Hooray for Pinewood: Celebrating seventy years of movie making

Bond and Batman, Burton and Kubrick, Cruise and Pitt, the Carry On and Doctor comedies... Geoffrey MacNab celebrates the anniversary of a great cinematic institution.
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Pinewood Studios could not have wished for a better, or more fitting, birthday present than the news, confirmed this week, that the next Bond movie will be shot on its celebrated 007 stage rather than in Eastern Europe.

It's 70 years since the unlikely triumvirate of the Sheffield building tycoon Sir Charles Boot, the eccentric jute heiress Lady Yule and the Methodist flour magnate J Arthur Rank joined forces to redevelop Heatherden Hall. Their idea was to turn this Buckinghamshire country house into Britain's most modern film studios.

Pinewood – the new name had both a Home Counties ring and a Hollywood twang – had much to recommend it. It was within easy reach of London. (When actor and fanatical runner Bruce Dern was starring in The Great Gatsby in 1973, he was able to jog home every evening to his hotel, Claridge's. "It was only 12 miles. I measured it," he claimed.) Everything about the new premises conveyed luxury and class. Not only did Pinewood boast the largest private swimming pool in Europe; it had a Turkish bath, squash courts, spectacular gardens and acres of land. Boot even commandeered the old library from the liner Mauritania to lend a little distinction to Pinewood's boardroom.

This wasn't to be one of those tiny London-based studios where space was so tight that a cameraman could hardly swing the proverbial cat. The idea was to apply modern business ideas to the often shambolic practice of British film-making. Boot had been on a fact-finding tour to Hollywood to discover just what a state-of-the-art movie studio ought to look like. Divine intervention was also sought; Rank recruited Dr Gregory, a leading figure in the Methodist Church, to bless the new premises. Construction had begun in earnest in January 1936, and by the autumn of that year, the first films had started shooting.

This month, 2,000 well-wishers and Pinewood veterans gathered at Pinewood to celebrate its 70th birthday with a garden party. Nostalgia ran rampant as the studios' chief executive Ivan Dunleavy was joined by the veteran comedy star Leslie Phillips to cut a cake. Among other film veterans joining the celebrations were the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the director John Glen, the producer Peter Rogers, actors Saeed Jaffrey and Christopher Cazenove, the Supermarionation supremo Gerry Anderson, the Oscar-winning animator Nick Park, Dame Judi Dench and the director Tim Burton.

Amid the celebrations, it is easy to forget that these are not especially easy times for Britain's grandest film studios. The strength of the pound against the US dollar is making Hollywood flinch about bringing its big movies there. The Studios are also having to get used to a new UK tax-credit system that demands that their films pass a "cultural test" if they are to qualify for British tax breaks. Last month, Pinewood warned its investors that its revenues this year will be flat.

Given this background, the clinching of the deal on Marc Forster's " Bond 22" is a major fillip. "Most of our films have been based and filmed at Pinewood," says a spokesperson for the Bond production company Eon. "Pinewood has been the base for the 007 films for 40 or so years. Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli [the Bond producers] love working there."

The wobbles at Pinewood should surprise no one. Booms have followed busts – and vice versa – from the outset. As the aristocratic former banker Richard Norton, installed as the first managing director of Pinewood in 1936, pointed out in his autobiography, Silver Spoon, it is impossible to predict what business a film studio will attract. "When you run a studio, two things happen: there are periods when you have to turn away customers and there are periods when you have empty studio space. It's much more variable than a hotel. There aren't even seasons when people make or don't make films. "

You could say that one reason Pinewood is so colourful is that it has enjoyed so many triumphs and endured so many reversals. The mysterious incident in July 2006 when the famous 007 stage burned down typifies Pinewood's history. On the one hand, it was a disaster. Shooting had only just finished on Casino Royale. There was a real threat that the next Bond would go elsewhere. But the stage was triumphantly rebuilt and is bigger and better than ever.

Salvation has often come to Pinewood in unlikely guises. In the early 1950s, when the Rank Organisation was in a parlous financial state, the pint-sized comedian Norman Wisdom sprang to the rescue. Broadsheet critics detested him, railing against his "odious sentimentality" and calling him "an ignorant and offensive nuisance," but the British public loved him. His debut feature Trouble in Store (1954), which Wisdom made at Pinewood during the day before rushing back into the West End every evening to appear on stage, helped to revive Rank's fortunes.

An extraordinary array of films has been made at Pinewood: everything from lowbrow farces with Roy Chubby Brown (1992's UFO) to extravagant masterpieces such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's ballet film The Red Shoes (1947). The studio has been home to superheroes and fantasy figures (Superman, Batman, Lara Croft, etc) while hosting Carry On films and (very occasionally) "kitchen sink" and "social problem" dramas. One of its main selling points is its magician-like technicians; using matte shots, models and back projection, they can conjure up every location imaginable. If you wanted the Himalayas in the Home Counties, they could do it (witness Black Narcissus, set in the exotic East but shot at the studios).

