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Strength To Strength – The Story Of Elstree

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Star Wars. Indiana Jones. The Shining. Hitchcock. Elstree Studios is an iconic studio. But where did it all start?

The studio was established in 1926 when young British film producer Herbert Wilcox and Hollywood producer J.D. Williams were looking for a site to build a new motion picture studio. The first feature film was Madame Pompadour, starring silent screen actress Dorothy Gish.

The facility was sold into the hands of Scottish cinema owner John Maxwell, who named the studios 'British International Pictures' and signed up new directing and acting talent including the up-and-coming director Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made film history 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 other motion picture firsts including colour production and multi-lingual films. After the War, Elstree resumed film production operations.

Hitchcock came back to direct legendary Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright and the Studio discovered new acting talent such as Audrey Hepburn, Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey, Laurence Olivier and John Mills. Ice Cold in Alex was made at Elstree along with The Dam Busters and other war based movies of the time.

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.

In the 1960s, Elstree became the home of ABC Television, and a new building spree took place with new dual purpose stages for film and television. Elstree Studios television production included The Saint, The Avengers, Randal and Hopkirk, Jason King and many other classic TV series. The films hits at that time included The Railway Children, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Murder on the Orient Express.

In 1976 a young director, George Lucas made Star Wars at Elstree Studios and the rest is history. During the next few years he produced two Star Wars sequels at Elstree and his friend Steven Spielberg directed the Indiana Jones film trilogy, also at Elstree Studios (the snake pit was in Stage 8). In 1986, Thorn EMI decided to sell the Studio and it was purchased by Cannon, who produced Superman IV. Unfortunately Cannon were not able to sustain their production ambitions at Elstree...

George Walker of Brent Walker purchased Elstree Studios in the early '90s as a development opportunity...

A long industry battle took place to save the studios, led by Paul Welsh, a local film historian; finally the local council stepped in to rescue the studios. The loss of Elstree would have been devastating for the British Film Industry and local economy. Hertsmere Borough Council invested in building new stages at the remaining Studios site and embarked on a long journey to bring the Studios back to life.

A new Era...
In 2008, Roger Morris was brought in as Managing Director with a brief to secure the future for Elstree Studios. Roger Morris is a seasoned film and television industry Managing Director having been the owner of Teddington Studios (formerly Thames TV Studios) and a Managing Director at Pinewood/Shepperton Group. He also has considerable experience as a producer and director and worked with Palace Group, one of the most prolific film production companies of the '80s and '90s, producers of Mona Lisa, Scandal and The Crying Game.

Working closely with the Leader of Hertsmere Borough Council, Morris Bright, Roger Morris has brought the studios back to life.

The studios are now profitable and a major contributor to the local and national economy. It's an interesting case study in how a local economy can greatly benefit from the creative industry with targeted and sensible investment. "The local inward spends is quite amazing," says Roger Morris. "It provides a great return to the local council and area especially for employment and now maybe 2000 people at any one time can be working at the site."

The Studios have never been busier with a raft of recent production for both film and television including films such as 'The King’s Speech', 'Paddington', 'Under The Skin', 'Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows' and television shows such as 'Strictly Come Dancing', 'The Voice', 'Dancing on Ice' and of course 'Big Brother', currently scoring very high in ratings for Channel 5 and producer Endemol. The BBC Studios and Post operation have also based themselves at Elstree Studios, with shows such as 'Pointless' and 'The Chase'. The Studio also has a growing production village with over 40 tenants and Roger Morris and HBC are embarking on an ambitious project to utilise the unused areas of the site to create more production space to fulfil client demands. The Studios have also supported the opening last year of the Elstree University Technical College for Film and TV with over 400 students.

A major new drama production has just arrived at the Studios which will further add to the growing reputation and the rebirth of Elstree Studios as the British Hollywood.

Seven years ago, the studios were struggling to survive but now Roger Morris and his team with the support and cooperation of HBC have made "Elstree Studios, the people's studio, the people's success story."


The King's Speech - © Momentum Pictures
Paddington - © StudioCanal 2014

The article is also available to read on BFV online.


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