Cecil Hepworth's former studio at Walton-on-Thames was bought in 1926 by Archibald Nettlefold (of the English Midlands metal products company) to save the site for film making and renamed Nettlefold Studios.
Cecil Hepworth's British production of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Percy Stow, consisting of 16 scenes based on Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations, was the earliest known literary film adaptation and, at 800 feet, the longest film to date.
Nettlefold employed Cecil Hepworth to produce ‘The House of Marney’ (1927) but when the film was a box office failiure, the studios were again in financial difficulties.
Nettlefold wanted to improve the facilities at the studios and took a trip to Hollywood to investigate the American methods of film production. On his return he drew up plans to redevelop the studios and bring them up to date with other British Studios. He signed up Walter Forde the comic actor, to produce and star in feature length comedies and thereafter the company’s fortunes looked up.
Born in 1898 into a London theatrical family, Walter Forde spent much of his childhood and teenage years on the music hall stage. His early success let him into film roles, and in the 1920s he worked at Universal Studios in Hollywood, returning to England in 1923.
Walter Forde with his comic antics often had the actors and technicians in fits of laughter on the set. Local people would often stand around for hours to watch the hilarious goings-on during the making of his films. A Walton man witnessed the making of ‘The Silent House’ in a field just past the Cambridge Road in Walton at night, and his description gives a flavour of this popular film.
Several silent films were produced at Nettlefold Studios by Walter Forde, and in 1930 he produced his last film ‘The Last Hour’ which was the first ‘talkie’. Thus, from a little studio, converted from a row of villas, grew the Nettlefold Studios, the nucleus of a “Baby Hollywood’’ fitted up with the latest equipment both as regards lighting and recording and capable of turning out talking pictures to equal any produced in other studios in Great Britain.
In 1931 Walter Forde left the Nettleford Studios to work in larger studios and specialise in comedies, making many of the Jack Hubert films. Nettlefolds became available to other film companies and during the 1940s a succession of moderately successful ‘B’ movies were made starring the likes of Ralph Richardson, Nora Swinburne, Robert Morley, Frankie Howard and Bette Davis.
When Bette Davis made ‘Another Man’s Poison (1951) at Nettlefold’s, she was amused at the quaintness of the facilities available at the Nettlefold Studios, in comparison with those she was used to in the studios at home. When it came to a sequence in the film where it was raining, some of the studio boys had to climb ladders with watering cans and spray the set! When television rose to prominence in the early 1950s, Nettlefolds was used as a studio by British television companies. Famous TV series such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Richard Greene, followed in 1956 by “The Adventures of Sir Lancelot”, the take of the legends of King Arthur, and in 1957 by “Sword of Freedom” the adventures of an Italian Robin Hood. The Robin Hood series proved to be the most popular of these, and between 1955 and 1959, 143 episodes of the Robin Hood saga were made at Walton, with the Sherriff of Nottingham’s castle built on a plot behind Bridge Street, and various Surrey woods acting as Sherwood Forest. Richard Greene became famous as Robin Hood, and Alan Wheatley played the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.
However, the television work was not enough to save the studios, and on 10th March 1961 they closed down. There had been many times in the past, as in the two World Wars, when the studios had closed only to re-open again, but this time the closure was permanent, and the 200 employees suddenly found themselves out of work. The studios were demolished to make way for the re-development of Walton town centre and a multi-storey car park was built on the site of Hepworth’s first studio in Hurst Grove. Today all that remains to remind us of these once world-famous film studios is The Playhouse, and the name of the new road that was cut across the old studio - Hepworth Way.