By Richard Farmer
Many film studios appear in films. Of these, some feature as film studios, such as when MGM-British was transformed into the home of Commonwealth Pictures in The Intimate Stranger (1956) or Denham’s similarly pseudonymised cameos in both Thursday’s Child (1943) or We’ll Smile Again (1942). More common, though, are cases where parts of studios are passed off as other kinds of building. Here, we might point to Beaconsfield’s appearance in 1954’s Orders are Orders, where the sound stage became an army camp gymnasium – which, ironically, is then used in the film as a temporary studio by Ed Waggermeyer, an American producer played with great gusto by Sid James – or Pinewood’s Heatherden Hall, which has appeared variously as SPECTRE headquarters in From Russia with Love (1963), the governor’s mansion in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) and a stand-in for Buckingham Palace in Wombling Free (1977) as well as being cast according to type as a country house in Crackerjack and The Ware Case (both 1938).
Teddington studios, in west London, was also no stranger to the limelight – it became Rosedale studios in The Galloping Major (1951) – and parts of the studio and its grounds featured in numerous films. The studio was built in the grounds of Weir House, a late-Georgian, 40-room property on the banks of the Thames that after it became associated with film production was dubbed “Weird House” by some locals ‘in view if the somewhat unusual activities that seemed to go on there’ (Newman and Tasker: 5). In 1930, the house was transformed into a residential club aimed at ‘members of the cinematograph industry’ – its proximity to central London’s filmland as much a part of its appeal as its miniature golf course and badminton courts (Kinematograph Weekly [KW], 19 June 1930: 23). Exterior filming had taken place in the grounds at Weir House ‘from the earliest pioneer days,’ but the studio-proper was established in 1916 and frequently expanded and developed thereafter (Chibnall: 692). A devastating fire in October 1929 gutted the existing glass-house facility – panes falling from its glazed roof made it more difficult to fight the blaze – and necessitated extensive rebuilding. This would not be the last time that Teddington went up in flames or was otherwise damaged: there was another fire in 1935, and in July 1944 a V-1 rocket killed studio manager Doc Salomon and two other employees and destroyed parts of the site.
Warner Brothers-First National, an American production and distribution company, took over the site in 1932 so that it might produce low-budget British films and so comply with its quota obligations. It laid out £100,000 improving and further modernising the studio in what one contemporary observer thought to be a sensitive manner:
Did they dot the lawns with hideous outbuildings? They did not. […] Did they line the pleasant riverbank with concrete or build stone walls where before had been rough hedges of privet? They did not. They left the grounds as they were.World Film Encyclopaedia: 392-3
Whilst this approach, and the employment of ‘skilled gardeners’ to maintain the grounds, might have provided ‘players [with] a pleasaunce wherein to walk in the cool of the evening when the day’s shooting is done’ (ibid.), it also stemmed from practical economics: having a well-manicured outdoor space immediately outside the sound-stage made filming certain types of bucolic exterior much easier and cheaper.
Even before the WB-FN takeover, writers employed at the studio were encouraged to develop stories that could make use of the river and the weir that gave the house its name, and on occasion furniture from Weir House was incorporated into films made at Teddington (Leslie: 10; Newman and Tasker: 6). The weir can be seen in both Cocaine/While London Sleeps (1922) and Crime Unlimited (1935) and the house, which was demolished in March 1937, also features in the latter of these films. The weir and the river made for appealing backdrops but could be noisy, often interfering with the microphone during early sound film exteriors shot at Teddington (Leslie: 10).
Given that economy was very often the watchword of producers working at Teddington (Chibnall: 717), as it was for most filmmakers in Britain tasked with churning out low-budget ‘quota quickies’, it comes as no surprise that the exteriors of many studio buildings regularly featured in films produced there. They were in close proximity to equipment stores, did not require complex logistical processes to access, while also allowing filming to continue inside the sound stage should the weather not permit outdoor shooting. What is interesting, however, is that some of the buildings at Teddington were designed specifically so as to permit on-site exterior photography – the canteen, for example, was given a flat roof to provide the camera crew with a ‘grand stand’ view when shooting down into the studio’s street from a high angle. There were other advantages: ‘a false house front is so easy to build from the flat roof and upper storeys [can be] added with the utmost stability and realism’ (KW, 27 April 1939: 51).
