Elstree Studios

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Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios at Shenley Road, Borehamwood
Location within United Kingdom Hertfordshire
General information
Type Film and television studios
Country England
Coordinates 51°39′31″N 0°16′33″W / 51.6587°N 0.2758°W / 51.6587; -0.2758Coordinates: 51°39′31″N 0°16′33″W / 51.6587°N 0.2758°W / 51.6587; -0.2758
Official website for the Shenley Rd facility

Elstree Studios is a generic term which refers to several film studios and television studios based in or around the towns of Borehamwood and Elstree in Hertfordshire, England. A number of studios have existed in this area since film production began in 1914. Some of those studios no longer exist, but several studios still survive today. They are all owned by different organisations and produce both motion pictures and television programmes. For example, the BBC has studios in Elstree, named "BBC Elstree Centre", whereas another company, Elstree Studios Limited, owns a separate site known as "Elstree Studios". As a result confusion often occurs.

History and facilities

Despite being called "Elstree Studios", only one studio has ever been located in Elstree itself, the remainder residing in the adjacent town of Borehamwood. When the studios were being established, Elstree was significantly larger than Borehamwood. Nowadays, Borehamwood is the larger, but the old names have remained in use.

The civil parish that contains the town was called "Elstree". The local railway station was originally known as "Elstree"[1] (nowadays, it is called "Elstree & Borehamwood"). The local telephone exchange was also called "Elstree".

Clarendon Road Studios, Borehamwood

Early years

The Neptune Film Company opened the first studios in Borehamwood in 1914. It contained just a single small windowless stage (the first "dark stage" in England), relying entirely on electricity from a gas-powered generator for lighting.

Production ceased during 1917 and the studio was sold to the Ideal Film Company who used the site up until 1924.

During 1928, the studio was sold to Ludwig Blattner who connected it to the electricity mains and introduced a German system of sound recording.

The Blattner Studio was leased to Joe Rock Productions during 1934 and two years later it purchased the site. Rock Productions built four new large stages and began making films including the drama film The Edge of the World (1937), directed by Michael Powell.

The studios were owned by British National Films Company between 1939 and 1948, although during this period a large portion of the studio was taken over by the British government for war work.

During 1953, the studios were bought by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., mainly for television production[2] (including the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents series (19531957) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) but were sold to Lew Grade's Associated Television (ATV) in 1958.

The ATV period

The original intention of the new owners was to use the facility for production of the affiliated ITC filmed series, and The Adventures of William Tell (1958–59) was produced here, but ATV's existing television studios were insufficient for their requirements. A 7.5 acre site on London's South Bank had been purchased, but it was realised that completion of a wholly new complex would be some years in the future, while the need for more studio floor space was urgent.[2] As a result, the Clarendon Road centre was re-equipped as an electronic TV complex and most of ATV's live and recorded shows were made there. The affiliated ITC television series shot on 35mm film, such as The Saint and The Prisoner, were in many cases shot at the neighbouring studio complexes.

After 1970, some programmes came from their new Birmingham studios at the Alpha Tower, such as Crossroads and Tiswas, but larger scale productions, including many drama programmes, continued to be recorded at the Elstree facility for the rest of ATV's existence. In the period of their occupation of the complex, the smaller Studios A and B were used for schools and sitcoms, while Studio C was a drama studio. Studio D, with permanent audience seating, was used for light entertainment programmes[3] such as the ATV Morecambe and Wise series (Two of a Kind, 1961–68) and The Muppet Show (1976-81).[4]

The BBC period

When ATV was restructured as Central Independent Television in 1982, one of the conditions of their licence renewal by the governing body of the ITV network, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, was that ATV should leave any London-centric facilities and become more focused on the Midlands, the part of the United Kingdom that they broadcast ITV programmes to. They remained in operation by Central up until July 1983 (the final production under Central ownership being a Max Bygraves-era episode of Family Fortunes), when its new main production centre in Nottingham was completed. When the BBC bought the Elstree site in 1984 in order to produce their new soap opera EastEnders (first aired on 19 February 1985), it did not purchase the equipment within the building. As a consequence, studio technicians were instructed to make the equipment inoperable. When the BBC moved in it repaired the less-damaged equipment, sometimes using spare parts from the same pieces of equipment that the BBC inherited. The EMI 2001 television cameras used in studios 3 and 4 at BBC Television Centre, Shepherd's Bush, were moved into the newly renamed "BBC Elstree Centre", along with ATV/Central's old EMI 2001s that were repairable. Meanwhile, the BBC replaced the BBC Television Centre studio 3 and 4 cameras with Link 125 tube cameras. Elstree kept the EMI 2001s up until 1991. Elstree's first new cameras were to be Thomson TTV-1531s, one of the last plumbicon-tubed cameras to be made - being replaced in the mid-1990s with Thomson TTV-1542 and TTV-1647 lightweight cameras using, the then-new camera technology of CCDs. Widescreen was introduced in 1999 using Philips/Thomson LDK 100s.

