The only permanent exhibition about Cecil Hepworth is in Elmbridge Museum, situated on the first floor of a local library a few miles upriver in Weybridge, which is only open during limited hours on Friday and Saturday. Or it was. Now the doors don’t even creak open on the occasional afternoon. It has become a “museum without walls”, or what most of us would call, a website. The page on Hepworth is a cut and paste job, basic information, the words “that’’ll do” invisibly inked between the lines. This is typical of Surrey’s indifference to the past, a county where many of its residents work in Futures.
After this futile detour, a quick return to the Thames Path means getting the ferry to Shepperton. When I say ferry, think less cross-Channel and more cross-Styx. Though that analogy may seem a little harsh on Shepperton. The ferry terminal in Weybridge is near the one-house island of D’Oyly Carte’s Island. Here sits the theatrical impresario’s old mansion, Eyot House, where he used to entertain Gilbert and Sullivan and they entertained him in return. Again, there’s no sign of its history nearby, no clue, no hint of its past. In Weybridge, plaque means only one thing – poor dental hygiene.
There are eight other islands between here and Staines, with names like Pharaoh and Hamhaugh, almost entirely populated by born-again individualists. “Every man his own eccentric” as Ian Nairn said of the residents of Eel Pie Island. Corrugated iron shacks dwell in the shadow of St George’s flags that must be bigger than the bungalows they belong to, million pound developments bring new meaning to the term showboating. These are film locations in waiting. And given their proximity to Shepperton Studios, you might think that their neighbours might have made the short journey across the water once in a while. And yet a cursory search on reelstreets.com and a quick google reveals that although film productions based in the studios might venture to the town or the local church, they rarely made good use of the river. The exception is John Boorman’s Queen And Country, which is set partly on Pharaoh Island. But then, Boorman knows the island well – he was brought up there and the drama is largely autobiography.
The rest of the Thames doesn’t fare much better in British film history. The river is basically another highway to zoom down, whether it’s by speedboat in The World Is Not Enough, by broomstick in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix or by helicopter in the opening shot of Alfred Hitchcok’s Frenzy. Or else it’s a backdrop, a cinematic short-hand for London, like a red double-decker. Characters saunter down its embankments, like Michael Caine in the opening of Alfie, but they rarely stop and stay a while. The obvious mitigating factor is that people tended not to live by the river until the 80s; before then warehouses housed ware and not people – so the banks of the Thames were populated, if at all, by boat dwellers – the sailors in Basil Dearden’s under-rated Pool Of London or River Beat. Cinema’s most famous Thames-side resident is Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, a British bulldog with Italianate suits and a pedigree wife whose hand is firmly on his tiller. Moored at St Katherine’s dock, he looks east towards the Isle Of Dogs, at the deserted wharves and useless cranes and spies opportunity – a financial hub for Europe and a site for the London Olympics. It’s a dream that needs capital and a hands across the Ocean relationship with the American Mafia. Shand delivers his pitch on the prow of his yacht, cannily framed by the regal symmetry of Tower Bridge.
And although Shand doesn’t live to see it, his dream rapidly became a reality. Made in 1979, The Long Good Friday predicted not only Thatcherism, but also Johnsonism – the mayor of London seems to have cribbed from Barrie Keeffe’s script for his latest pronouncements on the City as a financial and digital capital of Europe. Had he lived, Shand could have stood for mayor. And probably would have won.
If the British film industry has largely turned its back on the river, at least the town of Staines seems more than happy to acknowledge its existence. In 2012, it officially changed its name to Staines-Upon-Thames, which immediately conjures an unfortunate mental image. Cynics suggested that this decision to hyphenate had less to do with a sudden desire to embrace the waterway and more to do with a need to contain the collateral damage caused by comedy character Ali G and his movie spin-off Ali G Indahouse.
To bring attention to the town’s proximity to the river, Runnymede council has littered a small park with public art, following a municipal fashion for shiny metal arches…
Also seen in Folkestone, memorialising World War I…
At Runnymede, aka the birthplace of democracy, the Thames becomes a kind of history channel – Magna Carta, the American forces memorial, the Kennedy memorial.
Exiting the Runnymede Pleasure Gardens (contents: one bouncy castle), I come across the star of Tarzan – The Legend Of Greystoke, Lucy Fisher.
Lucy Fisher is a fake, a working prop, the replica of an African paddle steamer, made in Britain, and flown to the Cameroon for her debut. Fisher clearly had a two picture deal, because after her next appearance in Chaplin, she retired to Windsor, where she now lives off former glories.
My destination is another studio by the Thames – Down Place in Bray, Hammer’s house of horror for over a decade. Moving swiftly through the royal palaver of Windsor and onto the busy Maidenhead Road, the route skirts the racecourse and the headquarters of Centrica, the sort of vague, all-purpose brand name that suggests their products could furnish your needs for office supplies, national security, or trapped wind. And quite possibly all three. It seems like the kind of company that has successfully diversified in the way that many moguls tried but significantly failed. I think of G.B. Samuelson and his purchase of a fleet of buses in anticipation of a national rail strike that never materialised. After a mile or two inhaling exhaust fumes, I know that I’m finally getting close to Down Place, when I come across its neighbour, a five star hotel called Oakley Court, whose Gothic façade was appropriated for a few Hammers (The Brides Of Dracula, The Reptile, Plague of Zombies) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
With it spruce drive-way, manicured lawns and inviting signage that welcomes residents and non-residents alike, Oakley Court could not be more different than the entrance to Down Place. “No access to hotel. Private road” is the first sign of hostility. A hundred metres later: “No access to river. Residents only.” Like the first victim in a horror movie, I doggedly ignore all the signs warning me to turn back. The sense of secrecy is compounded by the first sight of Down Place. A CCTV camera looks back at me as I try to peer over the barbed wire fence and around the un-manned checkpoint. With its paranoid trappings and Nissan hut, Down Place looks less like a film studio and more like a military installation, a secret establishment where inhuman experiments are conducted by well-heeled boffins. And then, the thought occurs to me – perhaps Hammer weren’t making horror movies after all, but documentaries. Or at least the film equivalent of the roman a clef. At that point, my camera stops working. The battery had apparently run out, even though it only had just been charged. Perhaps it was the radiation.
The camera has stopped, the mobile phone will be next. I dart back to the main road, in case I’m scooped up by a jeep-load of military policemen with Yankee accents. I seek sanctuary in Bray itself, a small village with seven Michelin stars and no corner shop, where chauffeurs wait patiently while their moneyed clients gorge on Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy (more experiments !)
The lacklustre truth about the fortifications around Down Place is that it has been controversially bought for re-development for luxury homes, the familiar fate of many a dead film studio