© The Times – February 5, 2009
It was a winter’s day in 1947 when I first stepped inside Pinewood Studios and a day I’ll never forget. The view along the approach road was broken only by a cluster of tall pine tress, and then as if from nowhere appeared a mock Tudor double-lodge entrance, and a friendly commissionaire. It was just like arriving at a stately home.
I was then a rather green lieutenant serving in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit and being tested for the male lead in The Blue Lagoon. It marked the beginning of my long association with the studio. At 81 I am now Pinewood’s second oldest resident, as I moved in in 1970 when I began work on the TV series The Persuaders, but Peter Rogers, producer of all 30 Carry On films, at a sprightly 94, has been resident since 1958.
The studio hadn’t long reopened, after being used during the war as a base for the Army, RAF and Crown Film Units making documentaries. It was also a base for the Royal Mint — some say that was the first time that Pinewood made money. I was greeted by Dennis Van Thal, J. Arthur Rank’s top talent scout (and later my agent). Rank had opened Pinewood in 1936 as his dream rival to Hollywood — the final syllable of which, plus the abundance of pine trees on the 100-acre site, gave him the name Pinewood.
Just before my arrival and after the war, great film-makers were at work: David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allen, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. They were part of Rank’s stable of independent producers. Some of the country’s greatest films were made during this period, including Great Expectations, The Red Shoes, Oliver Twist, and Black Narcissus. Even as a young studio, Pinewood had a reputation for being home to our finest film-makers and our very finest technicians. I was awestruck to be there.
From the grandeur of Heatherden Hall, which formed the centre of the lot, I was taken through long clinical corridors across to one of the five stages. It was a huge, dark, sound-proofed room with a smell of greasepaint, make-up and burning filters on the huge lamps. Soon it was my turn to step under the lights and in front of the cameras. Even though I never got the part, I was thrilled just to be there.
Later, I learnt that I had been recommended as “contract material” for the studio’s Company of Youth, often referred to as “the Rank Charm School”. Now unheard of in the modern industry, the studio had established its own stable of aspiring talent. It produced its own big stars: Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Anthony Steel, Diana Dors, Donald Sinden, Eunice Gayson, Kenneth More, Petula Clarke and Dirk Bogarde were all under contract.
Sadly for me, it was at a time when John Davis, the company MD, was dealing with a £16 million overdraft. They weren’t interested in a young Roger Moore being added to it. So while I mixed socially with my aspiring contempories, I slipped off to earn a crust elsewhere — but always dreamt of returning to the wonderful film factory in the Buckinghamshire countryside.
Meanwhile studio budgets and salaries were slashed. Yet against this backdrop Pinewood produced some of its most memorable and important films: the definitive Titanic movie A Night to Remember; the enchanting Genevieve and the groundbreaking The One That Got Away.
Over at Shepperton Studios Alexander Korda was building his empire. While prudence was the watchword at Pinewood, extravagance was the order of the day at the rival studio, where the charming movie mogul began an impressive production programme: The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, Anna Karenina, The Wooden Horse being a few. Korda, unlike Rank, was a great showman who loved publicity. He was also an astute and talented film-maker who made his opinions known. Guy Hamilton, a subsequent director of two of my 007 outings, told me of an incident with Korda: “I was then an assistant director and summoned on a Saturday morning together with one editor, one cameraman and one assistant art director to view the rough cut of Emeric Pressburger’s first and only directorial effort. Obviously retakes were on the cards. The three Korda brothers (Vincent, Alex and Zoltán) walked in. The lights went out and we watched in silence until the end. Alex lit a cigar and addressed us. ‘Boys, I could eat a tin of trims and shit a better picture’.”
Both studios continued with indigenous production in the late 1940s, but when television became a real threat to our film output, the Government, in 1950, introduced a levy on box-office receipts to reinvest in British films, the Eady levy. It generated some £3 million a year and helped to attract many overseas producers, including Walt Disney and my friend Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli. Once here, they stayed because, quite frankly, they fell in love with Pinewood. That love led to millions of pounds being injected into the UK economy and employment for many, many actors, technicians and creative personnel.
