From Hitchcock to Attenborough: Remembering Welwyn Garden City's film studios near the Shredded Wheat factory site
- Credit: Image from Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service
With The Wheat Quarter's plans for the Shredded Wheat site including an independent three-screen art-house cinema, we look back at the days when Welwyn Garden City boasted its own film studios.
Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Attenborough, Dracula movie star Bela Lugosi, Anna Neagle – one of the leading ladies of 1930s and 1940s British cinema – and Rex Harrison all made movies just a stone’s throw from the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City.
While the Garden City became home to the breakfast cereal with the opening of the factory in 1926, film stars were making movies just along the road at Welwyn Studios from 1928 to 1950.
The Wheat Quarter bosses have announced plans for an art-house cinema as part of a new food, arts and entertainment hub on the land to the north of Hyde Way.
They say this will be “in homage” to the site being near the home of the historic Welwyn Studios.
The cereal factory’s old boiler room will become a three-screen independent cinema with sofa seating, bars and food providing a unique experience.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the area near the factory was home to film stars of the day.
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Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes of The 39 Steps, his 1935 adaptation of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, in Welwyn Garden City, with the backlot used to film a number of street scenes.
While Brighton Rock, as the name suggests, is set in Brighton and was filmed on location by the coast in Sussex, scenes of the gangster movie starring Richard Attenborough as small-time hoodlum Pinkie Brown were shot on the stages of Welwyn Studios.
So how did the second Garden City end up having a famous movie studios in the 1920s?
Eager to attract new industries to the growing new town, Welwyn Garden City Limited in 1927 approached the pioneering documentary and feature film company British Instructional Films (BIF), which at the time was considering sites for its proposed latest studio.
The new facility on Broadwater Road was the design of engineer H P Hoyle, with the town architects Louis de Soissons and A W Kenyon preparing the elevation drawings.
Costing £60,000 to construct, the studios was built by Welwyn Builders, with local firm Dawnay and Sons providing the steelwork for the structure. Aggregate was sourced from the gravel and sand pit at Stanborough Lane.
The official opening of the then state-of-the-art studios took place on November 8, 1928, but the film industry’s transition from silent movies to ‘talkies’ soon afterwards required them to be hastily converted for the sound era.
Film director Walter Summers made Chamber of Horrors at Welwyn Studios. The 1929 horror movie is regarded as the last major silent film made in England.
Summers, who lived in Parkway during the 1930s, also directed 1939 thriller Traitor Spy, and The Dark Eyes of London at Welwyn Studios, the latter starring Bela Lugosi.
In 1931, Welwyn Studios was taken over by John Maxwell’s Elstree-based British International Pictures (BIP), and later became part of Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC).
It was mainly used for BIP’s supporting features and to accommodate overflow productions from the main complex at Elstree.
Welwyn Studios was also hired out to other production companies such as Gaumont-British, who used the backlot for a Belgian town square in 1933’s World War One espionage drama I Was a Spy.
While Elstree and other British studios were requisitioned during World War Two, filmmaking continued at Welwyn Studios.
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock returned to make a couple of short 1944 propaganda films, Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage.
It was during the 1940s that some of studios’ most celebrated films were shot.
The Boulting Brothers’ classic Brighton Rock was made there, as was I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) and Piccadilly Incident (1946).
Starring Rex Harrison and Anna Neagle, I Live in Grosvenor Square is about an American sergeant who falls in love with a Duke’s daughter who is the childhood sweetheart of an army major.
The wartime romance, directed and produced by Herbert Wilcox, was released in the United States under the title A Yank in London.
Neagle, one of British cinema’s leading ladies of the time, also starred in Piccadilly Incident.
Again directed by her husband Herbert Wilcox, and co-starring Michael Wilding, it was one of the biggest box office hits of the year.
Welwyn’s facilities were becoming dated by the 1950s, and commercial pressures forced ABPC to close the studios in 1950. They eventually sold the site to a tobacco company, bringing the curtain down on film production.
However, location filming has returned to the area in recent years. EastEnders star Danny Dyer shot scenes near the Shredded Wheat factory.
Brighton Rock in Welwyn Garden City
Post-war classic Brighton Rock is the most famous movie made at Welwyn Studios.
The Boulting Brothers’ 1947 razor-slashing gangster film stars Richard Attenborough in perhaps his most iconic on-screen role as teenage hoodlum Pinkie Brown.
Adapted from Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Attenborough plays a violent gang leader running a protection racket in Brighton.
Following the murder of a visiting journalist, Pinkie becomes involved with Rose (Carol Marsh), a shy café waitress and potential witness.
To ensure her silence, Pinkie marries the naive waitress who could implicate his gang in the murder.
But events escalate and a trail of killings and double-crossings eventually lead to Pinkie’s undoing and a thrilling and memorable climax.
Also starring Hermoine Baddeley and William Hartnell, the film was produced by Roy Boulting and directed by John Boulting.
It was released in the United States under the title Young Scarface.
The BFI website states: “Nastier than anything else in 1940s British cinema, Richard Attenborough’s intense performance as teenage gangster Pinkie Brown elevates this adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel.”
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