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Is the comedy business more important to the UK than the financial industry?

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator'

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator’ of comedy

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the UK’s creative industries generate £36 billion per year for the economy and employ 1.5 million people. The Chancellor, George Osborne, called them “massively important”. So why does no-one take comedy seriously?

The English Arts Council will not give grants to comedians staging shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, because they do not consider comedy to be an art.

But, last year, the University of East Anglia (UEA) got a £300,000 grant for a three-year study into “the nature of creativity within the British television comedy industry by exploring the working practices of industry professionals, and the industrial, institutional and policy contexts that shape and inform what they do.”

The study is called Make Me Laugh. It started in January 2012 and ends in December 2014. The ‘Principal Investigator’ is Dr Brett Mills. He is Head of the UEA’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies and I chatted to him a couple of days ago.

“We’re working with loads of writers, producers and commissioners,” he told me, “following comedy projects from initial idea through to broadcast or, as is often the case, non-broadcast and abandonment and resignation and unhappiness. We’re trying to look at what makes creativity – however you define that – happen and what are the things that get in its way.”

“You’ve done previous studies of comedy,” I said. “Isn’t this just a way to get another £300,000?”

“The first project was about £4,000,” laughed Brett. “and I just interviewed people, but interviewing individuals doesn’t give you a sense of relationships and networks, the development of a project and how things change over time. One other problem was that, when I asked people how decisions were made, the answer I tended to get was Gut instinct and, to a researcher, that’s utterly useless. The aim of this project is to try to unpick that.”

Not for television research

Not for UK television research purposes

“Have you read Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman?” I asked.

“Very deliberately no,” said Brett.

“Why?”

“Because,” explained Brett, “it’s one of those books everyone says you have to read – and because there is a split in academic terms between Film Studies and Television Studies. The set of approaches you would use in Film Studies would use that book. The set of approaches you would use in Television Studies would be totally different in academic terms.”

“Mmmm,” I said, “You know the often misunderstood quote about Nobody knows anything...?”

“Yeah,” said Brett wearily.

“…which” I continued, “basically means that creativity is an art not a science. Aren’t you trying to make it a science?”

“A gut instinct, in a way,” said Brett, “is just an internalised set of things you have learned. In most industries, you develop a gut instinct.”

“So is creating and commissioning TV shows a science or an art?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a bit of both,” Brett replied. “And, if we get into the area of whether something is ‘good’ or not, are we talking about critically acclaimed or watched by a lot of people or loved by a lot of people? Or about having a legacy and being watched 10 or 15 years later? It depends what you’re measuring.”

“Anyone who makes something VERY popular,” I suggested, “is immediately attacked as being ‘trite’ and ‘low-brow’ and ‘bland’.”

“Well” said Brett, “I don’t think anyone we’ve spoken to is embarrassed about making something popular.”

“Can your research,” I asked, “explain why Mrs Brown’s Boys is loved by audiences but hated by a lot of so-called cognoscenti in the media and the comedy industry?”

“No,” said Brett, “because that’s a different project I’d love to do, which is talking to audiences. This current project is about the process by which things come into existence. Miranda would be fascinating because there is a gender division: women love it.”

“Women of all ages?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett, “and, this is purely anecdotal, but it’s a kind of family thing where the women sit down to watch it and the dad leaves the room because he can’t stand it.”

“Is there statistical evidence that more women like it than men?” I asked.

“It’s probably very likely,” said Brett, “because – although these are statistics from seven or eight years ago – the vast majority of mainstream sitcoms on television are always watched by more women than men. Men Behaving Badly was watched by more women than men.”

“Doesn’t studying comedy academically make watching comedy less interesting?” I asked.

“No” said Brett, “people who read recipes like food; it doesn’t mean they start hating food. In fact, in some ways, you start appreciating it more. Even the stuff that doesn’t make me laugh I can still find fascinating.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

A totally irrelevant image of Malcolm Hardee

“I grew up in the 1980s with The Young Ones on TV and the Alternative Comedy people doing their stuff and Malcolm Hardee doing his stuff.

“I’m very anti this idea that the aim of academic research is about cultural hierarchies and we should only look at the best: that we should construct a ‘canon of good work’.