In other cases, buildings were erected so as to be both photogenic and adaptable, meaning that they could be dressed differently and re-used in multiple films. When the new sound stage was erected in 1936, its main entrance, ‘with its semi-circular sweep of canopy and steps leading to a revolving doorway’, was ‘designed for use as an external set, such as an hotel entrance … or a block of flats’ – a photograph of the stage entrance in Architects’ Review shows it dressed as the offices of the Continental Dispatch air-mail company (KW, 28 May 1936: 47; Roberts: 79). The distance between the stage and the main administration building that ran parallel to it was intentionally left wide enough ‘to accommodate all necessary cameras, booster lights and crew without seriously impeding traffic’ (KW, 28 May 1936: 47). Films that made use the sound-stage’s exterior include They Met in the Dark (1943), for which the entrance was transformed into the Hotel Monopole, and They Drive By Night (1938), where it became a palais de danse.
In this latter film, the stage’s large ground-floor windows can also be seen acting as both shop windows and, boarded over, as advertising hoardings on the outside wall of the dancehall. Here, even though the camera movement that captures the space is ostensibly similar – a tracking pan from right to left – we get a sense of how changes to props, on-screen weather and the speed with which the camera moves encourage us to see the building in different ways, and so convince the viewer that they are looking at two different places. The windows of the ‘6d Stores,’ seen on a rainy night, are staged to create a sense of depth, showing off such items as canned foods, cups and plates under bright diegetic lights; advertising for the palais, on the other hand, is staged essentially two-dimensionally, with posters pasted onto the flat surface of a wall and depth instead provided by a post box and a lamppost that pass by in the foreground of the shot. Each shot only lasts a few seconds, but great care has evidently been taken to develop comprehensively different versions of the same 50-ft. stretch of wall, on the other side of which, beyond the camera’s gaze, could be found a scene dock and accommodation for the studio’s sound van.
They Drive by Night also shows off another part of the studio designed to function as an exterior set. When the carpenters’ shop was extended as part of the 1936-37 expansion, it was constructed so that its longer western wall resembled a short street, constructed from a range of different aged and shaped buildings to give the impression that it had grown over time, while its northern wall, which faced the Thames, provided a ‘more or less Grecian elevation’. The scheme was approved in July 1936, despite the objections of B. R Davidge, who was employed by Teddington Urban District Council as a Town Planning consultant: ‘The design for the carpenter’s shop extension appears to be unnecessarily elaborate and rather suggests that it is being built up of surplus sets no longer required for filming purposes’ (Davidge). Davidge appears to have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the workshop’s unusual exterior. When completed the newly enlarged building was ready to step into the background, and can be seen in They Drive by Night, shot at an oblique angle, with props such as a poster for a boxing bout and a sign for the ‘Pins and Needles Club’ adding a touch of local colour. In the back of the shot, a flat has been erected perpendicular to the street, provide greater depth and solidity to the illusory urban scene and blocking out the grounds that ran down to the Thames. I have not yet identified any cinematic appearances by the river-facing ‘Grecian elevation,’ but would be very interested to hear from anyone who has, or from anyone who has spotted studio buildings in any other films made at Teddington.
B. R. Davidge, letter to E. Bostock, 26 June 1936. Richmond Local Studies Archive, file PLA 00855.
Steve Chibnall, ‘Hollywood-on-Thames: the British productions of Warner Bros.–First National, 1931–1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 39:4 (2019), pp. 687-724.
Malcolm Newman and John Tasker, The Story of Teddington Studios (Print Inc.: Teddington, 2002).
Cecilie Leslie, ‘Dark deeds at Teddington studio’, Film Weekly, 9 January 1932, p. 10.
A. Stanley Roberts, ‘Film studios, Teddington’, Architects’ Journal, January 1937, p. 79.
World Film Encyclopedia, edited by Clarence Winchester (London: Amalgamated Press, 1933).