After the Second World War, Pinewood tested the groundbreaking ideas of one of British cinema's greatest "boffins", V C David Rawnsley, pioneer of a process called "Independent Frame", through which it was intended to make every film on set. Pinewood's special effects supremo Charles Staffell recalled: "Rawnsley used to walk around the studios as a designer and he would see things that he would photograph, mentally photograph: he'd add them all together. He didn't get it from college or anything like that. It was purely his own imagination working with the whole complex of film-making."

Independent Frame wasn't a success, but it paved the way for the astonishing design and visual effects later contrived at Pinewood in the Bond era and beyond. Inspired by Rawnsley, Staffell later won an Oscar in 1969 for " the development of a successful embodiment of the reflex background projection system for composite cinematography", and helped Stanley Kubrick to re-create wartime Vietnam in 1980s England in Full Metal Jacket.

Alongside the artists who worked at Pinewood (Kubrick, Powell, Burton and many others), there have been plenty of journeymen. In the 1950s, the studio became associated with cosy comedies and stiff-upper-lip war films. It was the era of Kenneth More and Donald Sinden, of Dirk Bogarde and Dinah Sheridan. Pinewood's head of production was Earl St John, a flamboyant American ("a wonderful old drunk," in the words of producer Betty Box) who had been told by Rank's hatchet-man accountant boss John Davis to keep budgets down.

The real money-spinners were the Wisdom vehicles and projects like Doctor in the House. These films, though, had limited international appeal. The more ambitious directors (David Lean, Powell, the Launder and Gilliat team) who had flourished a decade before found themselves stymied, and British film-making fell into one of its biggest ruts. "You had two choices. Either you made comedies or you went to the Americans," said Lean's producer Anthony Havelock-Allan. "You couldn't think of big subjects because there was no money. When you think of small subjects, they're mostly local. And nobody wants a film that is local. This meant a tremendous limitation on story ideas."

The Rank "Charm School" was in its pomp, grooming young actors and actresses for the screen. The likes of Diana Dors and Christopher Lee were taught posture by being made to wander round with books on their heads. The Rank publicity department was inundated with requests for stars like Bogarde and Jack Hawkins to attend fetes and open supermarkets, but Charm School starlets would be sent instead. Astonishingly, a public starved of glamour never seemed to complain.

It is easy to understand why a younger generation of film-makers grew so exasperated by the work coming out of Pinewood in the 1950s. Film-makers like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson – the moving forces behind Free Cinema – didn't want to make Doctor in the House comedies or war films celebrating the derring-do of an older generation. Pinewood's contribution to their careers was to antagonise them so much that they rejected British commercial cinema. "Implicit in our attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday," they declared in a manifesto.

Since Pinewood was built, there have been several such moments when it has begun to look old-fashioned. But it has always managed to reinvent itself. It has also had reasonable luck. In the 1930s, many British producers preferred working at nearby Denham Studios, built at around the same time as Pinewood by the Hungarian movie mogul Alexander Korda. When Korda ran out of money, Rank struck a deal to take the studios off his hands. They were merged with Pinewood as a single business, Denham and Pinewood Studios Ltd, but with the downturn in production in the 1950s, the Denham Studios were demolished.

Pinewood has retained its status as Britain's main film studios in the face of rivalry from several pretenders. Among these have been Leavesden (the site of the old Rolls-Royce factory, which has hosted such movies as Star Wars and Harry Potter, and once even managed to poach a Bond movie, Goldeneye in 1995), Elstree, Ealing and Three Mills.

In February 2000, Pinewood Studios was bought from the Rank Organisation by a management team jointly led by Michael Grade and Ivan Dunleavy and backed by the investment group 3i. Pinewood Studios then bought another of its rivals, Shepperton Studios, in February 2001. Pinewood Shepperton was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2004.

Since then, the Studios' history has been a familiar one of production booms followed by profit warnings, of frantic work followed by slack periods. Recently, the company has begun to diversify, as if wary of being committed solely to feature films. The Teddington TV studios are now part of the group, while Pinewood has its own TV studios. Nowadays, Pinewood Shepperton doesn't just host Bond movies and big-budget spectaculars; much of the company's revenue comes from shows like The Weakest Link, Test the Nation, My Family, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, The Green Green Grass and Not Going Out.

Meanwhile, Pinewood is a mini-village in which an array of more than 280 businesses are based. Among these is AMC Pictures, the outfit run by the producer Alastair Maclean-Clark. A former clapper loader who first came to Pinewood as a teenage to work on The Curse of the Pink Panther, Superman and Octopussy, Maclean-Clark waxes enthusiastic about the attractions of being based at the studio. "It has a reputation around the world, it is convenient and flexible. It is Britain's foremost studio," he says.

