The story of Beaconsfield has it all, every twist, every plot point, every reversal of fortune that we’ve come to expect from the story of a British film studio: money too tight to mention, cash flowing in the wrong direction, owners who couldn’t commit, a cameo by Michael Balcon, the over-reliance upon quota quickies for a quick and dirty profit, and a minor claim to fame. Beaconsfield takes its place in the foot-notes of film history because it produced Britain’s first talkie; not, as many people believe, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, but The Clue Of The New Pin, directed by Arthur Meade and starring John Gielgud.
The Clue Of The New Pin was a quintessential locked room mystery – a millionaire is found dead in his sealed vault, shot in the back, with a solitary new pin as a key to the riddle. Produced by British Lion, this showcase for the short-lived British Phototone sound-on-film system was adapted from a crime novel by the man who, at the time, could justifiably be called The Master Of Suspense, Edgar Wallace. It’s estimated that one in four of all novels sold in the United Kingdom during the 1920s was written by Wallace. But then, he did write over 170 of them. As well as a prolific, possibly incontinent, novelist, Wallace was also a playwright, race-horse owner, journalist, poet, song writer, film director, screen writer and movie mogul. He was the Chairman of British Lion when The Clue Of The New Pin was released in 1929.
He possessed all the characteristics of a mogul – infectious, unfettered and unnecessary optimism combined with opportunism, chutzpah and an inability to face the facts. Wallace was possessed by the same restless energy as fellow diabetic, G.B. Samuelson, aka Get Busy Sam, the mogul of Middlesex who ran Worton Hall for two eventful decades. Wallace refused any physical exercise in case it drained his reserves of mental energy. His idea of a long walk was a voyage to the end of his drive-way, which required a lift back from his chauffeur. Like the best moguls, he was a self-made man. In fact, Edgar Wallace was a fiction almost from the day he was born. The product of a brief encounter between his actress mother and the husband of her impresario boss, Wallace was given a fictional dad for the purposes of the birth certificate, a comedian whose name was never once seen in lights, because there simply wasn’t a Walter Wallace. And maybe this determined the rest of the life of his son, Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace. Because fact and finer detail were never Edgar’s strong points. But mystery was.
Hastily sent for adoption, Edgar Wallace lived a slum life in the London docks. From the moment he left home, his life was set to fast forward. He went to South Africa as a soldier to fight the Boer at the age of 21 and six years later was a celebrated war reporter and newspaper editor. He built his career on scoops and bribes and picking fights with Lord Kitchener about military censorship. Wallace, as he would do for many of his future roles, dressed for the part, in suit and wide brimmed hat, with gold-tipped cane and watch-chain to complete the look. As a novelist, his uniform consisted of a silk dressing gown worn over a wool suit, accompanied at all times by a long, thin cigarette holder from which he would smoke one hundred a day, pausing only to sip sweet tea and dictate his next volume.
For his brief career as a film director, he donned the traditional garb of jodhpurs and boots.
In the middle of life, he was in debt. Constant debt. He left Africa poorer than he had arrived, despite the fact that the job of editor of the Rand Daily Mail paid him £2,000 a year. Wallace was generous to a fault, or indeed, a double fault. He was the perfect host, always picking up the tab. He once placed a bet for friends and then claimed that they’d all backed a winner, funding their dividends from his own pocket. But the main recipient of his generosity was Edgar Wallace – as well as his own country pile in Buckinghamshire, he kept a suite of rooms at The Carlton Hotel. His driver would wait outside in Wallace’s famous yellow Rolls Royce in case his employer wanted to go racing. Edgar was truly the bookies’ friend, losing £20,000 in one luckless week at Ascot.
Wallace, it turned out, was as profligate with the truth as he was with his income. He had a blind eye for detail. Wallace holds the distinction of being the first journalist to be sacked by the Daily Mail. He didn’t double-check his facts or his maths when trying to expose the dubious methods of the so-called Soap Trust; an oversight that proved costly in the ensuing libel case brought by the Lever Brothers. Wallace had already drawn upon the Mail’s reserves of patience, and indeed their reserves, with a wheeze to publicise his novel The Four Just Men. A rattling tale of four avengers who assassinate a corrupt foreign secretary in a locked room protected by armed guards, it had everything you might want from a page-turner, except for one thing: a solution to the puzzle. The novelist left that to the readers, offering £1,000 to whoever guessed correctly. Dazzled by his own ingenuity, Wallace immediately pumped thousands of pounds into newspaper adverts and billboards, forgetting to stipulate that there could only be one winner. When correct answers arrived in their hundreds and with no prize money forthcoming, the press and public cried swindle, and the Daily Mail found guilty by association. To clear their name, the editor Alfred Harmsworth, reluctantly bailed his journalist out. Later, Wallace would single-handedly destroy the circulation of The Evening Times, when he failed to authenticate a confession apparently written by Dr Crippen. When it turned out that there was no proof to verify the scoop, the paper itself made the headlines and its readership cut in half. Clearly, you don’t write 18 stage plays, 957 short stories and over 170 novels by paying close attention to detail. This was a man who could knock off a novel in eight days and a play in two.
He was permanently short of cash. And it was the urgent need for readies that led him to becoming the chair of British Lion in 1929. Although he was not so much chairman as figurehead and totem, the title offered to him as part of a package for the film rights to all his novels, which also included £10, 000 worth of shares, £1,000 for each film, 10% of receipts, and a £500 director’s fee. Wallace had fancied himself as a film-maker for over a decade, just after penning a bio-pic about Edith Cavell called Nurse And Martyr. The novelist decided to transform his bungalow in Alfriston into a mini studio, erecting a set made out of canvas on the lawn and hiring a gargantuan movie camera. A drama starring his daughter was hastily abandoned when she lost interest, to be replaced by an epic re-creation of the Battle Of Jutland with model ships. Logistical problems with a toy plane resulted in the epic being scrapped and the models given to the children as presents.
