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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
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Teddington Studios

  Date: 1880s to the present

A major television studio by the river

 
Film-making at Weir House

For the best part of a century, Teddington Studios has been at the hub of the entertainment industry, with a steady output that has ranged from silent films to contemporary television comedies.

It all began when a riverfront site at Teddington was acquired in the 1880s by a wealthy stockbroker named Henry Chinnery. In addition to his involvement in the building of nearby St Alban’s Church, Chinnery took a keen interest in the ‘cinematograph’. Film-making at his property, Weir House, started from humble beginnings when he allowed a group of local film enthusiasts to use his large greenhouse as a studio during a rainstorm.

The grounds of Weir House were then used by the film company Ec-Ko Films in 1912 for the production of short comedy films. This company was succeeded by Master Films, who produced full-length feature films from 1916 to 1922 on the property’s first enclosed stage, measuring 60 feet by 40 feet. The success of this enterprise was modest, leaving a reviewer of one film to complain that "the horizons swayed in unison with the boat decks".

The latest cameras, lighting and sound recording equipment

In 1931 the property was sold to established film-maker E.G. Norman and his partner, the silent-screen actor Henry Edwards. Renamed Teddington Film Studios Ltd, the stage was expanded considerably to allow wide-angle shots, and re-equipped with the latest cameras, lighting and sound recording equipment. New building projects included a large projection and recording theatre, a power house and special facilities such as editing rooms, a carpenter’s workshop and actors’ dressing rooms.

The fledgling company was only to produce one film, Stranglehold, before the American film giant Warner Brothers, who had been searching for a British base, negotiated a lease on the studios in August 1931.

Warner Brothers First National Productions Ltd

Under the grand title Warner Brothers First National Productions Ltd, the studio’s output over the next five years established it as a serious film-making enterprise. Films were economical and produced on the tightest of shooting schedules, some taking less than a week to complete.

Murder on the Second Floor, shown in January 1932, included exterior scenes filmed in Teddington High Street. Actors who took their turn at the studio included Rex Harrison, Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood. A young actor featured in the 1934 film Murder at Monte Carlo, Errol Flynn, was to impress Warner Bros so mightily they dispatched him to Hollywood.

By 1934 Warner Brothers strengthened their commitment by purchasing the studio and initiating a major rebuilding programme. Throughout the 1930s, Teddington Studios produced a steady stream of thrillers, romantic weepies and crime dramas, with the occasional musical thrown in for good measure. In 1935 the music hall veteran Max Miller made the first of his eight comedies for Warner Brothers at Teddington.
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Bombed in World War II

One of the few British film studios to operate during World War II, Teddington Studios produced a series of patriotic films to aid the war effort, including 1941’s Flying Fortress, starring Richard Greene.

On the evening of July 5, 1944, a V1 flying rocket exploded on the property, destroying two stages, the administration block and other buildings, and causing the deaths of three employees, including the American studio manager Doc Salomon. Despite this tragedy, the studio’s film vaults survived intact, and the film Flight From Folly, which had been in production at the time of the bombing, was completed in the studio’s garage.

In 1946 in the aftermath of the war, reconstruction of the original studios began. The bomb damage had been so severe that many of the buildings were rebuilt from the foundations up. By the time Teddington Studios were formally reopened by Hollywood comedian Danny Kaye in January 1948, film production had returned to top form. For the next two years, films made at the studio would feature such illustrious actors as Marie Lohr, Nigel Patrick, Richard Burton, Kenneth More, Peter Lorre, Richard Todd, Joan Greenwood and Burgess Meredith.

From top form to dismal low

During the 1950s, British film production plunged to a dismal low as the result of ineffectual government initiatives, the inadequate distribution of British films in North America and a heavy tax on cinema admissions. Although film-making at Teddington tailed off, it did not suffer the same fate as Denham Studios and Alexander Korda’s London Film Studios at Isleworth, which ceased production altogether. The site was leased for several years to the Hawker Aircraft Company, but this was a mere blip in the studio’s history. Its fortunes were revived by the emergence of the next form of mass public entertainment: the television.
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Independent commercial television studios

Independent commercial television arrived in Britain in 1955 when companies such as Associated Television (ATV), Granada and ABC Television were allocated transmitting licences. ABC purchased the Teddington site in November 1958 and adapted the film studios for television with the aid of newly developed video tape recording equipment. In 1959 Teddington Studios installed a video recorder manufactured by the American electronics company RCA – the first of its kind to be delivered to Europe and used by a British studio.

ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre series was duly transferred from ABC’s main studio in Didsbury, Manchester to Teddington by the summer of 1959. Following a new phase of rebuilding which included the transformation of Teddington’s Studio One, filming began in 1960 on what was to become one of Teddington’s most famous and enduring TV series, The Avengers.

Thames Television

In 1968, following a series of franchise applications, ABC Television merged with the London company Rediffusion to form Thames Television, which was to base itself at Teddington. For the next two decades, Thames was to deliver a prodigious supply of popular television programmes. These included Callan (1968), Bless This House(1971), Van der Valk (1972) and Minder (1979). Benny Hill, a long-term Teddington resident, began filming The Benny Hill Show at the studio in 1969. This series was eventually sold to over 90 foreign language markets, including Russia and China. Teddington also produced critically acclaimed drama series and documentaries, such as The World at War (1973), narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, Jennie Lady Randolph Churchill (1974), starring Lee Remick, and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), starring Edward Fox.


Hospitality afloat

A long-term feature of Teddington Studios was a boat moored at its landing stage on the Thames, originally conceived as an executive hospitality suite and dining room. The first vessel, acquired from Brixham Harbour in Devon, had taken part in the troop evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and still flew the pennant of the famous rescue. This boat, known as Motor Vessel Iris, and her eventual replacement, the Motor Vessel Sir Thomas More, were fixtures at Teddington for a number of years. Although the tradition of a ship owned by the studio has ceased, there is still a large landing stage in operation which welcomes visitors by river.

The studios today

Teddington Studios today is a modern, multi-stage facility, used by independent television producers and specialising in light entertainment. In its determination to meet the demands of multimedia technology and the digital age, the riverfront studio at Teddington continues to play a major role in the production of entertainment for audiences worldwide.


References:

'The Story of Teddington Studios' by Malcolm Newman and John Tasker (in the collection of Twickenham Museum)
Teddington Studios
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at the hub of the entertainment industry...from silent films to contemporary television comedies


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