On the space now occupied by a standard issue apartment block bordering a canal that draws a line between Islington and Shoreditch stood the home of British melodrama. Like Ealing comedy, Gainsborough melodrama is one of the few examples in this country where studio and genre went hand in glove. Gainsborough embraced a very particular kind of melodrama, a high contrast of refined tastes (cleavage, corsets, crinoline) and rough-house sadism (thrashing, slapping, whipping). Think of Gainsborough and you think of that small battalion of emancipated women that invaded British screens during World War II, no doubt reflecting and appealing to cinema’s new female majority of land girls and factory forewomen: Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, Jean Kent, Phyllis Calvert and Dulcie Gray. And these new role models weren’t only wicked ladies, but sturdy, redoubtable, independent, and occasionally martyred. The titles of the films give a clue to their subject matter and to the audience they were attracting: They Were Sisters, Two Thousand Women, Millions Like Us, and of course, The Wicked Lady. There’s only one problem with this reading of history. Most of Gainsborough melodramas were not filmed in Gainsborough Studios itself, but 10 miles west, in Gaumont’s sister studio, Lime Grove, as the Islington studios with its lanky chimney was considered a potential target during the Blitz. And Gainsborough only made its signature pictures for a few years in the four decades of its own unhappy melodrama.
If these studios do have an authentic claim to fame, it’s as the true birthplace of Alfred Hitchcock. And it’s with a statue of Hitchcock that the studios are now memorialised. But there’s no sight of it when you approach from Regent’s Canal, not even a glimpse or a long shadow. In fact, there’s nothing, canal-side, to suggest that this block of luxury apartments is any different from all the other blocks of luxury apartments strung out like counterfeit pearls from Islington to Hackney’s Broadway Market.
The building was originally a generating power station for the East London railway line when it was bought by Famous Players Lasky to consolidate their domination of the British market after World War I (when it’s been estimated that 95% of movies in British cinemas were Hollywood imports). Jesse Lasky claimed in his autobiography I Blow My Own Horn that in this part of Islington “heavy fog would collect even when the rest of London was in bright sunshine”. The pea-soupers have now evaporated, in their place are clouds of steam mechanically produced by tattooed Antipodean baristas, plying their cappuccinos in the increasing number of coffee warrens that pop up (and pop down) in doors you never noticed before or from barges that now trade in flat whites, cocktails and cake.
A floating cinema chugs past a canal-side café and the patrons hardly bat an eyelid. The coffee shops and restaurants are the service industry to the new breed of water-rat: moneyed, bearded, groomed and expensively distressed, enthusiastic joggers often living a virtual life. This is canal-side living.
Just before its demolition, the derelict studios became an unlikely arts venue, hosting film nights, a fashion show and a season of Richard II starring Ralph Fiennes. The problem with putting on a show in such a unique setting, however, was that the audience’s gaze would often stray from the action, while critics reviewed the location as well as the production, and the comparisons were not always flattering.
Not along after this production, the bulldozers moved in and the apartment block went up. To gain the support for their project, the developers promised that the site would house a bijou studio for local film makers. That Gainsborough Studios would live on, in some small way. Nine years later, it was reported that no film company had ever used the facilities, which were generally considered too small and expensive, and the studio was now put to use as a kitchen for a catering company.
At least the developers kept their promise about erecting a statue of Hitchcock, but there’s no sign of that, not even from the main drag, New North Road. No indication that it was here that Margaret Rutherford disappeared in a puff of steam from the train in The Lady Vanishes, or rather from one cramped carriage on a set that was only 90 feet long. The only sign of its heritage status is a car wash dedicated to its memory.
And an advert for a Gainsborough fitness club.
Taking a sharp left from the main road, this hoves into view…
Peering through the gates, there appears to be the ramp for a skate park – in the courtyard.
Walking further into the courtyard, the skate ramp turns out be the plinth for a statue of a rusting, petulant Buddha
On further inspection, the sullen baby-face belongs to Alfred Hitchcock…
At the back of Hitchcock’s head, the reason why he’s perched on a ramp becomes clear. The ramp is an office in disguise.
In many ways, this statue couldn’t be less Hitchcockian, except in the sense of those heroically unsubtle erotic thrillers that take his name in vain. This is more Body Of Evidence than The 39 Steps. It lacks the sly wit and Dali-esque surrealism of the statue erected in the French sea-side town of Dinard, for instance.
The French statue fell into disrepair and was removed, possibly an acknowledgement that it had no place being there in the first place, except as a means to publicise the town’s annual festival of British cinema (somehow a rumour sprang up that Dinard was the inspiration for the town in The Birds). At least there is a reason for the monument in Gainsborough. It’s here that Hitchcock entered the movie business as a writer of title cards, and it’s here that he made the film he later referred to as the first Hitchcockian film, The Lodger, as well as Sabotage, Secret Agent and The Lady Vanishes.