“That’s one of the interesting things about the department I’m in at the moment: most people are interested in the popular, the mainstream. We don’t see our job as deciding what is good culture and what is crap culture.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that the audiences who originally went to see Shakespeare’s plays went to see them as Brian Rix farces or blood-soaked splatter tragedies.”

“Exactly,” said Brett. “Most of the creators of stuff that’s held up as ‘art’ now – Shakespeare, Dickens – were unbelievably popular in their own day. It was mainstream culture. Dickens wrote serial fiction. It’s not as if he had an artistic vision. He was thinking: Oh, that character’s popular, I’ll write more of him in the next episode.

“The idea that you retrospectively construct these people as artistic visionaries and so on…  No… Shakespeare was writing for an audience. He was a populist.

“Exploring popular culture is an interesting battle, because our field – Media Studies – often gets criticised as a Mickey Mouse subject, not ‘proper’. And, by looking at popular culture, you actually feed into that prejudice… I have a colleague who does research on reality television and people do just go Oh! That’s a stupid subject! But No. We’re having to have that fight and we will man the barricades.

“This current Make Me Laugh project very definitely connects to that.

“Lots of film directors and novelists whose work is seen by far fewer people are interviewed and profiled and their views are kept for posterity. And yet you have people creating popular mainstream culture consumed by millions and millions of people and they’re going to disappear into history. Nobody’s interviewing them. Nobody’s exploring their working practices whereas any old Croatian art house film director has probably been interviewed by Sight & Sound twenty times and had five books written about him.

“I sometimes ask my students: Give me a list of film directors and they can rattle off a hundred. Then I say: Tell me a television director. And the only ones they can tell me are film directors who’ve done television. They’ll say Oh, Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of CSI didn’t he?

“They’ll know Miranda Hart herself. But the producer of Miranda? The director? No. They don’t even know their names.

“These people are creating a whole range of culture, but nobody’s heard of them. To me, that’s a real outrage. And it’s backed-up by the fact that, when you contact people, wanting to interview them, their first response is: Why would you want to talk to me?

“I tell them: If you were an art house film director, you wouldn’t ask that question. You’re writing a comedy that’s watched by ten million people every week and you’re confused that I find you of interest!” That, in itself, is fascinating to me.

Dr Brett Mills’ favourite sitcom

Brett Mills’ suggestion for “the greatest sitcom ever made”

“One of the ways Britain defines its national identity is via comedy. We see that as really important. How did we define ourselves last year in the Olympic Opening Ceremony? With Mr Bean… and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. It was comedy, comedy. comedy!

“Comedy is central to our idea of national identity and the economic value of the comedy industry is massive. Just take Mr Bean and the amount of money that’s produced around the world.

“The economic value of the comedy industry – including films, television and stand-up is absolutely massive. Yet the amount of public money that goes into theatre and opera and other cultural forms… compared to the amount that goes into, say, stand-up comedy (even though there is public money via the Licence Fee going into BBC TV) is virtually nil.

“But, then, if you talk to people in small independent production companies and suggest Shouldn’t the government be supporting you more? they tell you No! We wanna stay separate. That’s the whole point. We’re outsiders. We’re mavericks.

“The creative industries in Britain employ more people than the engineering industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The creative industries contribute more to the economy than the financial industries.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett firmly. “Television, film, architecture, design, music, computer games. The scale of the creative industries is absolutely massive. And it is still one of the areas where Britain is accepted internationally as a world leader.”

“So why are you not aspiring to be a television producer or commissioner?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have that gut instinct,” replied Brett. “Not at all. Not at all.”

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Diana Rigg was NOT cast to star in “The Avengers” – and why the series stopped

Prolific TV & film writer Brian Clemens

In three recent blogs, I have published parts of a chat I had with writer-producer Brian Clemens in 1979. It was published in issues 29 and 30 of Starburst magazine.

In Part One, he talked about his background and the early Avengers TV  series. In Part Two, he talked about the style of The Avengers. In Part Three, he talked about directing and about vampire films. This is the final part of that interview – on the trials and tribulations of producing. Remember it all took place in 1979 …

***

Today, Clemens is an executive as well as a creator; a producer as well as a writer. So does it cause problems being a producer and a writer and a sometime director?

