The Sir George Monoux College of Walthamstow, London was founded in 1527. The school was a selective boy’s grammar school until 1968 and included among its notable students - or Old Monovians- are Fred Pontin, Johhny Dankworth and Teddy Sheringham.
The extract below is taken from the school magazine, known as The Monovian, which describes a visit to Denham Studios in 1948; three years before filming began on Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood, the last major film production to be made there.
“Entering the studios, we were assailed by an indescribable din of hammering, rehearsing, and raucous shouts of “Quiet everybody!" Walking down the corridor, we were overtaken by a big fat man, probably a producer, with a lighted cigar behind his ear and with scripts dropping out of his trouser's pocket. He was furiously yelling, "Where ze hell's ze continuity girl?" Half a minute later we bumped into a small bespectacled girl with a worried look in her eyes. When she saw us stopped and asked if we'd seen the producer.
On Stage One, a celebrated film star was bashing his leading lady with a length of lead pipe. On Stage Two we met the producer again. He had found the continuity girl and now was looking for the script.
Something rather in this vein we expected; but Denham Studios aren't at all like that. We walked down a long, cream corridor with little noise and few people. All the way down one side were the offices and dressing-rooms; on the other, the entrances to the stages. For a film studio Denham seemed remarkably sane.
There are six stages, three large and three smaller. We walked on to one of the large stages, where Laurence Huntingdon was directing Hugh Walpole's school story, Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, from the script by L.A.G. Strong. Our first impression was of huge lamps glaring at us from all directions and consuming vast amounts of electricity. When we cast our glance above and around us, however, we saw that we were in a vast, empty, wooden, hangar-like structure, the roof of which, sixty feet above was obscured by the beam and platforms slung in mid-air and used for the construction of sets. On our left, a large taut canvas of roughly daubed grey scenery, the Cornish coast, came to an abrupt end. In the middle of the stage were three sets: one in process of construction, one of the master's dining-room, and one, brightly illuminated so that it seemed like an island of light amidst the half-dusk of the rest of the stage, of the masters' common room.
In this last was concentrated all activity. A gentleman sitting on the camera-trolley was moving his chariot backwards and forwards trying to have the lighting entirely satisfactory. A young man at roughly two minute intervals said quietly into the microphone the single word "Cecil." Six or seven bored gentlemen in masters' gowns sitting on the set were the stand-ins. Twenty yards or so back behind the window of the masters' common room was a huge arc-lamp, the sun. Within the set, against one of the plaster painted walls, five lamps shone down on the stand-ins, while nine lamps on platforms above the walls illuminated the whole scene. Everyone was very bored except the man on the chariot, the man who was saying "Cecil," and us.
We talked with Edward Chapman, one of the supporting players of Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill whom you will remember as George Sandigate in It Always Rains On Sunday. He said, “I'm playing with David Farrar, Marius Goring and Greta Gynt. I'm the only sane man on the staff; I make rude remarks about all the others."
Hardly had we finished with Mr. Chapman when we were whisked away to meet David Farrar, and an utterly bored David Farrar. A big, beefy man with a still camera took three publicity photographs of David Farrar showing two young enthusiasts around the studios. As soon as the photographs were taken, our guide disappeared into his dressing-room and was never seen again.
After lunch we visited the offices of some of the Two Cities publicity men. Each film has attached to it one or two people who do nothing but send publicity to the central Rank Publicity Office. In the offices, for Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill were piles of typewritten duplicated sheets headed in glaring red "Two Cities Films Ltd,” full of information about the film for the daily and weekly press. But the offices for the publicizing of Hamlet were even more interesting. Photographs of the stars and scenes from the film were scattered about on chairs, on tables and on cupboards. We asked the publicity man how many and he said excitedly, "nearly a thousand! It's a record for the British film industry.”
We also saw the props department, where they stock everything from stage-coaches (of which they had two) to telephones (of which they had. thirteen). What props haven't got, however, is supplied by the department next door which, out of plaster and Perspex, makes everything from a clockwork spider to the castle in Hamlet.
Then we visited another stage. On this, John Paddy Carstairs was directing a comedy-thriller, Sleeping-car To Venice, with Jean Kent and Derrick de Marney. Scattered about on the floor of the stage was half a restaurant car, with the director rehearsing his player on, the platform of a French station, on canvas, with Saille d'Attente and Billets, and the door of a ship-building firm's factory. Behind the restaurant car was a revolving vertical drum on which was painted the scenery which you see through the train windows; fuming and dripping away on the floor was a steam-pipe, for locomotive effects. The whole restaurant car was built on "swingers" to simulate the movement of a train.
Denham Studios, we learnt, were built a year or so before the war by Sir Alexander Korda. During the 1939 slump they were sold to Mr. J. Arthur Rank, who uses them chiefly for his Two Cities productions; they have the reputation of being more business-like than Pinewood, the sister studios, where Cineguild and The Archers do their work. But to us the most surprising thing about Denham was the absence of bustle. Nothing could be more untrue than that "description" at the beginning of this article; film-making evidently, is a. comparatively leisurely business and tends become extremely boring. Some other future presentations from Denham will include Hamlet, Vice Versa (from the Victorian comedy by F. Anstey) and a comedy, One Night with You. Now when you see those films, we guarantee you'll be fully convinced by the effects which Denham's technicians have produced. But we've been behind the scenes, and will films ever be the same to us again?”
R. E. Durgnat (Vm)
I am sure many of my readers would have loved to have walked around those studios in the spring of 1951!
The fascinating website is at http://www.oldmonovians.com/text/monovian.htm