It’s hard to believe that this modest housing estate, hemmed in by Victorian terraces on either side, could possibly be the same site that was once described as “the finest studio in Great Britain and the first building ever put up in this country solely for the production of films”. True, this description did come from a Gaumont Pictures press release, but this was no idle boast. According to historian Patricia Warren, the company somehow managed to cram in “dressing room accommodation for 600 artistes, laboratories with output capacity of 2,000,000ft a week; three private theatres; an orchestration room; nine film vaults; a 600-seat restaurant.” Looking at the site now you wonder how such a vast studio came to be built in a residential road and if you’ve got the right Lime Grove. Or at least I did.
The difference between street and studio wasn’t always so pronounced. Lime Grove was a much smaller proposition when it was built in 1914, with just one glass-roofed studio sitting on top of a workshop. The houses next door were bought for the catering and costume departments. At the time, making films was just a side-line for Gaumont-British, which had been set up by the Bromhead Brothers to distribute the output of Leon Gaumont’s pioneering studio. Chief among the French imports was the Fantomas series, crowd-pleasing adaptations of the best-selling stories about a hooded killer, master of disguise, escape artist and Genius Of Evil. Fantomas killed for no good reason, but with some imagination, such as filling perfume bottles in a department store with sulphuric acid. Gaumont realised there was a market for a local version that exhibited the same dash and ingenuity, albeit with a British sense of fair play and less Gallic amorality. Written and directed by ex-school-teacher George Pearson, Ultus was “an avenger of a rare type”, according to an advert in the Hull Daily Mail, who dispensed natural justice and affected spectacular escapes over the course of four films “crowded with sensational and unique situations”. The hero was played by the remarkable Aurele Sydney, a stranger to subtlety who would regularly don a cape, sombrero and yellow gloves of an evening.
A series of cat and mouse games between The Avenger Of Wrongs and his adversary, detective Conway Bass, the franchise began with Ultus: The Man From The Dead. Left as crow bait in the Australia desert by a business partner who has run off with his diamonds, Ultus tracks the thief down five years later, and executes an elaborate revenge with the help of an underworld of hooded brigands. In a successful example of selling coals to Newcastle, Ultus was shown in French cinemas as L’Homme de l’au Dela and was exported to Russia, Spain, Romania, Itay, Denmark, Japan, South America, South Africa, Australia and the United States. For the sequels, Ultus And The Grey Lady and Ultus And The Secret Of The Night, Pearson decided to give his hero a female sidekick, which no doubt added to the series appeal and demographic. By the time the final part of the franchise, Ultus And The Three-Button Mystery, arrived in British cinemas in 1917, it was met with the kind of breathless anticipation we have come to expect of contemporary blockbusters. The finale was especially welcomed in Whitstable, where its predecessors were considered “amongst the best and most successful films shown in this town.”
The Ultus series was the highlight of the Bromhead years at Lime Grove. Threatened with closure during World War I, the studios soldiered on until they came under new management in 1927 and were completely re-built by 1932. Thanks to the restrictions of the neighbouring terraces and railway line, Lime Grove had to be built upwards on three floors, which is not a good idea for a studio. A labyrinth of offices, corridors and dead ends, it was nonetheless a monumental achievement by new owners the Ostrer Brothers.
The Ostrers are the moguls that time forgot. In America, Hollywood moguls are notorious, larger than both life and art; men like Columbia boss Harry Cohn whose bum would twitch whenever a movie started to bore him. Several well-respected books have been written about them. In Britain, our moguls are roundly ignored (with a couple of notable exceptions). If books are written about them, they’re usually a case of vanity publishing. Maybe this is the price of failure. And so it is with Ostrers, known in their day as “the first family of the British entertainment industry.” Their story is told in The Ostrers & Gaumont British, written and self-published by the son of Maurice Ostrer, Nigel, who also runs the only website dedicated to their memory: www.gaumont-british.co.uk
Sons of a Jewish boot-riveter from the Ukraine called Jacob Ostrofsky, the Ostrers are probably best known now as the subjects of one of James Mason’s most withering put-downs – “between them they had one brain and one opinion”.
The brain belonged to Isidore, who, unlike his Hollywood counterparts, had a soft voice and refined tastes. And unlike his Hollywood counterparts, he published a slim volume of poetry (simply titled Poems) and an economics book, The Conquest Of Gold, influenced by his close friend John Maynard Keynes. In the words of Michael Balcon, Isidore was a “natural intellectual and considerable economist” who liked to spend much of his free time discussing the finer points of Keynesian philosophy. This was a bit of problem for Balcon as he himself had “no great gift for abstract economics and had some difficulty maintaining an appearance of interest when he talked about his theories.” Isidore was an authentic media mogul with a vast empire that included Baird Television, Radio Luxemburg, the newspaper The Sunday Referee (which he briefly edited), Gaumont cinemas and a major textiles company that supplied baize for snooker and billiard tables.
