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Soho map

Soho: Central London’s wild child. At one time home to lots of fine Italian shoe shops and delicatessens and the heart of the city’s film world, slowly taken over by the red light barons. Bordered by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Regent Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, all the major film distributors were there: EMI, Rank, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Columbia and Warner Brothers. It was also home to Hammer House, London’s first SF bookshop and… Studio System.

10 Frith Street, Soho
In 1981 it was a lot cleaner! 10 Frith Street Soho – the old home of Rasa Sayang (ground floor) and Studio System (first floor)
Dez and Graham 1981
Not only was Graham Marsh a great designer and illustrator, but he was also the king of American cool. Unlike me, in my light blue polo neck sweater.

It was Spring 1981, Marvel UK was behind me and I was looking for a new challenge. Having worked in Columbia-Warner House I’d made some excellent contacts and, with my address book bulging with talented but frustrated artists, I had thoughts of a total career change… setting up a design studio for the film industry. I’ve never been anything if not ambitious.

So one day I was wandering around my old stomping ground of Soho, in the vicinity of Hammer House and the comics shop Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, when I bumped into an old work colleague, Graham Marsh. He’d been the art director at GBD when I’d been producing House of Hammer and had even contributed a cover to one of my MAD Magazines. He too was at a loose end and over coffee I outlined my new idea. He was thinking along similar lines and having the greatest of respect for his talents I suggested we team up. A smart move. Not only had his wife June been fashion editor of The London Evening News – thus bringing a whole new market to our studio – but I learned an awful lot about magazine design from Graham during this period.

Here are a few of the books that Graham has compiled, designed and edited since those heady days of Studio System (I mentioned he was cool, didn’t I?)…

Graham Marsh books

Studio System art room
Corner of main studio room with Dez, Graham, a PMT machine and a Dexion plan chest.
Studio System art
My brilliant artistic partner in Studio System, Graham Marsh, did the fabulous illustrations of WC Fields and Woody Allen for this promo piece which, with accompanying text, ran in a 1982 issue of Screen International and that year's Creative Handbook.

I don’t know if it had anything to do with my partner’s first name and my middle name being the same and subconsciously influencing us, but we settled on a two-tone grey colour scheme for the company look, from our flashy embossed cards to our then-high tech offices which, as well as the massive open plan studio itself (with work spaces for up to 12 people), had a very classy board room with the latest Italian designer furniture and walls adorned with original art.

Dez business card

Graham and I spent an entire evening trying to come up with a clever name for the company. We finally settled on Studio System, with an occasionally used tagline something like Never mind the old Studio System, here’s the new one. Well, it made some kind of sense in the film world!

Somebody at Marvel UK, obviously closely following what I got up to next, surpassed himself by putting a sign above the company toilet reading “Dez’s Studio Cistern”. Wotta wag!

Mind you, there was one potentially serious downside to our new name… our initials logo. Going into film-related work and proudly emblazoning an insignia reading SS might not have been the smartest move!

But our approach obviously worked, despite such. One close-to-my-heart dream soon became a reality as we took comic art into advertising… I’d always felt those six inch doubles (as large display ads were called back then) in newspapers promoting new films were pretty dull and repetitive. So I fairly soon sold both Columbia Pictures and ITC Films on the idea of of using their ad spend on a more readable and evolving approach. We drew up the highlights of the films in newspaper strip format and they appeared in the press, one a day across a full week. Here are a couple of examples.

newpaper strip film examples
I got John Bolton to draw up my truncated adaptation of The Thief of Baghdad and Steve Dillon on Roar: The Movie. Full strips below.

The Thief of Baghdad comic stripRoar The Movie newspaper strip

But before any of these film ties-ins, we actually got started with one project before the paint had even dried on the walls or the new company name was created. Under my old Pioneer Press label, I started the ball rolling by…

ITC's Monster Club front cover by John Bolton

Joining The Monster Club (1980)

Milton Subotsky, the London-based US powerhouse behind the horror film company Amicus Films, had always been madly envious that rivals Hammer had their own magazine and was constantly twisting my arm to work with him. When he got a distribution deal on R Chetwynd Hayes’ The Monster Club, he saw his chance. Actors including Vincent Price and John Carradine were signed up but there was no time to shoot any footage to promote the production at the Cannes Film Festival. So he called me up and asked if we could adapt the film into comic strip format, much like we’d done with Hammer, so that printed copies could be used to sell the film overseas at Cannes.

