I was blissfully unaware as I sat in my local ABC cinema in the 1970’s, watching Disney’s live action version of ‘Robin Hood’, that the studios in which this wonderful film was made were being demolished.
After the Second World War some of the money made by American film companies had been frozen by the British Government, this encouraged the big production companies from America to return to English studios like Denham. Disney’s ‘Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men,’ had given the studios a life-line, but sadly, this was the last main feature to be produced at that massive complex.
Denham is located just north of Uxbridge at junction 1 of the M40. It was Hungarian impresario, Alexander Korda (1893-1956) capitalising on his record breaking box office success with ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) and 'The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1934) who managed to get the funding to build the studios. This movie had earned the first ever Oscar for a British film star, Charles Laughton and a sixteen picture deal for Korda. Who managed to secure funding from the Prudential Assurance Company to underwrite future productions and finance his dream of building his own British film studios.
So Korda purchased a country house and estate at Denham in Buckinghamshire for £15.000 and decided to build a 165 acre complex. The massive Studios were created by Jake Okey, who had previously created the Fist National and Paramount Studios.
Building work started in late summer of 1935. The River Colne was diverted, to make an elegant pond, which later housed a gift of white swans, given to Korda by Winston Churchill. The stables of the original house were converted to cutting rooms and the site had built, its own electricity generating station and a complete Technicolor laboratory. Its 2,000 employees were instructed by Korda to produce movies of 'prestige, pomp, magic and madness’. To do this they had at their disposal, seven sound stages with a floor area of 120,000 square feet, a massive water tank, many large workshops for scenery construction, restaurants and even a train service from London.
But it wasn’t long before Korda noticed a design fault.
The problem was, that the site was too big. The stages were too far away from the workshops.
But completion of Britain's largest film-making facility was in May 1936 and some noted films started to roll off the production line:
The Ghost Goes West
Things To Come
The Man Who Could Work Miracles
Knight Without Armour
A Yank at Oxford
Korda established his own catalogue of contracted actors including Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon (whom he married in 1939) Wendy Barrie, Robert Donat, Maurice Evans and Vivian Leigh. But his worst fears became reality as the design layout came under serious criticism and film projects started to dry up. Combined with this, came the infamous film companies crash of 1937. So Prudential stepped in and offered Denham Studios as a going concern to Charles Boot and J. Arthur Rank. Korda’s control of his ‘dream factory’ was effectively taken off his hands as Denham merged with Pinewood. Rank later used Denham chiefly for his Two Cities productions. Some of Britain's most memorable films continued to be made there:
Goodbye Mr Chips
Thief of Baghdad
In Which We Serve
Green for Danger
The Happy Breed
The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp
But Denham’s production costs remained far higher than Pinewood.
Pinewood studios were far more compact, grouped around a central construction area, unlike the long walkways between departments at Denham. So after World War II the massive sound stages gradually became neglected.
Technology was also advancing as equipment became lighter and more portable, and the huge studios used in the 30’s and 40’s were no longer needed. J. Arthur Rank was also having serious financial problems and he had more floor space than he could possibly use, so was eager to rid himself of this financial burden. So the Denham offices became the home of Rank Xerox and the only film making tenant was Anvil Films, who used the cutting rooms.
Meanwhile, Alexander Korda, received a knighthood from George VI and continued to have movie success with such films as:
The Third Man
Breaking the Sound Barrier
Bonnie Prince Charlie
The National Film Finance Board invested some tax payers cash into the studios but the axe was ready to fall and in 1952 Disney’s ‘Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men’ was the last major feature film to be made there.
Aged 63 Alexander Korda died of a massive heart attack four years later. The site of the studios was eventually sold to a developer in 1970 and the whole area was flattened to build an industrial park. Sadly nothing now remains of Korda’s ‘prestige, pomp and madness’.
© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007