“Well, it’s not as difficult for me as for some,” he says. “I’ve always been a co-producer, so Albert (Fennell, his business partner) is my conscience. He’s very good at editing and I think I am too, but it’s silly when you get too omnipotent. I think that’s destroyed a lot of good people; it destroys stars. How many people have said I’m going to produce my own film and it sits on the shelf? I think you need objectivity. I think that’s very, very important.”

Diana Rigg was not cast in The Avengers

It is a lesson he probably learnt from bitter experience on The Avengers. A lot of TV and film production decisions are a matter of internal politics and personal whim. For instance, Diana Rigs was not the original choice to play Emma Peel in The Avengers. The original actress cast for the role was Elizabeth Shepherd who, most unusually, was not screen-tested.

“That wasn’t my decision,” says Clemens. “That was Julian Winkle’s choice because he was executive producer. Liz Shepherd had done something on television and she was undeniably very beautiful and it wasn’t until we did one and a half episodes… She’s not a bad actress, but she just doesn’t have a sense of humour at all and it was essential in The Avengers. So we scrapped what we’d shot and got rid of her and then tested – which is what we should have done in the first place – and out of the tests came Diana Rigg. We tested a lot of people, like Moira Redmond and that sort of person and one or two unknowns like Sarah Brackett – whatever happened to her? – and Diana Rigg was head and shoulders above everybody else.”

Clemens worked for a total of six years on various Avengers series and then, when Diana Rigg left the show, he was suddenly thrown out.

Linda Thorson was cast – but with no sense of humour?

“I was sacked at the beginning of the Linda Thorson ones,” he says. “It was internal politics. The Avengers was owned by ABC Television and there was a great deal of back-biting because they’d brought in outside boys to make probably their greatest hit ever. Still is. If you go to America with Patrick Macnee, you can’t walk down the street even now – I promise you. In New York and California, you really cannot move if you’re with him and they’re all saying Hello Steed! His impact, internationally, is enormous.

ABC resented outside boys and thought it was easy. So they got rid of us and brought in some of their own boys and, within one and a half episodes, they asked us to come back because it really was going to fail. Unfortunately (the producer) had brought in his girlfriend, Linda Thorson, whom I would never have cast. And so we were stuck with her. Which is why I brought in the character of Mother – because she (Thorson) had no sense of humour either. I brought in Mother so Patrick Macnee could at least have jokes with somebody.”

Even so, the series proved unsalvageable and ended in 1968. Almost a decade later, Clemens, Albert Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson formed The Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd. British financiers were not interested, so The New Avengers was produced with £3-4 million in French and later Canadian money.

This time, there was no chance taken with the female lead. Before Joanna Lumley was cast as Purdey, Clemens says he seriously considered 700 girls, interviewed 200, read scripts with 40 and screen tested 15.

The New Avengers – not just a ‘sleeper’ hit – a mega hit

“Most Avengers fans,” he admits, “don’t like The New Avengers as much as the old ones, but it did actually get a bigger audience.”

Although costing £125,000 per episode to produce, it was also financially successful. The irony was that, although Clemens could sell the finished product with ease, he was unable to get the initial finance in Britain. When I talked to him last year, he had been trying to finance another series of The New Avengers. He told me:

“London Weekend Television will put up half the money and CBS in America want to pay us $140,000 an episode and we’re short $50,000 an episode and we can’t get it anywhere – otherwise we’d make more Avengers – and The Avengers is really like printing money, because it just goes on forever and it’s got assured syndication – They’ve already got 87 of the first one.”

So far, new financing for The New Avengers has not materialised.

“I don’t know why it is,” Clemens tells me. “I mean, why didn’t Britain put up the money for Star Wars and Superman? They were made here but the money wasn’t put up here. Most of our film industry’s run by people who just don’t care much. At least Sam Goldwyn cared and Lew Grade (of ATV/ITC) cares. At least he’s making movies. You may not like them – some I don’t like – but he’s making them.”

