Pinewood: England’s Leafy Land of Stardust

9 June 2014

I drive quite regularly on the M25, London’s orbital motorway and, whenever I near its junction for the M40, a Cheshire Cat grin spreads across my face that puts even the heaviest traffic jams into insignificance. For I know as I sit despondently behind the wheel of my car staring at the row of vehicles snaking for miles in front and behind me, there is, nestled away over the trees and amongst woodlands and fields, a world of secret underground lairs, control rooms of alien spaceships and the realm of brave superheroes. And that world is called Pinewood Studios.

The films that are made there , and there have been many, may sometimes be financed, produced and controlled by international money, by big powerful American backers, but Pinewood is a British company and as a result, the UK influence on worldwide movies cannot be argued with.

But Pinewood Studio’s humble beginnings stretch back to 1935 and they themselves are born from something almost out of a Fleming novel.

Heatherden Hall is a Victorian mansion that, in the 1920s, was popular both as a secret retreat and meeting place for politicians and diplomats. It’s easy to picture the high-ceilinged banqueting rooms and hallways as backdrops for covert conversations and world-changing decision-making. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was even signed there.

But it was sold in the early 1930s to a Charles Boot, a housing contractor, who decided in 1934 to develop the estate from a country club into a film studios complex, emulating in style what had been seen at those in Hollywood. But having no prior film-making experience Boot didn’t embark on this alone. He went into partnership with a man who milled flour for a living: J Arthur Rank.

Rank himself though was no stranger to film-making, albeit of the type that offered spiritual teachings through his own-formed Religious Film Society.

The name Pinewood was dreamt up by Boot, to further emulate the American studios (‘holly’wood, ‘pine’wood) and to reflect the fact that topography meant the majority of the surrounding woodlands were pine trees.

The studio complex had cost nearly £1million to make over a 9 month period. By today’s standards, that’s not too short of a cool £40million.

By the time Pinewood Studios was officially opened on 30 September 1936, it contained no less than 5 separate soundstages and space for an enclosed water tank capable of holding anything up to 65,000 gallons. 75 years later, Daniel Craig would plummet to the depths of this tank in the opening sequence to Eon Productions’ Skyfall.

But Daniel wasn’t the first Craig to work there. Davina Craig (no relation) co-starred in the very first motion picture completed at Pinewood, London Melody, alongside Anna Neagle in 1936. The musical had started life at Elstree but due to a fire halting production, Rank’s new complex was the most logical place to continue.

London Melody, then, was the beginning of a long and fruitful – and occasionally fraught – 8 decades of movie making, seeing some of the biggest names in the industry from both behind and in front of the camera come and go.

Carol Reed’s Talk of the Devil was filmed in its entirety at Pinewood also in 1936 but the outbreak of World War II meant the whole country was enlisted for the war effort and Pinewood was not unaffected by this. The British Government requisitioned the studios between 1940 and 1945, producing a number of propaganda documentaries and training films including the Oscar-winning Desert Victory. Non-war related movies returned to Pinewood in 1946.

Alec Guinness de Cuffe, better known simply as Alec Guinness, headed up the cast of David Lean’s Oliver Twist in 1948, a film not without its problems after release due to Guinness’ faithful portrayal of Fagin being considered anti-semitic by some quarters.

Controversy aside, The Red Shoes (1948), Genevieve (1953), Doctor In the House (1954), The Spanish Gardener (1956), Carry On Sergeant (1958) and Carry On Nurse (1959) sat amongst another 11 productions between the end of the war and the oncoming renaissance of freedom that would be the 1960s, with talent such as Dirk Bogarde, Shirley Eaton, Geoffrey Keen, Norman Wisdom, Joan Sims and Bernard Lee becoming regular sights on the back-lots and sound stages.

