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The Independent (05/Mar/1996) - Site Unseen: Islington Film Studios, London N1



Site Unseen: Islington Film Studios, London N1

Rather typically, we will celebrate the centenary of the British cinema both by putting up a series of 280 commemorative plaques and by pulling down the old Islington Film Studios. Here, at this "Hollywood by the Canal", more than 170 films were made in 30 years between 1919 and 1949.

Alfred Hitchcock, Will Hay, James Mason, Margaret Lockwood, Jessie Matthews, Gracie Fields, Ivor Novello - you name it, they all traipsed here to give of their celluloid best.

Once an old Victorian power station close to the Regent's Canal, the building was turned into film studios in 1919, and a few years later the great producer Sir Michael Balcon arrived on the scene. One of his proteges was a chubby East-End boy called Alfred Hitchcock, who actually began his directing career here. A few years later, in 1938, Hitchcock shot the spy thriller The Lady Vanishes with Michael Redgrave at these studios - and then promptly vanished himself to Hollywood.

The Islington Studios was renowned for its friendly atmosphere, and churned out numerous comedies by Will Hay, the Crazy Gang and others. But the climax came in the mid- and late-1940s, when Gainsborough Studio shot several of their most spicy melodramas under this roof.

Often featuring the saturnine-voiced James Mason and the heaving cleavage of Margaret Lockwood, these films are infinitely more erotic than the current vogue for letting everything hang out. Just watch The Wicked Lady, for instance, where the suppressed eroticism is far more titillating than anything Madonna gets up to.

Lockwood plays the part of the noblewoman Lady Skelton by day who earns her pocket money at night as a highway- (wo)man. Several scenes had to be reshot because the censor was worried by the quantity (and quality) of the bosom on display. In fact, the American censor insisted that she wear 10 more-modest outfits.

At one point, Lockwood shouts out an early feminist message: "I've got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting in this dull hole!"

But dwindling audiences sadly brought the Gainsborough story to an end in 1949, and the premises have since been occupied by a whisky company, a carpet warehouse and finally, squatters.

And now Hackney Council has granted permission for the building to be pulled down and replaced by the inevitable bingo hall and flats.

So here is a site soon to be unseen.

The old Islington Film Studios are in Poole Street, London N1