Garbrand Hall - Film Studio

Garbrand Hall
Garbrand Hall
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

You never know when one thing will lead to another. While researching Frederick Thomas Hopkinson, a letter from his son Cecil, which had been sent in 1976, was found in which he casually mentioned that a film had been made at Garbrand Hall just before his father purchased it from Henry Willis on 18 February 1919.

Henry's father David Willis, an insurance broker, had bought Garbrand Hall from Richard Charles Garton on 14 December 1903. David also owned two other properties but lived at the Hall with his wife Charlotte and six children Mildred, Henry, David, Alfred, Raymond and Ernest, until his death there on 6 May 1911.

Charlotte Willis, like many other homeowners of large houses up and down England, offered the Hall to be used during 1915 as a hospital for wounded Great War (1914-1918) soldiers. According to the 1915 Electoral Roll, Charlotte's sons Ernest and Henry Willis were also living there at the time. At some point they started to lease out Garbrand Hall but it is not known if this was before their mother's death in her other home in Sussex on 25 October 1916. It would seem though, that in late 1917 Garbrand Hall was leased to A.C. Films, to be used as a film studio albeit a short-lived and unsuccessful one.

The process that captured moving images on celluloid film was discover by British inventor William Friese Greene in 1889. He made the first black and white silent film in Hyde Park and patented the process the following year. It took another four years before British inventors Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres produced a 35 mm camera to project the moving images onto a screen and later screen the first British film, 'Incident at Clovelly Cottage'. It was not until 1908 that British inventor George Albert Smith devised 'Kinemacolor', the first colour film system. Films with sound, fondly called "talkies", were not invented until 1928. American inventors however were advancing at a similar pace to British inventors all the time.

The man behind A.C. Films was André Eugène Maurice Charlot. Born on 26 July 1882 in Paris, France, André worked during his life as an actor, impresario and press manager, as well as a film director and producer. He had also been the manager of several Parisian theatres and music halls, including the Folies-Bergères and Châtelet. In 1909 André married Florence Emily Gladman, an English dancer known to her family as Flip. The following year on 1 July their son, Phillippe André Jean, was born in France. The couple later adopted Flip's niece Joan.

André Eugène Maurice Charlot 1912
André Eugène Maurice Charlot 1912

In the same year that his son was born, André opened a theatrical agency in Paris where he supplied variety and music hall artists, especially to the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, London. The Alhambra was where Robert W. Paul had presented his first theatrical film programme on 25 March 1896. By 1912 André moved to London to become the joint manager of the Alhambra and eventually became its managing director until 1915. The Alhambra was demolished in 1936 to make way for the Odeon Leicester Square.

Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London.
Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London.

In 1917 André became a British subject and turned his attention to the film industry, setting up offices for André Charlot Film Productions, trading as A.C. Films, at 6/7 Arundell Street, just off of Coventry Street in West London. With financial backing from Mr. Kristen Heistein, André was able to offer Egyptologist Arthur Edward Pearse Brome Weigall a partnership as A.C. Films' Director, with a promise of a salary of £1500 a year plus 10% of any profits, which, had the venture been successful, could have amounted to an extra £1000-£2000.

Arthur Edward Pearse Brome Weigall
Arthur Edward Pearse Brome Weigall

Arthur was aged 36, having been born on 20 November 1880 in Jersey. He had been working since 1905 for the Egyptian government, as Inspector-General of Antiquities, a position that had previously been held by Howard Carter. Arthur, who had returned from Egypt in 1914 and had turned his hand to stage set design, was not only recovering from a breakdown but also a lack of a regular salary, agreed to André's proposal. However for some reason, the two-year lease to turn Garbrand Hall in Ewell into a working film studio was not taken in André Charlot's name but in Arthur Weigall's name.

Arthur was also a prolific author and when André agreed to buy his screenplay The Spirit of Adventure for £100 plus royalties, André engaged Bannister Merwin, an American director, to produce the film. The film was to have starred actress Phyllis Monkman and was scheduled to begin shooting in early September 1917. However, following Zeppelin raids over Piccadilly in October 1917, they decided for safety to move the whole company to Ewell. However, despite increasing the production budget when they got to Garbrand Hall, the filming of The Spirit of Adventure came to nothing.

