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Surrey Life (81/Mar/2013) - Alfred Hitchock, Shamley Productions and the director's Surrey connections




Alfred Hitchock, Shamley Productions and the director's Surrey connections

As a new film examines the dynamics behind Alfred Hitchcock’s marriage at the time of the dramatic filming of Psycho, Amanda Hodges explores the director’s enduring local links...

It may seem a world away from the sinister subject matter of many Hitchcock films, but in the heart of the Surrey countryside, in the picturesque village of Shamley Green, near Guildford, lies the house Winter's Grace, once the beloved weekend retreat of film director Alfred Hitchcock. A half-timbered 16th-century building, set in beautifully tended gardens, the director lived there for over 10 years. During his time in residence, Hitchcock added a large wing complete with inglenook fireplace, since he found its low ceilings and narrow confines tricky to navigate given his larger frame (not to mention the stone letters 'A' and 'H' above the door). This idyllic setting is certainly a far cry from the murkily ambivalent territory familiar from many Hitchcock films, in particular the sinister atmosphere of the Bates motel, the central landscape inhabited by Psycho, his innovative triumph that is the subject of major new film Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins as the 'master of suspense' and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville.

The film is a love story set against the backdrop of the evolution of Psycho and explores what director Sacha Gervasi calls "a dynamic, complex relationship that was not just a marriage but a real creative collaboration. I was really interested in how these two strong-minded people lived with each other and created together and that brought a whole new perspective to the story of how Psycho was made." Alma was a respected editor in her own right and although she was largely happy to remain in her husband's professional shadow she was equally responsible for the film's eventual success.

At home in Surrey

Hitchcock purchased Winter's Grace and its 11 acres of grounds in 1928 for £2,500 when he was already an established director with the new film Blackmail, billed as the first British 'talkie', just out on release. The couple's main home was in Cromwell Road, London, and most business was conducted there, but the thought of a country abode appealed where they could relax, take long country walks and meet up with friends and where Hitchcock, a practising Catholic, could attend church in nearby Wonersh. He was also a keen horticulturist and would tend his flowerbeds whilst contemplating ideas for fresh projects - there's some entertaining, silent, home movie footage that shows Hitchcock and family happily cavorting around the flowerbeds.

Although Hitchcock, Alma and their young daughter Patricia would eventually leave Britain for California, the memories of their time in Surrey clearly evoked fond associations for when Hitchcock was setting up the television company that would produce his noted series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he named it Shamley Productions in remembrance of his old English home, a place where his mother stayed, occupying the next door cottage to Winter's Grace until her death in 1942. And, most strikingly, when faced with one of the biggest dilemmas of his career, the financing of Psycho, it was to Shamley Productions that he turned to film what would become one of his most successful creations, forever immortalising the village that had offered him valuable creative stimulation back in the Thirties.

Adapted from Robert Bloch's book, Psycho marked a radical change of tone for Hitchcock, what Nathalie Morris, senior curator at BFI South Bank, which recently screened a major Hitchcock retrospective, calls 'a significant departure' from his usual films. It was late in 1959 and his stylish comedy-thriller North by Northwest had just received widespread acclaim but Hitchcock, ever the pioneer, wanted to try something entirely different. As Sacha Gervasi says, "I think Hitchcock was ready to jolt himself awake. He didn't want to do North by Northwest over and over. He called these movies pieces of cake. He wanted to feel alive again and that led him to Psycho... which explores the darker side of human nature." Hitchcock wanted the same surprise element to greet his audience and thus decided to incorporate an unprecedented move, killing off the film's heroine Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, who'd remain wary of showers for the rest of her life) only 30 minutes into the film.

"Psycho would make Hitchcock relevant to a new, younger audience... and pushed boundaries in terms of what was shown on screen," Morris emphasises, as well as incorporating the novel tactic of insisting audiences attend the film from the very beginning, rather than adopt the usual habit of entering halfway. Paramount, Hitchcock's studio at the time, were aghast to hear about the unsavoury subject of his mooted new project and flatly refused finance so Hitchcock, determined to proceed, decided to waive his usual directorial fee in return for a 60 per cent share of any film profits, a canny move that would eventually make him a multi-millionaire.

A complex character

Anthony Hopkins, who impressively transforms himself into the portly figure of the director in Hitchcock, remembers seeing Psycho during his first professional theatre job in Manchester back in 1960 and says, "I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life... it was maybe the greatest movie I'd seen up to that point in my life." Talking of the director's complex character Hopkins says Hitchcock's fascination lies in his nature, which, like his films, contains much that is essentially paradoxical. "He can be dark, troubled, ruthless and obsessive and also big-hearted, warm and ingenious, characteristics all witnessed during the making of Psycho."

Shot entirely in black and white (a move intended to appease the censors with regard to the blood in the film's seminal shower scene, blood that was actually chocolate sauce!) on a low budget of $800,000, Psycho ventured into unchartered territory for Hitchcock. In a master coup of unconventional casting, it starred young matinee idol Anthony Perkins as the film's protagonist Norman Bates, a move enhancing the film's shock value as no-one would suspect the mild-mannered hero of nefarious activity. "Nowadays," as director Gervasi emphasises, "we're used to the idea that the psychopathic murderer turns out to be the last person we expect but when Psycho came out the casting of Perkins was shocking."

Psycho's infamous shower scene would scare audiences for years to come and funnily enough it's obvious Hitchcock himself had no great affection for showers; the taps in the bathrooms of his Shamley Green home impressively finished but noticeably without any shower heads! With typically wry humour, Hitchcock would later concede "my good luck in life was to be a really frightened person... I'm fortunate to have a low threshold of fear because a hero couldn't make a good suspense film," and certainly, just as his films provided a safe outlet for audience trepidation they also seem to have exorcised fears that may have troubled him in daily life.

When 'Hitch', as he was usually known, had made the decision to depart for America in 1939 he had often cited the English weather as one of his chief reasons for leaving. "The sky was always grey, the rain was grey, the mud was grey and I was grey," he drolly remarked but tongue-in-cheek as this may have been he remained staunchly patriotic throughout his years abroad and his memories of his early Surrey home clearly provided both comfort and creative inspiration.