British film studios and the 1947 fuel crisis

2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the fuel crisis that partially paralysed Britain at the start 1947. Our researcher Richard Farmer explores the impact that the crisis, and the exceptionally harsh winter that accompanied it, had on British film studios.

1947 proved to be a particularly challenging year for Britain, a country still recovering from the Second World War. Widespread shortages of consumer goods persisted and rationing continued; essential infrastructure that had been run into the ground during the war had yet to be replaced. The Labour government of Clement Attlee struggled to rebuild a damaged country and transition to a peacetime economy whilst introducing the welfare services that it had promised voters in the 1945 election. The ‘sunlit uplands’ promised by Winston Churchill for the post-war period were nowhere to be seen. This was as true meteorologically as it was metaphorically, at least in the early part of 1947 when Britain was subjected to ‘an ordeal by weather unequalled in the long time during which systematic meteorological records have been kept’ (Robertson: 8). Swathes of the country were covered in snow from late January until mid-March, whilst for large areas temperatures did not climb above freezing for much of February, causing domestic plumbing pipes to freeze. ‘Even the basic elements of civilisation are denied us,’ moaned James Lees-Milne upon finding that he couldn’t run himself a bath (Kynaston: 190). The weather made it extremely difficult to move coal from mine to power station by rail or sea, resulting in power cuts – at one point, meetings of the Central Electricity Board had to be lit by candles (Farmer: 27). Temporary factory closures brought about a short-term spike in unemployment. 

The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947)

Film studios were, of course, not exempt from these problems. At ABPC’s Elstree facility, sub-zero temperatures meant that it was too cold to lay bricks, halting the process of post-war reconstruction for six weeks, whilst weather-related transport issues made it even more difficult to get construction materials, already in scarce supply, to site (Baker: iv). At the British National studios, also in Elstree, certain shots for The Ghosts of Berkeley Square had to be postponed because the carriage required for them was covered by a snowdrift out on the lot. When the carriage was eventually reclaimed, it barely survived long enough for the shots to be taken – having moved out of camera range for what would prove to be the last time ‘it lurched and collapsed. One axle had rotted through’ (Wallace 1947a: 17). However, it’s an ill winter wind that blows nobody any good, and production company Cineguild, looking upon the snow as ‘a dispensation of Providence’, travelled to Staffordshire to shoot winter locations for Blanche Fury (Wardour: 4). Back at Pinewood, where Cineguild shot interiors for the film, workers took advantage of icy conditions to go skating in the studio grounds (Pinewood Merry-go-Round, Dec: 16).

Blanche Fury (1948)

The problems caused by the weather paled into insignificance when compared to those resulting from a loss of power. Like many industries, by the late-1940s the British film production sector had for decades been reliant on electricity, and any interruption to a constant supply was extremely disruptive: ‘You cannot light a set, run a projector, turn over a sound camera, operate a valve amplifier or develop a strip of film on anything but electricity – colloquially known as “juice”’ (Huntley: 4). With the transport of coal compromised by the weather, and with stockpiles having been run down during the war, many coal-fired British power stations were unable to produce as much electricity as was needed by industry and domestic consumers, prompting a crisis which Kinematograph Weekly (13 Feb: 4), slightly hysterically, claimed made ‘the interference of the Luftwaffe in 1940 seem trivial by comparison’. 

Although production facilities such as Pinewood, Denham and Shepperton generated their own electricity using fuel oil-powered engines, having decided that this would be a cheaper and more manageable source of current, nine British studios drew power from the national grid and so were at the mercy of generators that they had no direct means of controlling. Should electricity supply fail, production stopped. This was something that the producers of Dancing With Crime found to their cost, when heavy snow persuaded them to switch production from an exterior set at Twickenham to a duplicate built on the soundstage at Southall. The unit arrived to find the latter studio without power:

Artists groped around in the gloom to complete their make-up. Then plasterers and technicians gathered in the carpentry shop and warmed frozen feet and hands round a wood-shavings fire. Lights came on just when it was decided to break for a late lunch.

Some filming did eventually prove possible, but the unit lost ‘nearly a whole day’ (KW, 6 Feb: 17). Other studios drawing power from the grid were similarly affected: at Welwyn, the Boulting Brothers were forced to delay starting Brighton Rock, whilst at Islington production of When the Bough Breaks had to be suspended. In some studios, shortages of current put editing tables and sound recording gear out of action, whilst drops in electrical frequency made it difficult for post-syncing equipment to function normally (P. G. B: 14).  As the government introduced schemes to regulate fuel consumption, diverting it away from non-essential uses, filmmakers were informed that shooting at night would be temporarily prohibited as being ‘against the national interest’ (KW, 13 Feb: 3).

Dancing with Crime (1947)

With no power, there was little work to do, and 200 employees at Islington (Hull Daily Mail, 8 Feb: 1) and 700 at Shepherd’s Bush (Sunday Dispatch, 9 Feb: 1) were temporarily laid-off. Studios scrambled to find alternative sources of power. At the Nettlefold studios in Walton-on-Thames, manager W. N. Norris, faced with the prospect of a complete shut-down, secured a large petrol-driven generator from a fairground company. When production resumed at Islington, the rented circus generator provided only enough power for the stages, leaving offices and other non-essential spaces in the dark (Craven: 3). The cost of hiring such equipment could be as much as £50 a day, but this paled in comparison to the £1,000 per day that one trade paper claimed to be the cost of holding up production (KW, 13 Feb: 3).  