At the start of World War I, Isidore was a junior clerk, by its end, he owned his own private bank, The Ostrer Brothers Merchant Bank. Just how Isidore made that fortune is swathed in mystery. According to Nigel Ostrer, only his dad Maurice knew the truth and he took the secret to his grave. But then Nigel adds: “at that time insider-trading was not illegal, there was no capital gains tax and it was inexpensive to buy stock options, so I presume it was relatively easy for an astute person with reliable information to make a lot of money without any capital.”
It may be for this reason that Isidore’s nickname was Mephi or Mephy, short for Mephistopheles. His purchase of Gainsborough Pictures has the hallmarks of a Faustian pact. When first approached by Mephi, Michael Balcon’s partner C.M. Woolf declared that he had absolutely no intention of selling the company, adamant that “nothing could compensate for the loss of independence”. He handed over the business after just one late-night meeting, explaining the next morning to a startled Balcon that Ostrer was “a very persuasive man”. In return, Woolf got a seat on the board.
Isidore seems to have been at his happiest when doing deals, constructing byzantine contracts and building empires. It was one of those deals that lead him to buy into Gaumont in 1922, after Lt-Colonel Bromhead approached the bank to help him buy a controlling stake in the company from Leon Gaumont. Initially the Ostrers were happy to let the Bromheads run it, but only five years later, Isidore bought out the Colonel and his brother, realising, as the Hollywood moguls had done, that the only way to make real money in the film business was to have a vertically integrated model, to own the company that made the pictures and the company that showed them. Isidore was patently more interested in the activities of the boardroom than the studio floor. According to Mason, he “remained discreetly in the background” and his nephew Nigel confirms that “he was bored by the day-to-day running of the business. He would delegate these mundane functions to lesser mortals while retaining overall control.”
And this is where Maurice comes in, or Isidore’s Shadow as he was known to James Mason. Even his son agrees with that observation, adding “Isidore was the puppeteer pulling the strings, and the rest were an assortment of marionettes.“ The two brothers, subject and shadow, lived together for the last 20 years of their lives in a country house in Sunningdale and a flat on the Croisette at Cannes, where they wintered. Unlike Isidore, Maurice wanted to be involved in the business of film-making. However, Michael Balcon was in possession of the job he coveted – head of production. After all, Isidore’s Shadow was not an official position in Gaumont. It was a grudge that spanned decades. In the early 1970s, when someone carelessly dropped Balcon’s name, Maurice instinctively narrowed his eyes and hissed “bastard”. Possibly the reason that Isidore never gave his brother the dream job is that Maurice didn’t actually like the movies. His son Nigel doesn’t “remember him ever going to the cinema to see one or watch one on television. And he didn’t like most actors either, thought of them as having loose morals.” Obviously this didn’t apply to Maurice’s actress wife Renee Clama, who made history by being “the first person to appear nude in a play on the London stage in 1927”.
What Maurice was really interested in was horses – he owned several and bet on more. Whenever he wasn’t at the office (which seemed to be much of the time) his colleague Ted Black told enquirers to look for him on the flats at Newmarket.
Mark was the vice chairman and the face of the Ostrer empire, and it was a large, open, welcoming face too. It was the sort of face that usually guarantees a bear hug. In Mason’s words, Mark was the “big public one … the one whose photograph, together with that of his good-looking American wife, frequently adorned the pages of the shiny magazines”, due largely to their dutiful attendance at all the best parties. Indeed, many of the best parties would take place in their 50 acre estate called King’s Beeches in Sunninghill, amid the expansive lawns, impressive topiary and ornamental balustrades. If he wasn’t at home or at a party, Mark could be found at his private members club, Portland, where he was quite probably playing bridge. According to his nephew, “everyone liked Mark. No one had a bad thing to say about him.” Not even James Mason, it seems.
And finally we come to the lower orders of the family, the lesser Ostrers, David and Harry. David, the oldest, was “married to a mid-European wife and was allowed to look after foreign sales. He looked like an unsuccessful Ruritatian pretender in an UFA film.” His mid-European wife was Baroness Ingeborg Wilmans Edle von Wildenkrow, a film star manqué, Mayfair gadfly and militant smoker, who would wear PVC mini-skirts long into her sixties. The couple spent most of their money furnishing their Grosvenor Square flat with Impressionist paintings bought from artistic acquaintances. This impressed David’s young nephew no end. Nigel declares him to be his favourite uncle, explaining “he had impeccable taste and enormous style, and lived very comfortably, without a car or extra trappings. He spent everything, and died penniless.” A few months after his funeral, Inga died from an overdose, the result of an apparent suicide pact.
According to Mason’s hierarchy, “lastly you got Harry, who having been a schoolteacher, became the literary department of the studios.” David and Harry were almost completely ignored by Isidore, who gave them insignificant jobs in Gaumont that didn’t require him to converse with either. Harry was allowed to tinker with a few scripts.