When he is struggling to finance one of his own movies, Maclean-Clark can always walk out into the sound stages and watch the shooting of the latest US blockbuster. "I always say that if you're having a bad day trying to get a movie financed, it can lift your spirits to go around and see another movie being made. It's a tough business getting movies produced and financed, but that is a good way to remind yourself what you're doing it for. "

Nonetheless, Maclean-Clark has a cautionary tale that may alarm the Pinewood bosses. He is currently producing Brontë, a $12m drama about the Brontë sisters starring Michelle Williams, Bryce Dallas Howard and Evan Rachel Wood. The movie, to be directed by Charles Sturridge, will shoot on location in Yorkshire. Ideally, Maclean-Clark would like to do the studio work at Pinewood but, he says, if they go to Hungary instead it will cost one-third of the price. Local producers are finding Pinewood more and more expensive.

Mid-sized productions such as Brontë may be feeling the pinch, but there is plenty of evidence that Hollywood's affection for Pinewood is as strong as ever. Coming soon to screens near you are many Pinewood-made blockbusters, ranging from Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd to The Bourne Ultimatum to Matthew Vaughn's Stardust, and Death Defying Acts, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. As long as Pinewood can continue to attract films of this stature, it has every chance of lasting another 70 years or longer.

'Pinewood Studios: 70 Years of Fabulous Film-making' by Morris Bright is published by Carroll and Brown (£40)

Dame Judi Dench

I did not film at Pinewood until relatively late in its history. I came to film Jack and Sarah with Richard E Grant, Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen in 1994 – a time of change for the studio. The previous year, Pinewood had had no films on its stages at all. It was a bad time for the industry in general. Yet, just months later, things had begun to turn.

While I was on one stage, Richard Gere and Sean Connery were on the back lot making First Knight, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were on another stage shooting Interview With the Vampire and Julia Roberts was filming Mary Reilly.

Pinewood has been home to some of the most renowned film series in British cinema history: all those Carry On films, the Doctor films, the antics of Norman Wisdom. Then there's Bond. For most of the past five decades, Bond and Pinewood have been closely linked. True, not all the films made at Pinewood were Bonds and not all the Bond films were made at Pinewood, but there does seem to be a tangible chemistry between these two giants. Both are such respected names in film that they suit each other.

Pinewood has a great history – one need only walk down the corridors and view the posters of the films that have been made here. There is the old mansion house and the beautiful gardens. The studio is well cared for and looked after.

Productions great and small are treated with equal respect. My own filming experiences – from Casino Royale to Jack and Sarah, from The Chronicles of Riddick to Iris, big budgets, small budgets – Pinewood has always made me feel at home.

Pinewood is 70, and it's an important milestone in British film history. Long may the studios continue as a place of film and television excellence.

Tim Burton

It's amazing to think that Pinewood is 70 years old. I fell in love with these studios the moment I stepped through the gates in the late 1980s to make Batman. You cannot help but feel the great history of where you are working and all that has come before.

Pinewood sticks out as studios of excellence on many levels. One of the best, from my point of view, is that it allows you to feel like you're shooting a movie without being surrounded by studio executives. In Hollywood, it can feel like it's just a business. Here, it feels like the art of film-making comes first.

Pinewood has had so many classics produced in it. The gardens are full of great reminiscences; you turn in a circle and recall great film moments made within a few feet of where you are standing, from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the whole opening sequence of From Russia With Love.

We built the chocolate river for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the Bond stage. It was a shame the stage burnt down in 2006, but Pinewood is so quick and no one seemed to let it get them down – that building just had to get put straight back up again. It's been pretty amazing to watch the rebuilding as we were preparing to shoot Sweeney Todd.

Pinewood is a good place if you are a film fan. I'd never been to Pinewood before I made Batman. The project had become the subject of a lot of talk in America, and we felt the need to get away from the hype and get down to making the film in a studio that has always had such a tradition of having the best craftsmen – set painters, carpenters, sculptors, all the arts that really get my blood flowing.

Gotham City was, at the time, the biggest set built on the back lot since Cleopatra at the end of the 1950s. Watching Gotham City go up was the most exciting time of my life.

Pinewood keeps up with the times yet doesn't forget its roots and where its reputation lies – that is, the tradition of set building as opposed to everything being done digitally. Some things are worth protecting, and set building is one of them.

That's one of the reasons I came to film Sweeney Todd here. It's an old-fashioned type of horror movie, and they always have that contained feel about them – so we decided to build all the sets and do all the filming within the studio.

Pinewood's age does not make it aged, it makes it wise. It will stay in favour by doing what it has always done; staying attractive for people who want to shoot here.

For me, like the thousands of people who have worked here over all those years, the place is my favourite studio. I love it here. Any time I can shoot here, I will shoot here. That's the way I feel about Pinewood.

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