Two QPR fans walk down Lime Grove on their way to the match. One tells the other that the BBC studios used to stand on the site of the housing estate. The other could not be less bothered. He barely grunts his disinterest. If they were Fulham fans, they may well have walked past another ex-BBC studio next to the Thames in Hammersmith, a couple of miles down the A219.
Opened in 1933, the riverside studios were bought by Julius Hagen two years later to meet a pressing need for quota quickies. His other studio in Twickenham was turning them out night and day, unable to keep up with the public demand for cheap and cheerful productions. Unfortunately, the appeal gradually waned for low-rent comedies in which music hall turns recycled their catchphrases for film titles (as Sandy Powell did in Can You Hear Me, Mother ?) and stretched their material to breaking point. Hagen was declared bankrupt in 1937. The studios, though, were saved by Jack Buchanan, an actor variously described as a song and dance man, the very definition of debonair and “the last of the knuts”.
Under his auspices, two landmarks of cinematic sadism were filmed on its modest stages. Oscar winner The Seventh Veil became one of the most popular British films ever seen in this country. The sight of jealous svengali James Mason taking a cane to the hands of pianist Ann Todd was enough to drive audiences to cinemas in record breaking numbers in 1945. Although not quite such a phenomenal hit, No Orchids For Miss Blandish was the subject of an authentic public scandal three years later. Set in New York and filmed in Hammersmith, with accents that yo-yo between the two, this sleazy little number united politicians, vicars and film critics in a chorus of disgust. The Monthly Film Bulletin spoke for all of them when it damned this low-budget noir as “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen”. The studios were bought in 1954 by the BBC, where it became the home of Play School.
This is how the Riverside Studios look now – a cinema, theatre, arts venue and independent television studios. But not for much longer, because there is clearly something about an ex-film studio that attracts property developers, as plans have just been announced to build a new centre, crowned with the inevitable apartment block. It’s only fairly recently that the riverside has been considered des res rather than no go. For decades, if not centuries, London had turned its back on the Thames, with long stretches considered fit for industry and not human habitation. Now it seems that every warehouse is a home. And so it goes with this ex-warehouse. However, the property developers didn’t reckon on Francesca Annis, who is leading the fight against the project, with her small brigade of stars of stage and screen.
Hammersmith Bridge overlooks the studios, and it’s here that Richard Widmark ran out of steam and luck in Night And The City, one of the finest and darkest films ever made about the capital. It showed the producers of No Orchids For Miss Blandish how to make an American noir in London. But then, its director Jules Dassin had form. In The Naked City, he took a police procedural and turned it into a vivid photographic essay about post-war New York, shunning the tourist trail and seeking out the lonely places in an over-crowded metropolis.
Similarly, Hammersmith Bridge is one of the few familiar landmarks in Night And The City, which loiters instead in East End docks, wrestling halls, drinking dens and alleyways that had never seen the light. Dassin was proud of the fact that he showed his British audience places that “very few Londoners knew existed.” He was assisted in his enquiries by a police inspector called Percy Hoskins, who acted as a tour guide of the lawless and liminal. And Dassin did what he always did when he scouted locations – he walked around the city. As he explained to me just a few years before his death in 2008, “when you make a film about a city, you walk it, and ideas come when you’re walking.”
Dotted along the Thames path from Hammersmith to Chiswick is a series of rowing clubs, fitness centres, football pitches, rugby grounds and golf ranges. On this evidence, the residents of W6 must be the healthiest people in greater London. That all stops at Kew Bridge, which acts like some sort of class barrier. In Brentford (or Kew West as hopeful developers are trying to re-brand it) the absence of rowing clubs is telling, some buildings are genuinely derelict (rather than in the process of being redeveloped) and there’s even a faint heartbeat of industry, in the form of a boatyard on the Grand Union Canal.
Which makes this a bit of a surprise when you take a left off London Road…
Syon House, the Duke Of Northumberland’s country seat and a very early example of gentrification, is for hire as a wedding venue and movie location. Gosford Park, Emma and the Merchant/Ivory production The Golden Bowl were all filmed here. Syon House is one of the many country houses transformed into part-time studios thanks to the British film industry’s unquenchable appetite for costume dramas.
Syon Park segues into Old Isleworth, which turns out to be an old church surrounded by a modern development, and sets the tone for what is to come. Worton Hall is the destination for this leg of the walk – the studio where the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation, A Study In Scarlet, was filmed in 1914 and where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn navigated the waters of its vast aquatic tanks in The African Queen – possibly the only time that Isleworth has doubled for the Congo. Isleworth council have missed a trick here. While there’s a Van Gogh Close, to mark the fact that the painter lived there for 6 months when working as a teacher in a local school in 1876, there’s no Bogart Way, Hepburn Drive or Huston Avenue.
However, the route to Worton Hall is straight-forward – follow Worton Road, a solid line of familiar new builds (land-locked marina developments) and thirties suburban dream homes with front doors that practically open out onto the street. The line is eventually broken by a cluster of light industrial estates (if you ever wanted to know the meaning of liminal, a light industrial estate on the edge of a town is it). By the end of the road, Syon House seems like a distant memory. The sense of desolation only increases at the first glimpse of Worton Hall. Unkempt and peeling, the thicket of estate agents signs suggests that it’s gone the way of Lime Grove and Gainsborough.
Worton Hall seems to have suffered gentrification in reverse. Except that its fate is even more absurd.
It’s a test centre for learner drivers.