The ex-residence of Lady Hamilton, Merton Park rolled out Edgar Wallace mysteries, Edgar Lustgarten police procedurals, government information shorts and the Ovaltinees advert. And, lest we forget, Surrey’s answer to King Kong called Konga, in which a 50 foot high, genetically-modified ape rampages arthritically down Croydon high street.
No critic mourned its passing and many of the people who worked there complained about how difficult it was get to work, often involving a tube journey, a bus ride and a brisk walk. Director John Krish, for one, can barely conceal his disdain (though to be fair, he doesn’t try that hard) when remembering the studio. He worked as an editor on government information film Flying With Prudence, in which a ghostly apparition appears in a cockpit to warn pilots when they are going wrong. The ghost’s name is, predictably, Prudence. Merton Park had no mogul, only Jack Greenwood, a cheese-parer, bean counter and a man who didn’t see a penny that he could not pinch. People used to shout Bingo whenever he appeared, because numbers were all that he was interested in.
Not unlike a second tier football team, Merton Park was comprised mainly of journeymen professionals, nascent talent and the occasional ex-prodigy whose youthful brilliance and initial promise had evaporated inexplicably, the star striker who had one good season in the top division. Like Anthony Pelissier, for instance, who made an eye-catching debut in 1949 with an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner, about a boy who can predict race winners every time he mounts his wooden steed. And it’s in these supernatural scenes, these fever dream sequences, employing the full armoury of expressionist effects – distorting, shape-shifting lenses, acute, vertiginous camera angles – that one could foresee Pelissier’s future: a retrospective in the Cinematheque Du Francais, perhaps, a BFI monograph on the shelves of discerning bookshops, auteur status. Instead, after a film career that lasted only four years, Pelissier washed ashore at Merton, directing shorts for the Central Office of Information, home of The Green Cross Code Man and Charlie Says series. Despite this, Merton Park, as well as a plaque, does have a website dedicated to its memory and a society of ex-employees that meets regularly in the studio pub, The Leather Bottle. So in some way, it is better remembered than Gainsborough.
But before we walk quickly on – it also produced The Criminal starring Stanley Baker and directed by Joseph Losey, an archetypal tale of an armed robber called Johnny Bannion coming out of jail for one last job. Less archetypal was the attention to detail and sense of professional pride not usually associated with British B-movies in general and Merton Park productions in particular.
This was the product of a director with a point to prove, making his way up through the British film industry, after being blacklisted in the United States. Each of Losey’s films until The Servant now seem like a calling card, an invitation to producers to see what he could do with a small budget and a lousy script, and to imagine what he could do with some real money and a decent screenplay. The fact that the first draft of The Criminal was a litany of Hollywood clichés mattered to him. According to Losey On Losey, “the original script was a hodge-podge of every American prison film ever made, absolutely horrible, not even written in terms of English speech idiom. I got Alun Owen, who had never written a film script, to work on it; and with some authentic documentation, we had a script which had a great deal of point and was very real in its people and its speech.” Some of that realism was no doubt supplied by Stanley Baker, who didn’t need to do that much research. He only had to spend time with his friend Albert Dimes, a well known face in the underworld and fingered by the FBI as the Philadelphia mafia’s contact in London. Johnny Bannion’s life-style and bachelor pad was apparently based on Dimes’. When “Italian Albert” wasn’t visiting the set of The Criminal, the pair would hang out in Atlantic Machines, a one armed bandit company owned by Dimes, Eddie Richardson and “Mad” Frankie Fraser. In the evening, they would saunter from the offices in Great Windmill Street round the corner to Raymond’s Revue Bar or to a Soho restaurant, where Baker would happily pose for photographs with his compadres.
Baker romanticised gangsters as working class heroes a few years before David Bailey’s lens propelled the Krays into myth and the mainstream. His 1967 drama Robbery helped to secure the romantic status of the career criminal by re-configuring the 1963 Great Train Robbery as a heist caper, complete with an eat-my-dust car chase that famously impressed Steve McQueen so much that he hired director Peter Yates to helm his next film, Bullitt.