The mobile generators were petrol- or diesel-powered – and so were similar to the permanent plant installed at studios such as Pinewood or Denham, which used fuel oil to keep operational throughout the crisis – so circumvented the problems then affecting electricity generation in London and the south-east of England. Gaumont-British’s newsreel for 17 February 1947 concluded a story on the fuel crisis by noting that ‘emergency [generating] plant’ had been acquired that would allow the company to continue its work. This decision, it was stressed, was a public-spirited gesture that had been made so that the production of G.-B. newsreels would not prove to be an additional drain on the national grid. The sum spent on the plant – said to be ‘some thousands’ – indicates that it was purchased rather than hired, suggesting that management saw this as an investment against the possibility of inconsistent electricity supplies for some time to come. 

Mobile generators

The fuel crisis also affected the British film industry more generally. Publication of trade papers such as Kinematograph Weekly was suspended for two weeks in February in an attempt to save coal, prompting some critics to angrily claim that the government was seeking to muzzle the press. More significantly, fuel shortages reduced the amount of film that could be manufactured and processed. Raw-stock companies such as Eastman-Kodak and Ilford received only two-thirds of their normal fuel allocation, dramatically reducing their output (Variety, 26 Feb: 25). This necessitated severe economies in the use of stock, and savings were made by temporarily halting the production of prints for sales overseas, a decision that cannot have been taken lightly given the British economy’s desperate need for export earnings (P. G. B: 14). Processing labs suffered from power cuts, too, and Denham Labs, which drew current from the grid, experienced ‘load shedding’ operations that lasted as long as seven hours (ibid.) and which disrupted processing until a way was found to take power from the neighbouring studio’s generators (KW, 6 March: 6). Producers used to viewing rushes on a daily basis found that they could now only be printed twice a week, forcing some directors to ‘shoot blind’ and necessitating additional money being spent on retakes (ibid.).

The need to find savings of film stock prompted talk – ultimately groundless – of ‘eliminating newsreels’ for the duration of the crisis, and concerns were also voiced about whether enough prints could be struck to supply Britain’s approximately 4,500 cinemas. That didn’t turn out to be a problem, although ensuring that prints reached cinemas could be challenging, as in Bury St Edmunds where some GFD films had to be delivered by sledge (KW, 6 March: 6). Exhibitors had to deal with a downturn in ticket sales prompted by the awful weather, a prohibition on matinee performances and restricted opening hours. Those patrons who did turn up were often cold and frustrated: there was little coal to heat the auditorium – ‘even my goosepimples had goosepimples’ noted one picturegoer (Sunday Dispatch, 2 March: 6) – whilst power cuts could arrive without notice part-way through a screening (KW, 6 Feb: 44). External neon and floodlights were switched off, plunging the countries cinemas back into the enforced gloom of the blackout.

Neither the fuel crisis nor the harsh weather lasted indefinitely. When the thaw eventually came in mid-March, melting snow caused widespread flooding – including at Elstree, where groundworks at the ABPC site were inundated, causing further delays (Baker: iv). Whilst the coming of spring was welcomed by many, there were those who found themselves inconvenienced by the timing of its arrival: Cineguild was caught unprepared, having not been able to complete its winter exteriors, and was left ‘searching grimly for a location in which there are no leaves on the trees and no flowers on the ground’ (Wallace, 1947b: 12). By May, Broken Journey went into production at Shepherd’s Bush using mounds of artificial snow that was more biddable and less likely to melt under the harsh glare of the studio’s electric lights (KW, 8 May: 20). That these lights were up and running again demonstrates that the power situation in the studios had returned to something approaching normality.  The mobile generators acquired so quickly and at such cost as stop-gap sources of electricity could be put to use for location shooting.

Broken Journey (1948)

References

KW Kinematograph Weekly. All uncredited newspaper articles 1947. 

P. G. B., ‘Studio news and views’, Kinematograph Weekly, 13 February 1947: 14-5. 

P. G. Baker, ‘Quarterly studio survey’, Kinematograph Weekly – British studio section supplement, 3 April 1947: iv-v, x, xxiii.

Edgar Craven, ‘Shows and showfolk’, Yorkshire Evening Post, 22 February 1947: 3

Richard Farmer, ‘All Work and No Play: British Leisure Culture and the 1947 Fuel Crisis’, Journal of Contemporary History, 27:1 (2013): 22-43.

John Huntley, ‘Juice! The motive power of the industry’, Film Industry, August 1947: 4-5, 22.

David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-51 (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

Alex J. Robertson, The Bleak Midwinter, 1947 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987).

Leonard Wallace (1947a), ‘In British studios’, Kinematograph Weekly, 24 April 1947: 17-8.

Leonard Wallace (1947b), ‘Studio news and views’, Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947: 12-3.

Wardour, ‘Screen topics’, Leicester Evening Mail, 10 February 1947: 4. 

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