History of Elstree Studios
In the mid 1920s a young British film producer Herbert Wilcox and a Hollywood producer named J.D Williams were looking for a site to build a new motion picture studio.
They were aware of such a facility already operating in a small village named Boreham Wood called Neptune Studio, which had opened in 1914. The attraction was easy access by rail and road to London and away from the famous ‘pea souper’ smogs of the capital city.
Building commenced in 1925 and Wilcox decided to call the new studio Elstree Studios. He based his decision to call it Elstree Studios as Elstree was a more established geographical name.
The first feature film to be completed was Madame Pompadour starring silent screen actress Dorothy Gish. However, Williams fell out with his South African investors resulting in the departure of both he and Wilcox and the facility passed into the hands of Scottish cinema owner John Maxwell. He named the studios British International Pictures and signed up new talent including the up and coming director Alfred Hitchcock. John Maxwell greatly expanded the facilities and today his contribution is recognised with one of the admin buildings named after him. The Studio itself tended to take 1927 as it’s official opening date as Maxwell’s first production The White Shiek was actually produced that year and released before Madame Pompadour.
Hitchcock went into the record books by directing Blackmail at Elstree, which is generally credited as being the first British talking film. During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Studio was involved in many motion picture breakthroughs including colour production and multi lingual films. The film Atlantic was shot three times with English, French and German casts in order to widen it’s worldwide appeal. The story was based on the ill-fated Titanic voyage and the then Board of Trade protested that the Studio was opening up recent wounds by choosing such a sensitive subject.
Elstree in the 1930s launched the screen careers of such stars as Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Anna Neagle, Googie Withers, Ray Milland and Stewart Granger. Its output was enormous and included quota quickie films working with Hollywood Studios, and by 1939 had produced over 200 features.
During its early years the Studio Manager was a lively cockney character named Joe Grossman. He successfully forged links with the Royal Family involving private visits by the future Edward VIII and the future George VI. King George V and Queen Mary paid an official visit in 1934. The street outside the Studio was lined by members of the public and extras in costume from the Richard Tauber production of Blossom Time. On another occasion the King Of Greece was being shown around by the Studio Manager who seeing his mystified look while examining sound recording equipment innocently remarked “I suppose this is all Greek to you sir!” Other famous visitors included Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin who described the Studio as the ‘home of the British film industry’.
A fire in 1936 destroyed several stages and a general slump in production threatened the Studio’s survival. In 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, the facility closed for several years and it was used as an ordnance depot and a garrison theatre by the Army.
John Maxwell, the Studio Owner, died during the War years and his widow sold a large number of his shares to Warner Bros. who agreed to substantially rebuild the facility during 1946 and 1947.
After the War, Elstree got off to a good start and in the late 1940s made The Hasty Heart that gained newcomer Richard Todd a contract and an Oscar nomination while also being responsible for bringing over future U.S President Ronald Reagan to appear in his only British movie. Hitchcock returned to direct legendary Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright and within a few short years the Studio was discovering new talent such as Audrey Hepburn, Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey.
The 1950s saw a raft of Hollywood stars appearing at Elstree including David Niven, Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck, William Holden and Errol Flynn in such movies as Moby Dick and The Key along with home grown talent such as Jack Hawkins, Dennis Price and Terry Thomas. The famous Elstree water tank was used for The Dam Busters.
In the early 1960s, Elstree, which since its reopening in 1945 had been known as Associated British Picture Corporation, decided to move away from gritty dramas such as Yield To The Night with Diana Dors and ground breaking drama Look Back in Anger with Richard Burton in favour of musicals and comedies. The result was signing up television talent such as Tony Hancock and Charlie Drake to star in The Rebel and The Cracksman along with Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday and The Young Ones.
