Welwyn Rock

Clas­sic gang­ster film Brighton Rock is as much Herts as it is south coast

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS -

It’s a mas­ter­piece of Bri­tish cinema but it’s a lit­tle-known fact that the coastal crime clas­sic Brighton Rock was largely filmed in Hert­ford­shire. Richard Luck takes up the story on the film’s 70th an­niver­sary

Films are rarely shot where you’d imag­ine. Take Casablanca – the near­est Bo­gie and Bergman got to North Africa was a visit to Los An­ge­les’ top Moroc­can bar­ber. Then there’s St Al­bans au­teur Stan­ley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the Beck­ton gas works stood in for war-torn In­dochina. Still closer to home, we have the Boult­ing Broth­ers’ adap­ta­tion of Gra­ham Greene’s

Brighton Rock. Sev­enty years on from its re­lease, the pic­ture that in­tro­duced the world to Richard Attenborough has long been con­sid­ered a clas­sic. But how much of it was shot on the south coast? Not as much as you’d imag­ine.

Founded in 1928, Welwyn Stu­dios had played host to all man­ner of pro­duc­tions be­fore Messrs Boult­ing and Attenborough came along. Wildlife doc­u­men­taries, An­thony Asquith’s The Ce­les­tial City and A

Cot­tage On Dart­moor, countless ‘Quota Quickie’ B-pic­tures – the fa­cil­ity’s out­put couldn’t have been more eclec­tic. Come the late 1930s, the stu­dio – lo­cated in the heart of the town’s in­dus­trial quar­ter on Broad­wa­ter Road – started to at­tract big pro­duc­tions and ma­jor movie names. Ralph Richard­son, Mar­garet Lock­wood, Mau­reen O’Hara, lo­cal girl Di­nah Sher­dian, even Hol­ly­wood’s first Drac­ula Bela Lu­gosi came to the new gar­den city.

With Welwyn one of the few stu­dios not to be req­ui­si­tioned by the gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing the out­break of the Sec­ond World War, it con­tin­ued to thrive through­out the con­flict, mark­ing it­self out as a gen­uine threat to its Herts’ movie mak­ing neigh­bour, El­stree. Michael Ren­nie, Jack Hawkins, James Ma­son, Michael Wild­ing – bona fide A-lis­ters were so of­ten seen around Welwyn, they ceased to be re­mark­able. Quite how they spent their down­time, we don’t know, but it’s rather nice

to think of Michael Deni­son and Dul­cie Gray prom­e­nad­ing down Park­way while Rex Har­ri­son and Anna Nea­gle en­joyed a cof­fee in the Welwyn De­part­ment Stores be­fore head­ing back to the set of I Live In Grosvenor Square.

With that pic­ture’s di­rec­tor Herbert Wil­cox demon­strat­ing how you could recre­ate May­fair in the Home Coun­ties, it’s lit­tle won­der John and Roy Boult­ing felt con­fi­dent they could con­jure up any num­ber of Brighton in­te­ri­ors on the Welwyn lot. It would cer­tainly be a lot eas­ier than film­ing on lo­ca­tion. With their pic­ture telling the story of a young hood (Attenborough’s Pinkie Brown) run­ning amok on the south coast, di­rec­tor John and pro­ducer Roy had no end of trou­ble pla­cat­ing the Brighton el­ders who feared the film would in­spire a copy­cat crime wave. Things be­came so prob­lem­atic that the Boult­ings took to ‘steal­ing’ shots on the streets of the town us­ing hid­den cam­eras. Sim­i­lar guer­rilla

‘A-lis­ters were so of­ten seen around Welwyn, they ceased to be re­mark­able’

tac­tics were em­ployed when the broth­ers filmed a scene at the lo­cal race­track. Since the course had been tar­geted by real-life knife gangs in the 1930s, there was no way the au­thor­i­ties would give the film­mak­ers the run of the place. That the fran­tic na­ture of the shoot only added to the ex­cite­ment of the se­quence is one of those happy ac­ci­dents that great movies seem to en­joy.