In addition to EastEnders, many other programmes have been made there including Top of the Pops, 'Allo 'Allo!, You Rang, M'Lord?, Grange Hill, Hangar 17 and Holby City.

As part of cost-cutting measures, it is believed that the BBC will try to sell the Elstree site. This rumour coincides with the news story[5] that EastEnders will move to Pinewood Studios, as its backlot containing the Albert Square exterior needs to be reconstructed to bring it up to HD production standards.

As of 2010, plans to relocate Holby City and EastEnders were on hold and the BBC was to continue to produce both shows at the BBC Elstree site at least through to 2013. Work was underway to take both shows over to HD by upgrading existing sets. However, a move to another location at some point in the future cannot be ruled out. It was speculated in 2011 that MediaCityUK was a possible option and would see the Eastenders set nearby the new Coronation Street set.[6]

Elstree Studios, Shenley Rd, Borehamwood

British International and Associated British

The Main Gate entrance at Shenley Road (late 1990s).

British National Pictures Ltd. purchased 40 acres (16 ha) of land on the south side of Shenley Road and began construction of two large film stages in 1925. After discord among the partners, which by this time included Herbert Wilcox, their solicitor John Maxwell invested and was able to gain control of the company.[7] The first film produced there was Madame Pompadour (1927).

By 1927, Maxwell controlled all the stock, and the company was renamed British International Pictures (BIP) and the second stage was ready for production in 1928. Maxwell placed Alfred Hitchcock under contract in a 3 year, 12 picture deal, and after several silents, he was responsible for Blackmail (1929), the first British talkie released, which was produced at the studios. At the end of the silent-film era, six new sound stages were built; three of these were sold to the British and Dominions Film Corporation (see below) with BIP retaining the remaining stages. Elstree Calling (1930), made by BIP, was reputedly Britain's first musical film.[8][9]

BIP became Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) around 1940 after the death of John Maxwell.[10] During World War II, the studios were used by the War Office for storage.

In 1946, Warner Brothers acquired a substantial interest in ABPC, appointed a new board and decided to rebuild the stages. This was completed in 1948 and work began on Man On The Run followed by The Hasty Heart starring Richard Todd and Ronald Reagan.

EMI and others

In 1969, Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI) finally gained control of ABPC and the studios were renamed EMI-Elstree Studios.[11]

In 1969, Bryan Forbes was appointed head of production of the film studio (see EMI Films). Dennis Barker, in his obituary of Forbes for The Guardian, states that "This amounted virtually to an attempt to revive the ailing British film industry by instituting a traditional studio system with a whole slate of films in play."[12] Under Forbes's leadership, the studio produced The Railway Children (1970), The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) and The Go-Between (1971), all successful films.[13][14][15] His tenure though, was short-lived and marked by financial problems, brought about by deliberately withheld funding and failed projects. Forbes resigned in 1971.[16][17] In his autobiography A Divided Life he states that "They were years of high hopes, of excitement, often of fulfilment and contrary to what various pundits said after the event, the programme proved a commercial success, returning according to the latest [1992] figures a profit in excess of £16,000,000 on a capital outlay of £4,000,000."[18] During the period 1970-73, when EMI had a short-lived production and distribution deal with the American MGM film company, the facilities were known as the EMI-MGM Elstree Studios.[11]

In 1974, Andrew Mitchell took over from Ian Scott as Managing Director of the studios but was almost immediately told to close the facility and lay off all the staff. Due to the sterling efforts of Mitchell and the help of John Reed who was on the board of EMI and Alan Sapper the head of the ACTT Union, he turned the studios into a Four Wall facility, which effectively meant reducing the staff to administration, with the exception of the Dubbing facility and having freelance crew being brought in by each production company. This was inevitable due to the changing nature of cinematic styles that relied increasingly on location shooting and the reduced financial involvement of EMI in its own film productions, thus rendering a permanent production staff employed full-time at the facility redundant.

