Film: The death-trap London studio that time forgot

Gainsborough Studios, where Hitchcock shot his early films, was full of horror, mystery and suspense - for the staff.

BACK IN 1930, when Gainsborough Studios in Poole Street, in London's Islington, burned to the ground in what many suspected was an arson attack, a hapless sound engineer had an unfortunate accident. Even now, 70 years later, nobody who worked at the studio has forgotten George Gunn's missing thumb. With the flames licking at his ears, Gunn jumped for his life down a lift shaft. He escaped, but the thumb didn't. It was left behind, a grim little memento of the blaze.

The veteran cinematographer Bryan Langley (who shot several of Hitchcock's British films) tells the story of Gunn's lost thumb as if it is a cautionary tale to warn youngsters of the perils of working in the big, bad film business. Not long after Gunn's mishap, when Langley got a job at Gainsborough shooting The Stronger Sex (1931), he used to go and stare at the stub. "The lift shaft was still there, with trellis gates on it," he remembers. "Right at the top was a little white thing which we were told was George's thumb. We didn't know whether it was or not." When they weren't gawping at Gunn's thumb, Langley and his friends often wandered down to the nearby canal to see the debris blown there in the aftermath of the fire and to stare at the drowned cats floating in the water.

The picture he paints of the studio - dead animals, severed fingers, the whiff of arson - is not one likely to appeal to safety inspectors, but - as Langley recalls - film-making at Gainsborough was always as dangerous as it was glamorous. During the early talkie era, film-makers used unwieldy, highly dangerous carbon arc lights, "which always had red- hot ends coming off", says Langley. The celluloid itself was highly inflammable. To sound-proof the Islington studio, the technicians shrouded the entire building in thick blankets. "And these things caught fire." (The sound proofing wasn't 100 per cent fool-proof either. The film historians Ray Seaton and Roy Martin report that "at one time an Italian stone mason working hard next door had to be asked to switch off his drill while scenes were being shot".)

Fire, Langley adds (as if to emphasise that Gainsborough wasn't the only film studio run along death-trap principles), was an occupational hazard wherever you worked in the industry. "There were always fires going off - in film vaults and in studios. It was quite a common thing back then. Twickenham burned down. Elstree burned down too." Most studios had their own in-house fire brigades, but that wasn't something that the Gainsborough bosses were going to waste money on.

During the Second World War, production had to be abandoned at Islington because - as one of Gainsborough's biggest (if most reluctant) stars, James Mason, later noted in an acidulous article decrying "the drooling nostalgia" about the studio - "in the event of an air-raid, the huge power chimney was likely to collapse and crush everybody."

The film-making facilities at Gainsborough weren't impressive. There were only two sound stages, both little bigger than the average village hall. In the summer, it was often unbearably hot and in the winter, it was freezing.

"Compared to Pinewood or Denham, it was like chalk to cheese," says Langley. Hugh Stewart, who edited Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much at Gainsborough's Shepherd's Bush studio, concurs: "I was in the cutting room. It had no air so I smelt," he says of his first stint in Poole Street."

The more you discover about the physical circumstances under which films were made at Gainsborough, the more the studio sounds like an old-fashioned sweat shop. Movies were shot at breakneck pace. "Eighteen days, that sort of thing - it was very hard work," remembers Langley, who used to work on at least 10 films a year. He paints an almost surreal picture of how The Stronger Sex, an early talkie, was shot. "We worked in a booth, like a tardis. We were stuck inside that booth... when sound began, everything was rigid and locked in."

Last week, when the British Film Institute launched its celebrations of the centenary of Hitchcock's birth with a reception at Gainsborough, dead cats and missing fingers weren't on the agenda. The BFI's chairman, Alan Parker, a self-proclaimed "hooligan from Islington", opened the event by cutting a piece of film with a large pair of scissors. Afterwards, the various elderly actors and directors (Langley and Stewart among them) bussed in for the event fraternised with journalists, industry executives and BFI bigwigs. There was talk that movie-making might soon return to this neglected little corner of nether Islington ("a frontier post in the slums" as it was once described). Developers are giving Gainsborough a make-over, planning a new restaurant, new flats, new work units and - most importantly - new film-making facilities.

Nostalgia hung heavy in the air as the old-timers reminisced over the tea and buck's fizz. It was here that Hitchcock shot The Lodger and The Lady Vanishes; here that Ivor Novello (Britain's very own answer to Valentino) danced that ferocious tango in The Rat; here that the Crazy Gang headed to the Klondike 100 years late in the lunatic gold rush comedy Gasbags; here that Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc (whose colourful love-life earned her the affectionate nickname "Bed Roc") experienced life in a concentration camp in 2,000 Women. Gainsborough movies rarely pleased the critics, but, whether they were the Thirties comedies or the baroque Forties melodramas, they invariably did well at the box office. The studio's trademark motif - the oval portrait of the busty "Gainsborough Girl" looking like Nell Gwyn - was, in its day, as famous as Rank's muscleman walloping the gong.

It remains to be seen what sort of films, if any, will be shot at Gainsborough in the future. "You couldn't really make a Bond film here," Langley remarks dryly. The studio (which is already hosting a Hitchcock exhibition) is sure to take its place on the heritage trail. Since Rank sold it in 1949, it has done service as a carpet warehouse and as a whisky depot. At least now it has achieved a little belated dignity. And what's more, Gunn's thumb is nowhere to be seen

`The Ultimate Hitchcock Exhibition', Gainsborough Studios, Poole Street, N1 1pm-5pm until December. Free

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders