Over the years, for magazines, I have interviewed quite a few film and television production people. I was never much interested in talking to stars and actors: the people behind-the-cameras were much more interesting.
If you interview a star or even a not-yet-famous actor about a movie or TV show they were in, you get a performance. If you interview the set designer or the producer or director, especially a few years later, you get golden anecdotes.
I moved to Borehamwood in Hertfordshire, on the edge of London, after the massive MGM studios had been knocked down and replaced with office blocks and houses. For several years, a full-sized medieval castle had stood by the main road out of town, left over from the movies Ivanhoe (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955)
It was replaced by a Chinese village for Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and, later, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and 2001: A Space Odyssey were shot there.
At one time, there were six separate film studios in the small Hertfordshire town. Only two remain now.
As someone said last night, it is odd to think that this very ordinary high street in Borehamwood – Shenley Road – has seen filming for the three Hammer Pictures’ versions of On The Buses and that, literally, you are walking down the same street Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Simon Cowell have walked and driven down. If you stand on the station platform, you know Gary Cooper and James Mason stood there, waiting for a train back into London.
The studios where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his first ‘talkie’ Blackmail, later became the ATV Elstree Studios (despite the fact they are in Borehamwood, not Elstree) where major US stars like Barbra Streisand and Sammy Davis Jnr were brought in to shoot TV spectaculars because they did not want to be dragged up to ATV’s Birmingham studios. By the time I moved to Borehamwood, ATV’s Elstree Studios had become the BBC’s Elstree Studios.
One of the first things the BBC did – alas – was to paint over the eccentric and ornate Muppet cartoons in the canteen which bored members of the Muppet Show production team had done in secret one night. They thought the canteen was dull so they painted Muppets on the walls; ATV, to give it credit, kept them. As far as I can remember, they were painted round an archway.
I once walked round an outdoor set of Will Shakespeare’s London on the backlot at ATV Elstree. Shortly after I moved to Borehamwood, the BBC built their Albert Square set for EastEnders on the same spot. It was originally only a three-sided square and, from my back bedroom, I could look into it. As I never watched the show and, somehow, I was never in my back bedroom when they were filming exteriors, it was not until after they later built the fourth side of the square that I realised what it was. I could have rented my back bedroom out to fans if I had known.
The BBC studios’ modest entrance is surreally between two ordinary suburban houses up a very ordinary-looking suburban side street. When I first moved to Borehamwood, excited teenyboppers and older, fatter people used to sit on garden walls by the entrance on Wednesday afternoons and evenings waiting to spot pop stars because, at that time, Top of The Pops was recorded there. For the first year of EastEnders, much the same people – young fans and overweight older people – sat outside trying to spot the soap’s stars as they went in and out.
But the two big film studios in Borehamwood in its heyday were the former MGM Studios (screen credits always said ‘filmed in Borehamwood’) and, a three-minute walk away, the Elstree film studios (screen credits always said ‘filmed in Elstree’ which were/are actually also in Borehamwood). The Elstree films included the first three Star Wars movies and the Indiana Jones movies; now they shoot Big Brother and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire there.
Last night, I went to the launch of ‘The Elstree Project’ at the University of Hertfordshire, which apparently has 2,800 students in its School of Creative Arts.
Where are they all going to work?
The project, jointly started and run by Howard Berry of the School of Creative Arts and Elstree Screen Heritage, aims to create an oral history of Elstree Studios by interviewing the people who worked in the Borehamwood studios (I suspect it’s called The Elstree Project because ‘Elstree’ sounds more glamorous than ‘Borehamwood’). They aim to interview not the megastars who worked at the studios but the actual technicians and behind-the-camera production people.
The ‘launch’ of the Elstree Project is perhaps an odd phrase given that, over the last year, they have already shot 30 hours of material – interviews with 22 people.
People like the man who painted Darth Vader’s costume in Star Wars as well as legendary ATV/ITC production supervisor Johnny Goodman and Stanley Kubrick’s producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan,
Paul Welsh of Elstree Film Heritage got an MBE for saving the studios when the rapacious company Brent Walker tried to destroy them – half were turned into a large Tesco superstore, but the other half were saved after a campaign in which the local government authority eventually took over the studios.
Paul says: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a major film star who has not worked at Elstree. I’m hard-pressed to think of a famous pop star who hasn’t filmed there, be it David Bowie, Paul McCartney or Take That. You could go to the pub across the road from the Studios, before it became a McDonalds, and see Tony Hancock or Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum or Trevor Howard drinking in there.
Over the years, the studios in Borehamwood have produced TV and movie productions like Danger Man, The Saint, The Prisoner, Star Wars, Grange Hill, EastEnders, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dambusters, The Muppet Show, The Shining, The Railway Children, Murder on the Orient Express, The Avengers and Inspector Morse – although set in Oxford, the production office for Inspector Morse was in Borehamwood and the local Barclays Bank would sometimes crop up in scenes set in Oxford.
The Elstree Project sounds like it will come up with some colourful anecdotes of life at the studios.
“I couldn’t see anybody today doing the jokes that we used to do with Roger Moore on The Saint,” says one of the interviewees. “I mean, to throw a bucket of water over the star – you wouldn’t get away with it.”
“The only thing I remember about Sophia Loren,” says another interviewee, “was her nose. I couldn’t believe it. She was a beautiful woman but, when she lay down in bed and I was at the end of the bed, I looked at her and thought to myself Oh she’s nice! and all that stuff – like you do – but her nose – Oh my Gawd – it looked like the Blackwall Tunnel. She was so beautiful standing up but, laying down…”
This is what people want to hear.