The Professionals were hit men in more senses than one

The Professionals TV series started out costing £115,000 per episode but is now costing £150,000. It was sold to Canada, although its scripts make no concessions to foreign audiences. The first offer of US syndication was turned down because it was too low – $50,000 per show (about $25,000 at that time). Recently, a million dollar deal was negotiated by Clemens’ Mark One Productions and London Weekend Television (who co-finance the series) for the showing of 39 episodes on US cable TV. The deal also includes “substantial” American money for the production of future episodes and Clemens is also “hopeful” that a Professionals feature film will be made, probably with American financial backing.

It is astonishing that Clemens, with his extraordinarily successful track record, has had so much trouble raising finance in Britain. He is an international success. His original episodes of The Avengers are still showing in America and were networked again recently by CBS. The New Avengers series has been networked twice across America. And he is still trying to keep one step ahead of the trends.

“All drama goes in cycles,” he says. “If it’s been kitchen sink for four years, don’t think kitchen sink. I wanted to do The Magnificent Seven story as knights in armour – indeed, I was commissioned by EMI and then it all fell through – and now I see Ridley Scott’s project Knight (now to be directed by Walter Hill and re-titled The Sword). That could well open up that area and it would then be too late for me to follow because, by the time I get in, there’ll be lots of them – Return of The Knight and so on. The same with science fiction – it must come down again. If you can be the innovator or number two, you’re alright.”

So what sort of projects has he in mind? Well, there’s Bamboo Martini, which Rank planned to shoot before they collapsed. And there was a Vincent Price comedy-thriller which has also had problems.

“What’s it about? “ I asked.

“Well,” replied Brian Clemens, “it’s about transporting a dead body from one bed to another across the whole of America. If you can imagine that President Jimmy Carter is having an affair in Boston and is supposed to be in Washington and has a heart attack and his mistress then comes to Vincent Price and says: He’s got to be found in his own bed on Monday morning… Well that’s it.”

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Before “Star Wars” men, I dream of comic Stewart Lee in a tight-fitting suit

Slow traffic yesterday was not as fast as comic Stewart Lee.

I drove up to Edinburgh from London yesterday. It took an hour longer than normal because, between Birmingham and Preston – a distance of 95 miles – the M6 motorway was clogged and we were stopping as often and as unpredictably as the humour in a BBC3 comedy show.

The good news, though, was it took so long that even my non-technical brain realised I could plug my new iPhone into the car’s cigarette lighter socket and, by putting the iPhone in the papier mâché mounting moulded by a friend for my SatNav (after some bastard thieves nicked the original in Greenwich) I could use T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan to listen to the BBC TV News channel while driving up the motorway. To be safe – of course, officer – I only watched the screen when stuck in traffic jams.

I felt as if I had, somehow, dipped a belated toe into what would have seemed a wildly futuristic world to Jules Verne or H.G.Wells.

Which is appropriate, because I am up in Edinburgh to attend a two day event organised by the Guardian newspaper at which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain “how Star Wars, a film rejected by most of the major studios, was put into production by 20th Century Fox and went on to become one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema”.

By coincidence last night, just before I went to bed, I was phoned by the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s sister Clare. She had mis-dialled. When I told her I was in Edinburgh, she asked:

“Oh, are you up there scouting something for the Fringe?”

When I told her why I was up in Edinburgh, she said:

“Oh, me and Steve (her husband) went to Tunisia last month and saw the Star Wars sets there out in the desert… We went out into the Sahara Desert… and it rained!… Isn’t that typical?… It was lovely, though.”

I then went to bed.

For unknown reasons, I woke up several times during the night, which means I remember a dream I had. It involved Malcolm Hardee Award winning, sophisticated and intelligent comedian Stewart Lee (whose TV show was yesterday re-commissioned by BBC2 for another two series).

He was performing at the Hackney Empire in London wearing a suit several times too small for him. (Two days ago, a friend of mine complained that my trousers were too short because she could see my socks.) On stage, he looked like sexually-disgraced American comic Pee-wee Herman.

Stewart’s act involved stuffing rapidly into his mouth several ham sandwiches on brown bread then trying to speak, which simply meant he was spitting and spewing out lots of little pieces of half-eaten brown bread and ham while he told for-him unusually rapid-fire jokes.

I have seen this ‘act’ before but cannot remember who did it.

The ham sandwiches were similar to ones I had eaten on the long drive up to Edinburgh.

