The Story of Elstree Studio’s
Written By Al Samujh and Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins
Situated on the edge of Hertfordshire, just 25 miles north of London, Elstree is known throughout the world as one of the major centres of British film making. However, as any viewer of film credits will have notices, Elstree Studios are in fact located in Borehamwood – the ‘wrong side’ of the railway tracks’ (literally) from its more upmarket neighbour, the REAL Elstree.
In the heyday of the ‘British Hollywood’, there were several studios in the town; MGM British National, The Gate, The Ideal, The Neptune, and so on. But the studios that played host to Jason King started out as the brainchild of an American film entrepreneur, one JD Williams. Shortly after the completion of his studios, however, Williams went into disagreement with his partners and the studios (with more of a touch of irony) fell into the hands of John Maxwell – a Scots lawyer who’d been brought in to handle litigation concerning the rift. Maxwell was a small-time cinema owner with a history of film distribution who was keen to entre production as the government were about to fix a firm foundation for the British film industry in the form of the much maligned quota system of 1927.
⇐ PETER taking direction on the Backlot of Elstree (Department S)
Maxwell immediately achieved a quick turnaround of films at the newly acquired BIP Studios. So much so that the industry somewhat mischievously gave it the nickname the ‘Porridge Factory’. Some say this was in honour of Maxwell’s Scottish roots, with the other school of thought appropriating the name to the fast production of ‘pot boiler’ movies of the period.
Nevertheless, the studios succeeded and Maxwell developed an empire with his acquisition of hundreds of cinemas. By 1937, the empire was known as the now familiar name of The Associated British Picture Corporation, and its chain of cinemas had the corporate identity of ABC. Everyone who was anyone eventually passed through the gates of the ABPC. In 1929, the company was credited with the very first British sound production due to the, then, ‘boy wonder’, Alfred Hitchcock, re-shooting his ‘Blackmail’ feature after almost finishing it, to utilise the new RCA sound process. Future US president, Ronald Reagan, made a movie at the studios, whilst in the 1970’s, ‘Star wars’ and its sequels offered the British Film Industry a ‘New Hope’.
John Maxwell died in 1940, and at the time, the studios had been commandeered by the British Army for wartime activity. After the War, the “Porridge Factory” faced stiff competition from both J. Arthur Rank at Pinewood and the newly opened MGM British, which was built literally just across the street. After his death, Maxwell’s family struggled to regain control of the empire he’d built – finally losing out in 1946, when Warner Brothers bought a controlling stake.
Despite the American influence, the studios continued to make films with a distinctly British flavour, such as ‘The Dambusters’ in 1955. In the same year, Britain also saw the introduction of commercial independent television. The board at ABPC realised that this was a sign of things to come and thus successfully bid for a franchise to serve London and the Midlands. So was born ABC TV – soon to become a production company for one of the classic series of the Sixties, ‘The Avengers’.
Television rapidly gained hold and with eth diminution of the “Swinging Sixties”, a hectic film production schedule was under way in Britain. with more and more studios turning themselves over to TV shows. More importantly, they invested in new sound stages and technology especially for the medium.
Department S was the 6th ITC television series yo be filmed at ABPC Studios. The twist here being that in 1962, Lew Grade had acquired the nearby National Studios (now BBC Elstree) – home of the Eastenders soap, yet continued to have his major productions filmed elsewhere. The advantage of ABPC was that it boasted a versatile backlot with not one, but TWO sizable tanks. Therefore, with a little bit of dressing, “The backlot would double as everything from Berlin to Hong Kong… you just changed the window shutters.” Johnny Goodman – on ‘The Saint’.
Many areas of the Studios turned up repeatedly in various series; one of the favourites being a concrete thoroughfare between the scene docks and the smaller stages. This was where a crated Jason King was dropped off by his associates in ‘A Thin Band of Air’, and which doubled for Rotterdam Docks in The Champions episode, ‘The Invisible Man’.
PETER in a scene from The Champion’s episode, ‘The Invisible Man’ on a jetty at Tank 2 at Elstree ⇒
A major refurbishment of the facility in the 1960’s gave ABPC, not only a new administration block, but probably its most utilised feature in those wonderful ITC adventure series – the underground car park; a scene of assassination and abduction aplenty (as noted in Department S episodes, ‘The Man From X’ and ‘A Small War of Nerves’, and the Jason King stories, ‘Flamingoes Only Fly On Tuesdays’ and ‘As Easy As A.B.C.’.
The ITC series undoubtedly gave ABPC Studios the breathing space it needed to stave off closure as befell its more glamorous neighbour, MGM, in 1970. However, ABPC was not totally immune and in 1968 a successful takeover bid was staged by musical and electronics giant, EMI. Despite this, Department S is still credited as having been produced at associated British, with Jason King being credited to EMI-MGM Studios (after its closure, MGM US had sponsored a three-year joint finance with EMI so as to maintain a small UK production base).
By the time of the EMI takeover, British production was flourishing. Vast numbers of cinemas had closed as TV took over, and there was precious little call for indigenous film making. By now, Hollywood ruled.
In the late 1970’s, EMI had been bought out by Thorn and another double-barrelled name was evident on the Shenley Road. But the studios had long since passed into decline – neither EMI nor Thorn had invested much in the infrastructure. Cold walls and plaster were quickly (and cheaply) coated with paint, but that was about it.