The Rank Organisation had been the sole producer right up until the 1960s but the move to rent out studio space to other production companies meant Pinewood  was leading the way in film industry innovation through what is known as the ‘unit system’. It’s a method by which several pictures can be filmed simultaneously and completely independently of one another on the multiple sound stages, meaning Pinewood could achieve the highest production rate of any studio in the world. Quite an impressive feat from a place thought up by a housing contractor and a bread maker.

As The League of Gentlemen moved out, in 1962 James Bond of the Secret Service moved in and, give or take a couple of hiccups, he never really left. Terence Young’s Dr No started it all, with another 5 titles in the 60s alone adding to the franchise. We also had Harry Palmer arrive with The Ipcress File in 1965, a character the refreshingly opposite of Sean Connery’s sophisticated killer. The Carry On… series kept going, not even scared off by Christopher Lee’s Dracula swooping in for one bite only from Bray Studios for Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) but Rank itself, under the chair of John Davis, saw a decline in profits and moved its business more towards holiday ventures and bingo halls.

The economy of Britain was on a slow decline throughout the 1960s in general which led to trade union strikes and three-day working weeks at the dawn of the new decade. Repercussions were felt right across the movie industry and even Hollywood began to experience a financial and artistic depression. That said, Pinewood was still busy creating astonishingly impressive work despite these dark times: The Day of the Jackal and Live and Let Die (both 1973); The Man Who Would Be King (1975); and, of course, a certain cape-wearing superhero 3 years after. More on him later. It was in 1976 that the iconic 007 Stage was built and The Spy Who Loved Me was the first film shot there.

Roger Moore had replaced Connery for Eon Productions’ snowballing James Bond series, but not before he turned in a performance alongside Hollywood heavyweight Tony Curtis for ITC’s The Persuaders!, Pinewood’s first full foray into television production. Over the years other television shows would partly be made there, amongst them Space: 1999, The IT Crowd, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Doctor Who.

Christmas 1978: we all believed a man could fly. And he didn’t need reindeer or a big white beard to do it. Superman – The Movie was a critical and commercial success, some say in part due to the lack of competition at the time. But whatever the reason, it could be argued that the last son of Krypton single-handedly made the decade end on an upturn for Pinewood. It was a far cry from the financial whirlpool that was the beginning of the 1970s.

The 1980s and 1990s saw some remarkable films come out of the studio: both Ellen Ripley’s reawakening and death; more adventures for Bond; Superman’s sequel and a first for his comic-book ally Batman (1989). Even Ethan Hunt and Simon Templar did their bit while Bond was washing his hair and a progressive rock band made their mark by breaking down The Wall (1982). However, as if emulating the 1970s depression, the UK Government introduced unfavourable tax laws for inward investment in the UK film industry. This mean that Pinewood was struck hard but Bond, Batman and their contemporaries kept the studio afloat.

The 21st Century saw a new chapter for the studios, expanding it beyond the confines of the M25. Rank finally sold Pinewood in 2001 and then a consortium headed up by Ridley Scott and his brother, the late Tony Scott, saw the creation of the Pinewood Studios Group. It took under its considerable wingspan the Shepperton and Teddington Studios as well as ones in Toronto, Berlin and Malaysia. The highly-respected Pinewood brand was now officially worldwide.

Hits such as Love, Actually (2003), Casino Royale (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Mamma Mia! (2008) and X-Men: First Class (2011) kept the organisation buoyant while events such as the fire at the 007 Stage kept it in the papers. In 2009, Pinewood (with Shepperton) was awarded a BAFTA for its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. The Richard Attenborough Stage opened in 2012 not far from a unit named after Stanley Kubrick. The final part of The Hobbit trilogy is being filmed there, Guardians of the Galaxy was completed not long ago and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker will return to a galaxy far, far away next year (2015) for the newest chapter in the Star Wars saga.

Pinewood became and continues to be a major force in movie production. It is a testament to the highly talented and wonderfully creative British teams that work in Buckinghamshire and their colleagues across the world. And I for one will still continue to smile and dream of far away, magical worlds that they create and bring to life whenever I’m next stuck on the M25.