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. 

5 thoughts on “Southall studio at war

  1. Your article spurred me to look deeper into Southall Studios and I found these references to the structure being used as a bus garage prior (and possibly during) to its use as a studio. Both extracts are from E.G. Cousins’ articles.

    “. . . and from Southall, where G. B. Samuelson used to make such intensely patriotic epics as Two Little Drummer-boys in a studio which had been a bus garage and subsequently (I believe) reverted to that useful if less romantic purpose. Here, there were two Army hutments, one for the ladies to dress in, one for the men: an ocean of sticky mud separated these from the studio building, and on very wet days we men had to carry the women across the morass.”

    Cousins, E G.  Picturegoer (Archive: 1932-1960); London Vol. 3, Iss. 154, (May 5, 1934)

    “Did you ever hear of the Metropolitan Studios ? They’re at Southall—so I’m told. When I was eight years younger, and all the trees were green, and every goose a swan, lad, and every lass a queen, there was a studio at Southall . . . at least, we called it a studio, because after all one must be kind, and someone’s feelings might have been hurt if we’d called it a ‘bus garage. That, however, is what it was; slightly converted for the production of films. Two Little Drummer Boys was made there, with Wee Georgie Wood as one of them and Alma Taylor . . . no, she wasn’t the other; she was his mother, and what a break that was for Georgie.

    “But the roof leaked rather, and there were other But and when talkies came in I rather fancy it resumed its former habit of sheltering ‘buses. Now, however, I understand new and up-to-date studios are at Southall, and a film is being made there, ”

    Cousins, E G.  Picturegoer (Archive: 1932-1960); London Vol. 5, Iss. 237, (Dec 7, 1935)

    The hangar-like structure can be seen top centre in Britain from Above photo: EPW009256 ENGLAND (1923). The Brentford Gas Company Works and environs, Southall, 1923. And it certainly looks more like a bus garage than a studio. Comparing this photo with your post-fire image (above) the building looks to have remained much the same as it was in 1923 before it burnt down.

    I’m going down a rabbit hole trying to find references to the films attributed to the studios:

    I can find any references to films being made at Southall before ‘Two Little Drummer Boys’ and according to the trade press Shouthall sprang up as a ‘new’ studio just as production began (referred to as the ‘Victoria’ studio, for a brief period, before the ‘Samuelson’ studio).

    ‘It Is Never Too Late to Mend’ (1925) and ‘If Youth But Knew’ (1926) are credited to the studio in IMDb – but I’m finding it hard to tie them to the studio. There may be something about these in Samuelson’s unpublished autobiography?

    Was anything produced between the fire and the Locarno conversion? Post-war trade press quotes suggest no, but IMDb lists:

    The Penny Pool (1937)
    – but the trade press says this was made at the ‘new, modern studios at Highbury’ starting April 5 1937

    ‘Bed and Breakfast’ (1938)
    – can’t find anything on this other than trade screenings/reviews and last-minute casting changes around October/November 1937.

    The studio rebuild was praised in a January 1939 issue of Kine with the studio now being ‘ready for production’, suggesting that the re-build had recently finished and nothing had been made there – which, I think rules out ‘Bed and Breakfast’ as a Southall production as well.

    Thanks again Richard for your article.


  2. More confirmation on the studio being a bus garage before the studio conversion (although it might have been an aircraft hangar originally) and that ‘Two Little Drummer Boys’ was the studio’s first film – despite published claims of previous productions filmed there.

    “Latest Addition to Southall Industries. VICTORIA FILMS COMPANY OPENS STUDIO IN GLADSTONE-ROAD. Film making is the latest addition to Southall’s industries. – A studio has been opened by the Victoria Films Company in Gladstone Road, an extensive corrugated iron building being secured for the purpose. The general manager is Mr. G. B Samuelson, who has had about twenty years’ experience in the film industry, and the assistant producer and studio manager is Mr. Roy Travers, who is also well-known in the screen world. After a week’s hustle to get the interior of the building ready, a start was made with the making of the first picture on Monday.

    “The subject is Walter Howard’s famous melodrama ‘Two Little Drummer Boys,’ and amongst the cast arc Wee Georgie Wood, Miss Alma Taylor, was exhibited. It is a thoroughly entertaining film and is well acted and photographed throughout. The outside settings include scenes in the Manor House Grounds and at the Drill Hall, Featherstone Road, Southall, on Monday morning, and two members of the 317th (Middlesex) Anti-Aircraft Searchlight Company, Sergeant Reed and Mr. Arthur Harrison, were engaged to take the parts of the recruiting sergeant and corporal.

    “When a West Middlesex Gazette representative visited the studio on Wednesday afternoon, the scene inside Darrell’s room was being taken. An official of the company stated that there is a big demand now for British films and he was confident there is a great future before the new studio. The present picture is a G. B. Samuelson production and will probably take four weeks to complete, and then the Victoria Films Company will begin their first picture, which is to be ‘For Valour,’ the history of the Victoria Cross.

    “The building, which has a concrete floor and was originally intended to be used as a large motor garage, is regarded as ideally suited for a film studio. A number of local carpenters and other mechanics have been engaged in erecting dressing rooms, settings and other appointments.”

    Published: Saturday 10 March 1928
    Newspaper: West Middlesex Gazette


    1. Thanks for the additional information, Anthony – it’s really interesting to know more about the earliest days of Southall studio.


  3. Thanks for the additional information, Anthony – it’s great to learn more about the earliest days of Southall studio.


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