With its rust-coloured body-work, the statue seems like a ready-made ruin, a folly of grandeur and failure, very much in keeping with a studio that had aristocratic pretensions, but struggled to pay the bills. The Gainsborough story is a tale of permanent flux, changing owners, contradictory strategies, and parlous finances. The omens weren’t good from the start. The first owners only managed to keep it open for a few years before high-tailing it back to the States. The Laskys failed, according to Hitchcock, because the “the pictures made by Famous Players in England were unsuccessful in America.” Even the Americans didn’t know how to sell British films to America, but this didn’t stop subsequent owners trying to do exactly the same thing for the next two decades. Sisyphus could have worked for Gainsborough.
In 1924, Michael Balcon bought the Islington studio for £14,000, effectively on HP (with seven yearly payments of £2,000). He obviously had problems honouring his payment plan, because three years later, he had sold out to Gaumont-British, run by the Ostrer Brothers. Balcon was still head of production until 1936 when he was replaced by Ted Black, who was himself usurped by his boss Maurice Ostrer. In 1946, J. Arthur Rank took complete control of both Gaumont and Gainsborough and when he looked at the books and the roster, he realised that the film company lacked one vital ingredient – films. He called for Sydney Box, the writer and producer of Rank’s smash hit The Seventh Veil, and a man memorably described by James Mason as having “the air of a baby rogue elephant.”
Rank made Box an offer he almost refused: “I would like you to take over Gainsborough Pictures and make me a dozen pictures a year.” Box almost instantly regretted his decision, as he explained in his autobiography The Lion That Lost Its Way: “the years at Gainsborough were among the most hectic of my life and I would not care to go through them again”. The first problem was the shape of Gainsborough studios – they had been built upwards rather than outwards, so that “occasional extras as horses or camels or tanks had to be transported in rickety elevator from the ground floor to the studios above.” An even more pressing problem was the lack of writers to furnish any need for camels or tanks, as there were only enough to produce two films a year, let alone the required twelve. Box assembled a team of writers to knockout the spec demanded by his boss, it didn’t really matter if they were any good, the production lines had to roll, the cinemas had to be filled with something. In his autobiography, Before I Forget, Mason dismissed Box as Rank’s pet and was equally scathing about his time in Gainsborough “The know-it-alls, who now included myself, thought; ‘Aha, now we shall see something’; but surprisingly, nothing very sensational came out of Gainsborough from that moment on.”
Box soon wearied of overseeing productions in two studios 10 miles apart, so he gave the job of running Islington to his sister, Betty.
Accusations of nepotism resonated around the boardroom, accusations which Box never shirked, admitting in her memoir, Lifting The Lid, that “nepotism, I suppose it was but I don’t see anything wrong in that, provided the recipient of the job can do it as well as the next man (or woman)”. In fact, there was no next woman. Betty Box was peerless, the only female head of production in the entire British film industry. And she did the job as well, if not better, than many of male predecessors, as she also admitted: “I produced 10 films at Islington in less than 2 years and overall they made a considerable profit for Rank. The press boys gave me a new name – Betty Box Office.” Betty owed her nick-name to a fictional working class family called The Huggetts, whose prosaic adventures were relayed over the course of four hit comedies – Holiday Camp, Here Come The Huggetts, Vote For Huggett and The Huggetts Abroad. The series mined humour from mundane but reassuringly familiar scenarios, for instance, the plot of Here Come The Huggetts could be traduced to: The Huggetts get a new phone installed. The Wicked Lady it certainly wasn’t.
Not even Betty Box Office could save Gainsborough, though. The studio went dark in 1950 and Box herself blamed a post war dip in audiences, who were discovering new pleasures at home, thanks to a set in the corner of the living room. Both Lime Grove and Islington took the hit, only a few years after the Rank organisation had acquired the studios. Box seemed to take the news with a bureaucrat’s sang-froid: “Mr Rank and his advisors decided wisely to rationalise and concentrate their production activities in Pinewood and Ealing, closing down other studios.” One of those advisors was John Davis, who is very much villain of this piece and we’ll hear more about his nefarious activities as the walk goes on.
Gainsborough Pictures’ consistent problem was its inconsistency. Each studio head harboured their own ideas about British cinema that were often diametrically opposed to their predecessor. Michael Balcon would later be known as the man whose Ealing comedies exported a vision of Britain that was pastoral, eccentric, communitarian, anti-authoritarian and occasionally twee. As head of Gainsborough he admittedly had no great vision, only a profit motive. He spent his career in Islington pioneering multi-national products. In this sense, he was ahead of his time, it’s just that he went about it the wrong way. Or rather, he took a wrong turn. Because the policy was a great success in the silent era, when all it took to change a film’s provenance was to replace the title cards. Multinational films made sense and Bacon’s partnership with UFA and other German studios proved to both an artistic and economic success. It was Balcon’s decision to send Hitchcock, then an assistant director, to Munich to make his debut The Pleasure Garden. It was here and on the set of The Mountain Eagle that Hitch became fluent in German Expressionism, which he showed off with some relish in his first production back home, The Lodger.
