For this part of the journey, I like to think that I am retracing Celia Johnson’s footsteps, or at least tyre tracks, as she returned to Denham after a long day’s filming the Milford scenes in Beaconsfield. I am heading for the Xanadu of South Buckinghamshire, built by the British film industry’s own Kubla Khan, Alexander Korda.
Beaconsfield bears all the classical features of an Ealing comedy. Not least the model village, which is proudly not for profit and whose painted sign is D-I-Y in the very best sense.
It speaks of artisanal ingenuity often downgraded as eccentricity by a self-deprecating nation. It speaks of the same labour of love demonstrated by the motley crew who save their branch line from the proto-Thatcherite spivs running the bus company in The Titfield Thunderbolt (a comedy whose nuances are usually lost on those viewers who can only see twee).
Just down the road from the model village, the local church is hosting a spring fayre, a town cryer, bedecked in green, welcomes visitors, bell poised for action. Only the contemporary metallic rim on his specs betrays the fact that this is not 1953.
And that sense of a future designed by Michael Balcon is reinforced by a lunch stop on the green at Jordans, another kind of model village, built by Quakers and partly maintained by a non-profit organisation (possibly the original Village Green Preservation Society).
The sound of parents and children living out their Chiltern idyll is ringing in my jaded, too-long-in-London ears. The spell is broken when I text a friend, who I suspect, was brought up here. No, he replies, he used to live in Seer Green, next door, and it was full of paedophiles. I don’t know if you can libel a whole village, but I’m sure he was joking, and exercising his right to vulgar abuse.
Just part Jordans, at the start of Chalfont Grove, I am reminded that there is little difference between fly-tipping and art installation….
I join the South Bucks Way near Chalfont St Peter, serial winner of best kept village awards. Up and over the arterial road, I enter another kind of village, a very 21st century village, dedicated to private living. I enter the Zone, a “no door-stop selling” zone, which is a new zone on me. I have no guide, not even a make-do catapult, and the signs for the South Bucks Way are not so much discreet as invisible. Not so the CCTV cameras implanted in trees, surveying hikers, flaneurs and drivers without resident’s permits.
The Way leads me out of a scout camp straight onto the Gerrards’ Cross golf course. Soon, I am stranded, clueless in the middle of the 11th and 12th holes. “Zulus to the south west. Thousands of them.” For some reason, I think of Nigel Green in Zulu, discovering that there is only one thing more deadly than a Zulu warrior with a spear and that’s a middle aged man in pastel with a golf club. I crouch and run, like Butch and Sundance in their final shoot-out, dodging bullets the size of golf balls, zig-zagging to a small gate, which might lead to Narnia, for all I care.
But what I appreciate most about the South Bucks Way is that the council designed a walk that shows off the very best of the county, like the underpass for the M40…
Only a fool could miss the site of Denham Studios, which is at least twice the size of the village that nominally houses it. This is a studio with a village attached. And I almost missed it.
I was looking for a site sandwiched between the main road and the river. And both the map and the tales of the Colne doubling for India, conjured up a much grander waterway. I wasn’t exactly expecting rushing torrents, but something a little more impressive than this…
I half-heartedly took this picture, fully expecting to delete it once I’d found the genuine article. Next to the overflow pipe stands what looks a like a scene of dereliction with warning signs that come on like a minor gangster fuelled by alcohol and uppers – “I’m watching you..” (CCTV in operation), “I’m tooled up” (danger– razor wire), “don’t even think about it” (security guards patrol this site).
I skirt the perimeter and find the public face of this industrial park, a little piece of Slough that has broken free and floated downstream. A collection of contemporary office blocks marked out by their anonymity.
But you could have said pretty much the same thing if you’d been standing on this spot 75 years ago. Perhaps Churchill’s swans basking on the green next to the river would have been a tell-tale sign that this was no ordinary production line and the sight of Laurence Olivier or a minor royal might have confirmed that suspicion. But, like driving past Shepperton studios these days, there is no magic in the buildings, or even on the sets. The magic is in the camera.
But the neglect of the buildings – not only physical, but metaphysical, cultural, the lack of recognition, the mind-wipe – is what matters. The small blue plaque is the only sign of a former life – there is no Korda cul-de-sac or Alexander Way. There are new builds from the 60s onwards that could have attracted some cultural kudos and a few extra thousand on their asking price if they had recognised the studio or the man that had made Denham an unlikely destination for celebrities, royalty and future prime ministers. And it does seem odd, especially for a country that likes to celebrate its heroic failures. Because the story of Alexander Korda, as we shall see, has the same basic ingredients of, say, the charge of the Light Brigade – that fatal mix of derring-do and bad planning.