Film studios with a huge influence on the early years of British television
1899 – 1962
(revised March 2020)
These studios were in Walton-on-Thames, not far from Shepperton. They started life back in 1899, when Cecil Hepworth leased a house called The Rosary in Hurst Grove for £36 a year and built an 18 x 15ft ‘stage’ in the back garden. Hepworth was an inventor of exhibition and photographic equipment who had decided that he wanted to try his hand at film making. He created a production company – Hepwix – together with his cousin Monty Wicks and began by making ‘actualities’, or local newsreels. He then moved on to making films using trick photography in his tiny studio. By 1905 Hepworth had added a new larger stage – indoors at first floor level but still utilising natural light – much of the walls and ceiling were made of frosted glass. Thus Hepworth Studios were created.
He seems to have been a man full of imagination – as well as probably filming the first slow-motion footage, he also devised a system of mounting a camera dolly on a short length of railway-type track – thus probably creating the first tracking shots in cinema.
Unlike other studios, production continued at the studio through the First World War, both by making propaganda films and by renting to visiting companies.
Many films were made by the Hepworth company and several actors became stars as a result. Perhaps the best remembered by some today is Ronald Colman.
However, following the Great War, British film companies were all struggling to survive and in 1923, despite some critical successes, both Cecil Hepworth and his film company were declared bankrupt. By then there were two stages and the studios were very well equipped. However, the receiver was a man who knew nothing of the value of all this and it was all sold off at a pittance – the library of old films made by Hepworth was melted down to make dope for aircraft wings.
In 1926 the studios were purchased by Archibald Nettlefold, a theatrical producer and recreational farmer who was part of a family of industrialists from Birmingham. Now there’s a combination. (His surname was in fact the ‘N’ in the engineering company ‘GKN.’)
The newly renamed Nettlefold Studios made a few comedy silents which were not hugely successful and were one of the last studios to convert to sound in 1930. However, they quickly caught up and in 1932 were the first studio in Britain with the new ‘high fidelity’ sound system. Nettlefold acquired further land at the rear of the studios and expanded Hepworth’s original site, enjoying a fruitful relationship with Butcher’s Films.
The next few years saw Nettlefold Studios concentrate on making quota quickies. These were paid for by the big US film companies at the rate of £1 per foot so they had to be made very cheaply and quickly.
Like most film studios around London, Nettlefold was commandeered by the government for the duration of the Second World War. Initially this was for storage but following a direct hit to their factory at Kingston-upon-Thames only five miles away, the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft company moved here and built two new ‘hangars’.
It is not clear what happened to Nettlefold himself but by 1947 the studios were owned by Ernest G. Roy and had three stages, including the two new aircraft hangers. A modest string of films was produced but the studios lacked the driving force of Nettlefold. However, one or two films have survived in popular memory – Tom Brown’s Schooldays (’51), Alastair Sim’s version of Scrooge (’51) and The Pickwick Papers (’52). By the mid 1950s they had succumbed to the overall decline that saw many studios go under. However, rather than close – their saviour was the newly emerging world of commercial television.
Television saves the day…
In 1955 Sapphire Films began hiring studio space, eventually buying the studios and renaming them Walton Studios. The company was owned by the powerful American producer Hannah Weinstein.
In order to avoid the anti-Communist persecution and hysteria of McCarthyism sweeping the US in the early 1950s, Weinstein had moved her family to Europe in 1950 and established her own production company, Sapphire Films, in London in 1952. She pre-sold the idea of a Robin Hood series to an American flour company with the same name (they would sponsor the series in America) but because her politics were known to be left-wing she was unable to make the series in the US.
England was no problem of course and since the series was made here she also did a deal with Lew Grade’s ITC company to sell initially 39 half hour episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Over the following four years no less than 143 episodes were made on 35mm film. The series made a star of Richard Greene, and the opening musical sting and theme tune were sung by small boys in playgrounds all over the country for many years. Dozens of well-known English actors performed in the programme – some playing more than one part over the years.
The scripts were of an unusually high quality because Weinstein made use of McCarthy-era blacklisted American screen writers, some working under assumed names. Naturally, none of these was actually a member of the communist party, they just didn’t agree with the extreme right wing politics sweeping America at the time. Often stories contained themes exploring social justice – the subject matter was of course highly suited to that. Ironically, the show became as popular in the US as it was in Britain, being shown on the CBS network weekly from 1955 to 1958.
