A couple of articles ago, I chronicled my foray into cinema stardom with my appearance in Hell is a City, with Stanley Baker and Billie Whitelaw. But the real star of the film was, and is, the city of Manchester. The portrayal of the city and its suburbs played no small part in securing the film its now recognised reputation as a classic of British film noir.
Some years later, in an attempt to understand the success of the phenomenon called Frank Randle, I watched some of his old films. Whilst there is no doubt that Randle's films failed to re-create the appeal of his stage appearances, his success, especially in the north of England, put him at least on a par with the likes of George Formby and Max Miller. But I was struck by the number of Manchester locations that were used. It was in one of Randle's films that I came across an exterior Manchester location for only the second time. In his oft-repeated rôle as an army private in one of the Somewhere in.... series of films, I watched Randle's antics played out with my old school, Burnage Grammar, as its backdrop. I was equally surprised to see that the film was conceived, financed, filmed and distributed by one company, Mancunian Films.
The Mancunian Film Corporation was founded by former Ardwick boy-turned-film-distributor-turned-director, John. E. Blakeley, in 1934. The company originally produced films in London on extremely low budgets and Blakeley's first studio consisted of a single soundstage in a loft space above a taxi garage. Whenever the filmmakers wanted to shoot a scene, they would first have to signal the mechanics below to stop working, so the noise from below wouldn't register on the soundtracks. Blakeley's first production was Boots! Boots! (1934), starring the young variety entertainer George Formby. Production values were so low that some scenes were filmed in semi-darkness to hide the lack of set decorations. Despite the technical flaws, the début film was a huge success, recouping Blakeley's investment several times over and launching George Formby as Britain's leading screen comedian. Within the year, "Blakeley's Productions, Ltd." had become "The Mancunian Film Distributors, Ltd."
In 1947 — after a highly successful two decades making films in London — he sank £70,000 (that's a few million in today's money) into equipping the first and best state-of-the art film studio outside London, and housing it in a converted, grime-blackened, Wesleyan chapel, in Rusholme, Manchester, on the corner of Dickenson Road and Oxford Road. And from there, between 1948, and 1953, he turned out some of the best, most significant, and authentic Lancashire comedy films on record.
The box-office money-spinning Lancashire comedian, Frank Randle, was a fellow director, whose films helped secure Mancunian as the foremost provincial film company of the day. Randle himself made upwards of ten record-breaking comedies at Mancunian, working alongside such stars as the Irish tenor, Josef Locke, Sandy Powell, Jimmy Clitheroe, Hilda Baker, Jimmy Jewel & Ben Warris, Tessie O'Shea, Jimmy James and Ely Woods, Norman Evans, Nat Jackley and Diana Dors.
Cup Tie Honeymoon was the first film to be made at the studio, starring Sandy Powell, Dan Young, Betty Jumel and Pat Pilkington (later Pat Phoenix, Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner). The film, based around the theme of football with scenes shot at Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium, was released to coincide with the beginning of the 1948 football season.
During its heyday years, Mancunian outperformed most of the Hollywood offerings at the box office, at least in the majority of cinemas north of Birmingham. Its reputation was such that, in 1961, well after the studio closed, film star Cary Grant came to meet John Blakeley in Manchester, where they had dinner at the Midland Hotel.
In the photograph on the left, John Blakeley can be seen standing behind his wife, who is to the left of Cary Grant in the picture. His wife's parents, also cinema operators, are on the extreme left, and on the extreme right, sitting, is Miss Edge, who at that time ran the Tatton Cinema in Gatley, Cheshire.
Its final film was It's a Grand Life, a 1953 British comedy film starring Frank Randle and Diana Dors. Music hall comedian Frank Randle stars as an accident-prone Private in his final film appearance before his early death from consumption. The film also features the professional wrestler Jack Pye and the popular pianist Winifred Atwell. The rôle of Private Pendergast was played by Arthur White, the elder brother of the actor Sir David Jason.
John Blakeley himself always insisted he would retire when he was 65, and so he did, but, in a way, as with many such companies at the time, Manucunian Films was undone by television, and the studios were sold to the BBC in 1954. And so the old Wesleyan chapel found itself, for the second time, in the Book of Firsts, when the BBC opened its first television studios outside London. Ironically, most of the technicians and crew from Mancunian went to help open Granada TV in Manchester.
And in an elegant symmetry, I found myself at those very studios early in 1964, dragged by a school friend to a live transmission of Top of the Pops, which was broadcast every week from Dickenson Road, until the BBC's operations were transferred to New Broadcasting House in Manchester and the old chapel was demolished in 1975.
The title for this article comes from the book, Hooray for Jollywood, a history of John Blakeley and The Mancunian Film Corporation, by Philip Martin Williams and David L. Williams. Unfortunately, it was execrably sub-edited and is littered with superfluous commas and the like, but it is still a fascinating and worthwhile read.