Barry Monahan
University College Cork

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In the Beginning: Ardmore Studios Celebrates 50

2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of Ardmore Studios. 1958 was a year of contradictions and paradoxes in Irish culture and society; a country suspended between tradition and modernity. As the Harcourt Street railway line was being dismantled in Dublin, the Pan Am 707 touched down in Shannon airport, the world’s first jetliner to land in Europe. And while Una Troy’s progressive and open-minded comical novel We are Seven  —  featuring polygamous protagonist Bridget Monaghan  —  was adapted for screen as She Didn’t Say No!, Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy was officially banned by the Censorship of Publications Board. In addition, the year saw both the death of Peig Sayers, moving her Irish language autobiography one step closer to pedagogical folk literature, and the opening by Sean Lemass (on May 12th) of the country’s first film studio at Bray, Co Wicklow. The facility, it was generally believed, would usher Ireland’s film industry and production into the modern age.

Similar ambiguities may be also found among protagonists at the developmental phase of the Ardmore venture. Although supported financially by the economically progressive Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass, and driven by the enterprising producers Louis Elliman and Emmet Dalton, the third of the triumvirate associated with the project was Ernest Blythe, the conservative director of the board of the Abbey Theatre. It has been argued that because the plan was founded on the aspiration to adapt plays from the National Theatre repertory, an institution both financially beleaguered and culturally subdued, ideological uncertainty was present at the germination stage, which could (and in fact did) impede the progress of the project designed to establish and then modernise Irish film culture.[1]

Although unnoticed by many at the time, there was also a revealing prominence of the Government’s understanding of film as a cultural artefact in opening remarks made by Lemass as he cut the ribbon on the new studio facility. As Kevin Rockett has noted, the minister “emphasised the employment and export, rather than cultural, value of the studios” (Rockett 1988: 99), a bias reiterated in the Irish Times commentary on the morning following the ceremony, when the writer stated that Lemass had declared that the facility “was making an important development in the economic history of the country”.[2] The importance placed on this materialist side of film production was perhaps inevitable. In addition, given the fact that at every phase of its existence from drafting to distribution, film is essentially a peripatetic cultural form, the significance of providing a home for a national cinema cannot be overstated. It is self-evident that the establishment of a film studio space is critical for the functioning of filmmaking and for the training of personnel who will create the national film canon, so it is not surprising to find that, in the run up to the opening of the studios, the event was frequently reported in the press with optimistic excitement declaring the value of the project. Official aspirations were summed up on the day after the facility was officially opened, when it was noted that: “The policy at Ardmore […] was to employ as many Irishmen as possible. Expert technicians had been brought in to train Irishmen, as far as they required training in the highly-complicated business of film-making.”[3]

When Ian Jarvie revisits debates about the relationship between healthy cultural development and the formation of the nation, he cites Ernest Gellner who makes a connection between processes of modernisation and competent individuals’ cultural access. Jarvie situates the cinema at the centre of his discussion as a cultural form deeply rooted in technology: “Movies are part of the nuts and bolts kit of modern communication technologies, especially those for dramatising fictions, and for presenting news and information” (Jarvie 2000: 82). As he continues, Jarvie is unambiguous about the need for this national institution and, as he advances his argument, he evokes implicitly the idea of a studio:

Modernity empowers partly by mastering a technology: that is, acquiring it, training the necessary support personnel, but also creating an interface so that its mastery can be widely diffused (Jarvie 2000: 82).

This was not to be the case at Ardmore Studios, and a series of articles by Louis Marcus, written in 1967 and subsequently published as a pamphlet, outlined in detail how the facility had failed to provide for the development of an indigenous film industry. Noting the almost £¼M invested by the exchequer, Marcus expressed outrage at the fact that the studios had become little more than a hireable piece of industrial equipment that served no training, artistic or expansion purpose in the fostering of a local film culture (Marcus 1967: 7–11). Ultimately, the leasing of the space was to benefit British production companies who employed their own technicians as had been required by union regulations, leaving room only for “casual Irish labour” limited to “carpenters, canteen workers, clerical staff, crowd extras and the like” (Marcus 1967: 11). As far as Marcus was concerned, as Ardmore Studios approached the end of its first decade of existence, it was nothing but an “irrelevance” for the foundation of an Irish film industry, and its management had failed at every turn to assist anything but the illusion that it could support an indigenous visual culture in the making: “It was not a film production company that bought scripts, engaged actors, hired technicians and made movies” (Marcus 1967: 7).

