Elstree Studios celebrates its 85th anniversary this year. As well as attracting American blockbusters and television productions, major expansion plans are being explored to cope with demand. In a two part feature, Tanya Reed reveals why the studios are known as the ‘British Hollywood.’
Elstree Studios has always been synonymous with firsts. It was at Elstree, in 1929, that Alfred Hitchcock launched Britain’s first talkie, Blackmail. Several years later, Atlantic, based on the tragedy of the Titanic, became the world’s first multi-lingual talking picture, each scene shot three times with a change of cast – in English, French and German. Charlie Chaplin described the Hertfordshire studios as the ‘home of the British film industry.’
Elstree Studios has re-generated itself more times than the Doctor in Dr Who. Founded in 1926, when young British film producer Herbert Wilcox and Hollywood producer J.D. Williams erected Elstree Film Studios, BIP (British International Pictures) would later become ABPC (Associated British Picture Corporation), EMI Studios, EMI-MGM Studios, THORN-EMI Elstree Studios, Canon Elstree Studios, Goldcrest Studios, Elstree Film and TV Studios, and finally Elstree Studios.
Today Elstree Studios, bought in 1996 by Hertsmere Borough Council, remains home to all genres – film and television alike. From the historic The King’s Speech, to the comic book inspired Kick-Ass, it has attracted interest and bookings from film makers and directors worldwide and currently has bookings from three major Hollywood productions.
In the early 1960s Elstree was also used for television production for the new London ITV station, ABC. Productions included the Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Prisoner, The Saint, Birds of a Feather and many others. Elstree still hosts major TV shows including Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Dancing on Ice – all major international TV shows.
For Elizabeth Hendry, a regular visitor to the Studios in the 1940s and 1950s with her father, the love affair with Elstree has never ended. Her father was Gerry Mitchell, assistant director and production manager, who worked on classics such as Brighton Rock.
She fondly recalls breakfasts with Dirk Bogarde (she was a film extra in For Better For Worse), Audrey Hepburn sitting on her dad’s desk smoking a long cigarette (the Studios helped launched Audrey’s career with the films Laughter in Paradise and Young Wives’ Tale) and Moby Dick – a huge mechanical whale, surrounded by badly mauled and bleeding plastic and rubber characters.
“It was a wonderful time. The Studios were my playground as a seven year old until I was 15. Both myself and my brother, Gerald, were allowed to go on all the different sound stages and often worked as extras on movies.”
Mrs Hendry also met Ronald Reagan and Gregory Peck. “My father always said Ronald Reagan would become American president. I met him on several occasions and he was very charming. I met Gregory Peck with my brother during the filming of Moby Dick and he brought us cowboy outfits.”
A film which won the hearts of the nation was The Railway Children, produced in 1970 and regarded by many as one of Elstree’s most successful children’s features. Almost a decade later, Martin Baker remembers working on The Great Muppet Caper and Dark Crystal.
“Elstree has always done things differently,“ he explained. “In 1979 the Jim Henson Company shot The Great Muppet Caper and Dark Crystal back to back which was a first for the company.
“The Great Muppet Caper had a big underwater dance routine. It was a freezing cold January and we flew in 12 dancers from LA who had to wear bikinis. My job was to keep them warm – well someone had to!”
Also working for the Jim Henson Company was Pete Coogan whose earliest memories of Elstree are of Labyrinth and The Storytellers – a series for television.
In 2006, both long standing producers with the Jim Henson Company, involved with numerous film and TV productions at Elstree, decided to set up Baker Coogan Production at the Studios. According to Pete, “We’ve always enjoyed the diversity and camaraderie of Elstree. It’s always been a special place for us. There were often famous faces in Tim Rushton’s restaurant on site. You could see David Bowie sitting next to George Lucas and Jim Henson. It was an amazing time.”
George Lucas really put Elstree in the limelight after basing Star Wars there in 1976. Two famous sequels later, he invited Steven Spielberg to direct the Indiana Jones trilogy. A new large silent stage was built and Elstree entered its most profitable period in its history up to that time.
Roy Button, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Warner Brothers Productions Ltd, remembers it well. Working on the first masterpiece, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was not for the fainthearted. The introduction to Indiana Jones involved snakes – lots of snakes. For Roy, the film’s second assistant director, it was his worst nightmare.
“I was terrified working with 10 king cobras even though full paramedics were on standby,” he remembers. “More than10,000 boa constructors, pythons, and grass snakes featured in The Well of the Souls shot on stage three. Many of the grass snakes escaped. Two weeks after filming, people on the High Street were bringing them back in buckets.
“I loved Elstree Studios, we did a lot of good movies in the 1970s and 1980s. The place has history but without the attitude – it was and still is a friendly place to be.
“Stanley Kubrick was an absolute genius. One memory of The Shining set on stage three stays with me forever. It was 1979, and I was going home at around 8 pm when suddenly the set went up like a rocket. People were running around everywhere pulling gear out.”
Anthony Frewin, Kubrick’s assistant for nearly 30 years, remembers starting his career in film in Borehamwood.
“I was drawn into film by the magic, mystery and excitement. I found the industry full of people like myself – largely unemployable anywhere else! My father, Eddie, introduced me to it when he was working at Elstree back in the 1950s as a driver and generator operator. Back then it seemed everyone in Borehamwood worked in the Studios, or had something to do with them.”
Anthony was 17 when he started work on 2001: A Space Odyssey which was in pre-production at Elstree in September 1965. The main unit filmed between December and March 1966 and was followed by many months of special effects and post -production. The film premiered in April 1968.
“I thought the studios were the best laid out and best equipped in England or, as Stanley would say, in the whole of Albion! He surrounded himself with an excellent crew, including, to take two names at random, the resident special effects man, the late Oscar-winning Tom Howard, and Bill Jeffrey, the ‘electrical’ gaffer who had worked with Hitchcock in the 1930s.
“Stanley shot many scenes for films there, including Lolita and The Shining. I remember the stage catching fire on The Shining. Stanley subsequently said to me, ‘It’s a film. Things like this happen, and you should be prepared for them to happen’”.
By Tanya Reed