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Denham Film Studios - Hollywood UK

Sándor László Kellner was born on 16th September 1893 a long way from Denham in Pusztatúrpásztó in the Hungarian territory of the Austrian empire. He was the eldest of three sons of Henrik and Ernestina. When his father died in 1906, it fell to the young Sándor to feed his family. He chose a fledgling industry - writing film reviews.

 

He needed a pen name. Though Jewish, he found it in the Christian liturgy, in the Latin phrase “sursum corda” - lift up your hearts. It was  well chosen. Sándor László Kellner became Alexander Korda. He was to have a great impact on the life of Denham.

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Korda rapidly made a name for himself as a film director in the Hungarian industry, but after a brief spell as a political prisoner in the chaos of the collapse of the Austrian empire in 1919, he left Hungary for ever. He worked for a while in Vienna and Berlin then in 1926 set off for Hollywood.

 

Alexander found lucrative work as a film director but he was uneasy in Hollywood and Hollywood was uneasy with him. From 1930 to 1932 he worked in France before relocating to London. Here, discontented with the Hollywood studio system, he set up his own film production company, London Films.

As long ago as 1086, King William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book records the existence of three fisheries in Denham. Not fish farms in the modern sense, these were nonetheless stretches of a river wetland with an abundance of fish, valuable commercial properties. Owners of land crossed by these wetlands were able to make considerable profit from leasing out the fishing rights and their tenants would do no less well from harvesting the fish. There are accessible records documenting these transactions going back at least to the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

 

In Denham the estate including the fisheries had a home at its centre on the banks of the River Colne. It was named simply “The Fishery”.

 

In 1800 The Fishery mansion house was acquired by John Drummond. His family relied for its wealth on its once famous private banking business rather than from the fisheries, the value of which is thought to have been diminished by the nearby construction of the Grand Junction canal.

John Drummond enlarged the house. His family remained there until the 1860s when the estate was sold to a Crimean War hero, Colonel Gerald Littlehales Goodlake VC.  It was subsequently acquired by the Scottish businessman and Liberal Party MP Sir Archibald Williamson, later Lord Forres.

 

Lord Forres died in October 1931. The Fishery estate was on the market, and there was an enterprising Hungarian born film maker looking for somewhere to build a studio - the right time and the right place.

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Korda paid £15,000 to buy the 165 acre site, equivalent to just short of a million pounds in today’s money.  Construction of the studio, financed by the Prudential Assurance Company, began in 1935. It opened in May 1936. It was the U.K.’s largest film production facility. It was to be Hollywood U.K. Korda promised “prestige, pomp, magic and madness”.

 

Alexander Korda himself moved into Hills House in the village.

 

Sadly it wasn’t long before Alexander Korda’s dream became something of a nightmare. In 1933, he had made “The Private Lives of Henry VIII”. His American connections and his association with United Artists had helped to make it an international success, giving the impression that a U.K. film industry could genuinely rival Hollywood. Investors like Prudential Assurance were excited about financing so large a studio with 2,000 employees.

Meanwhile the flour mill industrialist and ardent Methodist, J. Arthur Rank had been challenged to “put up or shut up” over his concerns about the negative impact which he felt American films were having on British life and morality. He teamed up with builder Charles Boot who had acquired Heatherden Hall and its wooded estate just three miles away in Iver and set about establishing Pinewood studios.

 

In 1939 Pinewood and Denham Studios merged and became D and P Studios.   Denham was no longer the sole preserve of Alexander Korda. His dream of a new Hollywood was at an end.

 

However when war broke out Pinewood was requisitioned by the Government for the storage of supplies and to accommodate vital business and industrial concerns moved out of London. Film production continued at Denham - though the studio’s proximity to Denham airfield continued to cause problems. The actress Mary Morris remembered that shooting a scene for a 1941 film at Denham was interrupted 22 times by aircraft noise.

