Pinewood With Peter (Seeking out MAURETANIA in Movieland)

Peter Knego joins liner historian, author and cruise journalist Peter Newall on a tour of London’s Pinewood Studios in search of the remains of the legendary, 1907-built ocean liner MAURETANIA.

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THE SANDS OF ALANG: Peter Knego’s brand new DVD about shipbreaking in Alang, India

All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2013 unless otherwise noted.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Following my last venture in Greece, I had an overnight at London’s Heathrow Airport before my flight back to California. In lieu of a spending an afternoon holed up in a dingy hotel, I had plans to rendezvous with Peter Newall, the Dorset-based author and historian who has penned a growing list of “must have” books on ocean liners, including: “Union-Castle Line: A Fleet History”, “Orient Line:  A Fleet History” and his latest, “Cunard Line: A Fleet History”.

Initially, our agenda was nebulous. We would find something of maritime interest in London and then hopefully capture Mr. Newall on video for an upcoming Alang DVD project about the RMS WINDSOR CASTLE. But while I awaited Peter’s arrival, the following e-mail chimed through: “As I want to take you for a surprise visit, I shall pick you up from the hotel at 13:45. P.S. Bring your camera!” At precisely 13:46, his American sedan pulled into the car port and took us speeding into the verdant countryside, past farms and quaint manors. And then, at a traffic stop, a van with “Pinewood” on its flanks approached like a four wheeled epiphany.

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MAURETANIA, Triumph and Resurrection by Peter Newall.

In Peter’s brilliant 2006 tome on the MAURETANIA, “Mauretania, Triumph and Resurrection”, he not only details the Cunarder’s storied birth and career but also carefully recaps her demise and, through some impressive maritime detective work, her “resurrection” in various U.K. enclaves.

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RMS MAURETANIA, courtesy of Peter Newall.

In a nutshell, Cunard Line’s turbine-driven MAURETANIA, completed in 1907 on the Tyne at Swan, Hunter, Wigham and Richardson, was, along with her near sister, the John Brown-built LUSITANIA, the largest, most wondrous ship in the world at the time of her delivery. Her Harold Peto-designed First Class public rooms were palatial and boasted craftsmanship and materials that could never be replicated today. The pair of four funneled Edwardian liners both captured the Blue Riband for speediest transatlantic crossings but unlike the LUSITANIA, which met a tragic end via German U-Boat torpedoes off Ireland’s Old Head Of Kinsale in 1915, the MAURETANIA went on to a long and successful career. In 1929, MAURETANIA’s speed record was finally bettered by the German express liner BREMEN and by 1934, after struggling for survival in the Depression years, she finally reached the end of her life. As her steel shell was cut up and melted down for scrap in 1935/6 at Rosyth, Scotland, her sumptuous Edwardian fittings were auctioned off in Southampton. Portions of her First Class Lounge, Dining Room, Library and Smoking Room, including woodwork, doors, marble and glass, went to a gentleman names Charles Boot.

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Heatherden Hall as built.

Boot had just founded Pinewood Studios along with filmmaker Joseph Arthur Rank and installed some of these treasures in its newly built Administration Hall. Other fittings were incorporated into the adjacent Club Hall, formerly Heatherden Hall, a 19th Century estate with tennis and squash courts, indoor pool, ornamental lake and gardens.

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Original gate.

Within moments, we had reached the original gates to Pinewood.

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Pinewood Portals.

A bit further down, at the official entry, which resembles something from a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel, we turned in.  Visitors’ passes were waiting and right away, a lovely lady named Ann Runeckles came to greet us.

Ann has been working on the Pinewood grounds for some thirty plus years, having started as a production assistant at a film guarantor company before becoming a PA for Pinewood’s managing director. Since 2000, she has served as a liaison officer and now works in Group Corporate Responsibility. This elegant lady relishes the history of the studio and its components and generously took time on her day off to show us the MAURETANIA bits.

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Smoking Room doors at the Club House entry.
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RMS MAURETANIA’s First Class Smoking Room, courtesy of Peter Newall. Note the domed glass ceiling, the doors and the painting “Old Liverpool”, directly above the doors.

Our first stop was the entrance to the Club House, formerly Heatherden Hall. Both pairs of MAURETANIA’s walnut and sycamore First Class Smoke Room doors have been its busy portals for over 70 years.

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Door hinge still in use.

For over a century, minus the year or so that the doors were taken off the ship and not yet installed at Pinewood, their solid, Swan Hunter-built brass hinges have been in constant use.

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Door handle.

Even more surprising was that the well-worn brass door handles are still functional.

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Columns in miniature.

Before moving on, we took a look at the hand-carved detailing in the miniature walnut pilasters near the top of the doors. All the while, Pinewood employees passed through on their daily business, wondering what these visitors were making such a fuss over!

“Would you like to see the lot?”, Ann offered, knowing fully what our response would be.  We hopped into a golf cart, cameras stowed (studio regulations) and savored in awe, passing through sound stages and warehouses where the technicians invariably waved to our host.  Most of the Bond films, Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella”, the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” franchise and many more, too numerous to list, had been or were being shot here.  One especially impressive sight was the giant tank backed with a huge blue screen where a number of high seas sequences were filmed.

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Dining doors amongst the splendor.

