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The Samuelson Film Companies – a Cricklewood success story

George Berthold Samuelson, known as ‘Bertie’ was born in Southport Lancashire in 1889. By 1910 he had started the Royal Film Agency and was one of the first film renters. In late December he had moved the successful business to 270 Corporation Street in Birmingham. With his acquired capital, he decided to make a patriotic film about Queen Victoria called ‘Sixty Years a Queen’ at Will Barker’s Ealing Studio in 1913. The film cost the huge sum of £12,000 to make, but it was extremely popular and made Bertie a profit of £40,000 (worth over £4M today). 

With this success, Bertie decided to buy his own studio to make films. The Samuelson Film Manufacturing Company Ltd was set up on 30 May 1914 with £2,000 in £1 shares.

He heard that Worton Hall, a 40-room house with nine acres of land in Isleworth, was for sale. Samuelson bought it in 1914 and the official opening of the studios was held on 1 July, where the guest of honour was the famous music hall star Vesta Tilley.

Samuelson employed the experienced cameraman Walter Buckstone and through him he met director George Pearson, a former headteacher in Loughton who then worked for British Pathé. Pearson described Bertie as, ‘a young man with amazing enthusiasm and boundless energy; his excitement regarding his adventures was infectious’. The Samuelson company office was at 166 Shaftesbury Avenue. 

Filming at Worton Hall took place in the converted ballroom and dining hall of the old house. A large glass rotating studio of 50ft by 40ft was constructed in the grounds for maximum daylight filming. The initial production was Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’ - the first British film presentation of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson story. It was shot in the studios and on location. Filming began on 8 May 1914 in Cheddar Gorge and Southport Sands which stood in for the Rocky Mountains and the Utah plains where much of the original story is set. The film was a great success and Samuelson later sold it to an American company.

Samuelson and Pearson worked at a frantic pace, sometimes on two or three films at the same time. By 1915 Pearson was exhausted and his one-year contract came to an end. Much as he liked Bertie, he left to become chief director at Gaumont’s Lime Grove Studio at Shepherd’s Bush. Fred Paul, an actor who had starred in several Samuelson films, took over as the lead director at Worton Hall. 

‘For Valour’ was a film about men who had won the Victoria Cross in WWI, it was made in 1927 and released the following year. Samuelson had persuaded Leonard Keysor to appear in the film for a fee of £75. Keysor had won the VC in August 1915 while serving with the Australian Imperial Forces in Gallipoli. For two days in the battle, he had thrown live enemy grenades back before they exploded and placed a sandbag over one and dived onto it to stop it killing his comrades. Leonard had been born in Paddington and gone to Canada and then Australia. After Leonard’s marriage in 1920, his flat in Maida Vale was burgled and thieves stole money, jewels and his VC. But the medal was returned by post with a letter of apology from the anonymous thief.

In November 1928 Keysor was living at Flat 21 Kings Gardens in West End Lane when he took legal action against Samuelson. In October 1927 he had gone to the Worton Hall studios to re-enact the wartime scene in a trench which had been made in the grounds. Bertie Samuelson was directing the film and he wanted more smoke and a larger explosion, so he instructed the technician to put a bigger charge in the trench which would be detonated by electricity. Keysor did not know the charge had been increased: he was knocked unconscious and badly injured by the explosion. His jaw was fractured, eight teeth had to be removed, and his knee and arm were hit with pellets. He was unable to work for two months in his job as a clock importer. He won the case and was awarded £675 with costs (worth about £43,000 today). 

The Samuelson company produced over 100 silent films, but in 1928 Worton Hall was sold to British Screen Productions. The studio continued under various owners until it closed in 1952.

More information about Worton Hall is available here.

When the talkies started, Bertie did not want to re-equip everything for sound. He lost money and became bankrupt at the end of 1929.

Bertie married Marjorie Vint, an actress who used the stage name of Marjorie Statler. They were married in New York in January 1924 and had four sons: David (1924 - 2015), Sydney (1925 - 2022), Anthony (1929 - 2010), and Michael (1931 - 1998).