The rebirth of the facilities came with the making of ‘Star Wars’; for the sequel ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Thorn actually erected a huge silent stage to accommodate its blockbuster sets. Then Steven Spielberg came on George Lucas’ recommendation to make his ‘Indiana Jones’ series of films. the future of the studio was looking rosy.
⇐ PETER during a break in filming ‘Jason King’
But then the rollercoaster ride that is British film making took a dip and it was announced in 1986 that the studios were to be sold to the Cannon Group, whose disastrous tenure ended as soon as 1988. Enter the Brent Walker Group, who called their new venture Goldcrest Studios; overstretched themselves and ended up in the criminal courts.
this was the final blow for the ‘Porridge Factory’ as a group, and in a desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) bid to survive, sought to divest itself of its less productive assets. A major redevelopment was announced for the studios, with the site and the number of studios shrinking, but with the new sits to be installed with all the latest film technology. The bulk of the land was to be released for redevelopment.
Thus in 1991, the whole of the eastern side of the studio complex fell to the bulldozers. The lack of investment and interest in the studios was revealed when the front offices of the building were pulled down. When the admin functions where moved, the entire site had simply been abandoned and shut off. Indeed, inside the old Hammer Film office, it was like walking aboard the Marie Celeste; scripts, publicity materials, pressbooks –all lying where they had done so for the last 20-odd years, gathering dust.
Fortunately, those familiar tall trees and some of the old haunts of Jason King, the Champions et al, still exist. Hertsmere Borough Council purchased the remaining stages from Brent Walker under a compulsory purchase Order and reinstituted filmmaking alongside the new Tesco supermarket, where photos of some of Elstree’s finest film adorn the walls in tribute to those better day.
MUCH better days!
In December 1996, actors and technicians associated with Elstree Studios were invited to witness the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate and celebrate the achievements of the Studio itself and of the Hammer Film division.
Amongst the assembles dignitaries was PETER – dressed in a black baseball cap and sunglasses, Sylvia Simm, Ron Moody, Nigel Hawthorne, Pat Coombs, Liz Frazer, Lana Morris, Barry Morse, William Lucas and Hammer legend, Christopher Lee, who accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of his great friend, Peter Cushing.
DEPARTMENT S AT ELSTREE
Arial view of the Elstree lot ⇑
- Production Offices
- Film Processing Laboratories
- Film Vaults (demolished)
- Sound Stages 1&2
- Sound Stages 3&4
- Sound Stages 5&6
- Soundstage 10 (demolished)
- Tank 2
- Utility Buildings
- Tank 1
- Perimeter Road (a new structure was built here after Department S and Jason King was completed)
- Underground Car Park exit
- Set Assembly block
- Ancillary Services block
- Soundstages 7, 8 & 9
- Administration block
- Underground Car Park entrance
Areas at Elstree featured in Department S:
18. Ancillary Services Block:
The wide covered alleyway at the side of this Block is where we see Sullivan fighting with two thugs in ‘The Last Train to Redbridge’, and the building also doubles for Interpol’s Auto Division building where Annabelle Hurst checks out the burnt out Rolls-Royce in ‘The Double Death of Charlie Crippen’. It’s also used as parts of Heathrow and Orly Airports in ‘Six Days’ and ‘The Trojan Tanker’, respectively.
A cemetery that had been especially made for the ‘Randal and Hopkirk (Deceased)’ series is seen in both ‘The Ghost of Mary Burnham’ and ‘The Double Death of Charlie Crippen’.
The scene from ‘A Cellar Full of Silence’, where Jason just managed to get out of the exploding phone box, was also filmed here.
The Backlot Dirt track is where Annabelle notices a newly painted gatepost in ‘The Pied Piper of Hambledown’, and is also utilised in ‘The Shift That Never Was’.
14. Perimeter Road:
This is where Jason is beaten up by Dave Prowes in ‘The Treasure of the Costa del Sol’. It also makes an appearance in ‘The Man From X’, ‘A Fish out of Water’ and ‘Dead Men Die Twice’.
1 & 2: Main Gateways:
These were used as the entrance to Orly Airport in ‘The Trojan Tanker’.
9: (Behind) Soundstages 5&6:
This consisted of several small utility buildings, plus a handful of larger constructions that included a big red brick structure which could house as many as fifteen different sets. This served as the background for when Sullivan leaves the Aerospace research facility in ‘The Man From X’.
11 or 13: Tanks:
Jason steps off a jetty into one of the Tanks in ‘Last Train to Redbridge’.
By redressing this set, it became a Spanish town in both ‘Les Fleurs Du Mal’ and ‘Who Played The Dummy?’, Istanbul in ‘The Perfect Operation’ and London in the pre-titles segment of ‘The Man From X’.
16 & 21 – Underground Car Park:
Appears in ‘The Man From X’ when Jason comes to the aid of Wanda Ventham, and becomes a warehouse at London Airport in ‘Six Days’. It can also be seen in ‘The Man in the Elegant Room’, ‘The Bones of Byrom Blaine’.
PETER, Joel Fabiani and Rosemary Nichols are seen standing on the Entrance Ramp of the Car Park at the very end of ‘Ghost of Mary Burnham’.
6: The Vaults:
This was a whitewashed, single story building which had stood on the Elstree site since the studio began production in 1927. It makes an appearance in ‘The Last Train to Redbridge’ as the East London Mortuary and in ‘The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine’.
*This area of the studio is now occupied by a Tesco Supermarket.
Throughout the time he spent filming at Associated Elstree, PETER used Dressing Room No. 515, which was at the side of Soundstages 3&4 (circled on Layout above).
© The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/