Map of Garbrand Hall and grounds - Click image to enlarge
Map of Garbrand Hall and grounds - Click image to enlarge
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

A survey taken later in 1926 records that Garbrand Hall had partial central heating and generated its own electricity from a power plant housed within its extensive grounds that covered an area of '6 acres 1 rod 16 perches'. The Hall faced east and overlooked a wide gravelled terrace, tennis lawns, formal lawns and the spring-fed lake that is still there today.

Garbrand Hall and lake
Garbrand Hall and lake
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Within its grounds cedar, oak, pine, beech, ash and birch trees grew creating woodland walkways and, along with the lake, two sunken formal gardens and an old kitchen garden, would have provided wonderful locations for filming.

Gardens of Garbrand Hall taken after it became a girls' school Gardens of Garbrand Hall taken after it became a girls' school
Gardens of Garbrand Hall taken after it became a girls' school
Gardens of Garbrand Hall taken after it became a girls' school
Images courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Whether or not the large 18th century Hall itself was to be used for filming is not known. At first glance, visitors arriving at the front of the Hall would have seen a three-storey brick built stucco fronted house but it actually consisted of a lower ground floor and a ground floor with two more storeys above. There was a secondary staircase that reached from the lower ground floor to the top storey floor. The large kitchen, which had a wood block floor, was on the lower ground floor and was furnished with a double oven range and baking oven. Along with the servants' hall, the staff bedrooms were also on the lower ground floor, as well as a bathroom, linen room, scullery and larder. There were also wine, beer and coal cellars.

The ground floor was approached from the wide gravelled terrace by means of a short flight of stone-winged steps into a vestibule with a tessellated floor, which then led into a marbled paved entrance hall that measured 21ft. x 9ft. The inner hall, which had panelled walls, measured 75ft. x 12ft. 6ins. and from which the principal semi-circle staircase ascended to the first floor. Most of the principal reception rooms and bedrooms had finely sculptured marble chimneypieces.

The morning room measured 24ft. x 18ft. while the drawing room, with its polished oak parquet flooring and two sash windows that opened onto a balcony, measured 27ft. x 21ft. From the drawing room, casement windows also opened into the winter garden room that measured 60ft. x 20ft. and was heated by hot water pipes. Also on the ground floor was the library, 24ft. x 18ft., which had a casement door leading to the garden. The billiard room measured 27ft. x 25ft. into a recess while the dining room, with its high painted plaster dado, measured 26ft. x 15ft. 6ins. Serving the ground floor was a cloakroom fitted with two washbasins and a lavatory, plus a second lavatory with one washbasin. The butler's pantry with a sink and cupboards, along with the housekeeper's room and a doorway to the garden completed the ground floor layout.

The principal semi-circle staircase rose from the ground floor up to the spacious landing of the first floor where there were six bedrooms and three bathrooms, all fitted with baths and marble topped lavatory basins. There were also two more lavatories and a housemaid's closet that was fitted with a sink.

On the top floor there were another five bedrooms along with a dressing room and box room and with a way out to the parapet walled slate covered roof.

Garbrand Hall was like a hotel for everyone connected with A.C. Films, including André, Arthur and their backer Kristen Heistein. Most weekends at least 15 people were invited to lunch or dinner, with 8 or 9 of the guests staying over. As the Hall had been leased unfurnished, this large house must have cost A.C. Films an enormous amount of money to suitably furnish it.

In Cecil Hopkinson's 1976 letter, he mentioned that the stables had been previously converted into dressing rooms and that the names of the film stars were written on the doors. The Coach House and stables were situated at the end of the carriage drive that came from the High Street, under the Dog Gate, past the Lodge and ran parallel to Spring Street. The Lodge also had another three bedrooms, a kitchen, sitting room, scullery and lavatory should any more accommodation be needed. The Lodge and Dog Gate are the only two structures that escaped demolition in 1962.

The Dog Gate Entrance and Lodge (Spring Street to the left)
The Dog Gate Entrance and Lodge (Spring Street to the left)l
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Lodge
The Lodge
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Coach House and stable block was brick built and had a slate roof surmounted by a clock tower in the middle and was conveniently placed on the left of the house, partly surrounding an enclosed paved yard. The accommodation on the top floor consisted of four rooms, four cubicles, a kitchen and a lavatory, while downstairs there were five horse stalls, three loose boxes, a harness room, cloak room and a gentlemen's lavatory. The former coach space was large enough to hold four cars while outside there was also a garage for another two cars and a covered car wash area. As yet no photo of the stables has been found but the c1926 aerial photo below shows the Hall with the stable block to the right.

