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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Will final credits roll at Ardmore?

'Hollywood of Europe' was once a magnet for O'Toole, Burton and Hepburn

Ardmore veteran: Peter O'Toole in the Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn
Ardmore veteran: Peter O'Toole in the Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

For decades, the studio has brought a touch of glamour to Wicklow - and in its heyday, the county was dubbed the "Hollywood of Europe". It became a magnet for the stars.

Not for the first time, the future of Ardmore Studios, which is currently up for sale, is now in doubt.

Local Fianna Fáil TD Pat Casey this week warned that the Bray facility could cease to exist if it is sold, because there is a possibility that the site will be used for property development instead of film-making.

The studio remains a vital part of the Wicklow economy, according Mick Glynn, president of the Bray Chamber of Commerce.

"People from the movie industry spend a huge amount of money in the town, because they are mostly well paid," says Glynn. "They might be going to the local shops or restaurants.

"One of the huge spin-offs is in transport, with crews being carried to locations. There is also employment for set designers, electricians and carpenters.

"I would be very concerned if the studio closed, but I am confident that it will remain open when it is sold because it is profitable at the moment," adds Glynn.

The operation of the studio in Bray since 1958 has led to regular sightings of film stars in the area over the years, sometimes in bizarre circumstances.

The visit of Richard Burton to make the film The Spy who came in from the Cold in 1965 was marred by tragedy. On the way out to Ardmore, the chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce carrying Burton's wife Elizabeth Taylor hit and killed a 78-year-old pedestrian, Alice Maud Bryan, at Loughlinstown.

On another occasion, Burton and Taylor were driving near Ardmore when they crashed their car into a local phone-box.

The drunk pair, then the most famous film stars in the world, knocked at a nearby house looking for help, and regaled the householders with tales of Hollywood.

Peter O'Toole was another regular visitor to Ardmore. In his later years, he cut a dash, proudly walking around dressed as the Pope when he was filming The Tudors.

Much earlier in his career, he shot the medieval drama The Lion in Winter at the studio alongside Katharine Hepburn, and the pair were said to have had an explosive relationship on set.

She was so concerned about his general state of health that she bought him a bicycle and ordered him to ride to the studio every day. On one occasion, she punched him after he turned up late, but reassured him: "Don't worry, pig. I only hit the people I love."

O'Toole became a regular at the Harbour Bar in Bray and donated the head of a moose - a prop from Woody Allen's movie What's New Pussycat? - to the owner. The actor presented the gift as a gesture of gratitude for making sure he was returned in one piece to his hotel each night, and it now takes pride of place in the bar.

In 1963, Francis Ford Coppola shot his first film - the schlock thriller Dementia 13 - at Ardmore for a budget of £30,000.

The film tells the story of a woman visiting the Irish castle of her late husband's family and being confronted by an axe-wielding maniac. One critic said at the time: "It makes Psycho look like a Sunday school picnic."

Among the others to have graced the studio were Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire, Maureen O'Hara, John Wayne and the film director John Ford.

According to one account, as Ford strode down the seafront, he was tailed by groups of local children, who used to plead with him for a "job in the films".

Ardmore was started in the 1950s by Emmet Dalton, a veteran of the War of Independence. He had made a daring but unsuccessful bid to spring the IRA leader Seán Mac Eoin from Mountjoy Prison, and went to aid of Michael Collins as he lay dying at Béal na Bláth.

Dalton went into the film industry as a distributor and producer, and this led him to set up the studio with the backing of then Industry Minister Seán Lemass.

For much its history, Ardmore has been associated with the film mogul Morgan O'Sullivan, who helped to revive the ailing studio in the 1980s and later attracted blockbuster movies such as Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

In the Noughties, the studio attracted big budget dramas such as The Tudors and Camelot, and King Arthur was shot there in 2003, boasting a €100m budget and stars such as Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom.

But the recession hit Ardmore hard - not helped by the success of the rival Ballyhenry Studios in nearby Ashford, which won a lucrative contract in 2012 for the big budget series The Vikings, which was produced by Morgan O'Sullivan for MGM.

Ardmore fought back and went on to win the hit TV series Penny Dreadful. Productions currently on site include The Professor and the Madman, and Into the Badlands, and the studio, which is jointly owned by ex-U2 producer Paul McGuinness, accountant Ossie Kilkenny and the State, is making again.

Many in the film industry will be hoping that its renewed profitability will enable it to continue as a film studio, and keep Bray on the movie map.

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