This goes some way to explaining the content of the dream, but possibly not far enough for comfort.

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“My name is Jason and I am on the hunt for the Golden Fleece of film investment”

Jason Cook with camera this week

That title is a good opening line, especially from someone with dyslexia.

I first blogged about the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook (not to be confused with the comedian Jason Cook) in December 2010.

We got chatting again this week at the Broadcast Video Expo at Earl’s Court in London.

Jason currently has eight film projects at various stages of pre-production: all different genres ranging from animation to sci-fi and a true-life story based on his three autobiographical novels… and he is still looking for finance in the current bleak economic climate.

The Devil’s Dandruff, based on the first of his three novels There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, has always sounded highly commercial to me, especially given that there is a potential film trilogy there.

He has managed to keep the budget down to £2 million, which seems remarkably thrifty, given the plot but, despite having an enthusiastic letter from an ‘A’ list actor (my jaw dropped when I saw this name) he is still having problems raising the finance.

“There’s been lots of talk about David Cameron bringing finance to British independent films,” Jason told me, “but yet we’re still waiting for that to trickle down to people on the creative side. There are people out there with great ideas and great dreams, but the thing that’s lacking is the investment.

“I’m a working class lad from Borehamwood; I think if I was an Oxbridge graduate I would be more acceptable and respectable for investors. It is difficult coming from where I’ve come from. I have not mixed in the ‘right’ circles.

“I was a genuine lad who got involved in drugs, gun crime and gangsters from the age of twelve and was put in prison for my crimes – the first time for nine months. The second time I got four years and one day and I served two years and seven months.

“At that time, if the judge gave you four years, you would only serve half. This particular judge thought my crime was bad enough that I should serve longer. So he sentenced me to four years and one day, which meant I would have to serve two thirds. That’s fair enough. I did the crime, so I gotta pay the time.

“After coming out of prison twelve years ago, I got myself clean of drugs – because I was also an addict at that time – and I got away from all the crime people surrounding me and I went clean.

“I started to write about my experiences, which turned into my first book There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, about where I grew up and how I got involved.

“I self-published the first book and self-publicised it because I was just a normal guy off the street who’d written a book. I had no backing. I wasn’t a sportsman. I wasn’t a glamour model who could get her boobs out. So I self-published that first one so I could start building recognition.

“I then wrote the second one The Gangster’s Runner because of the good reviews. It’s about the people I was involved with and how I was used in the underworld as a drug runner and a drug enforcer and money collector. Ecstasy, coke and hash.

“And the third novel A Nice Little Earner is how everything ties up and we all go our own ways and it elaborates on the range of characters, from politicians to judges, solicitors, barristers to every level of society. All the way from the street-seller to the user. The up-market characters are based around real people. The details have been changed to protect everyone – to protect them and to protect myself from reprisals. But the books are a big insight into the underworld in London and across the world.

“I’m not glamorising crime; I’m not making it seem good; I’m showing the bare elements of drug addicts, a young lad being blinded by the lights and peer pressure, fast cars, fast money and I’m showing the real gritty parts of real life. All real.

“I’ve always been interested in films. From an early age, I was in Elstree Youth Theatre. I started working on film sets as an extra and became a runner. I want to create films people want to see. Partly for the money but a lot of it for the creative side. I think I can tell a good story.

“The irony is I’ve been clean from drugs and crime for twelve years now but, while everyone else is falling out of pubs, I can’t get into them because I’m still on PubWatch. I was arrested for drugs and put in prison. That’s OK. That’s fair. But, when I came out, I went into my local pubs and they told me I had been put on PubWatch so I was not allowed into any pubs any more for life. I never did drugs or did any crime in any pub and I had never had any trouble with any landlord, but I was put on PubWatch for life because I was involved in drugs in the local area and around London.

“I’m still being punished for my crimes twelve years later, after being rehabilitated…

“Perhaps I should jump on the bandwagon,” Jason laughs. “I should sue the Metropolitan Police and go to the European Court of Human Rights and claim my human rights have been infringed. Everyone else seems to be doing it.”

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The Elstree Studios project uncovers what Sophia Loren was like in bed

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 DozenWhere 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.

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