There is another Ostrer, though – Pamela, the boss’s daughter. James Mason insinuated himself into her marriage with cameraman Roy Kellino. They formed a ménage a trois whose terms and conditions we’ll never fully know. The trio even committed that relationship to celluloid in three films written by its stars and directed by the cuckold. Eventually, James eased Kellino out of his own home and into Mason’s bachelor pad. As well as their film scripts, the newlyweds penned a couple of books, The Cats In Our Lives and Favourite Cat Stories Of Pamela And James Mason. Despite this published display of affection, their love affair concluded with an expensive divorce that cost James Mason $1.5 million, and probably explains his choice of film role thereafter (in which the size of the cheque was clearly more important than the quality of the writing). Pamela Mason went on to become a successful chat show host on radio and TV and the author of Marriage Is The First Step Towards Divorce.
The first step of the Ostrers’ divorce from Lime Grove coincided with their decision to get more involved in production. This is not necessarily a case of cause and effect, however. In 1935, Gaumont was the biggest film producer in the country, yet a year later its general manager Michael Balcon left after, in his words, “another attack on the American market fizzled out.” There was another reason for his departure, though. Maurice moved into the office next door. And worse, Balcon was now answerable to Isidore’s Shadow, as he admits in his autobiography A Lifetime Of Films: “the arrangement had its complications, and it certainly had some influence on my decision to leave at the expiration of my contract”.
The Ostrers probably got involved in production because of the crisis in British cinema in the late 30s. American pictures were taking between £7 to 10 million in Britain, whereas British films were taking less than £200,000 in the States. In 1937, Isidore made an appeal to the country to Save British Films and called on the government to “induce American companies to expend a reasonable part of their revenues from Britain in the purchase of pictures made by British producers”. In other words, to establish a certain ratio between exports and imports. When the government ignored his pleas, Isidore decided to shut down Lime Grove and concentrate instead on showing films rather than making them. Only a slimmed-down Gainsborough would survive. It was only the intervention of the war that saved Lime Grove. Gainsborough Productions had to move west because of worries that the tall chimney in Islington might be hit during the Blitz, crushing stars and crew. Gainsborough evacuated to Lime Grove, where it made its signature pictures in exile.
Isidore was not around to oversee the production of The Wicked Lady or The Man In Grey. He sold his controlling shares to Rank in 1941, a year after fleeing the country. Fearing German invasion and the consequences for a prominent Jewish family, Isidore Ostrer and his second wife were somehow chauffeured through occupied France to Marseilles, where they boarded a ship to America, eventually settling in Arizona. Tellingly, Maurice finally got his dream job when his brother left the company, initially sharing control with Ted Black. According to actress Phyllis Calvert, “Maurice Ostrer provided the money and the wherewithal and set it all up and Ted Black was really the sort of artistic director, picking out good directors and setting up production from that angle.”
That relationship curdled when Maurice wanted more say in picking out good directors and, particularly, scripts. As a passionate advocate of escapism, Maurice informed trade magazine Kino Weekly that Gainsborough was “refusing to bow to the prevailing tendency to concentrate on war subjects”. This came as news to Ted Black, a confirmed realist. It all came to a head with the war movie, Waterloo Road, as its co-director Sydney Gilliat explained to Robert Murphy,“the rift between Ostrer and Black grew into a chasm, the tension between the two men had been growing for a long time.” When J. Arthur Rank sided with Ostrer, Black decamped to MGM, leaving Maurice free to pursue his interests in melodrama. At first, his belief in escapist entertainment seemed vindicated, with seven out of ten films recording a handsome profit, not least because Ostrer squeezed the budgets as tight as the corsets in his costume dramas. Soon he was making melodramas to the exclusion of almost everything else. Ostrer put all his eggs in one lavishly designed basket, alienating writers and directors like Launder and Gilliatt. In the words of historian Robert Murphy: “Ostrer was now dangerously dependent on two men who were outstanding cameramen but less competent as directors: Arthur Crabtree and Bernard Knowles.” The fact you’re unlikely to find the name of Arthur Crabtree on any list of auteurs reveals much about the reasons for Gaumont and Gainsborough’s steep decline.
Maurice’s reign only lasted three years. Various reasons have been touted. J. Arthur Rank, who had set up the company to make religious instruction pictures, probably did not envisage instructing the general public about the pleasures of exposed flesh, as Gainsborough did so well in The Wicked Lady. He was not a happy Methodist. Maurice, for his part, was fed up with the length of red tape he believed was strangling his productions and never looked forward to the stormy weekly meetings with Rank executives either.
Maurice formed his own company called Premier Productions with acolyte R.J. Minney. As it turned out, they only made one premier production, Idol Of Paris, which clung tenaciously to the Gainsborough formula, and even though bodices were ripped and whips were cracked, it was not a success. Maurice got his old job back as Isidore’s Shadow at Illingworth Morris textile company, while his minion Minney almost changed the course of British politics when he stood as a Labour candidate against Edward Heath in 1955 and lost by only a few hundred votes.
Lime Grove was shut down in 1949 and bought by the BBC a year later as a temporary measure until TV Centre was ready. The BBC stayed there for another 42 years. Despite demolition, the building was resurrected and romanticised in the BBC news drama, The Hour.
As for Isidore Ostrer, he moved to South Africa after the war, then finally returned to England, where, according to his nephew, he eventually became a recluse “eating bananas, drinking carrot juice and writing poetry, and doing the odd painting as one does in retirement.”