In the 1960s, as the home of ABC Television, Elstree Studios became used for more television production including such international hits as The Saint and The Avengers. In the early 1970s the facility went ‘four wall’, hiring out its sound stages for other producers to use and manned with freelance staff. Just prior to this move Bryan Forbes had been appointed Head of Production by new owners EMI. He green lit several movies the most successful of which was probably The Railway Children. Stanley Kubrick also produced The Shining at Elstree Studios.
Murder on the Orient Express brought a galaxy of stars to Elstree including Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Tony Perkins. In 1976 from a Galaxy far far away a young American decided to base his new science fiction movie at Elstree. His name was George Lucas, the movie Star Wars and the rest is history. During the next few years he produced two sequels and also invited Steven Spielberg to Borehamwood to direct the Indiana Jones trilogy. A new large silent stage was built to accommodate this extra work.
Elstree was also famous for its post production. Bill Rowe, the Sound Post Supervisor, was scoring triumph after triumph culminating in an Oscar for his work on The Last Emperor.
In 1986 Thorn EMI decided to sell the Studio and it was purchased by Cannon who sold off the Pathe film library based at Elstree Studios and produced Superman IV. George Walker of Brent Walker purchased Elstree Studios in the early 90’s.
Walker bought the site as a development opportunity and gained permission to demolish much of the facility and sell 12 acres to Tesco provided they retained and rebuilt the remaining 15 acres as a viable, modern film and TV studio.
In 1993 Brent Walker closed the Studio for production with just one or two tenants remaining. Equipment was sold off and for three years the Studio remained empty until Hertsmere Council took Brent Walker to court and won an amazing victory, which resulted in the historic facility coming under the ownership of the local community.
The Studios have been subsequently restored with millions of pounds spent reequipping the stages and building two massive new sound stages, which were opened by H.R.H Prince Charles in 1999.
Nowadays the Studio is once again a profitable and high profile aspect of the film and television production scene keeping alive the British Hollywood.
The Studios have continued to be used for film production, television production, commercials and events. In the last four years the Studios have been transformed to become once again one of the top UK Studios alongside Pinewood and Warner Brothers Leavesden.
Elstree Studios remains the production base of Netflix and Left Bank Pictures’ mutli-award-winning drama depicting the Royal Family: The Crown. The Crown’s Series 4 was released on Netflix in November 2020.
Recent film productions have included Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows starring Jude Law and Robert Downey Jnr, Brian Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, Under The Skin starring Scarlett Johansson, The World’s End starring Simon Pegg, World War Z starring Brad Pitt, Suffragette starring Meryl Streep and of course multi award winning film The King’s Speech starring Colin Firth. Paddington was released in November and was named the highest grossing British independent film of 2014.
In television, the Studios has always been home to some of the highest rated TV shows in the UK such as ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Dancing on Ice and most recently The Chase, Celebrity Juice, The Voice and The Voice Kids, C4’s My Mad Fat Diary and The Last Leg, Channel 5’s Big Brother and the BBC’s Pointess and Strictly Come Dancing. The Studios are also very popular for commercials having provided stage space for Morrison’s, Gucci, Stella Artois, Littlewoods, River Island, NatWest and Romeo Beckham’s Burberry Christmas special.
Elstree is also one of the homes to BBC Studioworks. A number of Elstree Studios’ Stages have been fully equipped for HD multi camera television production. Productions who have utilised the new facilities include Pointless, Beat the Chasers and Don’t Hate the Playaz. HD gallery facilities have been built for the George Lucas Stage 2, which hosts the UK’s number one entertainment show: Strictly Come Dancing.
A multi-million pound development of Elstree Studios is now underway to provide new media facilities at the Studios to accommodate the extra film and TV work the studios now generates. Two new ‘Super Stages’ will be build on the area previously occupied by the Big Brother House. Big Brother came to a finish in 2018. This work will increase the size of the studios by 25% and is the first major development at Elstree in over 15 years.
The Studios wish to express gratitude to Paul Welsh MBE for his dedication to ensuring the future of Elstree Studios as a result of his Save The Studios campaign in 1988.