It is perhaps an inconvenient irony of film history that, just as Ireland was seeking a place to ground a prospective industry and situate production, national cinemas across Europe were taking advantage of increasingly lighter sound and camera equipment to liberate themselves from the aesthetic restrictions of constrained studio-based work. Initially bound to studio filming with the rise of sound recording in the late 1920s, filmmakers had sought innovative ways of removing the limitations of sound stage production. Historical contingencies provided the first major development in this respect with the rise of Italian neorealist filmmaking after the Second World War, and the desire to take film into the streets would contribute to some of the most exciting developments in the medium since its inception. The aesthetic of post-war documentary work would have a direct effect on the cinéma vérité style, as well as on the Nouvelle Vague and early British social realist movements. The near-total absence of such innovation of policy or practice in Ireland  —  despite calls for an indigenous avant garde from Irish cineastes like Louis Marcus, Liam O’Leary, George Morrison and Peter Lennon  —  further highlights the ambiguous attitude toward film within official discourses at the time.

An inability to break from wholly-material conceptions of the national benefits of a studio, and wholly-materialistic evaluations of industry as generating capital, precipitated a certain creative atrophy. As a national cinema must have both an ideological function and a material base, so too its cultural significance and commercial performance are nourished by both an ever-emerging catalogue of indigenous films and alsoby a symbolism that feeds how it is perceived nationally and internationally. This balancing of commodity-based output with a transcendental cultural identity is something which the Abbey Theatre had long been recognised for at home and abroad. Although criticism of the theatre might have inclined more towards the Bard’s third possibility in describing greatness  —  “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”[4]  —  its recognition further afield was not lost on numerous filmmakers who cast actors from the National Theatre in supporting roles and then included the credit title card “…and with players from Ireland’s Abbey Theatre” as an indication of quality.

In the handful of films produced with the Abbey Theatre at Ardmore, Emmet Dalton followed that precedent and visibly publicised the fact that the Irish players had been cast in central roles. Nonetheless, there was no evidence of any attempt to market what Ardmore Studios might have represented in local or international consciousness, and there was no indication of plans to mobilise the facility as noteworthy in Ireland’s development of a modern film culture. Of course, such a declaration might not have fit easily with the expected reflection of what an Irish film studio should or could be doing. Nor might offering Ireland as a (cinematically) modernised nation have been compatible with the image of the country as previously depicted and marketed overseas, and any attempt to do so may have been deliberately avoided by Dalton in favour of fronting the more “traditional” Abbey players.

Ultimately, therefore, half a century after the beginning of the consolidation of the American film industry in Hollywood, Ardmore faltered into existence, conflicted as to its precise function in relation to forging an Irish film culture. Beyond the small number of films produced by Emmet Dalton, the facility neither functioned in a concrete and material way in creating indigenous films or filmmakers (as was the case in national centres such as Cinecittà), nor did it work symbolically as an imagined entity that facilitated debates and the evolution of an identity for Irish film internationally (in the way Bollywood does). By extension, a dialectical interaction of both of these dimensions  —  as is the case with the finely tuned Hollywood apparatus  —  was not to happen for several decades and, even then, in a rather tentative and cautious way.

Fifty years on, the principles on which Ardmore Studios was founded have left a legacy relating to the national and international perception of the facility. In many ways, the facility has supported the development of indigenous filmmaking and its contribution has been, for the most part, constructive. Nevertheless its output has shown considerable fluctuation  —  perhaps inevitably when its establishment, history and the contemporary global film market are taken into concern. This variation has seen involvement in both Irish and overseas production, in both television and film, in a range of studio provisions from sound stage space to post-production facilities, and with an output of varying quality. Positively, it has continued to provide a worthy working environment for the likes of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, and has offered facilities to less successful features and short film projects by up-and-coming filmmakers, both national and international. Although its most notable residents in recent times have been projects as varied as Beckett on Film (2000) and The Tudors (2007+) the studios financial survival has always been precarious, reflected in its many changes of ownership. In all of this, however, it is less likely that the studios at Ardmore will form a part of an international film consciousness that would allow it the title “Irish Film Studio”, in the sense proposed above.

Works Cited

Jarvie, Ian. 2000. “National Cinema: a theoretical assessment” in Cinema and Nation eds. Mette Hjort & Scott MacKenzie (London and New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Louis. 1967. The Irish Film Industry. Dublin: The Irish Times Press.

Rockett, Kevin, John Hill & Luke Gibbons Cinema and Ireland. 1988. London: Routledge.