Aerial photo of Garbrand Hall and grounds c1926
Closeup of the Hall and stables
Aerial photo of Garbrand Hall and grounds c1926
With closeup of the Hall and stables
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

It appears that Arthur was not only A.C. Films' director but also its scriptwriter, set and costume designer making him seem almost a one-man-band. Thankfully there was at least a cameraman to film the acting. So the actors knew exactly what he wanted from them, Arthur himself practised the scenes over and over in front of a mirror so that he could act the scenes out for them.

Little time was left for him to have any sort of family life and he commented in a letter to his American wife Hortense, who was living in Fyfield with their five children, that he if he was not interviewing actors and casting them, he was busy designing and erecting the scenery, which at the time consisted of whole streets of Brittany styled houses, hotels and cathedrals. On top of all this, Arthur was continually having meetings with other authors with a view to signing screenplay contracts with them, as well as playing host to their guests and being housekeeper to the Hall.

Although the Hall's lease had been taken in Arthur's name, André had written a letter to Arthur agreeing that he would foot all the bills through their backer Kristen Heistein. However the money from their backer was not forthcoming and although Arthur had received his first quarter yearly wage in December 1917, by April 1918 the bills were mounting up and Arthur's wages remained unpaid. Each day it was Arthur, not André or Kristen Heistein, who faced disgruntled tradesmen, writs, summonses and threats. On 2 July 1918 the Edinburgh Gazette listed Kristen Heistein's name and address under 'Bankrupts from the London Gazette - Receiving Orders'.

Towards the end of July 1918 André was also close to bankruptcy and the studio at Garbrand Hall, having not released a single film, was forced to close. Fortunately the landlord Henry Willis agreed to take back the Hall and release Arthur from the tenancy agreement. All the furniture from the Hall was sold and the money raised was presumably used to pay off some of their debts. André promised to pay Arthur £1,000 compensation but this he said, would have to be paid over a period of time. At the time of A.C. Films closure other British film studios were flourishing and by 1920 over 300 British film productions had been made by them collectively.

André Charlot returned to the West End and continued to produce many more successful musical stage shows and revues including his longest-running production Buzz-Buzz in 1918. Previously, in 1917, Noël Coward had unsuccessfully auditioned for André, but when in 1923 André produced a show called London Calling! Noël's audition was successful and he made his first appearance as a revue artist. Following this venture, André and Noël started to work together as revue writers. In 1928, ten years after the closure of André's film studio at Garbrand Hall, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Home Service started to broadcast, on their late-night radio, André's Charlot's Hour revues. Unfortunately André finally did become temporarily bankrupt while working for Alexander Korda on the film Wonder Bar (1930). André continued to work, mainly by producing non-stop semi-nude revues and in 1937 went to Hollywood where he worked briefly as a technical adviser to Paramount Pictures. During WW2 he organised fundraising revues for the war effort and from 1942 to 1955 starred in several films as a character actor, often going un-credited. He also directed the films The Constant Nymph (1943), Summer Storm (1944) and Action in Arabia (1944). André, having become a naturalised American citizen, died on 20 May 1956 in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. His wife Flip passed away three months after he died.

Following the closure of the studio at Garbrand Hall in 1918, Arthur Weigall continued to write and his film script, Her Heritage, was produced in 1919 by Ward Productions; it was directed by Bannister Merwin and starred Phyllis Monkman. After this, Lord Northcliffe offered Arthur a job as a film critic for the Daily Mail newspaper. While working for the Daily Mail he famously covered, as a correspondent, the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Arthur was reported as saying of Lord Carnarvon 'if he goes down in that spirit, I give him six weeks to live'. When Lord Carnarvon died the following year on 5 April 1923, Arthur's comment was remembered and further fuelled the tales about the Curse of the Pharaohs. Sadly, Arthur's marriage to Hortense ended in divorce and following Arthur's second marriage in 1928 to Canadian divorcee Frances Muriel Lillie, formerly Burnet, Arthur returned to show business as a talented writer of lyrics. Arthur was aged 53 when he died on 2 January 1934 in the London Hospital.

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Hazel Ballan ©2014