Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames
Film crew on location. (left, Walter Forde)
In 1895, magic lantern operator Cecil Hepworth leased a house, The Rosary, in Hurst Grove, Walton-on-Thames, for £36 a year, and built a small outdoor stage in his garden. He named his enterprise Hepwix Studio and his first offerings were principally ‘actualities’, that is, local news items such as ‘The Ladies Tortoise Race’ and ‘Procession of Prize Cattle’, all 50ft films obtained locally requiring modest cost except that of the film stock. The first films to be made at his new studio with its one 15ft x 8ft stage were The Egg-Laying Man (1896), and The Eccentric Dancer. His filming of Queen Victoria’s funeral procession in 1901 and the coronation procession of Edward VII shortly afterwards were remarkable achievements for the time.
Hepworth then went on to make an ambitious 800ft film, Alice in Wonderland (1903), breaking away from the 50ft tradition. By the turn of the century, the Hepworth Manufacturing Company were making approximately 100 films a year. Cutting-room assistant Mabel Clark played Alice and Hepworth’s new wife took the role of White Rabbit. The successful and celebrated Rescued by Rover (1905), directed by Hepworth’s collaborator Lewin Fitzhamon, was an even bigger family affair: Hepworth’s wife wrote the story and played the distraught mother; the Hepworth’s baby, all of eight months, was the heroine; Rover was the family dog who rescues her; and Hepworth, in frock coat and tall hat, played the harassed father. It was also the first film in which Hepworth employed professional actors, and Mr and Mrs Sebastian Smith, playing the flirtatious soldier and the villainess who steals the baby. A blockbuster of its time, the film had to he shot three times because the negatives were worn out in the making of the 400 prints that were necessary to satisfy public demand.
By 1905, Hepworth had built a large glass studio adjoining the original house. It was made of Muranese glass which diffused the sunshine and killed shadows without greatly diminishing the amount of light. The studio was built on the first floor above the level of the surrounding houses, and the space underneath was devoted to printing and developing rooms, drying rooms, and a mechanics workshop. Around 1908, he created a synchronised sound-on disc system, the Vivaphone, which enjoyed brief popularity. Several years of hardship followed, not helped by a fire at the studio during the 1910s, but Hepworth remained a major force in the film industry. Hepworth was gradually giving up camera work in order to concentrate on the supervision of the studio, and his two technicians and cameramen Geoffrey and Stanley Faithfull came into their own, while Bert Haldane directed a number of comedies for the company including Wealthy Brother John (1911).