Where Balcon came undone was to try the same experiment in the sound era and make three versions of the same film simultaneously – in German, French and English. This often meant three different directors as well as three different casts. Multi-lingual helmer Anatole Litvak found himself suddenly and unsurprisingly in demand. He made the best of these three-in-one productions with Tell Me Tonight, aka Das Lied Einer Nacht, aka La Chanson D’Une Nuit, the tale of a runaway tenor. Despite employing the same director and same leading man (Jan Kiepura), there were key differences between each, the German version was at least six minutes shorter than the languid British version and all three had different scores and occasionally different scenes. The story was originally German, as were most co-productions, and lost something in translation, namely national characteristics. When Balcon visited a set in Templehof, he noticed that the English country house set was a bit on the Teutonic side and asked the art director to do something about it. Immediately, two golf clubs and an umbrella were placed in a stand in the hall. Aside from the logistical problems, there were other drawbacks, as Balcon later admitted: “The difficulties of working in this way are infinite and impossible to exaggerate. And the boredom ! The same scene shot three times, with however many ‘takes’ required on each.” And although they did well in Europe, these tetra-headed monsters, unsurprisingly did not find an audience in Britain.
Balcon’s other mistake during his time in Gainsborough was an over-reliance on the plays of Noel Cowerd and Ivor Novello. The results were stage-bound and starchy, a tradition of British cinema that continues to this day. But that was not the main problem. The continuing drama at the studio was whether to chase the Yankee dollar or not. It’s a tension that still exists in the British film industry – Carry On Follow That Camel on one side, Lawrence Of Arabia on the other – whether to make local films for local people, with less risk but fewer rewards or to gamble big budgets on blockbusters with apparently universal appeal, or universal appeal to Americans. Gainsborough stalwart James Mason preferred the former option. A man never shy of offering his opinion, he wrote a letter to Picture Show magazine arguing: “If we are to compete seriously with Hollywood, we shall do so only by improving the standard of our cheap unpretentious films, forgetting our extravagant endeavours to capture the world market with super productions.” The problem with both Gainsborough and Gaumont is that they ping-ponged disastrously between the two strategies. This lady was for turning.
Michael Balcon admitted that he spent much of the 1930s getting the plane to Hollywood trying to persuade actors to follow him across the Atlantic. The policy was not a success. Balcon would later admit that “too often the stars were chosen more for the value of their names than for their suitability for the roles.” A perfect illustration was George Arliss, a British émigré who was persuaded back to Blighty with a lucrative contracting promising him story, cast and director approval and a guarantee that tea would be taken at 3.45 every afternoon. His talent did not match his own self-worth, and his own self-worth didn’t match his value at the box-office either. All his characters, even historical figures like the Duke Of Wellington, were transformed into thinly-veiled versions of Arliss himself.
Balcon’s successor Ted Black came from a family of cinema owners and theatre folk who made their fortune in the Midlands. As a result, he didn’t believe that Gainsborough should be making films for the South of England, let alone the United States. His policy was quite simple: “if you please the people in the midlands and the north your money is made and if you please London and the south, you might get by.” Black, who refused to hang out with intellectuals in case it impaired his judgement, was the most financially successful of all the Gainsborough heads. An unreconstructed populist, he cleaved to the stubbornly British humour of Will Hay, The Crazy Gang and Arthur Askey, humour that could never translate into American. Ted Black was also a realist. During the war he backed the tastes of writer/directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat with Millions Like Us and Waterloo Road, whose films were as far from escapism as it’s possible to get. The glamourous location for Millions Like Us was a factory making aircraft parts, while Waterloo Road took its audience’s minds off the war with the downbeat story of a soldier who deserts from the army when he suspects his wife of having an affair. And it’s over this film in particular that Black clashed with his boss Maurice Ostrer, whose tastes ran in the opposite direction, to costume dramas and historical fantasy like The Man in Grey, a period romp in which two friends fall out over a dashing highwayman. The huge box-office success of this costume drama also persuaded Ostrer that Gainsborough’s future lay in corsets. It was a battle that Black was always going to lose.
In full control of production, Ostrer could freely exercise his penchant for melodrama and appointed two like-minded individuals, Harold Huth and R.J. Minney. The latter was an evangelist for the form, declaring that “melodrama is essential in a film if it is to hit the box office, since film is more akin to the music hall and the circus than to a theatre.” After a few good years, crowned by the success of The Wicked Lady, Gainsborough melodramas’ slip began to show. The iron-fist-and-velvet-glove formula became all too familiar to film-goers, while the rep company started to grumble like a dissenting chorus about stereotyping (unpretentious Patricia, tormented Phyllis, steamy Margaret and sinful Jean). “It was like being on a conveyor belt”, Calvert later complained to historian Matthew Sweet, and the audience felt the same way too, finally tiring of Stewart Granger’s smouldering, James Mason’s sadism and Margaret Lockwood’s cleavage. Once J. Arthur Rank had brought in the Boxes, the studio did yet another U-turn, once again embracing social realism and broad comedy with The Huggetts series, which was more typical of Gainsborough’s output over three decades, being unapologetically working class, modern, quotidian and without a corset or a toff in sight.
NEXT: GAINSBOROUGH TO GAUMONT