Southall studio at war

By Richard Farmer

Southall studio

Southall studio in west London was built on the site of, and possibly converted from, a former aircraft hangar. It opened in 1924, remained largely unused until 1928, and was converted for sound production in the early 1930s (the vagueness of some of these dates is indicative of the relative paucity of detailed historical evidence as compared to some other studios). Maybe a dozen films were made between the opening of the original studio and its complete destruction by fire in October 1936, an event which led to the evacuation of nearby houses. The owners’ decision to rebuild the studio, for the princely sum of £9,666, was described by Kinematograph Weekly (KW) as ‘super-optimistic’ given that the British production sector was then deep in the clutches of one of its periodic crises and many existing studios were standing idle (Transport for London Corporate Archive: LT172/019/007; KW 12 January 1939: 112). Kine’s scepticism about the wisdom of rebuilding the studio was not entirely misplaced. Although ready to reopen in 1938, no films were made at the studio before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. Or, indeed, for its duration.

Southall studio after the 1936 fire (Illustrated London News, 7 November 1936)

The studio’s owners were, however, keen to get some form of return on their asset and approached various government ministries to find out if they wanted to requisition the facility for storage or manufacturing. Although many other British studios were to put to work for non-filmmaking purposes, Southall was considered surplus to government requirements. The owners then adopted a different tack and applied to the local council for an entertainments licence that would allow the studio’s single 60 x 125 ft. stage to be used as a dancehall. The hall would become known as the Locarno, and Tommy Seymour-Blackburn – a former silent-era film comedian – was installed as manager. The Locarno had a polished wood-block floor and was decorated with coloured banners and what was described as a ‘huge background of Arctic scenery’ (West Middlesex Gazette [WMG], 27 January 1940: 7). Later, a new lighting scheme and a large cafeteria with fully licensed bar were also added. A Grand Opening Ball was held on 24 January 1940. It was attended by more than 400 people who danced until midnight to music provided by a nine-piece band led by Billy Wiltshire – a former professional cyclist in South Africa – and partygoers were said to be especially taken by Roy Marsh’s sterling work on the vibraphone.

The Grand Opening Ball (WMG, 20 and 27 January 1940)

However, the Locarno was not just a dancehall. It was also a roller-skating rink capable of accommodating 500 skaters at a time. But not just any old skating – ‘glider skating’. Glider skates were thought to be ‘the Rolls-Royce of roller skates’ and differed from earlier skates in that they had rubberised wheels (Daily Mail, 23 April 1936: 12). This meant that not only were they virtually silent – making it easier to listen and dance to music while skating – they were also able to grip the floor more effectively: earlier rinks had provided grip by sprinkling the floor with powdered pumice-stone with the result that skating was usually both noisy and dusty. (Such problems no doubt contributed to the bursting of an earlier roller-skating bubble in the 1910s, after which numerous rinks were converted into cinemas and one into Twickenham studio). 

Florence Franklin – ‘professional lady instructress’ (WMG, 6 April 1940)

A ‘a professional lady instructress,’ Miss Florence Franklin, taught punters how to skate and a range of novelty events including skating exhibitions and beauty contests – the winner of Miss Southall 1940 was promised a screen-test as a prize – were held to get people through the door (WMG: 2 March 1940: 7; 11 May 1940: 2). The most important novelty was probably a series of sports matches played on skates: usually roller-football, but occasionally roller-hockey. The Locarno’s first soccer-on-wheels event, with manager Blackburn officiating in evening dress, was played out between a team called the Assassins and another called the Killers. It ended in a hard-fought 1-1 draw. Another fixture, between Locarno staff and local ARP stretcher-bearers, was abandoned after what a local newspaper called ‘a positive riot’ (Middlesex County Times [MCT], 13 April 1940: 5). Matches were played by both men’s and women’s teams and drew good crowds. 

However, local newspaper reports make clear that not everything in the Locarno’s garden was rosy. Over the summer of 1940 the venue was twice fined for failing to adequately observe the blackout, and Blackburn was shown the door in May 1940 for failing to ensure that the venue complied with statutory safety regulations. A few months later a doorman – a former professional boxer – was hauled up before the beak for breaking the nose and jaw of a customer following an argument over the cost of admission. The case was dismissed when it was found that the potential customer and his party were the worse for drink and the altercation had been preceded by them throwing bottles at the Locarno’s entrance (MCT, 24 August 1940: 2). Blackout breaches and boozy bust-ups couldn’t close the Locarno, and neither could German bombs. Advertisements from late September 1940, just a few weeks after the start of the most intense period of the London blitz noted that ‘we carry on through air-raids’ and reassured guests that the ‘all-steel frame building’ in which they would be dancing and skating was ‘splinter, blast and fireproof’ (WMG, 28 September 1940: 2).

By the end of 1940, however, the situation had changed. In November that year the studio was requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production and turned over to Fairey Aviation, an aeroplane manufacturer with a factory at nearby Hayes. This, the studio’s owners noted in a letter to the council dated 3 December 1940, ‘came as rather a financial blow’, not least because they had taken the decision to spend money converting the studio into a dancehall only after being told that it would not be needed by the government (London Metropolitan Archives: MCC/ES/EL/1/355). The Locarno would reopen a few miles away in Ealing – a London borough with better-known cinematic associations, although the suburb’s most famous filmmaking facility was not involved – after a new venue was found above the Fifty Shilling Tailors at 105 Broadway. 

The carpenters’ shop at Southall studio (KW:  26 September 1946 and 10 July 1947) 

It was more than a year after the end of the war before Southall was derequisitioned and filmmaking could resume. Dancing With Crime (1947) went on the floor in December 1946 in what was still a very recently renovated facility: ‘The studio has a fresh and clean smell about it. New paint is everywhere’ (KW – British Studio Supplement, 26 September 1946: xiii). Although there were plans to enlarge the studio when Britain’s economic situation improved, there were no cutting rooms at Southall when it reopened and the film had to be driven to a sister studio at Twickenham for editing. Despite this slow start, the fifteen years after the war marked Southall’s golden age. A second, smaller stage was opened in the early 1950s, and for the remainder of the decade the studio churned out dozens of (predominantly low-budget) films – making uncredited appearances in both Date With Disaster (1957) and Stormy Crossing (1958) – with The Trollenberg Terror (1958) the final film to be made there. The studio was also home to producers making television programmes and live-action advertisements. 

Southall studio yard, as seen in Date with Disaster (1957)

Although Southall studio was only part of the rink organisation for a brief period in 1940, exploring some of the alternate uses to which it was put should remind us that many film studios have dynamic histories, and that the large, empty, flexible spaces used for film production were equally well-suited to other purposes. 

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