Films shot at the facility over the next few years included the Agatha Christie mystery film Murder on the Orient Express (1974), directed by Sidney Lumet; Ken Russell's Valentino (1977; Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980); Fred Zinnemann's drama film Julia (1977); and most significantly for the studio's immediate survival through a deal brokered by Andrew Mitchell, George Lucas with Star Wars (1977). This led to subsequent Lucas productions such as the Star Wars sequels and Indiana Jones franchise being made at Elstree and also brought in directors Steven Spielberg and Jim Henson. This was the golden era of the construction picture, which essentially required large studio facilities to fulfill the filmmakers' vision, prior to computer-generated imagery technology and Elstree became synonymous with these kind of pictures due to the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.

In 1979, Thorn Electrical Industries merged with EMI after EMI's debacle with its invention of the Cat Scanner and the studios were renamed Thorn-EMI Elstree Studios.[11]

Cannon, Brent Walker and later

The studios were put up for sale in 1985. A management team beat off all other prospective buyers with the help of Alan Bond but the team had difficulty raising their share of the purchase price and Bond took over. Soon afterwards he sold the studios to the Herron-Cannon Group in 1986. In 1988, Cannon sold the studios to the leisure and property company Brent Walker plc and much of the backlot was sold off and demolished with a Tesco superstore being built on the land.

The Elstree Studios facility hosts some historic soundstages.
Sound stages at Elstree Studios.
Stages at Elstree Studios.

A "Save Our Studios" campaign was launched in the 1988 by Managing Director, Andrew Mitchell, local Town Councillor and studio historian Paul Welsh, with the support of many film actors and the general public. Hertsmere Borough Council stepped in and bought the remaining facilities in February 1996 and appointed a management company, Elstree Film & Television Studios Ltd., to run the studios in 2000. The purchase ended an eight-year struggle that was due to have culminated in High Court action. Brent Walker’s offer to sell the site to the Council, for an undisclosed sum (but no more than its worth as a film studio), represented a victory for the local authority in upholding the planning agreements that protected the studios.

The studios are now most commonly known for being the home of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and the current location of the Big Brother UK house (previously at Three Mills Studios in Bow, East London). The Big Brother house is actually built on top of the studios' old underwater stage where scenes in The Dam Busters (1955) and Moby-Dick (1956) were filmed. Elstree Film & Television Studios Ltd's lease expired at the end of March 2007.

It was announced in 2012 that the studios would be the temporary home of BBC Studios and Post Production during the redevelopment of Television Centre.[19] Shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Pointless as well as the Children in Need and Comic Relief telethons will be based on the site from spring 2013. The current agreement is for the BBC to move back to a redeveloped Television Centre in 2015.

Elstree Studios are operated by Elstree Film Studios Ltd, a company controlled by Hertsmere Borough Council. Feature film production continues alongside television production, commercials and pop promos; recent productions include 44" Chest, Bright Star, 1408, Son of Rambow, Amazing Grace, The Other Boleyn Girl, Notes on a Scandal, Breaking and Entering, Flyboys, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Dancing on Ice and Are You Smarter Than A 10 Year Old? for Sky television among many others.

Station Road Studios, Borehamwood

A single large stage was built in Station Road in 1928 by Whitehall Films Ltd but the company was wound up in 1930. In 1935, Julius Hagen, the owner of Twickenham Studios, bought the site and formed a new company JH Studios.

Financial difficulties forced Hagen to sell the studios to MP Productions in 1937.

During World War II, the studio was used by the government for storage.

In 1950, the site was bought by J. Arthur Rank who renamed it Gate Studios and made religious films.

Production ceased in 1957 and the site was sold to Andrew Harkness, a manufacturer of cinema screens. Harkness Screens moved out of the site in 2004 and the building was demolished in 2006 to make way for apartments new properties, with the development being named Gate Studios in an homage to the former site.

British and Dominion Studios, Borehamwood

1936. Fire destroys three stages of British and Dominion Studios. From the Illustrated London News 15 February 1936

In 1930, British and Dominion bought three new sound stages from British International Pictures Ltd on the adjoining site before their construction was completed. Alexander Korda made one of his greatest successes at the studio, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which starred Charles Laughton as the King. The film's success in the United States and elsewhere persuaded United Artists and The Prudential to invest in Korda's proposed Denham Film Studios.[20]

Film production continued until 1936 when fire destroyed the three stages.[21] British and Dominion made substantial investment in Pinewood Studios and moved production to Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. The support buildings that remained after the fire were sold off to various companies including Frank Landsdown Ltd, who opened a film vault service. The music stage was bought by the Rank Organisation for the production of documentary films. It later became the headquarters of the film and sound-effect libraries.

