One hundred years of dreams: celebrating film and TV at Elstree
PUBLISHED: 12:58 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:58 21 October 2014
From humble yet pioneering beginnings, the film industry of Borehamwood and Elstree has grown to be a world leader. Its century-long history is packed with screen legends, disasters, blockbusters and cult films – an epic story in its own right. By Katie Heslop
This year marks a century of pioneering film and television production in the studios of Elstree and Borehamwood. The up and down history of these studios; breaking new ground, attracting the biggest screen stars and best directors, as well as overblown budgets, disasters and closures is just as exciting as the best plots of the thousands of films and TV shows they have produced.
The story starts in 1914, in what was then the small village of Boreham Wood in Elstree parish, with the setting up of the Neptune Film Company. The small studio had what is thought to be the UK’s first ‘dark stage’ – lit by a gas-powered generator, rather than sunlight through glass – making lighting more reliable. Here, silent movies such as The Harbour Lights were shot.
The outbreak of the First World War proved difficult for Neptune and it went into liquidation just two years after opening. Others stepped in however with ambitions for the booming genre of film and over the next two decades the original buildings were taken over and expanded by a series of film companies, becoming in turn Blattner Studios, Rock Studios and then National Studios.
In 1926 British National Studios was built on 40 acres of land on the other side of Shenley Road – the high street of Borehamwood – creating the foundation for today’s Elstree Studios. During the ‘20s, Alfred Hitchcock directed the first British talkie, Blackmail, (left) here. Other popular sound films followed; the ground-breaking Atlantic was recorded in three languages. Hitchcock returned in 1939 to shoot Jamaica Inn starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.
The studio produced more than 200 films before operations were shut down during the Second World War.
The floodgates open.
The growing reputation of film production in the area attracted many companies. In 1928, Whitehall Films built the Gate Studios in Station Road, next to Elstree station – good for connections, but an unforeseen problem when talkies arrived one year later and assistant directors had to be posted on the roof to warn of oncoming trains that played havoc with sound recording.
The British and Dominions Imperial Studios were also built in the late ‘20s to provide extra stages for British International Studios and for hire. Giant of the screen, Charles Laughton, won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII, filmed at Imperial. Paramount, Columbia and United Artists all made movies here in the ‘30s, until the stages were destroyed in a huge fire in 1936.
In 1936, Amalgamated Studio (later renamed MGM British) was built on 115 acres off Elstree Way to create what became one of the largest film facilities in Europe.
The Hollywood years.
After the Second World War, Warner Bros invested heavily in Associated British Picture Corporation (previously British International Pictures), and after much rebuilding and expanding, the facility reopened in 1947. Here, Gregory Peck starred in Captain Horatio Hornblower in 1951 and returned for an iconic adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick featuring a newly-built giant outdoor water tank, also used in The Dam Busters.
Meanwhile, back at the site of the original Neptune Studios, Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jr rented National Studios, producing 160 made-for-television films in the 1950s. The notable William Tell and The Invisible Man were also filmed on the site.
During the same decade, MGM sent one of its most versatile actors, Spencer Tracy, to its Hertfordshire studio to star in Edward My Son with leading lady Deborah Kerr. Although married, Tracy was conducting an affair with Katherine Hepburn who accompanied him to Elstree. The ‘50s also saw some of the biggest acting names of the era filming at MGM including Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Robert Taylor and Gene Kelly.
It was not just established stars who came to Elstree; the young Audrey Hepburn got her screen break in Hertfordshire in Young Wives Tale (1951), before going on to international fame in Roman Holiday (1953) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
The TV and blockbuster boom.
In the 1960s, Summer Holiday and a clutch of Hammer Horror films were shot at ABPC. This was also the decade that saw a boom in TV series; the cult shows The Saint, The Avengers and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) were all shot here. Classic films including The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and cult TV series The Prisoner were all shot at MGM.
St Albans-based director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was one of the last films to be produced by MGM (he had previously filmed Lolita and Clockwork Orange in the area). The film was a slow-burning success but the extensive sets for this and other films (In 1952 the studio had built a life-size castle for Ivanhoe starring Liz Taylor) and swollen budgets added to increasing financial troubles of the parent MGM company. In 1970, MGM in Hollywood ordered a sell-off at its Herts site, raising £2m. It then closed MGM British.
