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It’s time to put my life in a film
I MUST start by dedicating this column to a gentleman I encountered at the Mops and Brooms in Well End where I spent most of the weekend enjoying the amazing sun and preserving myself in alcohol.
I enjoyed meeting Chris Gardner, who was visiting from Australia having emigrated to the colony five years ago from Borehamwood. Chris tells me he reads my articles and the Borehamwood & Elstree Times every week online and it is still a source of fascination to me that people can actually read this 12,000 miles away. It would have been nice if he had bought me a pint, but you know what these colonists are like. I was amazed to hear alcohol costs twice as much down under so I will spend my remaining years here.
Sixty years ago Elstree Studios was busy with what should have been a huge cinema blockbuster as the film industry got together to make a special movie as its contribution to the Festival of Britain.
They chose to make The Magic Box, which told the story of victorian cinema pioneer William Friese Greene — whose son Claude was later to work at Elstree in the Thirties.
The gimmick was to lace the film with 60 stars making cameo appearances ranging from Sid James and Joyce Grenfell to Richard Attenborough and Peter Ustinov. The character of Greene was portrayed by Robert Donat, who had become an unlikely film star in the Thirties after winning an Oscar for his role in the classic Goodbye Mr Chips.
Robert suffered badly from asthma aggrivated by his own insecurity resulting in his career slowly petering out and ending with his death just after filming The Inn Of Sixth Happiness at MGM in Borehamwood with Ingrid Bergman.
In The Magic Box he was apparently most anxious when he had to shoot a scene where he explains his film camera invention to a policeman played by Laurence Olivier and as a result was ill for a couple of days afterwards.
The film was produced by Ronald Neame, who later went on to become a successful director with hits such as Tunes Of Glory and The Poseidon Adventure. I met Ronald shortly before his death aged 99 in 2010 when he came back to Elstree to sign copies of his autobiography. The people doing the publicity got the times of his visit wrong, so I got plenty of time to chat with him.
Ronald recalled being a cameraman at the studio in the Thirties and remembered in 1936 when he was awoken by the sound of fire engines and saw the British & Dominions Studio, where Imperial Place office complex now stands, burning fiercely.
He recalled: “I ran into the camera department, loaded up a camera and filmed the whole thing, but heaven knows what later happened to the footage.”
Ronald said The Magic Box: “Every British cinema star of that era agreed to play a cameo role except for Alec Guinness, but in retrospect the story was too downbeat with Friese Greene proving to be a failed inventor who dies forgotten and in poverty.”
The film flopped at the UK box office and was cold-shouldered in America, where the critics took exception to the English claiming to have invented the movie camera.
In real life Freise Greene dropped dead at a film industry meeting with just a few pennies in his pocket and in a fit of remorse the studio bosses paid for a nice headstone which was no doubt of great comfort to him.
While the film was in production the Queen Mother, accompanied by Princess Margaret, made a royal visit to Elstree studios and watched a scene being shot.
Perhaps someone should produce a film next year to celebrate the Royal Jubilee and fill it with cameo appearances by today’s screen stars and if they want to base it on my life story I am happy to give permission. I think Jude Law could play me, but the story will have to be more upbeat as I have no intention of dropping dead quite yet.
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