The four Samuelson brothers in the 1970s (From the David W. Samuelson archive)

In 1929 Bertie and Marjorie were living at 99 Greencroft Gardens in South Hampstead. By 1931 they had moved to 56 Wykeham Road in Hendon, and by 1933 they were in Hove. 

Bertie encouraged his sons to go into the technical side of the film business and three of the brothers became cameramen.

Sydney bought a Newman Sinclair cine camera for £400 down and found that in addition to working as a freelance cameraman, he could make money by renting the camera out. In 1955 he and his wife Doris started a rental business from their home at 4 Crespigny Road Hendon. The following year he persuaded his brothers Tony and Michael to each put up £100 and buy a second camera and join him. Brother David later joined the company as technical director. 

Sydney was eventually knighted in 1995 for his services to the British film industry. When he died aged 97 in December 2022, numerous tributes were paid to him. Sir Sydney and his wife Doris lived on West Heath Avenue, in Golders Green.

In 1960 Samuelson Film Services opened at No.27 The Burroughs Hendon.

The Burroughs site

The company soon expanded and moved to the newly-built Samcine House in July 1963, eventually becoming Nos. 303-315 Cricklewood Broadway. Zoe Samuelson said that each night before they extended into Robinsons Removals, the camera cars had to be put in the lift and parked on the roof. They were brought down in order of call times and loaded from the bay into the double-ended lift. Each camera car had a number ending in ‘7’ for good luck. The maroon, blue and white livery was based on United States Postal Service trucks, which Sydney’s wife Doris had admired on a trip there to meet with Panavision, whom Samuelsons represented in Europe.

Samcine House, Cricklewood Broadway

Peter Samuelson said the main office in Cricklewood was originally designed to be a studio space because Samuelsons had won the contract to produce a weekly television programme for the German network NDR. When that was cancelled, it was rebuilt with a gigantic Main Desk, where client contacts took orders and entered them into a complex series of Zig-Zag Books, colour-coded by day of the week, ensuring that the reservation was executed on time.

With 400 staff, Samuelson operated 24 hours a day and rented out cameras and sound equipment for TV commercials and films, as well as major feature films. ‘Sammys’ became the largest film services company in the world, with a turnover of £10M. The company finally moved to a purpose-built site at Derby Road, the Metropolitan Centre in Greenford in 1988. 

David Samuelson worked as a cameraman for British Movietone News from 1947. He was a cameraman for two years on the TV program ‘Candid Camera’ and then ‘World in Action’. ‘Sammys’ provided all the equipment and crews for both these programmes. From 1964 David lived in Hill View Road, Mill Hill.

Michael Samuelson, who lived at 4 Roxborough Park Harrow, was the technical director for the 1966 film ‘Goal’ when England won the World Cup. He also won the contract for Samuelson’s to make the official film of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The company also filmed other Olympic games.

Tony Samuelson had practiced as a barrister before he joined his brothers in the company in 1956. He lived in the Manor House on Totteridge Lane.

In 1979/1980 Samuelson’s built The Production Village at 100 Cricklewood Lane for £1.5M. This had previously been Westcroft Farm and the Home of Rest for Horses. Samuelson’s restored some of the old stable buildings and created a duck pond. They constructed nine studio stages of various sizes, production offices, set building facilities, costume departments, accommodation, a restaurant and even a pub called ‘The Magic Hour’: everything needed to produce cinema and TV films, and commercials.

Sydney and Tony Samuelson at Production Village, 1979

The rock musical ‘Breaking Glass’ (1980), starring Hazel O’Conner and Phil Daniels, was one of the films made there.

Production Village (from the brochure)

In 1987 the Samuelson’s decided to sell The Production Village for £3.2M to Bass Taverns and concentrate on their film rental services. The Production Village was used as a live music venue for several years. The site was demolished, and it is now a David Lloyd Gym Club.

There are two very good videos about Samuelson’s made in 1980 for the TV programme Clapper Board with Chris Kelly:

Clapper Board Part One

Clapper Board Part Two

A BAFTA tribute to Sir Sydney Samuelson, narrated by Maureen Lipman, looks at his life.

Here is a web page about Samuelson’s.

My thanks to members of the Samuelson family for their help with the story.


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