The Guardian, Thursday 9 September 2004 10.42 BST
The hottest tickets during the Venice Film Festival, the Observer reported last weekend, were not for the new big-budget productions starring today's most sought-after stars, but those for Italian B-movies being shown at a parallel event. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, these were a mixture of erotic comedies, western and war movies, providing audiences with a continuous flow of police chases, zombie cannibals, beautiful girls constantly in the shower, rampant sideburns and short collars no designer today would dare to revive - most of them made in the 1970s on vestigial budgets.
Is there a chance, I wonder, that these Venetian excitements might trigger a fresh wave of interest in the British B-movies which used to appear in support of the night's main attraction in cinemas here in the 1950s and 1960s?
An evening at the cinema in the years between the second world war and the dominance of television meant an evening, rather than 90 minutes. Two movies were expected rather than one. If the times were awkward, you would watch the end of one feature, the whole of the next, and then the bit of the first that you hadn't yet seen. And your chances of getting something serviceable at least, and often better than that, were enhanced if the opening titles told you that tonight's second feature had been hatched at Merton Park Studios.
According to one standard reference book, there were more than 130 B-feature films made in this salubrious quarter of London SW19, with production reaching its peak in the early 1960s: 13 completed features in 1961, 12 in each of the three years that followed - but only seven in 1965 and only one in 1967 when, having completed Payment in Kind, starring John Thaw, the studios closed. Their most famous and fecund line had been the Edgar Wallace mysteries, which opened with a bust of the writer revolving on a turntable, but a strong second front emerged in their Scotland Yard series and its successor, Scales of Justice, introduced by the punchy, paunchy figure of Edgar Lustgarten.
Television made Lustgarten famous: by the end, Merton Park's market was television as much as the cinema. Though some of the titles involved seem almost interchangeable with Italy's - Act of Murder, Strangler's Web, Destination Death - the work that came out of Merton Park was far less exotic: no zombie cannibals, no beautiful girls constantly in the shower; even the sideburns, if I remember, were relatively restrained. Budgets were low and timescales frequently vicious: an average production turnaround was 10 to 14 days, and because some of the artists they used had far more lucrative outlets elsewhere, schedules were sometimes perilous, as when Merton Park only just managed to get what it wanted out of the young Stanley Baker before he moved on to The Guns of Navarone.
To keep costs down, they tended to film as near to base as they could. For those who lived in Merton Park - one of London's two earliest garden suburbs, created by the great horticulturalist John Innes - a late-night Edgar Wallace or Scotland Yard movie had the added attraction of familiar locales: the land between the suburb and Merton Park station, where huge metal bridges crossed two railway tracks, for instance, might have been made for police chases.
Yet the list of directors, writers and actors who worked at Merton Park is impressive. One 1950s account boasts that James Mason and Merle Oberon had worked there - though only at the end of a list which began with the British comedians Tommy Trinder and Arthur Askey. The final rollcall is an evocative mixture of future stars with the kind of engine-room actors who used in those days to appear in every fifth film you saw: Paul Daneman, Bernard Lee, TP McKenna, Maxine Audley, Harry H Corbett, David Lodge, Nigel Davenport, Peter Barkworth, Patrick Barr, Maurice Denham, Michael Gough, Imogen Hassall, and Michael Aspel, even.
With its output sadly reduced, the operation decamped to Bushey in Hertfordshire, and the studios, based on an imposing building on the Kingston Road called Long Lodge, much of it dating from the 18th century, fell into disrepair. Schoolchildren who used to trespass there on their way home reported its mix of grandeur and dereliction: what had once been a noble staircase, of the kind down which gleaming officers and ladies in crinolines habitually descended in costume dramas; reels of film thrown into corners and coated in dust. Sic transit gloria mundi. Sic transit gloria Merton Park Studios anyway.