Stories from the heydays of Denham Film Studios
February is the month of the Oscars, the awards of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In this month when many eyes are on the film industry, we’re taking a look at the important role Denham has played in the industry in the U.K.
It was the summer of 1936. The producer and director Alexander Korda, after great international success with his film “The Private Life of Henry VIII” [Best Picture Oscar winner 1933] had just opened the Denham Film Studios. The U.K. film industry seemed to be riding high, flushed with investors’ money. According to Charles Drazin in his book Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul, that summer of 1936 Denham became one huge Vanity Fair.
“A visitor to Denham in those months would have found a bustling, confident place. Alex took great pride in showing the various dignitaries around. The vast studio became a sort of star itself, a Xanadu shown off in newsreels and magazine features. The extensive grounds boasted stables, a boathouse and the Fisheries. The seven sound stages with their electrically controlled doors occupied 118,800 square feet of floor space. There were two projection theatres and eighteen cutting-rooms. The power-plant generated enough electricity to supply a town the size of York. Over 2,000 staff worked there, and each week the restaurant – known by the workers as ‘Snobs’ because of the glamorous people you could see eating there – cooked 50,000 sausages. People who worked there recall the place with enormous fondness.” (1)
Is it any wonder then, when several long-time residents of Denham mentioned that years ago, many families took in lodgers to supplement their income as well as share those special times. Ann remembers: “Yes, all the lodgers my mother took in were from the film studios. I remember the names of two - Rosemary Richardson and Janet Davidson who was a Dubbing Editor.”
Ann is also a participant in a film made in 2000 and narrated by Sir John Mills using rare archive footage to give a fascinating glimpse “of a community evolving within a historic setting of timeless beauty.” (2)
Christine also remembers the movie star lodgers from when she was very small. “I recall having to be extremely quiet and staying in the sitting room when my mother made breakfast for our lodgers, quite often film stars, from the studios where my father worked. I can recall peeping around the door at the wonderful 'full English' breakfast table set with its cut-glass marmalade jar. We wished we had their breakfast instead of just plain porridge”
“My father had quite a few signed large photographs of film stars that he met at the studios. Sadly they got discarded many years ago as we thought them valueless.”
Jessie’s husband Wally had a rather more cheeky attitude but certainly more practical. She writes: “We did not have any famous friends visiting or lodging, but in his work as a plumber, Wally worked for many famous people, and never asked for a single autograph, except on the cheque.”
Jessie remembers that Wally did work for Sir John Mills [Best Supporting Actor Oscar Winner for Ryan’s Daughter 1971] Leslie Howard [Best Actor Oscar nominee for Berkeley Square in 1934 and Pygmalion in 1939], Roger Moore [Presenter of the a best Actor Oscar 1973], Gracie Fields, and Jessie Matthews among others.”
Eddie recalls, “My father was head gardener on the stages of Denham Film Studios. He used to come home and tell us all about Oscar-winning stars such as Elizabeth Taylor [two time Oscar Best Actress winner for Butterfield 8 1961 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf 1967 and nominated as Best Actress for Raintree County 1958, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1959 and Suddenly, Last Summer 1960]. We went to kids’ parties there when the Studios had parties for the local community.”
Another Denham resident remembers “Most of the celebrities who actually lived in Denham would take part in village events such as the annual Fayre. Sir John Mills allowed the bottle stall tombola to be outside his house and we used to go inside to count the money afterwards. Others would take a turn on the stall to help drum up support. Generally, celebrities quickly became just a part of the community and were encouraged to relax and be a villager when not at work rather than revered. Equally though the community would support their work and felt proud they were part of the village.”
Denham’s film history has also impacted on career choices. Al writes: “The Country Park was a great place for my first films. I started making them aged 6 in the garden, the first being ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’. Later I filmed in the fields and in the woods often starring some of my cuddly toys. It was all so easy because they were not crowded by other children. I always felt free in the village. I felt free in my head to invent creative films in the environment of fields, woods and old houses. A great family friend of ours was a film cameraman who would regale us with tales of his work, the people and the industry. He owned the crystal ball used in the film “Labyrinth” and each time we visited his house, the first thing I did was to go and look at it. With the history of Denham Film Studios, with various film stars living in or near the village and with our friendship with someone who knew so much about the industry, I guess it was inevitable that I should choose a career in film.”
Though Denham Film Studios are now apartments and houses, Denham’s links to the film industry are still very much part of its past and present. No doubt it will be up to the next generation of locals to continue our village’s association with this historically important and influential industry.
1. Sidgwick & Jackson, and imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd, London, 2002, 411 pp.
2. Denham, A Village on Camera, Denham Millennium Project 2000, London Films and Mr. Jack Gardiner.
* Quotations from Denham residents taken from interviews conducted in September 2019