Britain’s temporary post-war studios

By Richard Farmer

In the years following the Second World War, Ealing Studios was going places. Its experiment in making films in Australia had got off to a successful start with The Overlanders (1946) and would continue for another four films over the next decade or so (Morgan 2012), whilst significant parts of Another Shore (1948) were filmed in Dublin, and Where No Vultures Fly (1951) and West of Zanzibar (1954) were both shot in Kenya. Whilst the use of international settings offered spectacle to British viewers, and perhaps made the films more attractive in international markets, other factors fed into Ealing’s decision to film away from its west London home. Most important of these was the acute shortage of production space in Britain in the years after 1945: studios that were damaged or requisitioned during the war took time to come back into use, and although the difficulties eased as the process of reconstruction progressed, companies like Ealing that were based at smaller studios could often find it difficult to produce more than one film at a time (Baker 1946: 299). Another legacy of the war was an increased use of realist aesthetics inspired by the ‘wartime wedding’ of documentary and commercial filmmaking (Shearman 1946). As Ealing producer Sidney Cole stated, filmmakers in the period enthusiastically took cameras and microphones into the streets and fields: ‘In all our films we are striving for authenticity, and we find that this can only be achieved by filming against a background of actual places’ (Liverpool Evening Post, 26 April 1950: 6).  

St Brendan’s RC Church Hall, Barra. Home to Ealing’s Mobile Studio Units during the filming of Whiskey Galore!

This led Ealing to adopt a more peripatetic approach to the films it made in the UK, producing some features on location whilst others were being made at the company’s studio. To facilitate a multi-site production schedule, and so make more efficient use of equipment and personnel, Ealing established a Mobile Studio Unit (MSU), which was responsible for fitting out temporary indoor production facilities away from the studio proper. These temporary studios allowed interiors to be shot whilst the unit was still on location, although they were essentially blank canvasses and so differed from the already furnished and decorated rooms in country houses that were also sometimes used to shoot interiors in this period (Kinematograph Weekly, 12 September 1946: 12). The use of makeshift studios reduced, although did not always entirely eliminate, use of the permanent studio and so freed up space which could then be used by other productions. The first studio that the MSU rigged up was on the Hebridean island of Barra for Whisky Galore! (1949), and others followed on the Wirral for The Magnet (1950), in Bermondsey for Pool of London (1951) and in the village of Crinan, on Scotland’s west coast, for The Maggie (1954). It was not only Ealing that adopted this approach, and Blue Scar (1949) and Chance of a Lifetime (1950), which both made extensive use of location shooting, also converted empty buildings – the Electric Theatre cinema in Port Talbot and an abandoned woollen mill in Stroud, respectively – into temporary studios. 

Jill Craigie directs Blue Scar at the temporary Electric Theatre studio, Port Talbot.

Temporary studios could be cheaper than hiring a permanent studio, and allowed ‘local colour’ to be used more economically as improvising an interior shooting space on location meant that filmmakers did not need to transport extras and local props to London. More importantly, they also allowed work to continue when periods of bad weather made exterior filming impossible. In the controlled environment of a well-equipped studio, wind, rain and sunshine could be turned on and off according to a precise timetable. This was, obviously, not possible on location, no matter how carefully climatic data was scrutinised during the development of a production schedule. Location shooting left filmmakers at the mercy of the elements, and unhelpful meteorological conditions could leave cast and crew at a loose end. The cost of such inactivity, noted Monja Danischewsky, associate producer at Ealing, was not purely financial, but could also bring about an ‘intangible loss to the film through the browned-offness of the unit. A frustrated, dispirited unit has its effect on the finished film’ (Danischewsky 1948: 6). The weather on Barra during the Ealing unit’s time on the island during late summer and early autumn of 1948 was said to have been ‘the worst … for over 20 years,’ but the temporary studio ensured that at least some work could be done every day (Falkirk Herald, 13 October 1948: 6; Honri 1950b: 7). Indeed, whilst it was possible to complete most of Whisky Galore’s interiors whilst on Barra, the weather was so hostile that Ealing’s studio manager Baynham Honri claimed that some additional exteriors had to be completed ‘in the sunny south’ after the crew had returned to London (Honri 1950a: 110). Poor weather also plagued location shooting for The Magnet in May 1950, ensuring that the temporary studio earned its keep.

Meticulous pre-planning was required to ensure that there was something for the unit to do come rain or shine. Scripts and production schedules were carefully prepared so as to balance exterior and interior photography, with a slight prioritisation of the former, as the latter could usually be shot in a permanent studio at a later date should the need arise. For The Magnet, alternative versions of the script were written, with the decision about which one to used being made in consultation with the weather forecast (Kinematograph Weekly, 1 June 1950: 21). Sometimes, as with Whisky Galore!, scripts had to be adapted on the hoof (Danischewsky 1948: 7).

Inside the temporary studio on Barra.

