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Evening Standard (16/Jun/1998) - The studio vanishes



The studio vanishes

The Gainsborough Studios, from which Alfred Hitchcock launched his career, is about to close.

If Alfred Hitchcock is not turning in his grave, his spectre is surely hovering in the shadows. Gainsborough Studios, where he made his debut as a film director, is about to breathe its last. Known in its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s as "Hollywood by the Canal", the Islington Film Studios overlooking the Regent's Canal just over the Hackney border is playing host as a film studio, for the last time in its 79-year history, to the British production Anxiety.

With nice irony, it marks the feature-directing debut of distinguished commercial photographer Alasdair Ogilvie, who chose the erstwhile power-station-turned-studio for his blackly comic Kafkaesque thriller when he discovered it was available.

"I have worked near here for years and always thought it was sad it wasn't used as a studio," he says.

"I thought it would be great to make one last film here before it closed for good."

Although the building has been dormant as a studio for decades, a few enterprising camera crews from the BBC drama department and pop promos have used the space intermittently for film skirmishes in the hope of acquiring some of the vestigial spirit of the place that has undoubtedly embedded itself within the walls.

Apart from Hitchcock - who made his early first films The Prude's Fall and The Passionate Adventure plus his groundbreaking movie The Lodger in the building, as well as the later classic The Lady Vanishes - the Islington studio saw the antic comedies of Will Hay including Oh, Mr Porter! and many of Gainsborough's costume melodramas, featuring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason. Ivor Novello and Gracie Fields, graced the sound stages in the golden age of British filmmaking.

Gainsborough was to the costume meller what Ealing was to comedy. The Gainsborough Lady was the equivalent of the MGM lion or Rank's gong-ho muscleman, and heralded a popular entertainment that might also have been a crime thriller, comedy or a musical. Headed by Michael Balcon before he moved to Ealing, Gainsborough Studios opened for business in 1924, though filming had started there as early as 1919, when it was owned by the American studios Famous Players-Lasky. At the time it had a distinct advantage over most of the other British studios in that it was equipped with the latest American technology and lighting. And the site itself provided its own peculiarly appropriate advantages.

"We picked a location for the Islington studios where heavy fog would collect even when the rest of London was in bright sunshine," recalled Jesse Lasky in his memoirs. "Some of the artistic soft-focus photography admired by critics in this country was simply fog that eluded the fans."

Apart from the current activity of Anxiety, with all the attendant paraphernalia of a film crew, there is little to mark the memory of a studio that is as important to British film history as Hammer Films and Ealing, aside from the huge iron gates which remain emblazoned with the studio's name and a black plaque high up in the wall inscribed with the names of its most celebrated associates.

Following the departure of cast and crew of Ogilvie's film, which wraps at the end of the week, the building will be turned over to the developers who are seeking the last-minute permissions to turn it into a complex of loft apartments.

A spokesperson for Hackney Council confirmed that there will be some kind of memorial to the studio - possibly part of the building which will act like a mini museum - including the gates which will remain in situ. Beyond that, there will be little to mark one of the cradles of the British film industry.

George, the 80-year-old caretaker, has lived in the vicinity all his life.

He recalls being sent down by the unemployment office to help out on films in the 1930s and making tea and hanging around while the likes of Margaret Lockwood and John Lodge strutted their stuff in Bank Holiday.

"It will be a sad day when film finally moves out for good," he agrees, "although it hasn't really operated as a studio since 1949." Ogilvie's film, he feels, is a gesture of heroic nostalgia, a professional adieu to a part of Britain's grand heritage of popular filmmaking.

Still, the proposed development is perhaps a better fate than that which it narrowly escaped in 1996 when Top Rank UK acquired the building with a view to turning it into a bingo hall. Luckily, following an (un)feasibility study, they pulled out of the scheme. Given the extraordinarily high profile currently enjoyed by the British film industry, it would seem that the developers might be on to a winner.

For doubtless an inflated price, you too will be able to buy a slice of British cinema history. Who knows? Perhaps your dinette will have been sat in by Alfred Hitchcock; Margaret Lockwood may have emoted on your stairwell. Or Will Hay could conceivably have done a pratfall in your bedroom.

Gainsborough may be about to vanish, but its spirits linger on.