While happily ticking over with British crowd-pleasers such as the Norman Wisdom comedies, the Doctor comedies (with Rank’s biggest star Dirk Bogarde), the St Trinian’s movies and later the Carry Ons, it was only really in 1961, when Cubby and his new producing partner Harry Saltzman wanted to set up a series of spy adventures based on Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond, that Pinewood hit the big time.
I didn’t return to Pinewood until 1970, after hanging up my halo on The Saint at Elstree, when Bob Baker, Johnny Goodman and I set up The Persuaders. I starred alongside Tony Curtis, whose wonderful eccentricities ensured that there was never a dull day. Over our 15-month schedule we filmed in every nook and cranny of Pinewood and the adjoining Black Park. I remember for one episode I had to drag-up to play my character’s great aunt and, looking amazingly like my dear mother, I walked into the oak-panelled restaurant only to be greeted by a round of applause from the diners. I took a bow, or rather a curtsy, and set about my bangers and mash.
Cubby was a regular in the dining room and always made a point of introducing me to his guests. He sat at a large round table where he entertained backers, sponsors, royalty and visiting journalists over sumptuous lunches. It was a magical environment in which to impress visitors and inveigle finance. Stars such as Bette Davis, James Caan, Peter Ustinov, Katharine Hepburn, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Stewart Grainger, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor could all be spotted at the tables. Liz would be showing off her latest jewel, and they’d talk about who was doing what next and for how much, or what offers they’d refused, or gossip about who was sleeping with whom, all often punctuated by the unmistakable laugh of Sid James and the Carry On gang on neighbouring tables.
“How many set-ups did you get in this morning?” would be the shout across from Sid, inducing a sort of friendly rivalry to anyone in earshot (he’d no doubt taken side bets on it). Tony Curtis was once prompted to boast “five”. “Oh we slipped in eight,” Barbara Windsor chuckled back, much to Tony’s chagrin. Meanwhile the Carry On producer Peter Rogers locked the stage doors at lunchtime to prevent any of his artistes or crew claiming overtime.
And who could forget Christopher Reeve walking in for his lunch? He was so polite and would always stop at the tables he passed to say hello to the diners, unaware of being in his full Superman regalia. Many a waitress swooned after him.
One week, we all became aware of a rather curious smell emanating from the management’s table in the commissary. It grew more pungent by the day. A rebellious young director named Alan Parker, we discovered, had wedged a big piece of Camembert cheese under it, such was his disregard for the “pomposity of management”.
A lot of actors and directors would zip away after a 30-minute lunch to view rushes, which was the previous day’s film, back from the labs. Would-be starlets would be reassured by their directors:
“Darling you were wonderful. Come and see me in my trailer later.” One director, who shall remain nameless, was holding a casting session for young starlets in his trailer when it was moved along to an adjacent stage in readiness for the afternoon’s shooting. Wondering why the earth was moving so violently for him, he opened the door wearing only his Y-fronts to see the whole crew looking on.
Then there was the director Michael Winner, making his first film at Pinewood. He used to direct by barking orders through a megaphone. His cameraman became fed up with this and retreated for a lengthy toilet break between set-ups. A furious Winner went in search of him, shouting at a closed cubicle door: “Are you in there?”
“Then get your arse back on my set now.”
“Michael. Please. I can only deal with one shit at a time.”
One day David Niven came over to me at lunch and said: “Roger this young lady I’m working with wants to meet you. She is extraordinary and is recommending to the director and cameraman what angles they should use.” The next thing I knew Jodie Foster was saying how pleased she was to meet me. She hasn’t given me a job since though.
You’d also see a few extras dressed as centurions, or large chickens, cutting through the restaurant to the bar. Nobody flinched. It was after all a place of work.
