January 2, 2017


Gainsborough Studios 2000

Gainsborough was formed by Michael Balcon in 1924, and started by moving into Islington Studios. Islington Studios were wholly situated in Poole Street, Hoxton, in the London borough of Hackney. Despite being just over the borough border, the name ‘Islington’ was probably used to avoid Hackney related jibes in critical reviews and give the productions a more prestigious bearing. Islington had just two stages totalling some 6250 square feet, and its sole exterior lot was the flat roof. Balcon visited the German Ufa-Decla Studios (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) in 1924 and formed an association with the German-Austrian film making concern.

The Blackguard initiated an association that lasted nearly ten years. No other British producer developed so close or so fruitful a relationship with the German film industry as Balcon. Of the 22 features released by Gainsborough (or its related company, Piccadilly) up to the coming of sound, seven were Anglo-German co-productions. The association, which would continue after the company was absorbed into the Gaumont-British empire in the late 1920s and end only with the Nazis’ accession to power, enriched the Gainsborough-Gaumont output with the contributions of German personnel in all fields. The traffic was two-way. Balcon, always a great nurturer of talent, used the German industry as a kind of finishing school, sending there both seasoned professionals ready for their ultimate step up such as Alfred Hitchcock, and promising youngsters ripe for experience such as Robert Stevenson. While European cinema was coming to Gainsborough via the Film Society, Gainsborough films were being seen in continental Europe via Ufa. The exact terms of the Gainsborough-Ufa co-production deal varied from film to film, but the broad outline remained constant. Generally the agreement was that Ufa would provide the bulk of the finance and the studio facilities, while Gainsborough furnished the script, the director, and much of the cast and crew.

In June 1926, soon after Balcon’s return from the United States, a corporate reorganisation was announced. Piccadilly Pictures, which Balcon had formed in partnership with the American actor Carlyle Blackwell, acquired all Gainsborough’s shares, making it the controlling company both of Gainsborough and of Piccadilly Studios Ltd, which held the lease on Islington. Balcon and, Blackwell were appointed joint managing directors of Piccadilly. Graham Cutts stepped down from his directorship of Gainsborough in order ‘to devote himself to the company’s increased production programme’, but a few months later quit Gainsborough altogether. C.M. Woolf became chairman of Piccadilly, and Charles Lapworth resigned his directorship and left the company. Until now Balcon had been free to have his films distributed by any renter he cared to approach, and in theory he still was. But with Woolf as his chairman, he was in effect tied to W&F.

A further upheaval followed in March 1927. Gaumont-British, now controlled by the Ostrer brothers and rapidly expanding its field of activities, made a bid for W&F. Woolf told Balcon of the offer; according, to Balcon’s account, they agreed that, ‘despite the financial temptations nothing could compensate for the loss of independence, and I left him reassured that our association would continue unaltered’. The next morning ‘a smiling, cheerful C.M.’ informed him that he had accepted Isidore Ostrer’s offer. With this deal, Gaumont became the largest producer-renter-exhibitor in Britain and the dominant force in the industry. Balcon issued a statement denying that Gainsborough, or Piccadilly, would be involved in this or any other merger, but it was clear that he was being ineluctably sucked into Gaumont.

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