estate called ‘The Fishery’ north of Denham Village in Buckinghamshire. Equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, it was celebrated as symptomatic of the revival of the British film industry, and of the rise of Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, the company that built the studios with finance provided by the Prudential Assurance Company. Denham was visited by French production designer Lucien Aguettand in December 1936, and also by architect Gino Peressutti when Cinecittà, Italy’s flagship studio, was being designed. While Denham was one of many studios in Britain, soon to be rivalled by J. Arthur Rank’s Pinewood Studios which opened just a few months after Denham in September 1936, its significance in the history of studio architecture, design, labour and professional expertise is incontrovertible.
For STUDIOTEC, Denham represents many of the key areas we are researching, in particular the themes relating to architecture, set design, émigré labour in the film studios, and the complex infrastructures and networks involving construction, materials, equipment and labour which contributed towards sustaining local, national and international economies. Denham was co-designed by Walter Gropius, the famous Bauhaus architect who joined the British architecture firm Adams, Thompson and Fry in 1934 when he emigrated to Britain, and the architects’ firm Messrs Joseph. Korda was celebrated for his employment of émigré artists, including set designer Lazare Meerson and ‘ace’ cinematographers such as Georges Perinal. This made Denham very much a European-orientated studio despite the fact that when it opened the technical expertise of Jack Okey, an American art director who had contributed to the design of some of Hollywood’s early film studios, was referenced as providing key input. American studios were considered to be advanced, and later analyses of British studios often compared them unfavourably in terms of layout and efficiency with Hollywood. STUDIOTEC will however bring into the comparative framework a much broader set of examples as France, Germany and Italy generated many other models, organisational structures and protocols.
A key aspect of STUDIOTEC is its focus on studios that are no longer operational. The project will re-open their doors, as it were, in researching how they were designed and operated and, crucially, how they changed over time. For this, we will be using a great number of visual sources, unearthing many photos, including aerial shots that show how studios were organised in different decades, and films that feature footage of the studios. For Denham in the 1930s, the years when it was heralded as a premier studio, the records are relatively plentiful. The input of Gropius, for example, and the studio’s Art Deco design, has generated some rich visual resources. London Film Productions’ reputation in the 1930s as Britain’s major film company, and its stake in promoting Denham as state-of-the art, resulted in A Day at Denham, a documentary produced by London Films in 1939 that can be viewed on BFI Player: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-day-at-denham-1939-online
I find this film fascinating for the views it provides of Denham’s construction and internal workings, showing the studio’s access to vast, exterior spaces for filming and set construction. Yet the celebratory rhetoric of the film’s commentary does not reflect that by the end of the 1930s London Films, and the financially unstable film industry, were fast sliding into contraction, forcing Korda to pass control of Denham to Rank in 1939 (Street 1986). Looking at A Day at Denham closely however shows its tremendous value for STUDIOTEC, for the unique access it provides to spaces and activities that have since been transformed for other purposes. In the case of Denham, the complex has recently been converted into a luxury apartment development that takes pride in its former history as a film studio in replicating its Art Deco style and even includes a cinema as one of its facilities: https://www.weston-homes.com/the-denham-film-studios/
These stills from A Day at Denham form a wonderful guide to many of STUDIOTEC’s concerns, as well as our search for visual documentation on studios in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, 1930-60. The location of studios is a very interesting issue, including their proximity to cities. Denham’s location, 14 miles from London, and with the plot’s large acreage, permitted the erection of outdoor sets. The contrast between rural idyll and ultra-modern studio begins the film, with shots of Denham Village as a sleepy, pastoral hideaway followed by crowds of employees and extras queueing to get into the studio, and employees clocking on once inside. One contemporary report captured something of the incongruous sight that greeted those who travelled from London by train: ‘Fifteen miles out of London a thick plantation of pine trees hides the view to the right of the line. Suddenly, through the pines glows a fierce purple light, like a giant oxy-acetylene welder. A moment later the trees have swept past to reveal a great mass of buildings, still white in the gathering darkness. Every window blazes with light, and little figures can be seen hurrying from room to room. In the dazzling purple glare there stand the skeletons of scaffolding and strange facades, while high up on a rostrum a tiny figure standing by a tripod waves its arm. A second afterwards the buildings of a small country station blot out the whole scene, and as the platform roars past you glimpse the name of the station – Denham’ (World Film News 1937: 18).