Each episode took only four and a half days to shoot. To make that many episodes so quickly involved revolutionary film-making techniques. The most original was that the scenery was made in sections that could be re-arranged in any order and almost everything was on wheels. It was said that they could change a set and be ready to shoot in six minutes. The man responsible for devising this technique was Peter Proud, an art director with 28 years of film experience.
Setting and striking is normally very time-consuming but lighting a set can take even longer. Proud’s solution at Walton Studios was to have a pre-lit area and simply move the set into the light. I imagine there was a bit more to it than simply that but – ‘stone’ walls, doorways, windows, pillars and a fireplace all mounted on hidden castors instantly became different rooms or corridors within a castle whilst bushes and lightweight canvas tree trunks were trucked about to form various parts of the forest. There was one enormous hollow tree that appeared in almost every episode in a different place. Viewers must have assumed that Sherwood Forest was riddled with hollow trees.
There were sometimes a few exterior location shots and these were mostly done on Wisley Common and the Foxwarren Park Estate near Cobham which was owned by Hannah Weinstein. They were often shot by a second unit, using stunt riders rather than the leads and rarely involving any dialogue. The back lot at Walton Studios also had a castle set and a village set that were used extensively in series 1 and 2. A larger castle set was later built in the grounds of Weinstein’s estate for series 3 and 4. This was also used for The Adventures of Sir Lancelot.
The Adventures of Robin Hood developed a visual style of its own and was hugely popular. So much so that Lew Grade decided to make something very similar himself. Thus at his newly acquired National Film Studios in Elstree, ITP (the production arm of ITC) began to make The Adventures of William Tell. The two series were almost identical in style and were shown by ATV around the same time. Most people would have assumed they were made by the same company but no. Sapphire Films sold the Robin Hood programmes to ITC which was a subsidiary of ATV and responsible for the distribution of their programmes all over the world.
Sapphire made several more TV series employing the same excellent screen writers: The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956), The Buccaneers (1956), Sword of Freedom (1957) and detective/spy series The Four Just Men (1959). For many people of a certain generation these dramas made by Sapphire at Walton-on-Thames epitomise some of the best of British television from the late 50s/early ’60s. Incidentally, the last 14 episodes of Sir Lancelot were shot in colour for the American market, making this the first British colour TV series. (The next was Stingray, made in Slough seven years later in 1963.)
Other TV dramas were also made at Walton around this time but not by Sapphire. These included some or all episodes of Sailor of Fortune starring Lorne Greene in 1955-56 and some episodes of The Adventures of Aggie (others were made by HDF at Highbury) in 1956-57.
The studios continued to be used to make features too. Popular films of the day included I Was Monty’s Double (’58) and The Navy Lark (’59).
One would have thought that the success of this work would have guaranteed the longevity of the studios. However, several things combined to bring it all to a close. Apparently, Weinstein’s new husband mortgaged the property and assets of the studios for the promise of a fortune in Florida. The fortune never came and he did a runner.
Meanwhile, The Four Just Men was received with glowing reviews by critics in Britain and America. However, the 39 episode series was not deemed suitable by the US networks and was only syndicated by local stations. The income from US sales was therefore much less than had been anticipated. As distributors, ITC did their best to sell it around the world and had some success. Not enough to counter the lack of an American sponsor, however. At the same time, ITC were said to be driving a very hard bargain with regard to the amount they would pay Sapphire for any further shows they might make. The sums would simply not add up and the bank foreclosed.
On Monday 16th January, the studio staff arrived at work to be told that Walton Studios had gone into liquidation. Much of the equipment went to Shepperton including the dubbing stage that had been built only a few years earlier. Shepperton also received stage D from here which they called ‘The Robin Hood Stage’ and which became their I stage. According to a report in the Kinematograph Weekly – December 13 1962 – Shepperton were ‘proud to have received a stage from Walton’ with the dimensions 125 x 55ft (or 123 x 56ft in another account).
The studio lot was sold to the local council and became Hepworth Way and part of the 1960s Walton-on-Thames shopping centre (now itself demolished.) The flats at Hepworth Way and the shopping centre apparently feature in the film Psychomania. I am told that it was also the location for Monty Python’s ‘Can housewives tell the difference between…?’ sketch.
In 1962 Weinstein returned to America, where she continued her political concerns. The only remaining part of the studios is the old power house, which was converted into a theatre some years ago and is used by the local amateur drama group.