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Star Wars to Strictly: A history of Elstree Studios

Published 21/11/2015

Star power: Elstree has played host to some of Hollywood's biggest stars and is the current home of Strictly Come Dancing
Star power: Elstree has played host to some of Hollywood's biggest stars and is the current home of Strictly Come Dancing

There have been many good times and bad, but Britain's most famous studio has hosted some of Hollywood's biggest stars and greatest films. Paul Whitington looks at a pictorial history.

Not many holidays in London include a trip to Borehamwood, a mid-sized suburban town some 13 miles northwest of the city centre. But it is, perhaps, after Ealing, the most significant place in British cinematic history, since it is the home of Elstree Studios.

At one point in the Nineties, Elstree seemed on the point of collapse, though in recent years the studio has rallied, and now regularly hosts big-budget Hollywood productions like Star Wars as well as primetime television shows like the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.

This handsome coffee-table book has been released to celebrate 90 years of film and television production at Elstree, and while a little thin on editorial substance, it is full of remarkable photos of studio productions and stars. And the list of films produced at Elstree over the years is breathtaking, including everything from early Hitchcock classics like Jamaica Inn to Ice Cold in Alex, The Dambusters, Moby Dick and The Shining, as well as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.

For a time in the late Seventies and Eighties, Elstree really seemed like an annex of Hollywood, as major stars like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Jack Nickolson and Christopher Reeve chowed down in the canteen, and big productions were an everyday occurrence. And recent appearances in Borehamwood by the likes of Brad Pitt and Robert Downey suggest Elstree's glory days are far from over.

There was already a small film-making facility in Borehamwood when producer Herbert Wilcox founded Elstree Studios in 1925. The Neptune Studio had been set up in 1914 to make dramatic features at a site that was convenient for London but far enough from it to avoid the dreaded "pea-souper" pollution-laden fogs.

Elstree Studios hit the ground running with its first feature, a historical drama called Madame Pompadour starring Dorothy Gish. But the studio was quickly taken over by a Scottish cinema magnate called John Maxwell, who renamed it British International Pictures and greatly expanded the facility. Maxwell also had the vision to hire a young director by the name of Hitchcock, a 28-year-old Londoner with big ideas.

His first film for the studio, Blackmail, is generally credited as the first British talkie. It was a singularly dark tale about a young woman who is blackmailed after killing a man who tried to rape her. The film's most famous scene takes place on the dome of the British Museum, but most of Blackmail was shot in Elstree, where Hitchcock would make a number of his pre-Hollywood films.

Sean O'Casey was not entirely happy when British International Pictures announced plans to turn Juno and the Paycock into a movie, but Hitchcock smoothed the waters by inviting him to visit Elstree. The two hit it off, and O'Casey even agreed to write Hitch an extra scene for the 1930 film, which starred Barry Fitzgerald and Maire O'Neill. The late Maureen O'Hara's first major role was filmed at Elstree with Hitchcock, in Jamaica Inn. By the mid-Thirties, Elstree had produced over 200 features and was dubbed "the home of the British film industry" by Charlie Chaplin. But in 1936 a slump in film production and a serious fire brought hard times for the studio, which was closed down for several years during the Second World War.

But Elstree bounced back after the war when Warner Brothers took a share in it and pumped in some much-needed capital. Ronald Reagan turned up in 1949 to film his only non-Hollywood movie, The Hasty Heart, and a year later Hitchcock returned to Elstree to direct Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright.

During the Fifties, Laurence Harvey, Richard Harris and Audrey Hepburn all made their starts at Elstree. John Huston shot exterior shots for Moby Dick (1956) in Youghal, but much of the rest of it in Elstree, where a life-size whale's head was built in a water tank for the climactic scene.

The classic British war film Ice Cold in Alex was also shot at Elstree as, less auspiciously, were Cliff Richard's bland musical hits The Young Ones and Summer Holiday. But by the early Sixties, film audiences began to drop, and Elstree branched out into television productions like The Saint and The Avengers.

In the Seventies, big movie productions were the exception rather than the rule at Elstree: then came Star Wars. George Lucas and Fox chose England as a base because it was relatively close to shooting locations in Tunisia, and picked Elstree because it was the only British studio with enough room for this large and troubled production.

While Lucas battled with unions and an absurd 5.30pm shooting curfew, Harrison Ford struggled to make sense of Lucas's wordy script and famously told him "you can type this s***, George, but you can't say it". Somehow, the film got made, and confounded expectations by breaking all box office records. Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also shot at Elstree. The studio's nadir came in the early Nineties, when businessman George Walker bought the site and got planning permission to demolish much of the facility and sell 12 acres to Tesco. A public outcry emboldened the local council to take Walker to court. They won, and Elstree was given a multi-million pound makeover.

Though television, and shows like Strictly Come Dancing, remain essential to the facility's viability, the decision to shoot Tom Hooper's Oscar-winning drama The King's Speech at Elstree has attracted other big productions, like World War Z and Paddington Bear. So for the moment, Elstree's future seems secure, and this attractive coffee-table tome gives a nice overview of the studio's rich history. It's not cheap, though.

  • Elstree Studios: A Celebration of Films and Television, Paul Burton and Morris Bright (Michael O'Mara Books), £30

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