The processes involved in a film studio’s activity are also well-documented in the film, giving the viewer access to the material environment of film production, from making-up actors to constructing sets and building models. Michael Powell described his experience of working at Denham with wonderment at the facilities it offered: ‘The stages of Denham stood in a formidable row along the new road, which would one day be one of the main link roads around London. At present it swept grandly up to Denham Studios and petered out on the other side of the hill, where the huge beech trees of Buckinghamshire marched down to the river and the elephants had danced for Sabu, the Elephant Boy. There were two huge stages, about 200 ft. sq., so large that I couldn’t imagine how to control them, little anticipating that in five years’ time I would be creating Heaven and Earth within those giant concrete walls. I had caught a glimpse of the machine shop and the carpenters’ shops and the electrical stores. This was how a film studio should be! A box of tricks out of which to create marvels’ (1986: 267).
The documentary also shows sets being erected outside the studios as well as interior shooting in one of Denham’s seven stages for well-known films produced by London Film Productions, including Fire Over England (William K. Howard, 1937), Knight Without Armour (Jacques Feyder, 1937), South Riding (Victor Saville, 1938) and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939).
Parts of the studio that were particularly novel were its unique power-house and purpose-built laboratories for processing black and white and Technicolor films. Four of Denham’s stages were air-conditioned, using Western Electric sound systems, the studios had their own water supply and the largest electric power plant used at that time by a private company. A Day at Denham also showed the cutting rooms, providing another window on the world of filmmaking practice. In the 1930s the studio employed 2000 people in the 14 cutting rooms, machine shop, foundry, plumbing and blacksmiths’ shops, wood-working mill, shops for carpenters, plasterers, painters and electricians, stores for small props, stage equipment, make-up and property.
The film also offers glimpses of films being shot on one of the stages, inviting the audience to experience something of the complex logistics of the film studio environment.
A Day at Denham is a wonderful record of the studio in operation, a rare example of filmic evidence that has survived. Other records include an event in Denham’s early history not recorded in A Day at Denham. When the studio was being built there was a fire, as reported in a Gaumont-British newsreel dated 19th March 1936.
These images record the not-so-celebratory aspect of film studios, their status as high-risk working environments. The studio had its own fire-brigade, probably in response to the fire, and because in the 1930s most studios used equipment that was potentially highly combustible. STUDIOTEC aims to cover such key events in the studios’ histories, particularly the health and safety hazards that many workers had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. While A Day at Denham gives us a rich sense of what it was like working in a studio in the 1930s, we hope that the many other examples of studios in Britain, France, Germany and Italy will produce a greater comparative sense of how studios operated in Europe, and better understanding of their unique and transferable structures, practices and personnel. We are also interested in how over time studios have had different functions, Denham being a prime example of a film studio that was later used as a xerox company’s premises, and is now luxury apartments. While A Day at Denham contrasted the ‘placid calmness’ of Denham Village with the ‘gigantic enterprise’ of nearby Denham Studios, the apartments are marketed as a haven of ‘exquisite living’, ‘not just a home, a lifestyle’ to ‘calm the nerves’, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. No longer a hub of filmmaking activity, like many other studios Denham has been re-purposed, re-modelled as a development that nevertheless celebrates the rich history so vividly captured by A Day at Denham’s invitation to let viewers inside.
The Film Council, ‘Secrets of British Film Finance’, World Film News, Jan 1937, pp. 18-23.
Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (London: Heinemann, 1986).
Sarah Street, ‘Denham Studios: The Golden Jubilee of Korda’s Folly’, Sight and Sound, 55:2, 1986, pp. 116-122.
Sarah Street, ‘Alexander Korda, Prudential Assurance and British film finance in the 1930s’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 6:2, 1986, pp. 161-179.