29 August 2012
Posted in Film
An interview with Maria Walker (pictured), chief executive of Twickenham Studios, by Richard Bevan
With famous film studios such as Bray having fallen into the hands of developers it has been a shot in the arm for the British film industry to see Twickenham Film Studios saved from a fate as an office block or housing estate. As well as investment to bring the 99-year-old site into the 21st Century, plans also include changing the name to Twickenham Studios to show that it’s not just film production facilities the studio will offer.
The revitalisation of the studio – home to such famous films as Tom Jones, Zulu, The Italian Job, several Hammer horrors and more recently My Week With Marilyn and The Iron Lady – will see an updating of facilities to make it one of the most dynamic production centres in London.
Its new owners, led by businessman and ‘film fanatic’ Sunny Vohra, have promised to take the studio (established in 1913) back to its glory days. Sunny himself has become managing director of Twickenham Studios Ltd (TSL).
Maria Walker, the studio’s new chief executive, led the campaign to save the complex. She has a long association with the studio tucked away in St Margaret’s. She first started there 28 years ago as a runner on Wild Geese 2.
What’s so special about Twickenham Studios?
Maria Walker: Having worked at nearly all the major studios I think Twickenham is very special because it’s in the community. Shepperton and Pinewood are large and quite soulless places to work in the middle of nowhere. Twickenham is in the heart of a community.
Shops, pubs and cafes right outside the door, it’s quite buzzy.
Yes. With a train station across the road it’s close to London. I also think because it’s smaller it has a friendlier ‘family’ atmosphere. Also its post-production is a centre of excellence.
This is the unique Sound Centre built in the 1980s that has a ‘Tardis’ feel to it – small on the outside and gigantic on the inside?
The dubbing studios have to be big to replicate the atmosphere of cinemas. It’s got a history of big films been mixed in its huge two dubbing rooms; films like Elizabeth The Golden Age, Sahara, Burke & Hare, Senna and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – and for that reason has attracted big names, such as Stephen Spielberg.
How did you manage to save the studio from what looked like to be a done deal to sell to developers?
It wasn’t me solely; I simply instigated a Twitter campaign and petition. Just knowing so many people in the business, I was able to get them to sign it and it travelled. As I live locally I was able to get the council involved andVince Cable our local MP. We were able to raise awareness in the community as well as the film industry to make Taylor Wimpey (the developers) see that this wasn’t the place to be turning into a council estate.
Despite the current recession, film and TV production in this country is pretty healthy and studio space is being built as we speak. Why did Twickenham find itself in such a dark place?
I think it was an easy option for the existing owners. To Wimpey’s credit we met with the chairman and he pulled out of the deal when he realised that it was viable as a studio when he had been led to believe that wasn’t the case. I also think it would have been a PR disaster because the whole community was up in arms about the thought of the studio closing.
It’s encouraging to see that when people and a community band together they can make a difference. Did celebrities help?
Yes, the campaign was helped all kinds of people including former Watchdog presenter Lynn Faulds Wood who is a local resident. You mention her name and property developers don’t really like someone who did a consumer programme breathing down their necks! We also had the actor Nick Farrell and fantastic support from Save Twickenham Film Studio campaigner Maggie Walsh. It wasn’t easy. We printed 10,000 leaflets and shoved them through people’s doors. We also set up a stall and within two and half hours I had 900 people signing just from one road alone. The council were very good. When they heard about the petition they got in contact and said they wanted to meet with us and work with us to save the studio. And they tried to tackle it from every angle, from an environmental point of view, looking at loss of jobs and really anyone living here knows the infrastructure just isn’t capable of dealing with additional housing. Finally the council wrote to the owners and said they would not allow change of use.
And the new owner, Sunny Vohra, it’s quite a different venture for him?
Sunny is passionate about film. He lives in London and he’s an hotelier which means he understands the importance of service. A studio has to be run like a hotel, you’ve got clients coming in and you have to make them feel good and satisfied by the facilities. Don’t worry, he has no plans to turn it into a hotel. It’s not viable and who would want to come to a hotel in St Margaret’s? Lovely as it is.
Is it going to be tough getting the studio up and running after this period of uncertainty?
Part of the problem is that when staff were told about the closure booking ceased. So there will be a bit of a dip to begin with. But we’re already getting interest and right now we have a feature film shooting on all three stages called Cuban Fury, so it’s getting exciting again. Our job now is to get word out that we’re open for business and are running.
And it’s not just film makers you’ll be catering for but also TV production and creative media as well?
The Poirot series was done here and we will be upgrading so we can attract more varied clients, not just film but TV and the games industry. We’ll cater for large scale movies but also mid- to low budget. Sunny said he looked at this place and said, ‘Well it has survived 99 years, there has to be something about it’. We know it can compete with the best of them and also offer services that the big studios can’t always do. We want to attract budding film makers, support and share our knowledge with them and also work with the local schools. This is all about bringing the studio into the 21st Century because over the decades it had slipped. I think we should respect the past, what the studio has made, be it early silents, Gracie Fields movies, The Beatles films or the likes of Blade Runner and American Werewolf In London – that’s all great, but I like to think of the future.