Cinema Retro's Bill Duelly recently visited the sites of legendary British movie studios. His report is a sobering reminder of how unchecked development is endangering cultural heritage.
Suburban sprawl: rising real estate prices; loss of historic sites. It’s not just a phenomenon in the United States. It is the world over. One place where this is taking a toll on our cinematic history is n the town of Elstree and Borehamwood, England. And it’s happening to the places the Cinema Retro fans hold dear as some of their favorite films have come out of this small, friendly and very talented area: 2001; The Dirty Dozen; The Shining; The Star Wars Trilogy (the real one); Indiana Jones Trilogy, etc.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of a tour of the area by Bob Redman and Ben Simon of Elstree Screen Heritage, a group made up of volunteers committed to their unique local film and television heritage. With them, I saw first hand how the landscape of an area rich in England’s film history is rapidly changing (to clarify from the start, Elstree Screen Heritage is concerned with aspects of ALL the studios that have called this area their home, not just Elstree Film Studios).
We didn’t need to go any farther than when we stepped off the train, to see that the site across from the station was under construction for new apartments. This was the original site of Gate Studios, opened in 1928 for production of silent films. Being so close to the trains, sound became a problem shortly thereafter. Their solution? To put someone on the roof and signal when a train was coming so the noise wouldn’t ruin a take. Now, no trace of the studio remains.
There are three other studios that are also no longer around in any form:
British International Pictures and Dominions Studios - which had a very brief life. It opened in 1929 and burned down in 1936. One of the notable productions to come from there was Charles Laughton’s The Private Life of Henry VIII.
British International Pictures and (left) Daninger Bros. Studios. This is the only known photograph featuring Danzinger Bros. Studios.
- Danziger Bros. New Elstree - Another studio with a very brief life; it operated from 1956-1961. ‘B’ Movies and TV shows such as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ were shot there. In that short span, more than 50 films and 400 TV programs were shot there.
MGM British Studios (Amalgamated Studios) – Probably the most impressive studio that had to reach such an unhappy demise. This studio was built just before WW II, but was used for war related work until just after 1945. The largest studio in town, it was home to: Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Village of the Damned; Where Eagles Dare; The Dirty Dozen and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was MGM’s financial troubles in 1970 that caused the studio to suddenly close. MGM sold it off, and moved UK operations briefly to Elstree Studios. The property is now office buildings and housing.
Rare aerial photo MGM British Studios in 1966. If you look toward the top center, you will see the chateau built for The Dirty Dozen
Clock tower at MGM British Studios
The heartwrenching site of the tower being demolished.
Here two studios that have survived, yet have seen many changes over the years:
Neptune Studios (ATV Studios) - Now the BBC Elstree Centre, in 1914, was the first studio built in Borehamwood. This studio served the motion picture industry through 1960, when it was adapted for use for production of TV series such as many ITC programs, musical variety shows and ‘The Muppets’. Now it is currently home to the British soap opera ‘East Enders’. It was here that Yoda was created and maintained, in the Muppet workshop, while The Empire Strikes Back was filmed across town at the Elstree Studios.
Elstree Film Studios - Went through a number of names during its life: British International Pictures; EMI Elstree Studios; EMI–MGM Studios (when MGM had vacated their studio and took up brief residence there) and until recently Elstree Film and Television Studios. And now, it’s Elstree Film Studios.
Building started in 1925 and opened 80 years ago in 1927. It made history shortly after that with Alfred Hitchcock directing England’s first talkie, Blackmail. Many features followed. Despite the fire in 1936 at neighboring B and D Studios, the 1930’s were very active.
After the war, stages were torn down and modern ones built in their place. Hitchcock returned to film Stage Fright with Marlene Dietrich. As it entered the 1950’s their output was high and of excellent caliber; Captain Horatio Hornblower, Moby Dick, The Dam Busters, Night of the Demon. As the 1960’s approached, Elstree became the base for the TV series ‘The Saint’ with Roger Moore and ‘The Avengers’ with Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg; while feature production saw such films as Lolita, One Million Years BC, The Vampire Killers.
Business began to drop off in the early 1970’s although their most ambitious film to date, Murder on The Orient Express was shot during 1974. In 1976 a small science fiction film named ‘The Star Wars’ took up residence in Elstree. Most all involved had no idea what the film would become (some more insight will be in my next Star Wars related article).
Their next big feature was in 1978, Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining. The hotel was built full size, right on the lot. A fire on the Shining set caused delays in this production and reduced stage availability, which in turn, would play havoc with the production of The Empire Strikes Back, which was starting in 1979. Frequently, the Empire production crew was uncertain what they were shooting the next day, as they did not know what sets would be ready. Thus, they had to constantly strike and build. The biggest undertaking was the rebel hangar, with the full size Millennium Falcon. Then, while scenes were shot on other stages, that was struck and Yoda’s Dagobah set was built.
This was definitely the heyday of production for Elstree Studios. Features that were lensed through the 1980’s were: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Crystal, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, Give My Regards to Broad Street, Superman IV, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Just as quickly as the run of top grossing films started, it stopped. Cannon had owned the studios and sold it in 1988 to Brent Walker. Who then sold 12 acres to Tesco (a British equivalent to Wal-Mart), which prompted the sale and removal of their largest stage (home to the Rebel Base, Well of Souls, etc) to Shepperton Studios. When part of the studio frontage was demolished in 1990 a large viewing theatre was also lost. It was here that on Friday evenings’ local crew members and their families would be able to watch recent releases.
A few TV series were based there, but it was not enough to stay open. Elstree closed for 3 years while legal battles waged between Brent Walker and Hertsmere Borough Council. When Brent Walker settled out of court they sold the studio to the Council, who fixed up the buildings and opened a new stage, named for their most famous tenant, George Lucas. TV series became anchor tenants: ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’; ‘The Tweenies’; ‘Big Brother’ (the house being built over the tank once used for Moby Dick). Some recent feature work includes some scenes from the new SW Trilogy; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Flyboys.
But what does the future hold for Elstree? As far as we know, ‘Indy 4’ will not have any work done there. Production methodology has changed so that sets and large mechanical effects are becoming a thing of the past. So much is shot against a blue screen that the need for large studios is diminishing. Elstree Studio’s place in history needs to be maintained and preserved.
The surrounding landscape is changing and much is lost already: the previously mentioned stages and screening theater. The pub across from Elstree Studios, the Red Lion, where cast and crews would go for lunch and discuss the day’s work, is now a McDonalds.
Recently, it appeared as if Pacifica Ventures was to obtain a long-term lease to the studios and invest millions in upgrades. But that deal has fallen through. The studio is now being managed by a small Management Board of local councilors from several political parties. At present no timetable for continuing the search for a new organization has been made public, so it’s still a question of ‘wait and see’ But …. the Studios are active and expect to produce a yield of £1 million to the Council during the current year.
It would certainly be great if a permanent museum could be erected in the area (Elstree Studios would be nice), that would give proper homage to the craftsmen & women that produced a fantastic motion picture legacy.
In the meantime, the Elstree Screen Heritage Project is very active in local schools, charity events, film festivals, collecting visual and audio recordings of the people that have worked ‘in the business’ there. For more information on the Elstree Screen Heritage Project, please go to: www.ElstreeScreenHeritage.org
Next up: I conclude my three Star Wars related articles with a visit with one of Elstree Studio’s senior tenants, Norm Harrison of Norank Engineering. Norank built a lot of the original Star Wars props and robots and Norm shares some anecdotes (as well as some props). Also on site is his son, Paul Harrison, who runs the Elstree Studio Props Store. Their offices are unbelievable!