MERTON PARK TO WALTON-ON-THAMES

Long Lodge, it turns out, was briefly on the market for £1.35 million, but the advert made no mention of its previous existence as a studio. Lady Hamilton gets a name-check, but not Konga.

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The next destination: Walton-On-Thames, home of the star system and the action movie. To get there, a detour via Surbiton and Kingston. You’d have thought that it would have been quite straight forward to walk to Kingston – just follow the Kingston Road. But that quickly turns into a dual carriageway that feeds the A3, the drab fate of most main roads around here. You know you’re getting near the suburbs when it becomes increasingly difficult to walk anywhere.

After spending a good half hour working out how to get around the A3. I eventually go under it, where it flies over and between Raynes Park and New Malden. Like a Merton Park monster, a genetically modified centipede mixed with concrete, the A3 rampages across suburban high streets. The depressing effect is like a Cold War boundary, with Dunkin’ Donuts acting as Checkpoint Charlie on one side and on the other, a B & Q so vast that it could legitimately vote for its own independence.

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At Berrylands (half land, half reservoir) I take a diversion, for no apparent reason, via the Hogsmill Valley Sewage Treatment Centre on Lower Marsh Lane.

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It seems that I was fated to take this route because just past the cemetery…

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… lies an unusual monument to The Wicked Lady – a dead end of new builds…

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I assumed that Margaret Lockwood must have been born here, but no, it turns out that she was born in Karachi. She only moved to the area, Upper Park Road to be precise, after fame had done with her, from 1960 to her death in 1990. However, Upper Park Road is two miles away in Kingston-Upon-Thames and is a tad more salubrious than this access road to the sewage works. I think she might have been happier with a blue plaque.

Surbiton is synonymous with cosy middle class sit-coms about first world problems and yet, only one classic of its kind was set here. Tom and Barbara lived The Good Life in Surbiton, while Reggie Perrin commuted every day from Climthorpe, a fictional version of Norbiton, where the train was always 11 minutes late getting into Waterloo and always with a different excuse – “somebody had stolen the lines at Surbiton”. Surbiton’s association with the suburban sit-com is so deeply embedded in the British psyche that many people think Terry And June was set here. In fact, they dwelt in the less-likely sounding suburb of Purley. Perhaps it’s because Surbiton sounds like Suburban Town. Also because it is the archetypal commuter town, built around the railway station, its only raison d’etre is the fast line to London.

The town’s other claim to fame is that George Best drank himself to death in Surbiton.

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Less well known is that Surbiton had its own studio for the best part of a decade from 1918. Regent House was built within its own private deer park by the founders of London landmarks Café Royal and the Empire Theatre, Daniel and Celestine Nicols. When Celestine died in 1916, the estate was sold for housing. Two years later, the vast and ornate ballroom, which had hosted famous soirees with full size orchestras, was taken over by Stoll Pictures and redeployed as a studio. Headed by Oswald Stoll, a theatre impresario whose claim to fame was the creation of the Royal Variety Performance, their first production, Comradeship, was produced by the ubiquitous Maurice Elvey, the Zelig of early British cinema. When Stoll went west to Cricklewood, the ballroom was requisitioned by a company whose uninspiring name, British Instructional Films, belied its jingoistic function as a producer of colonialist propaganda. BIF specialised in reconstructions of famous conflicts, such as The Battle Of Jutland and the recently restored The Battles Of Coronel And Falkland Islands, in which the British emerged, unsurprisingly, victorious. In some way BIF were helping to export imperialism, but also, in the words of Tom Rice,  they “projected an image of the Empire back to British audiences”, like postcards from the colonies. Documentaries of royal tours of Africa were another speciality. Yet, their first fiction film was set as far away from the colonies as you can get. Shooting Stars hardly ventured further than a suburban London studio. A narcissistic, virtuosic film about film-making, involving a love triangle of actors, it marked the debut of Anthony ‘Puffin’ Asquith, the alcoholic son of a former prime minister. Sadly, for the purposes of this blog, it appears to have been in shot in Cricklewood, rather than Surbiton. Sadly for Surbiton, Asquith’s masterpiece A Cottage On Dartmoor was filmed in the company’s new studios in Welwyn Garden City in 1928.  The departure of British Instructional Films signalled the end of Surbiton’s involvement in the film business. Regent House was demolished and the deer park was colonised by new streets Regent Road and Park Road, their names the only signs of a former life.

park road

Descending into Kingston, where walk meets river again, the north bank takes me along Bushey Park and into Hampton Court Palace, only one of two surviving palaces of Henry VIII. The palace provided verisimilitude in A Man For All Seasons, but acted as a generic heritage backdrop in Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, Young Victoria, Vanity Fair, Jack The Giant Slayer and Terence Malick’s The New World.

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It’s the kind of stately home that has turned itself into a giant movie set, providing out of work actors with gainful employment as Henry VIII and his courtiers, supplying visitors with “Tudor Christmas entertainments”

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The south bank of the Thames smooths the way to Walton-On-Thames, where a left at the new bridge, leads onto Hepworth Way, dedicated to the pioneer Cecil Hepworth, who built a studio here from his back garden.

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All that remains of the studio is the engine room, which has been transformed into a small playhouse for am-dram productions. Formerly known as The Playhouse, its cinematic origins are recognised by its new name and gaudy sign:

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On the front of the building is a memorial stone placed by global superstar Ellen Terry in 1925

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A sign in small print tied to the outside gates used to inform passers-by of its history. What it didn’t mention is that this building also doubled for decades as The Walton Hop, aka  the oldest disco in the country; although also known for something else entirely, if press reports are to be believed.

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If it’s hardly surprising that The Walton Hop is not commemorated or celebrated locally. What is bizarre is that the film studio is barely recognised either, only in the most perfunctory ways. Banners bearing Hepworth’s name flutter on municipal flagpoles outside the shopping mall erected on the site of the original studio.

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Inside, Hepworth’s films were once projected on a wall near the exit to the high street. If you raise your eyes, you can still see a projector bolted to the ceiling and an empty electric socket.

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Beneath it are a few slapdash signs that recount briefly the story of “little Hollywood” by the Thames.

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There had been plans, put forward by the Hepworth Society, to convert the old library into The Hepworth Centre, but in the latest of many set-backs, the council decided that the town had a more pressing  need for a Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

In many ways this is typical of Surrey, a county that has one eye on the future and a blind eye to the past. Sure it has historic palaces, but its citizens seem to prefer a garden centre to a country house. Surrey is defined by its aspirations, like the people who have traditionally moved there.Upwardly mobile, The Beatles decamped to Surrey as soon as they made some serious money. George to Esher and John to a mock Tudor mansion on a gated community on St George’s Hill. The site, ironically, of the Diggers’ struggle to get common people access to common land, a pitched battle against privatisation. The scope of the defeat of the first communist revolution in England is emphasised by the sheer number of gated communities and private roads that now carve up the hill from Weybridge to Cobham. And by the four wheel drive status symbols that clog up its arteries.

Surrey’s futurism materialises in its embrace of 60s modernism – the unexpected number of Span estates and the municipal brutalism that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the high street in olde world villages, like one of  Wells’ Martians. 60s modernism suits Surrey, with its optimism about the future, a future that is rationalist, functional and uncluttered. An old film studio, a failed film studio at that, has no place in modern Surrey, thanks to its cautionary tale of how aspiration and vaulting ambition do not always guarantee global success. The hedge fund managers wouldn’t understand.

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