Behind its chain-link fencing, Worton Hall seems like a prisoner, a lifer isolated, cut off even from the sound stages and dressing rooms built in its grounds. They still stand on the other side of the barricades, part of a light industrial estate where editors, actors and directors have been replaced by joiners, panel fitters and cabinet makers.
Proper professions. Real jobs. This seems to be the general attitude, because there’s no mention of the estate’s former life as a place where men wore make-up for a living. And the same is true of the hall itself, whose rooms used to accommodate the stars overnight (and the overnight stars). Not even the newly refurbished apartments acknowledge their previous existence or even the famous guests who stayed over. Surely putting Katherine Hepburn’s name to a two bedroom flat would add a couple of grand to its asking price ?
This scrubby end of Isleworth is not really suburbia, more sub-suburbia, a lower middle class limbo, sort of handy for the station and the motorway and the airport and the river while never being a destination in itself. It’s not even convincingly Ballardian or properly liminal, like the Wild West of Hounslow. I mean, would you know where to find Isleworth on a map ? Except if you lived there. And even then… It seems to have nothing good or bad going for it. Worton Hall, by contrast, seems like a cash-poor member of the gentry, the last of a prestigious line whose poverty hasn’t diminished their sense of self-importance. And in many ways, has only increased it.
I retrace my footsteps to the river, and wander like an unloved Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night along the towpath until I get to Twickenham, which a couple of years ago would have been a contender for inclusion in this blog
The studio that made both Beatles’ movies, Repulsion, The Italian Job, Alfie,Blade Runner, plus countless and nameless quota quickies was facing financial destitution. Even Richard Lester had left the building, and he’d maintained an office there decades after his retirement from directing. A Save Twickenham Studios campaign was launched, with Steven Spielberg, Stephen Daldry, David Cronenberg and Vince Cable on board. Just as historians were writing its obituary and staff were planning their leaving do, the studio was given a reprieve, only four months later.
It was saved by a hotel chain, but not as an opportunity for redevelopment. This was one studio that was not going to be transformed into an apartment block. Instead, it will be the home of the first university film school, a far outpost of the University Of Lincoln, 171 miles away.
But this is the detour I never took. Before the approach to the studios, I turn left over the bridge, past the manicured parks and into Richmond, a modern idyll of a village densely packed with middle-brow chain stores and restaurants. Here, even the independent stores assume anonymity, eager to be part of a chain gang. Richmond high street, conspicuously lacking a sore thumb or a dark side, is a monument to the tyranny of good taste. But at least it has a centre, which is more than can be said of Isleworth, which has no middle, only a beginning and an end.
While Richmond is obviously early 21st century in its corporate bonhomie tastes (the unmistakeable style of relaxed capitalism), the park is essentially timeless. It could (and does) pass easily as countryside of any vintage, from 16th century (Anne Of A Thousand Days) to 19th century (Heat And Dust and Sherlock Holmes 2) and the mid 20th century (Titfield Thunderbolt).
Walking across the current of the A3, which has a crossing for pedestrians, cyclists and horses, (complete with their own traffic lights), I wander into the wooded, sign-free labyrinth of Wimbledon Common, where a lone flaneur could easily get lost, and not in a good way. Eventually finding my way out by stalking some joggers who look like they know where they’re going, I zig-zag through the tree-lined suburban hush of the South Wimbledon borders and am rudely awakened by noisy, strung-out Kingston Road. Across the popular rat-run is an insurance office and ex-film studios. Except it seems that the insurance office has also moved on. All that’s left is a memorial to the studio, a plaque erected to mark the centenary of cinema in 1996.
Why they chose Merton Park and not Gainsborough or Gaumont would seem to be a mystery that even Edgar Wallace couldn’t solve. Edgar Wallace never had Google, though, and a quick search reveals that it was voted for by the public, democracy in action, one of 126 chosen sites across the United Kingdom, including the carcasses of old cinemas, a school which Basil Rathbone attended, and the station where The Railway Children was filmed.