One hundred years ago, in November 1920, Islington film studios trade-screened its first movie, The Great Day. While the film was not a critical success, it marked the beginning of a distinguished 30-year production run. For those three decades Islington Studios, and then as Gainsborough Studios, produced some of Britain’s best-known early films, such as The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), as well as launching the careers of the many of the country’s cinema stars. Above all, one of the world’s greatest film directors learned his trade at the studios, east London-born Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).
Islington Studios opened in 1919, converted from an old railway power station on Poole Street, a quiet road on the border between Islington and Shoreditch (now Hackney), on the south side of the Regent’s Canal. The building became the home of American film company the Famous Players-Lasky and was hailed as the biggest, most technically advanced film studios in the country. It boasted three stages, workshops and offices, as well as a sunken concrete tank with windows for water scenes. Poole Street was now rising from obscurity to become known as ‘Hollywood by the Canal’!
Most local people welcomed the opening of the studios and the accompanying glamour. They often looked out for the arrival of the film stars in their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce’s and limousines. However, the young of the area missed the old power station. It poured hot water into the canal and had provided them with a free, heated swimming pool!
Between 1920 and 1922 Famous Players made 11 films but none were judged a success by the critics or the public so, instead, studio space was hired to other production companies. By January 1924 Players decided to call it a day and return home to the States. Some of the independent films made enjoyed some success, including Flames of Passion (1922) and Paddy-the Next-Big Thing (1923), both under the direction of Graham Cutts and producer Michael Balcon. The two film makers set up their own production company, whose name was to become synonymous with Islington Studios, namely Gainsborough Pictures with its well-known introductory sequence.
Gainsborough Pictures acquired Islington Studios for the much-reduced price of £14,000 and this to be paid in instalments. The first Gainsborough film was The Passionate Adventure (1924) but it was with its second film, The Rat (1925), that the company was to enjoy huge success. Written by and starring Ivor Novello, The Rat was a romance feature set in the Paris underworld. Gainsborough placed Novello under contract and he proved a key figure in establishing the its reputation with two more ‘Rats’ (Triumph and Return) and other various dramas and romances.
In 1919 a young man who was passionate about films, replied to an advertisement placed by Famous Players to design and write subtitles for silent films. In 1924, when the studios changed hands, he stayed on to work for Gainsborough, keen to learn all aspects of the business. He was soon given the opportunity to work with Graham Cutts as assistant director. After working on a couple of ordinary pictures, the young man was allowed to direct a subject of his own choosing. The Lodger: A story of the London fog (1927), a disturbing adaptation of the Jack the Ripper story and starring Ivor Novello, was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The young Alfred Hitchcock had arrived!
Local residents and scenes
In the film’s final scene, the titular character is pursued by a violent mob of Poole Street residents, who each received half-a-crown (12.5p) for 30 minutes filming. In fact, local people made up most of the studio’s workforce of extras, carpenters, plasterers, labourers and secretaries. It took a lot of skill to transform a disused power station into a royal palace, an alpine village or a desert island! On occasion, films were made using the canal with, for example, ordinary rowing boats altered to look like gondolas. Unfortunately, in January 1930 while shooting a film called Balaclava, the studios caught fire. Some melted wax ignited the highly inflammable wooden studio walls, resulting in sixty-foot high flames engulfing the building. One person died in the fire, which also caused the closure of the studios for almost 12 months.
The Lady Vanishes
Now under the control of the Gaumont British Group, film production continued throughout the 1930s. Gainsborough Pictures was now concentrating on producing films for the home market rather than trying to break into America. A variety of film genres were tackled, including comedies, musicals and thrillers. Popular comedians such as Will Hay, Arthur Askey, and the Crazy Gang, and singers including Gracie Fields and Jessie Matthews all appeared in successful productions. However, the biggest success came with Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery thriller The Lady Vanishes in 1938. The story follows the disappearance of an elderly woman from a train – a passenger that everyone denies ever having seen. The plot thickens as the travellers speed their way across Europe, although in reality the whole film was shot at Gainsborough Studios.
The war years
The following year, when war broke out in September 1939, there was a fear that enemy air raids could halt production, with exploding bombs potentially causing the building’s chimney – the third tallest in London – to collapse and fall through the roof. The studios did close temporarily but, in the event, neither happened and production restarted. The Rank Organisation bought Gainsborough in 1941 and an output of period melodramas followed, bringing some welcome box-office success. Films such as The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) all served to provide escapism from the rigours of life on the Home Front. Other notable releases, a mix of comedies and war films, included Shipyard Sally (1939), They Came by Night (1940), It’s That Man Again (1943), We Dive at Dawn (1943),and Waterloo Road (1945). It had been assumed that The Wicked Lady (1945) was also produced ‘by the canal’ but it was, in fact, filmed at Gainsborough Picture’s Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush.
Closure and rebirth
Despite the studio’s success in the 1940s, cinema audiences began to decline and film studios became expensive to run. After nearly 170 films, the final production at Gainsborough was Here Come the Huggetts (1948), a light-hearted drama centred around a family obtaining its first telephone. In January 1949 the closure of Islington Studios was announced. In October that year all the equipment and props were auctioned and the building put up for sale. It was bought in 1951 by James Buchanan and Co., Scotch whisky distillers for warehouse storage and, later, it was acquired by Kelaty Ltd as a store for oriental carpets, with no reminder that it was once the country’s biggest film studio.
This, however, was to change when the former power station and studios were to be incorporated and converted into waterside apartments, penthouses, workspaces and shops. Developed by Lincoln Holdings PLC, and designed by Munkenbeck and Marshall architects, the scheme was once more to be called Gainsborough Studios and, in April 2000, sales commenced. The new complex was completed in 2004.
As a last homage to the location, two Shakespearean productions by the Almeida Theatre Company were presented in the Spring and Summer of 2000, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes A final closing Hitchcock season took place in October 2003.
The chimney has now gone but the surviving redbrick frontage on Poole Street and adjoining Imber Street remains. Further reminders of its cinematic past are also present at the site in the forms of a sculpture and a plaque. The building’s courtyard features a large sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock’s head by Antony Donaldson, which was installed in 2003. And, a plaque commemorating Gainsborough Studios was unveiled a few years ago on the Poole Street façade by Hackney Council.
Celebrating the bi-centenary of its opening in 2020, Regent’s Canal has witnessed many and varied businesses and trades operate along is waterside. Perhaps, though, the most unique and historic of all these was the Islington/Gainsborough Studios and, although production has long since finished and the ‘lady now vanished’, the location will always be remembered as ‘Hollywood by the canal’!
Article title and source information taken, with grateful thanks, from Chris Draper’s Islington’s cinemas and film studios (1990)
- Chapman, Gary. London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studios in the silent years. Edditt Publishing, 2014
- Draper, Chris. Islington’s cinemas and film studios. Islington Libraries / London Borough of Islington, 1990
Article by Mark Aston, from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.