Although they were undoubtedly a useful resource to be able to call upon, temporary studios were challenging spaces to work in. Most were small, with lower ceilings than permanent studios. That said, with careful pre-planning and a degree of inventiveness, the limitations imposed by these cramped quarters could be overcome; the 49ft by 25ft studio built in St Brendan’s RC church Hall on Barra, for instance, proved capable of accommodating 50 people for the betrothal party seen in Whisky Galore!  Art directors were tasked with designing sets that could be erected within the limited confines of the temporary studio. For Ealing productions, these sets were pre-fabricated in sections at the carpenters’ shop at the permanent studio so as to facilitate transportation to, and ingress into, the temporary studio, which had much smaller doors than did the sound stages (Morahan 1951: 80). Additional sets were rushed up to Merseyside during the filming of The Magnet after poor weather prevented the taking of exteriors and the unit ran out of scenes to shoot using the sets it had initially taken with it (Kinematograph Weekly, 4 May 1950: 33).  

Soundproofing the temporary studio for The Magnet.

As they had not been designed specifically for film production, temporary studios needed to be adapted for that purpose. The raked floor of the Electric cinema in Port Talbot had to be levelled before filming could commence, although the wood used warped during the course of production making camera movement ‘practically impossible’ (Honri 1950a: 117). Soundproofing was a key consideration, and felt and slag-wool the most commonly used materials: on Barra, the remoteness of the location meant that these measures were usually sufficient – ‘there were no … heavy traffic noises to contend with and no railway for 50 miles in one direction and about 3,000 miles in the other’ – but in Port Talbot the sound of train whistles caused delays (Danischewsky 1949: 9; Honri 1950a: 117). 

Although temporary studios erected in built-up areas were generally able to make use of pre-existing power supplies, even if these needed to be supplemented on occasion, portable generators had to be taken to the more rural locations. Barra had yet to be electrified when the Whiskey Galore! unit arrived on the island, meaning that all the electricity used to produce the film was made using equipment and resources brought up from London – a lorry whose petrol engine drove a 24kw generator, and a trailer fitted with plant providing an additional 30kw: combined these gave 500 amperes, sufficient to power pretty much any combination of the unit’s 46 lights. At Crinan, a generator was mounted on a boat on the nearby canal (Kinematograph Weekly, 30 April 1953: 25). Electricity was, of course, a fire hazard and great care was taken to guard against the dangers it posed: soundproofing materials were treated so as to make them fire-retardant, whilst fire extinguishers were installed and doors were rehung so that they opened outwards.

Layout of Ealing’s temporary studio in Bermondsey, used in filming Pool of London.

In addition to acting as improvised sound stages, temporary studios also fulfilled other important functions. Temporary studios provided production offices and dressing rooms; sometimes these spaces were already in place – the Electric cinema’s old box-office became a make-up room – and sometimes they were erected using plywood brought from the studio (Kinematograph Weekly – British studios supplement, 24 June 1948: xxxiii). The warehouse on Marine Street in Bermondsey was initially rented for use as a catering facility after Ealing worked out that it would be cheaper to feed the Pool of London location unit using its own canteen than it would be to hire an external contractor. It was also used as a lock-up: rather than transporting equipment back to Ealing when it was not in use it could be stored securely close to where it was needed. Starting each day on location, rather than assembling at Ealing and driving the ten miles to Bermondsey, a journey that might take an hour, saved considerable amounts of time (Honri 1950b: 7). The Marine Street warehouse was also large enough to include a small theatre for viewing the day’s rushes, and it was easier to match shots when the cutting room and editor was in the same city as the camera. (Other studios had to make alternate arrangements: on Barra footage – which had to be sent back to London for processing – was watched in a makeshift theatre in another church hall, whilst for Blue Scar the rushes were viewed in a nearby cinema.)  

Many, if not all, of the buildings in which Britain’s post-war temporary studios were located have been pulled down, a fate they shared with many disused permanent studios. Yet whereas the former studios at Shepherd’s Bush, Cricklewood and Islington have been commemorated in street and building names, there are few physical traces, if any, to mark the locations of the temporary studios and the fleeting relationships they had with British film production. Rather, the legacy of these mayfly studios, which existed only briefly before vanishing, can be found in the films made within their walls, and in the ways they might encourage us to think differently about what we understand a film studio to be.

References

P. G. Baker (1946), ‘Annual studio survey’, Kinematograph Weekly, 19 December, pp. 250-1, 255, 299.

Monja Danischewsky (1948), ‘Water galore – in Barra’, Film Industry, 2 December, pp. 6-7, 18.

Monja Danischewsky (1949), ‘Remote location filming’, Kinematograph Weekly – British Studio Supplement, 30 June, p. 9.

Baynham Honri (1950a), ‘Technical requirements of a mobile studio unit for feature films’, Journal of the British Kinematograph Society, 16:4, p. 110.

Baynham Honri (1950b), ‘Ealing’s Bermondsey studio’, Kinematograph Weekly – British studio supplement, 9 November, p. 7.

M. J. Morahan (1951), ‘Modern trends in art direction’, British Kinematography, 18:3, pp. 76-83.

Steven Morgan (2012), ‘Ealing’s Australian adventure’, in Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith M. Johnston and Melanie Williams (eds), Ealing Revisited (London: BFI, 2012), pp. 165-74.

John Shearman (1946), ‘Wartime wedding’, Documentary News Letter, 6:4, p. 53.

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