Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The story of Worton Hall Film Studios, Isleworth by Ed Harris

Film - Microsoft Word - Document4 Worton Hall c.1914 (Samuelson Archive)

The story of Worton Hall Film Studios, Isleworth, is one of the British film industry from 1914 to 1952. It began with G B Samuelson, one of the most forward thinking cinematographic entrepreneurs of his day whose prime motivators and investments in the finest cast and crew realised A Study in Scarlet, Britain’s first Sherlock Holmes feature film. Having enjoyed huge success across a range of films in scope and ambition largely unmatched in British cinema, Samuelson became a victim of his own success, losing the plot and eventually his studio.

Film - Microsoft Word - Document4 The Man Who Could Work Miracles (David Blake Archive)

The quota quickie, the coming of sound and the increased numbers of films arriving from Hollywood throughout the 1920s shook the British film industry, but a newly revamped Worton Hall emerged as the ‘Last Word in Talkies Studios’. The following decade saw the arrival at Isleworth of Alexander Korda, Britain’s only ever movie mogul. Having already obtained financial backing and American distribution, Korda now had his studio with which to mark a golden age of British film production. Building the largest film stage in the country to make the sci-fi epic, Things to Come, other classics followed such as Saunders of the River, The Man Who Could Work Miracles and The Ghost Goes West.

Film - Microsoft Word - Document4 Robert Donat and Peggy Martin in The Ghost Goes West (David Blake Archive)

Korda eventually shipped out to a vast new custom-built complex at Denham, leaving behind the finest special effects centre in the country. Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, meanwhile, leased Worton Hall to realise his failed Hollywood ambitions. With less than 20 film companies active out of the 640 registered in England since 1925, the Fairbanks flirtation proved as brief as it was abortive. Korda’s dream of a Hollywood in England also proved equally disastrous. With his financiers bitterly regretting the backing of his Denham dream, after the Second World War Korda returned to Isleworth to set about the creation of the British Lion Film Corporation.

Film - Microsoft Word - Document4 Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen with Worton Hall in the background (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

A brief resurgence at Worton Hall attracted the likes of Michael Powell. Robert Donat made his directorial debut there. Landmark British films such as The Small Back Room and The Third Man were followed by the studio’s Oscar-winning swan-song, The African Queen. In the intervening years Worton Hall was one of the most technically advanced studios in the country and home to some of the best and the worst examples of British cinema; where silent legend Buster Keaton struggled with his alcoholism, Richard Burton made his first screen appearance and Emeric Pressburger made his first and only film as a director.

The 1950s was a watershed period for British film with the advent of television. Douglas Fairbanks Jnr returned to Worton Hall to set up production just as British Lion’s losses coincided with its massive loan repayment. Reduced production costs led to less ambitious films, and with no repayment without curtailment of production, Worton Hall was sacrificed physically and metaphorically to its larger and better equipped sibling, Shepperton. Over the past half century, Worton Hall’s contribution to British film history has been reduced to little more than a footnote. This is its fascinating story, told for the very first time.

Film - 9781445648224

Ed Harris book Britain's Forgotten Film Factory is available for purchase now.