“Now, as I write, and think once more of our history, which is but a long account of calamities…” – W.G. Sebald, The Rings Of Saturn
At the start of the 20th century Britain was a film-making superpower. By the end of the 1970s it was a cottage industry specialising in soft-core, hard-to-watch sex comedies. This reversal of fortunes is most vividly demonstrated by the films produced at Bushey studios at the beginning and end of its existence. It was built in 1913 by painter Sir Hubert von Herkomer in the back garden of his own home, an ornate Bavarian anomaly in the middle of the Hertfordshire suburbs, to elevate film, then a medium strictly for the masses, into a genuine art. Seven decades later, the studio was hired out to Britain’s then pornographer-in-chief David Sullivan to produce what is often regarded as the nadir of the British sex comedy – but also the most profitable. Come Play With Me made Mary Millington a star overnight, a prototype Jordan, a glamour model who somehow became a household name. Her encounter with fame was brief, marred by bouts of depression and kleptomania, and brought to a sudden end by a lethal cocktail of gin and paracetamol.
Bushey was only one of dozens of studios built to service the British film industry in its heyday. An industry, let’s not forget, that can justifiably claim to have invented the star system, the chase film and the close-up. Like Bushey, most of these studios didn’t make it past the 1980s. Unlike Bushey, most are still standing. They may be disguised as insurance offices, provincial theatres or storage units, with only a plaque or a rudimentary sign providing a clue to their cinematic origins. But they’re still there. Littering London and its outskirts, they form a chain around the capital. Usually no more than 15 miles apart, they are way-stations on a pilgrimage. This walking tour, from Gainsborough to Welwyn Garden City, takes in 11 studios and covers over 80 miles. This may take a while.