The bar was quite a club, too. Often you’d find Peter Finch holding court at lunchtimes and evenings with tales of the Outback and working in Hollywood. He and Diane Cilento once naughtily inserted a cigarette into the mouth of a rather expensive Laughing Cavalier type painting on the wall. Finchie was very much the practical joker of Pinewood, hiding in cupboards to surprise passers-by, removing gargoyles from the entrance and taking them home, and jackarooing around the bar with Diane at lunchtime, rounding up the crew.My next visit, in 1973, was as Jimmy Bond. Cubby had any number of offers to take the series overseas, but no, he said, “Pinewood is my home”. It wasn’t just sentimentality, it was good business sense as the crews always delivered the very best and Cubby loved the environment.
I could always rely on the Pinewood crews to make me look good on screen. Their support was particularly in evidence during any love scenes I filmed. They’d be up in the gantries shouting: “Go on Rog, give ’er one!
Cubby further made his mark during my third outing as 007, The Spy Who Loved Me, when we needed a stage big enough to house three nuclear submarines. After fruitless searches he decided that the only way forward would be to build a stage. On December 5, 1976, I left my sick bed (I had shingles) to join the cast, crew and the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, to open the “007 Stage” — then the largest in the world — on the backlot. It subsequently secured Pinewood many lucrative film contracts. Although, to my horror, just before my last Bond adventure A View to a Kill, in 1984, a gas canister exploded one lunchtime during Tom Cruise’s film Legend, and fire tore through it. An hour later all that was left was a moulded pile of metal. Cubby came to survey the scene. Without flinching he asked his production designer Peter Lamont how long he’d need to rebuild it. “Sixteen weeks,” was his reply. “Then go ahead and do it,” Cubby said.
In July 2006, during my Sunday lunch, I received a call: “Pinewood is on fire.” My heart sank. I then heard that it was the 007 Stage. Within hours it had gone. Cubby was not around any longer, but the studio announced that it would be rebuilt as soon as possible, and it would remain the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage.
Along with the good fortune and success, I’ve also seen Pinewood at its lowest ebb. When we went in to shoot Octopussy there was nothing, and I mean nothing, else in the studio. The whole industry was in the doldrums. Word had it that had we not returned to Pinewood it would have closed down. Shepperton fared similarly: changes of ownership and asset strippers brought the studio to near collapse and closure. Soon afterwards Pinewood was forced to go “four-walled” — a rental facility, rather than a fully crewed studio.
The studio then diversified into commercials and more TV work. The rescue package paid off and meant that big films such as Batman, Memphis Belle, Patriot Games, Alien 3, First Knight, Mission Impossible, The Saint, Eyes Wide Shut, Bean and The Mummy Returns all had a home in the British countryside. Its future seemed secure. But a decade later dark clouds gathered again. News came in 2000 of the Rank Organisation’s plans to pull out of all its film interests, including Pinewood. The future of our great studio was uncertain. But a new hero was at hand to continue the Pinewood story. Enter Michael Grade.
I knew Michael of old, his uncle was Lew Grade of ITC, of course, and Michael was every bit as passionate about film and TV as Lew was, but he’s also a very astute businessman. He spotted the potential and value of Pinewood and pulled together a financial consortium to buy the famous studio. He then made an offer to Ridley and Tony Scott, the owners of Shepperton, to merge the two studios.
I’ve admired what Michael and his team have done with the studios; improving facilities, diversifying and embracing digital media with the new TV stages. The studios are attracting huge productions again, injecting significant money into the UK economy. We should all be proud of the studios’ history and be excited for their future expansion.
When I drive through the gates of my home from home, a warm feeling still flows over me. The place is now much bigger than it was in 1947 with 18 stages as opposed to just five, and more on-site companies and services than you can shake a stick at, but the atmosphere remains the same. It is, I have decided, pure magic.