Lights, Camera, Merton!
A new book uncovers the story of Wimbledon’s film heritage. Author Clive Whichelow explains more
What do the following have in common: Peter Sellers, Rita Tushingham, Diana Dors and Richard Attenborough? They all made films at Merton Park Studios. Some of the most famous directors too; Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell and Joan Littlewood all worked here, and many of the studio’s technicians and stuntmen went on to careers in Hollywood.
The studios stood on Kingston Road from 1929 and today, outside Long Lodge just next to the Leather Bottle pub on Kingston Road, stands a British Film Institute plaque commemorating the site of Merton Park Studios. On what would have been the studio’s 90th birthday year, perhaps it is time to find out what exactly went on behind those doors.
Through the Decades
Although cinema had been going since the end of the previous century, in the late 1920s local picture houses were only just adapting their equipment to cope with the new ‘talkies’ that had started with The Jazz Singer in 1927. And in 1929, a little piece of Hollywood entered the sleepy backwater of Merton Park in the form of the film studios.
In the early days the studio mainly produced documentaries, government wartime propaganda films and commercials though even they included stars of the day such as Stanley Holloway and Terry-Thomas. Fast forward a few decades and the studios hit their stride. In the 1950s Merton Park Studios turned to the new genre of crime thrillers, producing films including Assassin For Hire, Wide Boy, and The Dark Man… the latter starring William Hartnell who was to become the very first Doctor Who and Maxwell Reed who was to become the first husband of Joan Collins the following year.
Film images courtesy of Studio Canal.
In 1953 the studios became home to the Scotland Yard series, episodes of which are still shown on TV today. This was followed by the Scales of Justice series and the long-running Edgar Wallace mysteries.
In many of these shows viewers would not only see dozens of well-known character actors but also youngsters such as Michael Caine and Edward Fox. The streets of Wimbledon and Merton also featured, with nearby areas regularly used as filming locations.
In the 1960s, feature films were big business with the studios home to The Criminal (1960) with Stanley Baker, Sparrows Can’t Sing starring Barbara Windsor and James Booth and The Leather Boys (1964) with Rita Tushingham. Merton Park Studios also made horror, sci-fi and comedy as well as children’s films, with many of these featuring future adult stars such as David Hemmings, Michael Crawford and Petula Clark.
The studios continued making films into the early 1970s but the industry was changing and cinemas no longer had a need for the B films that the studio was so adept at making. Still, the legacy of Merton Park Studios lives on and if you tune into TV channels such as Talking Pictures today, you’ll likely spot a film made here
In 2019 and 2020, Merton’s film-making potential is coming to the forefront once again. Having won a Cultural Impact Award as part of the Mayor of London’s London Borough of Culture initiative, the FilmMerton project aims to bring film to all parts of the community and highlight the local area as a great potential film location. The project has a programme of pop-up cinema events and is bringing short films selected by guest curators to Merton.
Coming up next for FilmMerton is its Black History special with screenings of Coach Carter, American Dream and The Great Debaters at Pollards Hill Library in November. Also in November and December, the Shiny Movies curation continues with screenings of Beethoven and The Midnight Gang. Time & Leisure will keep you posted on all the FilmMerton news and events and let’s hope a new era of Merton film is on the horizon and can build on the legacy left behind by the likes of Merton Park Studios.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, MERTON! The Films of Merton Park Studios is available at all good bookshops, museums and libraries locally and on Amazon.co.uk and is priced at £9.99.