Islington Studios, London
Islington Studios, later renamed Gainsborough Studios, was a major film studio complex formerly situated in the Hoxton district of East London.
After several decades of neglect, the site was converted into a modern apartment complex.
History of the Site
In April 1919, Famous Players-Lasky British Producers Limited was formed with an initial capital of £600,000. An offshoot of the American Famous Players-Lasky company, the intention was to make British films in London with American expertise.
By July 1919, the studio had identified a site on Poole Street, including a large former power station building, which could be converted into a modern studio complex and a 28 year lease was obtained for the site in October 1919. Development work, which including major alterations to the buildings in order to accommodate the large film stages, proceeded smoothly over the following months.
It is difficult to realize that a few months ago the building at Islington was the derelict power station of the Metropolitan Electric Supply Company. The interior of the building has been practically gutted, and little except the outside walls remains. Thus it has been possible to build the studios according to the latest plans with the most up-to-date devices from the United States.
— The Times (18/May/1920) - Film Production in England
The ground floor studio (102 by 68 feet) included a large water taken sunk into the floor, which could be covered over when not in use, that was used to film underwater sequences. A second first-floor studio (115 by 48 feet) was used for multiple smaller sets and allowed for simultaneous filming. An air filtration system was installed to try and combat the thick London fog, although this was later overhauled after initially proving ineffective.
All other aspects of film production where catered for within the complex, including:
- 40 dressing rooms, with heating and hot and cold running water, and separate larger dressing rooms for crowd scene extras
- a carpenters shop for constructing sets, along with a paint shop
- film printing and chemical labs, and darkrooms
- a projection theatre
- a separate property store
- administrative offices for all departments
- an extensive telephone system
- a staff restaurant with a chef from Simpson's-in-the-Strand
The company planned to utilise some of their key American personnel and the production schedule saw a steady stream of talent arriving from the US to work on a limited number of films. English personnel also gained experience by being seconded to America.
By the summer of 1920, Alfred Hitchcock had decided to he wanted a career in motion pictures and presented himself at the studio with a set of title cards he had prepared for the company's first scheduled film, The Sorrows of Satan. After then being told that a different film would be made first, Hitchcock returned with a second set of drawings.
His persistence paid off and the studio's Assistant Art Director, Norman G. Arnold, hired him a freelance title card designer. Hitchcock continued to work full-time for W.T. Henley's Telegraph Works, apparently splitting his second wage with Henley's advertising manager in return for being able to use facilities at Henley's to design title cards.
In April 1921, having proved his worth, the studio employed Hitchcock on a full-time basis, placing him in charge of all art titles. It is believed that Hitchcock designed the title cards for the majority, if not all, of the company's productions.
Experienced continuity person and editor Alma Reville, who had already gained several years of experience at the London Film Company, transferred to Islington early in 1921. As well as continuity and editing, she became floor secretary to director Donald Crisp.
Famous Players-Lasky Productions
American director Hugh Ford arrived in England on 16th April 1920 to begin the studio's production schedule with The Great Day, followed by The Call of Youth. Unfortunately, both films received disappointing reviews in the British press.
The other following films were produced at the studio, gradually gaining more positive press reviews:
- Appearances — directed by Donald Crisp
- The Mystery Road — directed by Paul Powell
- The Princess of New York — directed by Donald Crisp
- Dangerous Lies — directed by Paul Powell
- Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush — directed by Donald Crisp
- Three Live Ghosts — directed by George Fitzmaurice
- Perpetua (also known as Love's Boomerang) — directed by John S. Robertson
- The Man from Home — directed by George Fitzmaurice
- The Spanish Jade — directed by John S. Robertson
Famous Players-Lasky's grand plans to expand into Europe, whilst building a new large studio on Long Island, New York, proved to have been too ambitious and by 1922 the company placed a halt on new productions at Islington.
Rather than let the studio go idle, the company wound most of the departments and reduced the staff to a skeleton crew, leasing out the studio facilities to other film makers. Although Hitchcock remained on staff, Alma Reville was one of the many personnel who lost their jobs.
Independent Productions at Islington
By mid-1922, International Artists began filming interiors of Tell Your Children at Islington, with Donald Crisp taking over as director part-way through filming. Crisp then hired Alma Reville as editor and cutter, and it is believed Alfred Hitchcock was the title designer and art designer on the film.
Also using the studio facilities around this time were Graham-Wilcox Productions, formed by director Graham Cutts and producer Herbert Wilcox, who filmed scenes for Flames of Passion and Paddy the Next Best Thing at Islington. It is assumed Hitchcock will have worked on these films, although this remains unconfirmed.
In late 1922, Hitchcock made use of the studios to direct a two-reel comedy titled Mrs Peabody (which he later referred to as Number 13), starring Clare Greet and Ernest Thesiger. As film historian Gary Chapman notes, this was primarily financed by Hitchcock's extended family. When production money began to run out, Greet generously helped out to continue the filming. However, even this was not enough to finance a completed film and production was abandoned. In gratitude, Hitchcock later cast Greet in 7 further films.
In early 1923, entertainer Seymour Hicks rented Islington in order to remake Always Tell Your Wife, which he had filmed previously in 1914. After director Hugh Croise left the production, Hitchcock stepped in and completed the film for Hicks.
During the summer of 1923, Balcon, Freedman & Saville, together with director Graham Cutts, made two films at Islington with American actress Betty Compson — Woman to Woman and The White Shadow. Aware of Hitchcock's skills, Cutts hired him as assistant director. Hitchcock also stepped in as the art director on the films and, when the team needed an editor and cutter, he suggested Alma Reville.
Following the failure of The White Shadow and the unexpected death of John Freedman, Balcon, Freedman & Saville was dissolved and Michael Balcon formed Gainsborough Pictures with Graham Cutts, with an initial capital of £100.
The company continued to make use of the Islington facilities and, after a series of financial successes, Balcon formed Piccadilly Pictures Limited and Piccadilly Studios Limited in 1926. Via the latter company, Balcon negotiated with Famous Players-Lasky and purchased the studios for £14,000.
Under new ownership, the complex was renamed Gainsborough Studios.
Film productions ceased at the site at the start of World War II, as it was felt the chimney next to the power station was in danger of collapsing on the building should a German bomb land nearby, and Gainsborough moved all productions to their Lime Grove site.
After the war, the site remained mostly derelict after Gainsborough Pictures was closed down in 1951.
Conversion into Apartments
The buildings began to be cleared in 2002, and apartments named "Gainsborough Studios" were built on the site in 2004, by architects Munkenbeck and Marshall.
Former location of the studio complex:
- Wikipedia - Gainsborough Pictures
- British Films Studios: Islington Studio
- Sparks In Electrical Jelly - Alfred Hitchcock at the Gainsborough Studios
- On Memorialising Gainsborough Studios - Pam Cook (2009)
Notes & References
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 1.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapters 1 & 2.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 2.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 3.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 4.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 5.
- It is uncertain if Croise fell ill or was fired by Hicks.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 6.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 7.
- London's Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years (2014) by Gary Chapman, chapter 8.
- In his memoirs, Balcon recalled that Famous Players-Lasky initially offered to sell Islington Studios for £100,000 and he was surprised when his offer of £14,000 was accepted, even when he explained he would have to spread the payment over 7 years.
- BBC News (Sep/2003)