Also facing money troubles down the road at what had been ABPC but was now EMI Elstree Studios, was managing director Andrew Mitchell. He decided to transformed the studio in 1974 – staffing was reduced dramatically and a number of stages were closed. These changes reflected an increasing dependence on location rather than in-studio filming and EMI’s diminished financial backing of its own film productions.
The situation at Elstree Studios changed for the better in 1976 when Mitchell secured a deal with George Lucas to produce the technically advanced Star Wars at the studio. The unexpected enormous success of the film raised the profile of the Herts studio and Lucas’ friend and acclaimed director Steven Spielberg came to the county, enticed by the large studio space and impressed by British craftsmanship. Spielberg’s hugely successful Indiana Jones trilogy was shot at EMI Elstree – even the boulder that chases Harrison Ford in the iconic temple scene from the first in the series was made in the studio’s workshops.
During the late 1970s and ‘80s Thorn EMI Elstree was the most productive studio outside of Hollywood, making some of the most successful films of all time including the Star Wars trilogy, Kubrick’s The Shining and the Indiana Jones films. The studio was also a world-beater in post-production, with an Oscar for sound on The Last Emperor being awarded to sound department supervisor Bill Rowe.
It had always been common to see famous actors walking around Borehamwood and the ‘80s was no different. ‘It was perfectly normal to see David Prowse in his Darth Vader costume wandering around with a cup of tea,’ said Howard Berry, a leading figure in The Elstree Project, set up to record, preserve and share the legacy of the local studios.
On the other side of Shenley Road, ATV was creating crazy fun as the home of Jim Henson and The Muppets. The director left in the mid ‘80s but the BBC soon arrived, filming Top of the Pops, Allo! Allo! and Grange Hill. The corporation still films here today, including EastEnders and Holby City.
The heights reached by Thorn EMI in Herts in the ‘80s did not guarantee a secure future and the studio nearly closed for good. In 1986 the studio was bought by Cannon, which produced Superman IV but sold off the film libraries. In the early ‘90s it changed hands again – this time being sold to developer Brent Walker. The company sold 12 acres to Tesco for a superstore, productions were wound down and the site eventually closed.
A campaign, Save Our Studio, was launched by local residents, led by film historian Paul Welsh and after a three-year closure Hertsmere Borough Council bought the site. Following a £10m investment and redevelopment the studios reopened in 1996.
The project was a triumph and today Elstree Studios is a leading UK studio, producing the hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing, The Voice and Big Brother. It has also been home to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Oral history project
To mark the centenary of the film industry in the area, a documentary called From Borehamwood to Hollywood: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Elstree is being shown for the first time this month. The film is the latest endeavour of The Elstree Project, a joint venture between local volunteer group Elstree Screen Heritage, led by Paul Welsh, and students and staff from the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire.
The Elstree Project developed from a limited aim – to interview people who had worked with Stanley Kubrick at the various studios. Realising the number of untold stories, Paul Welsh and Howard Berry decided to expand the project and undertake an oral history record which would give veterans of major television and film productions the opportunity to talk about their work at the Herts studios.
‘We realised no one else was going to tell the story, so we should,’ said Berry. Four years later and The Elstree Project has completed over 50 interviews and spoken with screen legends like Roger Moore, Brian Blessed and Barbara Windsor. Late last year Berry and his students went to America to interview Steven Spielberg.
It is not just star power that is important to the project. Camera operators, supervisors, floor managers, carpenters, special effects experts all offer unique perspectives on the intriguing and sometimes mysterious world of film making, and often tell the most entertaining stories. Berry recalls a construction rigger, known simply as Alf, who was on set with Elizabeth Taylor. The shine of the enormous engagement ring given to her by Richard Burton was reflected in the ceiling. Alf stared at the ring and then looked at Elizabeth Taylor, commenting dryly, ‘I bet you got that from Woolworths’.
June Randall, in charge of continuity on The Shining, remembers the negotiations between Stanley Kubrick and Scatman Crothers, who could never remember his lines. When Crothers finally mastered them under June’s coaching he would follow her around, reciting them eagerly. Barry Wilkinson, props master on the groundbreaking animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit? talks of being enthralled by the acting skills of Bob Hoskins as he pretended to be handcuffed to a cartoon Roger Rabbit.
The documentary reminds viewers that Hertfordshire was, and remains, a focal point for British and world film making. One hundred years after the creation of Neptune, the studios of Elstree and Borehamwood are still producing first-class entertainment.