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Although Westminster boasted what is, arguably, the first film studio in Britain – situated at the back of the Tivoli Theatre in the Strand in the late 1890s - if you are looking for a 20th Century-Fox or a Paramount among the film studios which once graced the streets of what is today’s City of Westminster in the 1940s and 1950s, then you’ll be looking in vain as Marylebone and Maida Vale studios are no longer there and even when they were, in terms of prestige, stood a million miles from their distant cousins in Hollywood, USA. Glamour, Technicolor and mega-budgets are not part of their story but in an age when B Pictures, or Second Features, were all part and parcel of a night at the pictures, these two studios turned out the sort of cinematic fodder audiences craved before television really took hold. Remarkably, one studio even produced an Oscar-winner but more of that in due course…

Marylebone was a very modest, two-staged studio situated in a converted church hall near Edgware Road. In business from the late 1930s, with features such as Paris in the Spring, it became much busier in the post-war period producing pictures like Death in High Heels, 1947, set in the glamorous, if still rationed, fashion world and, a year earlier, a mini, forty-five minute version of Othello. That probably did not get many bookings in Westminster, Walthamstow or even Wigan but is good evidence of a “can-do” attitude at the studio. Incidentally, Death in High Heels featured Patricia Laffan who found “fame” as the man-hungry Devil Girl from Mars, possibly the all-time champion camp British B Picture of the 1950s, not filmed in Westminster but seen by many in the borough when it premiered at the Metropole, Victoria in 1954. For thrill-seekers, and radio fans, there were Dick Barton, Special Agent, 1948, and Dick Barton at Bay, 1950. The former was made for a meagre £12000 but the popularity of the radio serial ensured it played on many double bills throughout the country. In the latter, Patrick McNee, later famous in 1960s television as one of The Avengers, played a key role. Marylebone’s crowing achievement was surely The Bespoke Overcoat, 1956, a poignant thirty-three minute quasi-Dickensian ghost story starring David Kossoff and Alfie Bass which had a general release on the ABC circuit and went on to win the 1957 Oscar for best two-reel short film.

There were no Oscars for the even tinier one-stage Carlton Hill Studios, to be found in a Victorian villa in Maida Vale, but some of its productions, The Monkey’s Paw, 1948, for example, made it to the major cinema circuits although even trade journals such as Kinematograph Weekly found offerings like the back-stage saga Chorus Girl, made in the same year, hard to take. In similar vein, The Cinema lambasted the earlier Eyes That Kill, 1947, with its storyline of the post-war escape to England of a high Nazi official. One of the players in this, Wilfred Bramble, went on to find fame as Albert Steptoe in television’s Steptoe & Son. By 1953, the studio was on to a winner with Fabian of the Yard based on the exploits of the real Inspector Fabian of Scotland Yard and starring Bruce Seton as Fabian. Later, Seton became Sir Bruce, eleventh Baronet of Abercorn but in his Carlton Hill days he was just plain “Mr”. Older readers may remember that Fabian of the Yard went on to become one of the earliest police series on British television from 1954 to 1956 and, of course, television really put paid to Westminster’s film studios.

By the mid-1960s people much preferred sitting in front of a seventeen-inch TV screen in the comfort of their own homes to a night out at the local cinema. If they did venture out, it was to see expensively-mounted wide-screen spectaculars and not double bills featuring output from small-time British studios. So, after a mild flirtation with commercials and training films, Westminster’s studios closed. Productions such as Walking on Air, They Cracked Her Glass Slipper, The Fatal Night, The Clouded Crystal and Tread Softly are long, and probably best forgotten, but it is worth remembering that one of Westminster’s long-departed film studios of the 1940s and 1950s once produced an Oscar-winner, an achievement never matched by even some of the most prolific minor studios in Hollywood.

This page was added by Adrian Autton on 17/03/2015.

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