The preface of Dominic’s book is based on the idea that the decline of Britain, manifest in the 1970s, can be seen through the prism of the success of the 1976 film Star Wars. Star Wars is set, like the 1970s, in a time long ago. Britain was a drab country, enlivened only by holiday spectacle. Star Wars, made with American money in the UK, flowed into the empty space where the British film industry (another broken British institution) had once been. The trouble is, this story bears little relation to reality.
At least Dominic gets the first fact in his book right, Star Wars was shot in Britain (all references to Seasons in this post are to p xiii). As he rightly says, Star Wars was shot at the Shenley Road Studios in Borehamwood. He shows no awareness that “Elstree studios” refers to a cluster of different studios that have existed round Elstree over the years, the Clarendon Road Studios which are now the BBC Elstree studios, and others now gone such as Elstree Way, Danziger Studios and Millennium Studios.
Shenley Road studies had been through various owners, and in 1968 were bought by EMI. Dominic casts a nostalgic eye over its past when The Dambusters and Good-Bye Mr. Chips had been made there. It had been, he tells us, “amongst the world’s most prestigious facilities”. By the 1970s Shenley Road, he tells us, “survived on the income of cheap sex comedies like Confessions of a Window Cleaner.” This sounds like clear evidence of that old saw, British decline. Unfortunately, it is entirely misleading.
Let’s start by looking at a list of films made at Shenley Rd in 1974, the same year as Confessions of a Window Cleaner.
Alfie Darling. A not entirely successful follow up to Alfie with Alan Price in the lead role.
Galileo. American Film Theatre production of the Bertolt Brecht play. Made for US TV
Great Expectations. With Michael York in the lead, made for US TV but given a theatrical realise in the UK
In Celebration. David Storey Play, Lindsay Anderson directs, Alan Bates stars. Art House/Late kitchen sink.
The Maids. Glenda Jackson and Susannah York in an adaptation of Jean Genet’s Play Art House. (shown at Cannes 1975, but not entered)
Man about the House. Tame spin off of rubbish ITV sitcom.
Murder on the Orient Express. US film, British actors on the whole. Directed by Sidney Lumet. (One Oscar, five monitions)
Out of season. Staring Vanessa Redgrave, bit arty(Nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, 1975)
Percy’s Progress. The closest you’ll get to another sex comedy here. It is a follow up to the late 1960s film Percy (with a soundtrack by the Kinks) about a penis transplant. It is written by Harry H Corbett (also appearing a Harold Wilson-esque prime minister impression)and Ian Le Frenais, has one of those stellar British comedy casts that cannot save it from not being a heavy handed attempt at satire.
To the Devil a Daughter. Hammer Horror.
Oh, yes, and Confessions of a Window Cleaner. But note, this was a very successful film, even if is dreadful, being neither sexy nor funny.
An Oscar and a nomination for a Golden Bear, some decline! And this is not a roster of sex comedies, although Shenley Rd hosted a few over the years. But also much of Stanley’s Kubrick’s output.
Thus Dominic’s assertion that the “domestic film industry was in ruins” is far from the truth. The story of Shenley is that EMI had bought it in 1968. In 1974 Andrew Mitchell was put in charge of the studios but was told to close the studies down. Brilliantly he fought back (with the help of Alan Sapper of the cinemagraphic trade union ACTT, so much for the unions being the source of all decline) and created a new business model for the studio. This involved losing most of the permanent production staff and encouraging outside production companies to come in with freelance crews. This was part of the decline of the big production companies in film and the rise of more location and skill-based film making. One reason Star Wars came in was because a special effects team could be assembled.
Dominic states that when the American team for Star Wars arrived in Borehamwood they found it “drab, ugly, cold, depressing.” Yes, it’s Borehamwood, they came from California. I was born in nearby Watford, I have not been back. They found it “almost deserted”. Quite so. It was a recording stage that needed populating with free-lance staff. But Shlenley became hugely successful (Indiana Jones, The Shinning, and more recently The King’s Speech)
What does Dominic conclude from this, “Like so many British institutions in the mid-1970s, [Elstree] felt broken, listless, a decaying monument lamenting its vanished glories.” As the above shows, this conclusion is baseless. It is nonsense. It is a fictional galaxy far from reality.