By Bob Hill
APDG member, Bob Hill, takes us on a journey back in time to remind us of an exciting era in Australian filmmaking at Pagewood Studios and to celebrate the work of Bill Constable, a live performance and screen designer of diverse talents. Constable was described by critics and journalists as “the sorcerer” and our “dean of décor”. Bob’s research is extensive and fascinating. He writes:
In early 1954… and a world away from the dense urban spread of today’s Sydney… the southern suburb of Pagewood was little more than wind blasted sand hills and scrub encroached upon by rows of hastily thrown up brick bungalows, a couple of isolated factories and a desolate bus depot. In the middle of this literal and figurative wasteland, a strange enterprise was taking place in Australia’s only purpose-built film studio complex – the making of “Long John Silver”, a Hollywood style blockbuster replete with imported stars, executives and key technicians in all the Heads of Department roles… that is, all except for their Production Designer, a middle aged Australian about to make his first foray into film!
‘Pagewood’ is the great lost studio of Australian film-making: As Wikipedia explains… The studio was built in 1935 for National Productions by National Studios Ltd, it was originally known as National Studios. It was constructed for the presumed increase in production that most observers thought would result in Australia following introduction of the NSW Film Quota Act…
They were the first new film studios built in Australia since 1912. Gaumont British helped provide finance and personnel in its construction.1 The Quota Act was never enforced and instead of becoming the hub of film production in Sydney, makeshift facilities at Cinesound in Bondi Junction (an old roller skating rink) and Figtree Studios in Lane Cove (a converted picnic ground pavilion) soon eclipsed the better equipped Pagewood studios. Shut down for 3 years, they resumed production briefly for one film before it was acquired as the HQ for the Australia Army Entertainment Unit during WW2. The UK based Ealing Studios re-opened the studios after the war and did an expensive refurbishment. Following several feature productions, the studio closed down yet again in 1952. The closure didn’t last long: Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, in 1953 a company named Associated Television bought the property and commenced film-making activities once more – leasing out the complex and facilities for independent productions. Positioning themselves for a future television broadcast licence, they renamed the complex “Television City”. Like most studio complexes, it wasn’t particularly glamorous; In 1954 The Sydney Morning Herald described it accordingly – “Television City seems to have borrowed its architectural inspiration from Long Bay Gaol. It consists mainly of one enormous brick barn and sets of offices and workrooms, facing a quadrangle like a prison exercise yard.”