 

When Pinewood reopened for production at the end of the war, film making in Denham declined. It ended in 1952. From 1955 to 1961 the studio’s facilities were rented out to the US Air Force. During the 1960s and 1970s the offices and stages shifted across from the Rank film enterprise to be used by the Rank Xerox copying and print business.

 

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However the connection to the movies didn’t end. In 1946 the Stage One Music Theatre was opened at the studios. This remained in operation after full scale film production ended in 1952. It was deployed in building a reputation as one of the leading centres for the recording of film music. Its importance waned during the early 1960s but was revived in 1966 when the Anvil Film Unit relocated from Beaconsfield to Denham and shortly afterwards took on major film music recording contracts. The recording business thrived giving Anvil the right to describe its facility as “the most technologically advanced recording studio in Europe”.  Award winning scores for blockbuster films including Star Wars, Jesus of Nazareth, Alien and The Empire Strikes Back were recorded in Denham.

In 1980 the site was purchased by developers and many of the buildings including the music stage were demolished. But the industry clung on in the form of the Deluxe (formerly Rank) Film Laboratories, a favourite lab, it is said, of Director Stanley Kubrick.

 

Finally on 21 March 2014, after 68 years, every form of movie production at Denham studios ceased.

 

Now of course the site is a housing complex, but with a respectful  nod to history, the developers, Weston Homes, have named the complex Denham Studios, a neat wordplay when linked with “apartments” rather than movies, and have paid several tributes to the luminaries of the industry who have used and worked at the film studios.

 

Of the buildings of Alex Korda’s dream factory only the office complex on the North Orbital remains, but of course the legacy of Denham Film Studios is not only in its buildings.

 

In September 1939 a Register was compiled designed to capture the details of every member of the civilian population on a specific date. It contains details of around 40 million people, recorded in more than 65,000 volumes. It is fascinating to see in the Register how many film related personnel lived or lodged in the village - despatch clerks, chauffeurs, camera operators, cutters, continuity artists, Lyn Anderson “artiste” at Yew Tree Cottage, Eric Coop cameraman at Ashbys, Charles Crichton at Mull Cottage then a Film Editor and later the director of films such as The Titfield Thunderbolt and A Fish Called Wanda.

 

And of course Korda himself at Hills House.

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Right up to the present day, Denham has been and still is home to film and TV folk on both sides of the camera. Hugh Stewart was the producer of the Norman Wisdom and Morecambe and Wise film classics of the 1950s and 1960s and more famously the man who insisted to Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower that the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 must be filmed. Still

fondly  remembered in Denham, Hugh died aged 100 in 2011. Directors Stanley Long and Peter Bezencenet were Denham residents, the former at Fayrestede, and Bezencenet with his stage and film producer wife, Ethel Linder Reiner at Hills House predecessors to the Mills family.  Others still here, their privacy preserved, are very much part of our community

And the village is still very much visible in the movies. Films made in Denham such as In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter are still regularly shown. Misbourne Cottage still appears on screen as the home of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. There’s a shot of the village to be seen in Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet - and just how many Midsomer Murders have been committed here ?  Denham’s story as a film village continues.

 The British Film Institute has a short film made in 1939 - A Day at Denham. It begins with brief footage of the village and shows the studios at work during the making of The Four Feathers. It's available to view online in a new window. Click here for the link.

Research for this article made reference to a variety of website and other sources including:

 

 

Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report - Bucks County Council 2010

 

British History Online - www.british-History.ac.uk

 

Burning the Days by James Salter published by Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2007 and in paperback by Penguin Random House. Copyright James Salter 1997

 

Denham Conservation Area Character Appraisal - South Bucks District Council 2008

 

The Screen of Change by Peter Hopkinson published by UKA Press Copyright Peter Hopkinson 2008

 

National Library of Scotland Maps

 

The Screen of Change by Peter Hopkinson published by UKA Press Copyright Peter Hopkinson 2008

 

Wikipaedia

 

www.screenonline.org.uk

 

www.nostalgicpicturelibrary.com

 

www.opendomesday.org

 

www.printsandephemera.com

 

www.weston-homes.com

 

www.malonedigital.com