Tuesday, 2 May 2017

That’s ‘stow business… Hollywood E17 with Barry Bliss and Paul McGann

We were following in the footsteps of Ronald Coleman, Clive Brook and, yes, Maurice Elvey, as we ordered our drinks in the Dukes Head on Wood Street. It was here that cast and crew would head for a deserved libation after their working days in the sunlit film studios of Walthamstow and it was here that extras would be sort on short notice: that drunken-looking sailor in The Merchant of Venice (1916) might well have been...

We were in Wood Street, London E17 in the Borough of Waltham Forest for the unveiling of two plaques commemorating the lost film studios of Precision and Broadwest where, between 1910 and 1924, Walthamstow was the home of British silent cinema with over 400 films made by these companies and others.

Paul McGann, Barry Bliss and Pamela Hutchinson
Pamela Hutchinson, in her introduction, said that the area was chosen for its proximity to London as well as its peace and quiet – Whipps Cross being relatively rural a century ago as we were to see later…

The Gobbett brothers built Precision Studios in 1910, three years before the first Hollywood studio… and whilst only a single small image survives – as far as is known – the building had a studio with a glass roof on top and workshops below: it must have been some sight. Here were filmed dramas such as a version of East Lyne (1913) starring Blanche Forsythe and Fred Paul, and comedy shorts like Anarchy in England (1909?), directed by TJ Gobbett and reconstructing a raid on a Tottenham rubber factory.

Precision Studios as they were...
Elsewhere, Ethyle Batley, whose films included the provocatively titled Peggy Gets Rid of the Baby (1912), also made films in E17 studios as did the aforementioned Mr Elvey (at British and Colonial). The most watched film in British history, The Battle of the Somme (1916) was also completed here: an important place.

This has been a labour of love for filmmaker Barry Bliss who become fascinated with Walthamstow’s film heritage after moving there thirty years ago. He said that the plaques were not just a celebration of the past but the area’s continuing creative vibrancy. In addition to celebrating all four of the local studios (Precision Film Studio, Cunard Films/Broadwest Films, British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, I.B. Davidson), there will be projects involving a range of cultural initiatives in the areas.

Actor Paul McGann (a man of many, excellent, parts - I particularly like his current play Gabriel - on next week in Greenwich - as well as a super Three Sisters he did at the SouthwarkPlayhouse in 2014...) paid tribute to the spirit of the film makers and the readiness with which they adopted the new technologies – a spirit of adventure we still need, as he said, “this is your history folks!” and our future.

The next plaque was for the Cunard studios opened in 1914 and which became Broadwest Studios, run by Richard West. Anna Neagle, Victor McLaglen and others worked here and many important films were produced.

Broadwest Studios
As a last treat, Bryony Dixon showed some of the E17 films from the BFI archive, starting with a comedy, A Bad Day for Levinsky (1909/10?) shot by TJ Gobbett around the area with present-day locals recognising Wood Street station as well as Whipps Cross. The Mystery of a London Flat (1915) was next, a Broadwest film directed by Walter West, starring Vera Cornish and George Foley – this tense drama is available now on the BFI Player.

Lastly, we saw some of the remaining reels of another Walter West film, The Merchant of Venice (1916) starring the extraordinary Matheson Lang, a stage actor who clearly grasped the need to underplay for the camera. This film is available on the BFI Player and excerpts are also featured in the Play On compilation.

Matheson Lang broods in The Merchant
Local MP Stella Creasy was also on hand to commend the project – this felt like a real community effort end-to-end and one I will continue to watch with interest.

Walking back up Wood Street we saw that in the time it took to enjoy an E17 Hollywood burger in the Dukes Head, the first of a series of Wood Street Walls murals celebrating local film makers was already up and rather splendid it is too!

Walter West of Broadwest Studios
It’s a rich history and one that is still re-emerging… Few of the films made in E17 survive but the search continues… both here and at the extremes of the World-wide distribution chains: you never know.

For more details on the Hollywood E17 Project, visit the website and watch the story grow.

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