We resumed our “MAURETANIA hunt” at the Administration Block’s main entrance, where a pair of her oak doors from the upper level of the First Class Dining Room are framed by an equally magnificent Elizabethan oak carving dating from 1561.

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Dining door mini-pilaster detailing.

The hand-carved miniature pilasters in the oak doors have their own unique, talon-like styling.

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Library doors to the garden.

Directly inside, another pair of doors from MAURETANIA’s First Class Library access the gardens.

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“X” on the door handles.

The brass handles, although worn, still bear Harold Peto’s distinctive Roman-inspired “X” embossing, which was found throughout the ship.

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RMS MAURETANIA Library. Illustration courtesy of Peter Newall.

Those Library doors only teased at what lay ahead. Ann led us upstairs to the Executive Meeting Rooms, which boast the Library’s magnificent sycamore and walnut paneling.

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Executive Meeting Room.

It was astonishing to see the finery of the Library reassembled so elegantly.

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Gilt and sycamore.

I wouldn’t have known had Peter not so indicated but in some spots, portions of the paneling and hand-carved gilt-work were flawlessly replicated by studio craftsmen to complete the space.

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Library detailing.

Due to heightened security and the fact that this is still a very much functioning space, I felt especially privileged to be able to see these things firsthand.

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Magical mirror.

One of the ship’s mirrors, beveled glass and all, was mounted between two windows as though it had been purposely built for the space.

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Chandeliered.

And, overhead, the cut crystal chandeliers from the Library still illuminate its stained sycamore woodwork.

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Board Room, the other way.

I took one final photo, then hurriedly joined Peter and Ann in the neighboring, slightly smaller boardroom.

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Dottie danced here!

In there, according to studio legend, Dorothy Lamour danced atop the table in what must have been quite a meeting!  In the corner, hangs a portrait of noted Pinewood co-founder, Sir Arthur Rank.

Gilded arch.
Gilded arch.

The detailing is just as elegant as that of the neighboring room.

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Long Hall with Smoke Room Ceiling bits.

We pressed onward to a long gallery connecting the upper level of the Executive Offices with the Club House (AKA Heatherden Hall).  Soaring overhead were portions of the MAURETANIA’s Smoking Room ceiling, now reconfigured in a long, domed arch.

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Brass grill detail.

And at either end, pairs of MAURETANIA’s oak doors, festooned with intricately detailed brass plating.

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“Old Liverpool”.
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“Old Liverpool” signature.
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“Old New York”.
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Murray’s signature on “Old New York”.

Overhead on either side of the arch, Frank Stuart Murray’s Smoking Room oil paintings represent opposing shores of the Atlantic: “Old Liverpool” on the administration side and “Old New York” at the Heatherden entry.

A film as well as a ship buff, I was plenty distracted by the photos on the walls of the gallery, itself. One noted Pinewood feature was “A Night To Remember”, filmed on the lot with additional footage shot aboard Royal Mail Lines ASTURIAS at the breaker’s yard. Many consider it the best of all the TITANIC films.

I was also smitten with a photo of “Hitch”, taken in 1972 on the set of his next-to-last film, “Frenzy”, about a Scotland yard investigator, equally challenged by a grisly case and the well-intended-but-less-than-ample culinary skills of his wife.

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Lauren Bacall versus lilac marble pilaster.

As I eyed a photo of Lauren Bacall during the 1959 shoot of “Northwest Frontier”, Peter pointed out one of fourteen stunning, lilac-veined marble pilasters from the MAURETANIA’s First Class Lounge.

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Lilac marble pilaster with gilt crown.

The gilt capitals boast yet more of the remarkable craftsmanship on display throughout MAURETANIA’s First Class rooms.

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MAURETANIA First Class Lounge. Image courtesy of Peter Newall.

In this image of the First Class Lounge, four pairs of the pilasters are visible in the center and to either side.

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Banquet hall with carved screens at rear.

We descended the stairs on the Heatherden side to a huge banquet hall where yet more of the MAURETANIA thrives.  The overall space, itself, is most impressive with its soaring ceilings and glorious paneling — not from MAURETANIA, but glorious, nonetheless.

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Carved screens from the lower entrance to MAURETANIA’s First Class Dining Room.
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Curved and carved.

At one end stand the large carved oak screens from the lower entry of the First Class Dining Room.

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Carved screen detail.

And so ended our magical day at Pinewood, a place where fantasies are made and the MAURETANIA lives on…

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MAURETANIA, Triumph and Resurrection by Peter Newall.

For “MAURETANIA, Triumph and Resurrection”, Peter Newall’s quintessential reference detailing the ship’s birth, career and demise and for a chance to hear the ship’s steam whistle (scroll down the link page), please click here.

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Cunard Line, A Fleet History by Peter Newall.

Also, of great interest, especially to Cunard Line fans, don’t miss Peter’s newest shipping masterpiece, “Cunard Line, A Fleet History”.  In this comprehensive book, the entire fleet, including the 19th Century ships, cargo liners and tenders are included, as well as the familiar Atlantic icons.  Available from J and M Clarkson, 18 Franklands, Longton, Preston, PR4 SPD, UK 01772612855 or via e-mail through shipsinfocus@btinternet.com.

End Of Pinewood With Peter

Very special thanks: Martin Cox, Peter Newall, Ann Runeckles

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego
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