The hard man act clearly impressed legendary critic Andrew Sarris, who proclaimed in his review of The Crimonal that Baker “erupts with spine-chilling force into the kind of tragic hero that we have not seen since the anarchic days of Bogart and Cagney.” Stanley Baker was, in many ways, a classic tragic hero himself, undone by vaulting ambition. He’s one of the casualties of British film history and also the spirit guide on this walk. Acknowledged by Michael Caine and film historians alike as British cinema’s original working class hero, he was a star, a producer (Zulu, which gave Caine his big break, was Baker’s pet project) and a media tycoon (his company ran HTV).
Yet, when he died aged forty-eight from lung-cancer, his stubborn face, his deeply charismatic presence and, it has to be said, his hairpiece were a fading memory for the British cinema audience.
For the last few years of his life, Baker found himself adrift in a different kind of underworld, the European B-picture, a final resting place for many a fallen star. Ironically, his voice – the undiluted, unapologetic working class accent which distinguished him from his peers and inspired his successors – was routinely dubbed in cut-price flicks that were rarely seen outside Spain or Italy. His best movie of the 70s was Lucio Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, which couldn’t quite deliver on the transgressive pleasures promised by its title and poster.
Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, these became the British heroes of the sixties while Baker, who paved the way for them, remains poised on the cliff edge of memory, always on the tip of the tongue.
Today, it’s hard to believe that he was British cinema’s original working class hero. He doesn’t fit our modern preconceptions, filtered through the Free Cinema, of the proletarian prototype: angry, young and horny. Perhaps he was simply too straight to play the rebel. With his barrel chest and army sergeant posture, he resonated authority and pre-war morality; adroitly cast as the detective who, faced by a horde of delinquent, jazz-addicted Scousers in Violent Playground, declares that “I’m not going to run. And I’m not going to dance”.
This, like many other great Baker roles, has been unjustly overlooked, and his status remains lowly. When The Criminal was recently shown at the British Film Institute, it was part of a season of movies dedicated to the work of its American director Joseph Losey. Baker has yet to have a season dedicated to him by the gate-keeper of British film history, the BFI.
There was only one role that genuinely took Baker’s interest: media mogul. By 1970, the actor’s portfolio included his own TV station, production company, film studio and a rock festival, The Great Western Express, headlined by The Beach Boys, The Faces and Monty Python.
However, a combination of bad luck (the rock festival was water-logged), poor business decisions (the sale of a prestige development to buy shares in an ailing film studio) and boardroom manoeuvrings (he was sacked abruptly from the studio in the middle of the inevitable financial crisis) scuppered his plans for media domination.
The prestige development was Alembic House, perched by the Thames close to MI6 HQ. The penthouse suite was owned by Baker, of course, while a few storeys below lived Peter O’Toole and his neighbour John Barry. Jeffrey Archer lives there now.
The studio was British Lion, based at Shepperton, which he owned with Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings. The company’s first major decision was to cut 14 minutes from The Wicker Man, thus securing its cult status as a film maudit and national treasure. Deeley has gone down in film history as the villain of that piece. And Deeley could easily be cast as the villain of the Stanley Baker story. He admits that the actor never forgave him. The producer, though, has absolved himself of any blame for Baker’s dismissal and subsequent decline, concluding that he and Spikings were just making the best of an awful mess: the value of British Lion’s shares was decimated over-night, and the company went into free-fall. As part of a refinancing package with an Italian bank, Deeley and Spikings agreed to jettison Baker. The new backers didn’t like the idea of an actor as mogul, with the power to greenlight productions. And to be fair to Deeley, he was responsible for Oakhurst’s biggest hit The Italian Job, whereas Baker’s pet project was Where’s Jack ?, starring toothsome song-and-dance man Tommy Steele in a straight role and a proto-mullet as legendary 18th century outlaw Jack Sheppard.
After his plans to build a media empire collapsed, Baker returned to a job he clearly had lost interest in, just as the British film industry was experiencing its own boom and bust. Baker’s reputation was restored by the TV series How Green Was My Valley and he was knighted just before his death, albeit as part of Harold Wilson’s controversial Lavender List, so even this moment of redemption and recognition was tainted by association. With its grand ambition, its messy finances, its bad luck, and its ultimate failure, Stanley Baker’s career is, in many ways, the story of the industry itself.