Jonathan Ross on the magic of Pinewood studios

From Bond to Superman, the studio at the heart of the British film industry has helped form many a classic film - and a few juicy stories as well...

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I love Pinewood Studios, and I’m lucky enough to have visited them many times. I’ve interviewed people on lavish, improbably detailed sets that made me feel we were on other planets, or deep in the tombs and catacombs of the most ancient parts of this one. I’ve visited supervillains’ hide-outs and run-down apartment blocks – all constructed in the sound stages that are spread over 90 acres of Buckinghamshire. I’ve chatted to various different Bonds and multiple Bond Girls, or Bond Women as we’re training ourselves to think of them. But I’ve never really had the chance to delve deep, to explore and wallow in the remarkable history of this incredible place. Until now.

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When you arrive at the entrance to Pinewood and collect your pass allowing access to this magic kingdom, it is, I’m afraid, a massive disappointment. You enter via an anonymous, characterless security block, driving under barriers or pushing through grim metal turnstiles. It looks more like the car park at a second division airport than the dream factory it really is. 

But if you carry on past the heavy security, put in place and ramped up in recent years to safeguard the secrecy surrounding high-investment projects like the Bond films and new Star Wars movies, you come to the old, mock Tudor entrance, Pinewood as it once was. This is the same gate that James Mason, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty, Liz Taylor and Diana Dors, John Mills and Alec Guinness, Sean Connery and Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, Charles Hawtrey and Barbara Windsor, David Lean and Powell and Pressburger, and Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – the list is as long as you want to make it – this is the same gate they all drove through to make the masterpieces and classics and Carry Ons of the past.

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The poster for Carry On Screaming, which was filmed at Pinewood

Indeed, if you were to arrive in a vintage car you might well feel like you’re starring in one of the most successful British films shot here – the charming Genevieve. It’s a thrill just looking at that entrance, knowing that the people who passed through it shaped and defined cinema history.

Once inside, Pinewood’s strange past gives it a character that is lacking in most studios. Sure, there are enormous sound stages that, regardless of what they are called and who they are named after, still look like giant soulless warehouses, pretty much identical to the same buildings you’ll find at every film complex on the planet. But Pinewood is different. It was built on the site of Heatherden Hall, a stately home that became a country club before millionaire flour magnate J Arthur Rank bought into the concern in 1935 with the intention of building a studio and creating a film business to rival that of Hollywood. It is said that he called his fledgeling studio Pinewood because the “Holly in Hollywood is only a bush, but the Pine of Pinewood is a tree, and a tree continues to grow”.

The manicured gardens in which those pines grew have been a backdrop to countless classics, and Heatherden Hall itself has doubled as a colonial mansion in Carry On Up the Khyber and as the Buchanans’ house in the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby in 1974. If a movie shooting at Pinewood needed a grand exterior, they had it ready and waiting.

Even the newer parts of the complex are familiar – the long hallways that link the studios to the production offices and technical rooms are instantly recognisable as hospital hallways from the Carry Ons, the Norman Wisdom and the Doctor series that were a staple part of the British film industry throughout the 60s. 

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Actress Shirley Eaton is immortalised by make-up for Goldfinger in 1964 

The studio has had so many hits it’s hard to believe Pinewood wasn’t always in such robust health. Several times the studio looked in danger of closing, due to J Arthur Rank’s “relaxed” approach to budgets. During the 1930s and in the immediate postwar years it faltered. Then again in the 1970s it looked as if the studio might close its doors for good. But each time it pulled through by the skin of its teeth. In the 70s it was largely thanks to the intervention of Superman and, it has to be said, beneficial tax breaks. 

Pinewood continues to be seen as the number one choice for big-budget blockbusters. Thanks are also due to the ever-present Bond films. Only a few have been shot elsewhere, and the next one, Spectre, is shooting there as I write. 

The Bonds are so important to the survival of Pinewood that the largest sound stage is named 007. Huge, and when empty it’s little more than a warehouse. But I’ve been there when it was transformed into the backstreets of Venice for Casino Royale, a magnificent tomb for Angelina Jolie to raid, and a breathtaking witches’ castle for Stardust, and seen Robert De Niro playing a cross-dressing captain collecting lightning from the clouds in a flying ship for that same movie.

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Thanks to this 80th-anniversary documentary I now have new Pinewood memories to add to my collection. Joan Collins, one of the studio’s early signings in the 50s, telling me how she was forced to spend days posing for publicity photos in a photographer’s studio they constructed over what was once a swimming pool. Driving around with Barbara Windsor in a golf buggy (above) and pointing out Carry On locations – including the muddy field (sprayed green to make it look lush) where she had her bikini top whisked inelegantly off in Carry On Camping. And new Bond star Naomie Harris talking about walking into an iconic role.

There are those who say the British film industry is dead, or in very poor health at best. But my belief is that, creatively at least, it’s as strong as ever – and while we can boast the world’s most sought-after studio I suspect it will continue in good health for years to come. 

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Turn the page to see Jonathan Ross’ top five Pinewood movies