The glory days return to one of British cinema’s spiritual homes

Saved from demolition four years ago, Twickenham Studios is thriving again. Movie-loving businessman Sunny Vohra explains how he has managed to attract the likes of Ridley Scott and Stanley Tucci

Four years ago the historic Twickenham Studios, home to some of the best-loved moments in British cinema history, stood on the brink of oblivion. The site seemed set for demolition and redevelopment as prime residential land in west London and an era of film history appeared to be drawing to a close.

That disaster was averted is thanks in large part to British businessman and cinema-lover Sunny Vohra. As the studios prepare to announce major investments in independent British films and television dramas, business is booming again. Studios that were suffering six-figure losses before he acquired them are now in profit and film-makers are plying their trade in south-west London.

Those being drawn to Twickenham include Sir Ridley Scott (for Alien: Covenant, the next instalment in his science fiction series), Stanley Tucci (for The Final Portrait, starring Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as artist Alberto Giacometti), and John Madden, whose previous films include Shakespeare in Love (for Miss Sloane, a gun-control drama).

For Vohra, financing the Twickenham renaissance was a no-brainer. Asked whether he was under some obligation, having purchased the site, to keep it as a film studio, he said: “Technically, no. Morally, I was – because of the history.”

Carol Reed, Sam Peckinpah and Richard Attenborough are among the directors who worked at Twickenham. Seminal films made there include Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Italian Job and The Eagle Has Landed. Vohra has spent big in an attempt to bring back some of the spirit of the glory days. So far, in what he describes as “a labour of love”, Vohra has invested £16m.

“Before we took it over,” he says, “[the studios] were losing about half a million pounds a year. The first year we had it, we lost half a million. Then we turned it around and made a small profit. A large part of it was changing the management and … the infrastructure.”

Actress Vanessa Redgrave now has an office there, making documentaries, and Angelina Jolie has just spent several months on site producing her next film, First They Killed My Father, a true-life drama about Cambodia’s deadly Khmer Rouge regime. Stephen Frears, director of The Queen, starring Dame Helen Mirren, opened an office there last week for his new film, Victoria and Abdul, about another monarch – Queen Victoria – and her unlikely friendship with an Indian clerk. Dame Judi Dench is returning to the role she played in Mrs Brown.

Florence Foster Jenkins film still
The 2015 film Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, was shot at Twickenham Studios. Photograph: Photo Nick Wall/PR

Frears shot most of his period comedy Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep as a socialite with ambitions to sing, in Twickenham. Asked why he was returning, he told the Observer: “The modesty of it is very nice. At Pinewood, you’re overwhelmed by James Bond and all the American films. Twickenham is much more domestic and feels appropriate to the films we’re making.”

Born in Kenya, Vohra came to Britain aged 13. His family built up their business, which includes the Rembrandt hotel in south Kensington, from a bicycle shop opened by his Indian grandfather in Kenya. “That’s why I like riding bicycles,” he said. His grandfather emigrated from India to Kenya to work on the railway: “He was one of the workers that laid the tracks. Then they bought a bicycle shop.” The family still have that shop. “We will never close it,” he said, repeating his grandfather’s words: “Remember where everything started.”

He added: “We’re probably the biggest retailers and wholesalers of bicycles in Kenya, and probably Africa.”

A film studio, of course, is a very different proposition from a hotel. “The operational side is different,” said Vohra, “but, in the hotels, we’re renting out rooms for people to sleep in. Here we’re renting out offices, stages and sound theatres for people to come and work in. But it’s still the same thing – commercial space available for rent.”

Twickenham came to his attention after a chance visit to a friend’s office there. While the friend tried in vain to persuade him to invest in movies, Vohra told him that, if the site itself ever became available, he “could be interested”. The friend told him: “Actually, they’re in trouble.” Twickenham was eventually placed in administration, but post-production supervisor Maria Walker organised a campaign to save it, drawing support from Steven Spielberg and other major film-makers.

She said: “I’d worked here a lot and knew it was a great facility. But it was obvious to an outsider that no money had been spent on it. The owner had died about seven years before and it was just a rudderless ship. So I started the campaign. I was so angry, I just couldn’t imagine it not being here.”

Vohra was so struck by her passion that, on acquiring the studio, he appointed her as chief operating officer. He said: “The studio had the wrong management in place. That needed changing. The first thing to do was to bring the right person in.”

From the outside, a series of unprepossessing studio buildings, some rundown and ramshackle, give little clue to the state-of-the-art technology and facilities at the UK’s oldest studio.

But if there is one film that Vohra would have liked to have invested in, it is Casablanca, the classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman: “I have watched that movie once a month for the past 40 years.”

Asked about his budget for investing in independent British films, he said: “There’s no set figure. We’re going to look at every project that comes along. We want to attract strong scripts. It’s about going to the cinema and being able to say: ‘You know, that movie was done at Twickenham.’”

STILL FLYING THE FLAG

Pinewood

Merged with Alexander Korda’s Denham in 1938 by Sir Charles Boot and J Arthur Rank. Will open five new sound stages this week.

Famous for: The Red Shoes, Carry on Sergeant, Dr No.

Recently home to: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Victor Frankenstein.

Ealing

Synonymous with comedies and thrillers in the 1940s; revamped last year with new plans and money.

Famous for: The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit.

Recently home to: Downton Abbey, Weinstein Company’s One Chance and Working Title’s The Two Faces of January.

Shepperton

Its 15 sound stages are part of the Pinewood Studios Group.

Famous for: The Third Man, I’m Alright Jack, Oliver!, The Day of the Jackal, The Elephant Man, Blade Runner, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Billy Elliot, Bend it Like Beckham and Atonement.

Recently home to: Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Into the Woods and Gravity.

Elstree

Just received planning clearance for an expansion to be completed late next year.

Famous for: The first British talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, The Hasty Heart, with Richard Todd and Ronald Reagan, the original Star Wars trilogy, The Dirty Dozen and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Dam Busters used the water tank.

Recently home to: The Danish Girl and Paddington.

Warner Bros, Leavesden

A newcomer first built as a factory more than 70 years ago.

Famous for: Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace, Sleepy Hollow and all eight of the Harry Potter films.

Recently home to: Tarzan, Pan, In the Heart of the Sea.

  • This article was amended on 3 July 2016. An earlier version said that Lauren Bacall starred in Casablanca. This has been corrected.

Contributor

Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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