As for his proper directorial debut “Red Aces”, even his biographer Margaret Lane couldn’t find it in herself to be kind: “he proved himself an indifferent “silent” director. He was too thoroughly imbued with stage technique to adapt to the very different requirements of the silent film”.
And his interest in movie-making may have ended there if it hadn’t been for the introduction of sound to pictures. The new technology was unwieldy – cameras were housed in sound-proof cells that were just as static and rigid as the actors crowded around hidden microphones. Cinema retreated behind the proscenium arch once again, and Wallace, the producer of numerous West End hits, was in his element. As Lane says “early talkies were like staged plays”. And Wallace’s next directorial outing was an adaptation of his theatrical smash, The Squeaker.
It seemed that he had finally taken to the role of mogul – writing lengthy articles about the state of the movie industry in newspapers, opining in film journals – but his attention was soon diverted. He stood as Liberal candidate for Blackpool only to be booed out of town after a heavy defeat. Salvation appeared in the form of an offer from RKO to come to Hollywood for four months.
He ummed and ahhed about the contract, hoping at the last minute that RKO would change their minds. But as ever with Wallace, it was neither his head nor his heart that made the final decision, but his wallet. He owed the Inland Revenue two thousand pounds. In his four months at the studio, Wallace worked on a horror movie and a Contance Bennett vehicle. Neither made it past the page. The latter turned out to be more of a pitch than a script. Wallace’s screenplay was one of twenty offered to the “Constance Bennett Office” for consideration. This must have been a great come-down for Britain’s most popular novelist and a mogul who could make any movie he fancied in his Beaconsfield studio. Even the odd theatrical flop didn’t put an end to the West End production line. However, there’s no sense of regret or bitterness in his published diary about his new status as lowly Hollywood hack. Rejection was met every time with a pragmatist’s philosophy – it’s not personal, it’s business. In fact, he seems at home in a studio system that valued industry over artistry, that also knew how to play the percentages – if you don’t like this film, another one will be along in a minute.
His diary, which is a series of letters back home, is more illuminating about his eating habits (lunch sitting on the next table to Harold Lloyd, dinner parties with Walter Huston) than the “big monkey play” he was writing for producer Merian C Cooper. King Kong was Cooper’s baby, originally created to recycle footage from a failed “prehistoric animal feature”, and it was Wallace’s job to give the producer’s ideas shape and form. Wallace fretted that he would end up taking the credit for the film, which he imagined would be a big hit. Ironically, it was Wallace who didn’t get the recognition he deserved. After his sudden death, his script was completed by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, who received the writing credit, whereas Wallace’s contribution was down-graded to “from an idea by”; even that credit was shared with Cooper. Film researchers have since dissected the various drafts of the script, looking for historical injustice. The verdict: most of Wallace’s plot remained intact, while the other writers only supplied minor additions and alterations.
The final Edgar Wallace mystery could be titled The Case Of The Novelist’s Death. It’s a story of an old man’s folly, clandestine meetings, sexual obsession and a more prosaic kind of fever. The official version is that he was killed by pneumonia and his own indefatigable nature. He didn’t rest when ill, refusing to take a fever lying down, and continued to work as relentlessly as ever. After all, this was a man who could recover from anything – debt, unemployment, public humiliation, rotten luck with the horses – so what was a little cold to an Ubermensch ? His solution to a high temperature and a splitting headache was to ingest as many aspirins as humanly possible. For Wallace, half measures or second thoughts didn’t seem to exist. He slipped in and out of a coma for a few days before he succumbed to the deepest sleep in a hospital bed. However, he may well have been the author of his own downfall in a dramatically different manner. Margaret Lane claims that his death was a caused by misadventure with a young actress. The un-named star, a regular to the Wallace household, was invited to dinner one evening. And when she didn’t turn up, the novelist, already feverish, began to fret and pace, convinced she was late rather than disinterested. His butler discovered him waiting on the road in his silk dressing gown way past midnight, agitated and refusing warm clothes, claiming he was already too hot. Wallace was discovered unconscious in his bedroom the next day, a cold press to his head.
His death was greeted in Britain by national mourning and his popularity continued posthumously for a few years, notably with Alexander Korda’s 1935 production of Wallace’s first hit, the colonialist exploits of Sanders Of The River. An unlikely revival was sparked in the 50s and 60s – first in Britain, with Merton Park’s bargain basement productions of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries…
and then in Germany, where 13 film adaptations were made in 1961 alone…
There has been no genuine blip of interest since then- a Fleet Street pub was renamed The Edgar Wallace a year after his centenary and a new biography by Neil Clark, Stranger Than Fiction, published in 2014. Despite the 170 or so novels, dozens of plays and scores of movie adaptations bearing his name, he is now best known for a screenplay he only half wrote.
As for Beaconsfield Alexander Korda, that inveterate empire builder, bought British Lion in 1946, and almost immediately sold the buildings to the Crown Film Unit, who were based there until 1951. Michael Balcon’s Group 3 took over for two years, but it’s such a small part of Balcon’s life story that Beaconsfield doesn’t even make it to the index of his autobiography. Producer Peter Rogers was briefly the boss before he carried on in Pinewood; by the time that the National Film And Television School took over in 1971, Beaconsfield studios had been a warehouse for the North Thames Gas Board for the best part of five years.