Nostalgia: The Manchester filmmakers who became film industry pioneers

Pictured: Diana Dors partying with Hollywood star Errol Flynn, June 1952. Dors also starred in the 1953 comedy That’s a Great Life by Mancunian Films © Mirrorpix

It’s an odd fact that pioneering film company Mancunian Films, which made films rooted in Lancashire, actually started life in London.

Founded in the early 1930s by Ardwick filmmaker and entrepreneur John E. Blakeley, the filmmakers’ first studio was housed in a loft above a busy taxi garage.

They had to tell the mechanics downstairs to stop working while they were spinning so the noise wouldn’t spoil the movie soundtrack!

As money was tight, Blakeley cut corners to cut production costs.

This sometimes resulted in scenes being shot in low light to mask the lack of a proper set. Often, only one spotlight was trained on the artist being filmed.

Despite these flaws, Blakeley’s debut film Boots! Boots! made in 1934 proved a huge success – especially in the north.

Film star George Formby poses with the FA Cup won by Portsmouth in May 1939 © Mirrorpix

It also made young Wigan variety entertainer George Formby a household name.

Within a decade he had become Britain’s highest paid film star, always accompanied by his favorite ukulele or banjolele.

Boots! Boots! was a series of songs and jokes built around hotel shoe shiner John Willie, played by Formby.

His problem was that he couldn’t match the pairs of shoes, much to the dismay of management.

All is well, however, when Formby sings in front of hotel guests, impresses his bosses, and declares his love for the heroine Snooky played by his real wife Beryl.

Boots! Boots! only had a budget of £3,000, but became a huge hit.

It was even reissued in 1938 to take advantage of Formby’s burgeoning fame.

The film also featured the first of three future Coronation Street actors to appear in Mancunian Films productions.

Betty Driver, who played bartender Betty Turpin (famous for her hotpot) on the street from 1969 to 2011, played a minor role.

Sandy Powell, in glasses, with his wartime entertainment troupe, November 1939 © Mirrorpix

Formby was back as John Willie in the 1935 film Off the Dole, still with his wife Beryl.

Stripped of his moonlighting allowance, Willie ends up running his uncle’s detective agency – with disastrous results.

It was around this time that Mancunian Films, which started as Blakeley’s Productions Limited, changed its name to Mancunian Film Distributors.

The company kicked into high gear in 1947 when Blakeley spent £70,000 to create the best state-of-the-art film studios outside of London in a former Wesleyan chapel on Dickenson Road.

Fallowfield actress Pat Phoenix who starred in Cup Tie Honeymoon © Mirrorpix

It was here that he made the first Manchester-made film, Cup-Tie Honeymoon, starring Pat Phoenix and radio comedian Sandy Powell, in 1948.

The film tells the story of a businessman’s son (Powell) who is forced to choose between playing for his father’s team and his rivals in a major football game.

He eventually turns to his father’s side, winning the heart of his father’s secretary.

The Fallowfield Phoenix actress became a soap opera icon playing the combative Elsie Tanner on Coronation Street from the first episode in December 1960 until 1984.

Cup Tie Honeymoon also featured future Coronation Street actor Bernard Youens.

Bernard Youens and Jean Alexander (Stan and Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street), February 1984 © Mirrorpix

The Salford-born actor played workaholic Stan Ogden from 1964 to 1984, forming a brilliant partnership with Hilda Ogden played by Jean Alexander.

Popular Northern comedian Frank Randle starred in the 1948 comedy film Holidays with Pay.

It featured the Rogers family, who became favorites in the Blakeley films, staying at a haunted hotel.

Randle never reached the heights of fellow Lancastrian artists George Formby and Gracie Fields.

He was prosecuted on four counts of obscenity in 1952 and once threw his false teeth at a hostile audience.

Popular Wigan comedian Frank Randle, November 1953 © Mirrorpix

Blakeley continued to cast Randle in his films, even though he was widely seen as a subversive.

He starred in Somewhere in Politics in 1948 and School for Randle in 1949.

Randle’s last film for Mancunian Films was the 1953 comedy It’s a Grand Life which also starred pianist Winifred Atwell and a young Diana Dors.

Billed as the English Marilyn Monroe, Dors was already well known for her films Worm’s Eye View in 1951 and The Last Page in 1952.

Described as a slapstick, It’s a Grand Life was a series of sketches about military life in the Essex Regiment with Randle playing a private and Dors a corporal.

A wrestling match was incorporated into the plot to include popular 1950s grappler Jack Pye.

After Mancunian Films, BBC TV moved to Dickenson Road studios in 1954 and recorded a number of variety shows there.

They ranged from Harry Worth comedy shows to the first Top of the Pops show in 1964.

The studios were demolished in 1975 when BBC operations moved to New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road.

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