It was during this period that I had my largest print run ever, in the 500,000 copy Speedmaster for Scalextric (more on that later) – and my smallest. We only printed 1,000 copies of The Monster Club, making it an instant collectors’ item in fan circles! Adapting the film script myself, I assigned John Bolton to produce the 26 pages of artwork (although David Lloyd valiantly came in to handle one chapter because of the tight deadline). Targeted at an international audience of film buyers on lush glossy paper, it was surely the most inexpensive yet effective film promotion ever!

Like all good comic strips should, the pictures told the story effectively enough, but in true belt ‘n’ braces fashion, the final two pages were given over to a story synopsis – in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. And, whether we were producing full magazine-sized comics or simply newspaper strips, the film world payed a lot better than comics ever did!

Here are the first four pages of the magazine (including the two-hour Letraset credits page!)…

Monster Club frontispieceMonster Club prologueMonster Club page 3Monster Club page 4

Eagle-eyed fans (or anybody who’s been paying close attention) might enjoy my little nod-of-the-hat to an earlier creation at the top of page three, with the story intro of “Night-Time in the City” being a reference to the opener of every Night-Raven story for Marvel UK.

One of the toughest parts of the adaptation was the monster stripper sequence. Set in the club itself, the script described a female performer taking to the stage to strip. But being the Monster Club, she took off more than her clothes (which only bored her audience). They didn’t appreciate her until she began stripping her flesh! OK, good gag, but it needed a finale. I racked my brains over this until I finally decided she would have a pony tail, enabling her to close by pulling her hair and popping off her face.

Monster Club stripper sequence p2Monster Club stripper sequence p1Monster Club secretary after and beforeMonster Club stripper film endingIn effect, as well as producing a promotional sales tool, we were also story-boarding the film. I hadn’t really considered this until I was invited down to Pinewood to see a day’s shooting, in the more than capable hands of Hammer veteran director Roy Ward Baker. When I bumped into makeup maestro Roy Ashton, who I hadn’t seen since the Hammer days, he enthusiastically greeted me saying how they’d all used the comic as a template when creating the film.

He was particularly impressed by one of artist John Bolton’s throwaway ideas. The story featured the Monster Club’s secretary (a werewolf) in a key role and John had felt that to make the character more… well, secretarial… he should wear glasses! Roy adored the idea of a werewolf in specs and based his version on John’s. Sadly, this wasn’t one of the bigger budget horror films of the time, but John did get some extra work out of it with a sequence of new visuals (below) being commissioned to appear in the finished product.

Monster Club Bolton art 1Monster Club Bolton art 2Monster Club Bolton art 3Monster Club Bolton art 4Monster Club Bolton art 5Monster Club Bolton art 6Monster Club Bolton art 7

For myself I was delighted to finally meet an actor I had always admired who, despite popular assumption, never appeared in a Hammer film… the ultimate horror ham, Vincent Price. Roy Ward Baker was shooting one of the key scenes that day where Price, as chairman of the Monster Club, gives an impassioned soliloquy to the entire club on why humans should be allowed membership, saying that while monsters may kill their victims only humanity can do so on such a massive scale.

A lengthy monologue, Price delivered the entire speech perfectly in the first take, but it had to be reshot. On the second take, Price changed it! His intonations were different… but better! When again it had to be reshot for a minor background fault, he changed it again, making it better still.

I was amazed, but I later realised I had been fortunate in seeing an actor raised in theatre who was used to keeping his dialogue alive and fresh for each audience… by changing his delivery! To see this finished sequence and others from the film, click here.

Coming attractions (when time permits)…
All That JazzBilly Connolly on yer bike tour 1980Movie House MassacreSpeedmaster montage
Browns 1981Heroes of the Movies - Connery and MinnelliGreystokeChuckler cover

…ah, we were busy little bees at Studio System!

To be continued…

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