Gainsborough Pictures dominates British film with RJ as producer

Author and Hollywood scriptwriter RJ Minney helped dominate the historic British film industry from 1942-1946, working at Gainsborough Pictures with the formidable Ted Black. The two of them made immensely successful costume dramas and helped boost the careers of many successful British film-stars, including James Mason and Margaret Lockwood.

Audrey White, Puffin Asquith and RJ Minney at Pinewood Studios

Gainsborough Pictures was a leading British film company, founded in 1924 and associated with the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation run by Isidore Ostrer and his brothers Maurice and Mark. After Gaumont-British went bankrupt, in 1936 Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J. Arthur Rank. Maurice Ostrer gave an increasingly free hand to Edward (Ted) Baker, who had a great sense of the home market, and brought in RJ in 1942 as a key part of the production team.

The Encyclopaedia of British Film entry on the melodrama films, repeated in Screen Online website reads: “These were based on recent popular books by female novelists, foregrounding gypsies, wanton women and lustful aristocrats. They were made into films which mined a rich seam in British popular culture and were visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. The first big success was The Man in Grey (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1943), an escapist film from wartime woes.

RJ Minney produced other top British films in the most successful period of Gainsborough’s history including Madonna of the Seven Moons (directed by Arthur Crabtree in 1944), The Wicked Lady (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1945), Caravan (directed by Arthur Crabtree, 1946). He also produced the atmospheric A Place of One’s Own (1944) by Osbert Sitwell with settings designed by Rex Whistler. The Gainsborough melodramas had higher gross revenues than top Hollywood films.

The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, broke all box-office records, showing in 9,000 American cinemas and achieving a total audience of 18.4 million. Apparently the low-cut period bodices showed too much cleavage and the film needed reshooting over 9 days of retakes to satisfy US censors. RJ Minney wrote to the Times in July 1947 about the high productivity of British films compared to Hollywood, for example A Place of One’s Own “occupied the studio floor for a bare six weeks”.

According to the Encyclopaedia: “Black and Minney encouraged the careers of a new breed of British stars – Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc – who were democratic in their manner, and the female side of the British audience took them to their hearts. Critics and male viewers excoriated the Gainsborough costume melodramas, but for female fans the historical pleasures and sexual mayhem performed an important function.” Other Gainsborough British film stars were Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent, Dennis Price, Ronald Coleman, Loretta Young and Dulcie Gray.

Ted Black and RJ Minney also produced comedy and modern-dress melodramas, which covered the same themes as the costume dramas. British films Love Story (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1944), and They Were Sisters (directed by Arthur Crabtree in 1945) dealt with desire, anger and sartorial envy, according to the Encyclopaedia.

The golden age unravelled after 1946, with Arthur Rank Organization taking full control and many people leaving including Ted Black and Maurice Ostrer, who were also feuding according to this website. RJ announced in January 1947 that he had resigned. Sidney Box took over as head of Gainsborough on a contract to produce 12 films a year, with his sister Betty Box as head producer. However Gainsborough Pictures was saddled with heavy overheads and closed in 1950.

In 1979 Gainsborough actress Dulcie Gray gave the address at RJ Minney’s memorial service.

Current traces of British film history in London

Gainsborough operated out of Islington Studios in Poole Street, Hoxton, London N1 and at Lime Grove in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Islington Studios were state-of-the-art in the early 1920s, after US film company Famous Players-Lasky refurbished a former power plan, which it sold to Gainsborough Pictures, owned by Michael Balcon, in 1924. It was nicknamed “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” for its deluxe facilities, according to this website. It nurtured many leading film makers, particularly Graham Cutts. Cutts mentored Alfred Hitchcock who started as a writer at Islington before rising to director’s assistant. Actor Ivor Novello also contributed to Gainsborough’s success. Balcon continued to nurture Hitchcock, sending him to Germany to work on a film with German company UFA (Universum-Film). Gaumont made many of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage and mystery films at Lime Grove.

In 1927 Gainsborough merged with Gaumont-British Picture Corporation into a conglomerate with nearly 300 cinemas. Gaumont did higher-budget films and Gainsborough “B” movies and melodramas. When Gaumont-British went bankrupt, Balcon left in 1936 to MGM-British and then Ealing Studios. Ted Black took over production in 1936.

During the war operations were evacuated to Lime Grove since the high chimney at Islington was thought to be at risk from bombing. Film studios were full of flammable materials and frequently burnt, including in 1930 the Islington Studios.

J Arthur Rank closed production at both studios in 1949 to concentrate on Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.

The BBC took over Lime Grove in 1949 and used it for TV current affairs and live programmes. It became so dilapidated that staff nicknamed it “Slime Grove” and it was closed in 1991. The buildings were demolished and replaced with housing called Gaumont Terrace and Gainsborough Court, according to this interesting website.

Islington studios had various industrial uses and featured two epic Shakespeare productions by Almeida Theatre Company in 2000 and Hitchcock season in 2003. Beautifully designed apartments named Gainsborough Studios were built in 2004 with a 6.5 metre head of Hitchcock in the courtyard.

NOTE: Brian McFarlane (ed), 2016. The Encyclopaedia of British Film: 4th Edition. Oxford University Press.

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