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Pinewood: An 80-Year Celebration of Film

Posted 12.09.16  - Culture

It was God who gave us Pinewood. Or, at least, the devout J. Arthur Rank's deeply held faith in the Almighty.

In the mid-1930s, the flour-milling magnate was looking to break the American monopoly of production and distribution of movies in the UK, so he could get his own religious-themed films to a wider audience.

Heatherden Hall, which would form the core of Pinewood Studios, was originally a private house and then a lavish country club owned by one Charles Boot. Rank persuaded Boot that the estate in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, would be perfect for a movie studio, being close to London but away from its frequent smogs, with enough room to build sound stages and shoot on outdoor back-lots. The devout Methodist also declared Pinewood's first film would be a version of Pilgrim's Progress.

One woman described the complex: 'It's as if a millionaire with a beautiful house suddenly decided to make pictures in his garden.'

The studios opened on 30th September 1936 with a lavish champagne-fuelled party. One publicity woman described the complex thus: 'It's as if a millionaire with a beautiful house suddenly decided to make pictures in his garden.' It wasn't far from the truth, although Rank was no tinkering amateur - his industrial experience ensured Pinewood was modern, practical and efficient.

In fact, Pinewood got off to a steady rather than spectacular start, with the first slate of films far from timeless classics (Splinters in the Air Force, The Cavalier of the Streets? No, me neither). Then the war came along and production, apart from that on propaganda films, stopped.

Although prestigious one-offs appeared in the immediate post-war years (David Lean's Great Expectations in 1946, Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes in 1948), it was a trio of franchises that ensured Pinewood's continuing success in the latter half of the 20th century. The first pair, the Doctor series (beginning 1954), with Dirk Bogarde, James Robertson Justice et al, and the Carry On series (1958 onwards), were cheap, cheeky and cheerful and very much of their time. It was the third franchise, though, that would become synonymous with Pinewood and prove to have extraordinary staying power: James Bond.

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies.

It began with 1962'sDr No, part-filmed in Jamaica but, as would become the norm, with M's offices and the villain's lair created at Pinewood (perhaps reaching its apotheosis in the vast volcano in 1967's You Only Live Twice). Dr No also marked the beginning of 007's long association with Turnbull & Asser, for it was important that the screen Bond was as elegant as he was deadly, with the most exquisite wardrobe. When it came to shirts, there was only one choice for a spy of discerning tastes, and so Bonds Connery, Brosnan and Craig have all appeared on screen dressed in T&A.

The majority of Bond films have spent time at Pinewood and he is part of the studio fabric - the enormous soundstage originally built for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) is known as Albert R Broccoli 007 Stage. And when Bond foolishly deserted Pinewood altogether, for Timothy Dalton's Licence to Kill (1989), it was followed by a five-year hiatus in filming. So Bond was back in Bucks for Goldeneye (1995) and subsequent productions - and now with the wildly successful Spectre (2015) showing 007 still has legs, you can reckon on Bond being in Iver Heath for as long as the secret agent packs a PPK.

There are many other regulars. Pinewood is also the spiritual home of Star Wars, and the Jedi have recently returned for episodes VII, VIII and the spin-off Rogue One. Tim Burton was there for Batman, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka himself, disguised as Johnny Depp, visited the Turnbull & Asser workshops in Kent to pick out a tie for the premiere, meeting the same craftsmen who were later commissioned by Lindy Hemming (Christopher Nolan's wardrobe maestra, who has also worked on five Bonds) to create the tie worn by Heather Ledger's unforgettable Joker in The Dark Knight (2008, also shot at Pinewood).

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

Plenty of other heroes, anti-heroes and superheroes have strutted their stuff on Pinewood's stages over the decades, including Jack Sparrow, the Avengers, Harry Potter, X-Men, Sherlock Holmes, Lara Croft and The Guardians of the Galaxy crew.

So 80 years since that opening party, Pinewood remains a powerhouse of the British and international movie and television industries. But it has had one notable failure – it never did make Pilgrim's Progress for J. Arthur Rank. Apart from that, it hasn't done too badly for an octogenarian.

Image: Aerial view of Pinewood Studios showing the Batman set in 1989

Credit: Paul Fievez / Associated Newspapers / REX / Shutterstock

Rob Ryan - Journalist and author of several historical novels

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