In con­trast, the Welwyn Stu­dios shoot was pos­i­tively se­date. In­deed, in the 70 years since the film came out, not a sin­gle story has emerged of trou­ble on the set, of egos clash­ing or of the film­mak­ers strug­gling to cap­ture their vi­sion. Then again, it does help when your cast com­prises ac­tors as tal­ented and pro­fes­sional as Hermione Bad­de­ley, Nigel Stock, Har­court Wil­liams and Dr Who’s Wil­liam Hart­nell, who is all but un­recog­nis­able here as no-good gang mem­ber Dal­low. And there at the heart of the piece is the ut­terly de­light­ful Richard Attenborough play­ing the thor­oughly wretched Pinkie Brown. Hired on the strength of his de­but per­for­mance in Noel Cow­ard’s In Which We Serve, the moon-faced star doesn’t look ter­ri­bly threat­en­ing but that only makes the char­ac­ter all the more un­set­tling. Attenborough’s Pinkie mightn’t have been the first baby­faced as­sas­sin but that de­scrip­tion fits him very well.

Im­pres­sive as the cast is, it’s all but eclipsed by the be­hind-the-cam­era tal­ent. Be­sides No­bel nom­i­nee Greene adapt­ing his novel in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fu­ture knight Ter­rence Rat­ti­gan, the Boult­ings are as mighty a film force as has ever come out of

‘The film en­raged news­pa­pers and politi­cians while de­light­ing cinema-go­ers’

this coun­try. From thrillers like Brighton Rock and Seven Days To Noon to come­dies such as I’m All Right Jack and Pri­vate’s Progress, the twins were as pro­lific as they were ver­sa­tile. Brighton Rock, how­ever, re­mains their mas­ter­piece, a film so good as to be un­tar­nished by a raft of movie rip-offs and a mis­fir­ing mod­ern­day re­make.

Upon its re­lease in 1948, the film en­raged news­pa­pers and politi­cians while de­light­ing cinema-go­ers the length and breadth of the na­tion. When seen to­day, it’s hard to be­lieve that the rel­a­tively tame vi­o­lence could have made any­one think the coun­try was on the brink of moral col­lapse. Then again, a lot of things have changed over the last seven decades. Take Welwyn Stu­dios – with El­stree in the as­cen­dant, the de­ci­sion was made to shut the lot down and sell it off in 1951. Years later, Poly­cell took over the fa­cil­ity fill­ing the old sound stages with ma­chin­ery and us­ing the Art Deco en­trance build­ing as of­fices. It was dif­fer­ent but it still looked some­thing like a film stu­dio – at least, it did un­til Poly­cell left town and the en­tire site was bull­dozed.

Sad as it is that Welwyn Stu­dios is no more, it’s won­der­ful so many ter­rific mon­u­ments to it re­main. Al­fred Hitch­cock’s The 39 Steps, Last Hol­i­day star­ring Alec Guin­ness, Peter Usti­nov’s Pri­vate Angelo – all owe some­thing to the gar­den city film hub. And then there’s Brighton Rock, a pic­ture set on the coast, shot in WGC and loved by ev­ery­one.

Ev­ery­one, that is, ex­cept for Richard Attenborough’s brother. While in­ter­view­ing Sir David in 2003, I was sur­prised to hear that he didn’t par­tic­u­larly care for the film or his brother’s later study of a psy­chopath in 10 Rilling­ton Place. ‘It’s very hard for me,’ he ex­plained. ‘I love my brother very much and I have no de­sire to see him play­ing a craven mur­derer.’

Oh, and in case you’re won­der­ing which of Dickie’s films David does love: ‘Gandhi of course is a work of ge­nius. And who doesn’t love The Great Es­cape?’ To which the an­swer is no­body, although it plays even bet­ter when seen on a dou­ble-bill with Brighton Rock, a film with Welwyn Gar­den City run­ning all the way through it.

ABOVE:Founded in 1928 by Bri­tish In­struc­tional Films, the stu­dio hosted all man­ner of films from wildlife doc­u­men­taries to B-movies and clas­sics

LEFT:Some sources say the Four Feath­ers was one of the Brighton Rock sets built at Welwyn Stu­dios

BE­LOW: Richard Attenborough’s un­for­get­table baby-faced as­sas­sin, Pinkie

LEFT:An im­pres­sive cast was all but eclipsed by the be­hind the cam­era tal­ent

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