Stanley Kubrick in Hertfordshire: the Childwickbury years
PUBLISHED: 17:16 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:40 28 October 2020
Close to Elstree and Pinewood studios and with the space and privacy to let his imagination run free, Stanley Kubrick’s Herts home-cum-workplace played a key role in his later films. Richard Luck explores the links and myths on the 20th anniversary of the director’s death
We expect geniuses to live rather different lives. When comedian Ricky Gervais first chatted to David Bowie, he could no more believe that the rock legend was eating a banana when he phoned than the fact that he and his hero then proceeded to talk at length about the London congestion charge.
By the same token, you would be forgiven for thinking that the great director, screenwriter and producer Stanley Kubrick lived a life somewhere akin to Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, a remote fortress far from the cameras and at a distinct angle from the modern world. Admittedly, the 18-bedroom Childwickbury Manor, a private estate between St Albans and Harpenden, which Kubrick bought in 1978, is quite a stately pile. Of the photos that were taken of him here, one portrait by his wife Christiane, who still lives at Childwickbury, couldn’t be more charmingly mundane. In his kitchen stands the director of 2001, Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, clutching a mug of coffee surrounded by discarded Waitrose carrier bags.
The popular image of the reclusive auteur in the most familiar of domestic settings seems on a par with catching JD Salinger doing the school run. But while he was no stranger to perfectionism and obsessiveness, the truth about Stanley Kubrick is that he was something other than a recluse in the classic Howard Hughes mould. As Christiane Kubrick explains in her introduction to A Life In Pictures, her delightful pictorial celebration of her husband and his films, ‘There’s an inherent contradiction in the phrase “hermit film director”. [It is] one of the most gregarious of artistic pursuits. Stanley was literally surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of people most of the time. And he enjoyed it.’
Evidence of precisely how much he enjoyed the collaborative experience isn’t too tricky to find. Dave Prowse – who before he became Darth Vader played a supporting role in Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – has fond memories of the director listening to Test Match Special while devouring M&S sandwiches. A Life In Pictures, meanwhile, is full of pictures of the Oscar winner larking about – laughing with his Eyes Wide Shut leads Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and struggling to keep a straight face during the shooting of 2001. Most delightful perhaps are the candid snaps stolen during the Lolita shoot, the fresh-faced filmmaker looking utterly in his element while making his first movie in Britain.
While tax incentives might have initially lured the American director of Paths of Glory and Spartacus to the UK, it’s fair to suggest that Kubrick had an easier time adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s incendiary novel here than on the other side of the Atlantic. The excesses of Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code aside, distance from the studios also granted Stanley the time and space required to make movies exactly as he wanted. Had he remained in the States, it’s hard to imagine the execs giving him three years to complete 2001. Likewise, the two decades between Kubrick reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story and bringing it to the big screen as Eyes Wide Shut would have been far too long for a business constantly in need of fresh content.
While nearby Elstree and Pinewood became his British workplaces of choice, home for Stanley Kubrick initially meant Abbot’s Mead, a sizeable detached property in Barnet which the director purchased from the father of a certain Simon Cowell. The 12 happy years the family spent at the house were lovingly commemorated by Christiane’s eldest daughter Katharina in a 2015 film for the BBC’s One Show, which can still be viewed online. Then in 1978 came the move to Childwickbury, a 17th century manor house that had once been home to the author Mary Carbery.
If the legend is to be believed, Kubrick spent his days at Childwickbury skulking around behind locked gates and closed curtains. As the writer and filmmaker Jon Ronson discovered when making a documentary, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, about the director’s extensive archive, the mansion was a home rather than a compound, a workplace rather than a retreat. It was here, in the kitchen to be precise, that he convinced Steven Spielberg to collaborate with him on the science fiction epic AI. And it was also here that Christiane, a German-born actress, explored her talents as a painter, the fruits of which appear in many of her husband’s films.
Given their scale and scope, it’s hard to think of Kubrick’s motion pictures as anything less than epics. However, to the director, these were family films, the personal touch provided by Christiane’s art and uncredited acting performances from his youngest daughter Vivian. The director of the acclaimed behind-the-scenes documentary Making The Shining, Vivian – under the pseudonym Abigail Mead – also composed the score for her father’s 1987 Vietnam drama Full Metal Jacket, a picture whose executive producers included Stanley’s brother-in-law Jan Harlan. The place where he lived, loved and worked, Childwickbury was also where Stanley Kubrick died, in his sleep on March 7, 1999. The director had insisted on being interred on the grounds beneath his favourite tree.
As for what he left behind, his is a body of work that explores everything from the extremes of the human mind (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) to the outskirts of our universe (2001: A Space Odyssey). Given his obsession with machines and systems and the inevitability of them going wrong (see the doomsday deterrence programme in Dr Strangelove and the ill-disciplined army grunts in Full Metal Jacket) it’s perhaps not surprising that some critics consider Kubrick’s work to be a touch on the cold side. But while cool and remote might be the public image of the man, the reality is far warmer and relatable.
This genius of cinema, raised in the Bronx of New York City, found a joyful home in the Hertfordshire countryside which provided him with the comfort to explore the uncomfortable and the welcome to dissect the unwelcoming.
Design Museum Kubrick exhibition
From April 26 to September 15 the London Design Museum will trace how design and architecture influenced Stanley Kubrick’s films through a major exhibition of props, costumes, set models and rare photos. The museum offers vistors the chance to ‘Relive iconic scenes from The Shining (1980), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and see objects on display for the first time in the UK, exploring the unique relationship Kubrick had with England and particularly London as his film location and source of inspiration.’
Tickets for Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition are £16. See designmuseum.org/exhibitions/stanley-kubrick-the-exhibition