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Pinewood Studios


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In late 2000, there were rumblings in the film trade press that Pinewood was to be merged with Shepperton. The idea was to save on running costs and to create a single studio business which could cater to every kind of filmmaker's demands, however big or small. With the Barrandov Studios in Prague, UFA Studios in Germany and the Fox Studios in Australia all competing to attract international filmmakers, Pinewood faced stiffer competition than at almost any time in its history.

There are two main reasons why film producers choose one studio over another - cost and efficiency. Pinewood, built in 1936, hasn't always been the cheapest place to shoot movies. What it has consistently offered is a level of technical expertise which nowhere else could match. From Powell and Pressburger to James Bond, from The Red Shoes (1948) to The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), many of the biggest, most flamboyant films in British cinema history have been shot at these studios.

Pinewood was built on the site of Heatherden Hall, a sumptuous Buckinghamshire country house which had once belonged to Canadian financier, Grant Morden. Methodist magnate J. Arthur Rank pooled together with Sheffield Building tycoon, Sir Charles Boot, and jute heiress Lady Yule to pay for the studio, which was constructed in under nine months. It opened in September 1936. To begin with, business was patchy. Herbert Wilcox's company British and Dominion and British National were committed to using the studio, but there were five sound stages to fill and the late '30s were not an especially robust moment in British film production history. In 1937, Rank bought Lady Yule's share in the studio and became Chairman of Pinewood. A year later, Pinewood was 'twinned' with Denham Studios, also now under Rank's control. A special new company, Denham and Pinewood Studios Ltd was set up. Most of the filmmakers working for Rank preferred making their movies at Denham. Pinewood was closed for most of WW2 (it was used by the Government for storage). It was officially re-opened in 1946, and for a brief period, paid host to the films made by Rank's elite cadre of filmmakers, Independent Producers Ltd (IPL), David Lean and Powell and Pressburger prominent among them.

In the 1950s, Pinewood became synonymous with the kind of cosy, unchallenging comedies that the Rank Organisation had begun to make. Both Doctor In The House (d. Ralph Thomas, 1954) and the Norman Wisdom vehicle, Trouble In Store (d. John Paddy Carstairs, 1953), were shot at the studio as were the later 'Doctor' films and most of Wisdom's other movies. So was the likable, but very gentrified comedy, Genevieve (d. Henry Cornelius, 1953). Outside filmmakers still used the studio, but to the British public, this was the home of the Rank starlets and of all those leading men - John Gregson, Kenneth More, Jack Hawkins, Dirk Bogarde - who dressed in tweed and flannels and smoked pipes.

Despite its stolid image, Pinewood attracted some highly inventive craftsmen. Many trained with David Rawnsley, who pioneered his back projection system, Independent Frame, at the studio in the late 1940s. Although Independent Frame was not successful in itself, its introduction helped earn Pinewood a reputation for technical excellence. The work done at Pinewood in later years on such international productions as Batman (1989), Superman (1978) and, of course, the Bond movies, suggested that British crews were indeed the best in the world.

By the '90s, the Rank Organisation had largely lost its interest in the film business. The question was not whether it would sell Pinewood but when. Eventually, in March 2000, it offloaded the studio to a consortium led by former Channel 4 boss, Michael Grade. Meanwhile, business at Pinewood went on as normal. Work had been completed in 1999 on two new 20,000 square-foot stages, to go alongside the 18 stages already in use (including the 45,000 square-foot 007 Stage). Like its mooted new partner, Shepperton, the studio was mixing and matching between big-budget Hollywood films, TV dramas and commercials. ("We do everything from the Teletubbies to James Bond," boasted studio manager, Robin Busby.) Having survived countless crises over its 65-year- history, Pinewood was still the best-known film studio in the UK, a state of affairs unlikely to change in the forseeable future.

Perry, George, Movies from the Mansion, (1976);
Gareth Owen and Brian Burford, The Pinewood Story (2000);
Warren, Patricia, British Film Studios, (2001).

Geoffrey MacNab, Encyclopedia of British Film

Selected credits

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