MGM British, Borehamwood

Amalgamated Studios Ltd constructed a large studio on the north side of Elstree Way between 1935 and 1937, but their plans collapsed and the facility was soon sold to Rank who never used it for making films. After a brief period owned by the Prudential, the studios were purchased by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1947 and was renamed MGM-British Studios.[11] After improvements the studio contained seven stages totalling over 70,000 square feet (7,000 m2) of floor space. The studios were not exclusively used by MGM, but were leased to other companies as well. These included the 20th Century Fox produced The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), for which a large set of a Chinese town, complete with artificial lakes, covering some 500,000 square feet was constructed.[22]

Several stages were taken up with the sets for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) over its extended production schedule, and indeed Stanley Kubrick's film is sometimes blamed for making the studios financially unviable. The facility continued to be utilised until 1970 when MGM closed the studios. The American company formed a short-lived deal with EMI, while the site of their former studios was redeveloped for industrial use and housing.

Danziger Studios, Elstree

In 1956 the Danziger brothers converted a wartime plane engine testing factory into a studio they called New Elstree,[23] which was located to the west of the Aldenham reservoir. It was used mainly for television production and second features, but was closed by 1962 and sold in 1965.[23]

Millennium Studios, Elstree Way, Borehamwood

Established in 1993, the Millennium Studios on the south side of Elstree Way offered television and film production space together with associated services. Millennium Studios have now relocated to Thurleigh near Bedford.[24]

Selected film and television shows made at Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios, Shenley Road

Music videos



Clarendon Road Studios

BBC Productions

Other productions

MGM Studios

British and Dominion Studios

See also


  1. Butt, R. V. J. (1995). The Directory of Railway Stations: details every public and private passenger station, halt, platform and stopping place, past and present (1st ed.). Sparkford: Patrick Stephens Ltd. p. 91. ISBN 1-8526-0508-1. OCLC 60251199. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Roddy Buxton "This is Elstree, 1", Transdiffusion
  3. Louis Barfe Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment, London: Atlantic Books, 2008, p.108
  4. Brian Jay Jones Jim Henson: The Biography, London: Random House, 2013, p.126
  5. "Sets Too Shabby for Latest TVs Force EastEnders Out of Town". The Times.
  6. "'EastEnders' Set Moving to MediaCityUK Salford?". Digital Spy. 5 June 2011. 
  7. Patricia Warren British Film Studios: An Illustrated History, London: B.T Batsford, 2001, p.61
  8. Paul Duncan Alfred Hitchcock: Architect of Anxiety, 18991980, Taschen, 2003, p.46 ISBN 978-3-8228-1591-5
  9. Ian Conrich, Estella Tincknell Film's Musical Moments, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006, p.32. ISBN 978-0-7486-2345-7
  10. Warren, p.71
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Warren, p.76
  12. Barker, D. Bryan Forbes: film director, actor and writer. The Guardian. 9 May 2013. Retrieved 9 May 2013
  13. British Film Institute: Profile at screenline.org. Retrieved 9 May 2013
  14. Andrew Roberts "Bryan Forbes profile at British Film Institute website
  15. Alexander Walker National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, London: Harrap, 1985, p. 114
  16. Batty D. Bryan Forbes, acclaimed film director, dies aged 86. The Guardian. 8 May 2013. Retrieved 9 May 2013
  17. "Stepford Wives film director Bryan Forbes dies aged 86". BBC. Retrieved 7 September 2013. 
  18. Bryan Forbes, A Divided Life isbn 0-7493-0884-2 page 108
  19. Jake Bickerton (2012-08-07). "News & Comments". Televisual. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  20. Patricia Warren British Film Studios: An Illustrated History, London: B.T. Batsford, 2001, p.26, 28
  21. "British Film Studios at Elstree Destroyed in $2,250,000 Blaze". Calgary Daily Herald. 10 February 1936. p. 9.
  22. Warren, p.85
  23. 23.0 23.1 Tise Vahimagi "Danzigers, The", BFI screenonline
  24. . Millennium Studios. 8 December 2010.
  25. "TOTP to quit Elstree studios", Broadcast, 20 October 2000
  26. "TOTP editor plots fresh pops", BBC News, 18 October 2001


  • Leslie Banks, The Elstree Story: Twenty-One Years of Film-Making. Clerke and Cockeran. 88 pages. With contributions by Douglas Fairbanks, Alfred Hitchcock, Ralph Richardson, Victory Saville, Googie Withers, Anna Neagle and John Mills.
  • Castle, Stephen; Brooks, William (1988). The Book Of Elstree & Boreham Wood. Buckingham, England: Barracuda Books Ltd. ISBN 0-86023-406-1. 
  • Peecher, John Phillip (1983) The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-31235-X.
  • Warren, Patricia (1983). Elstree: The British Hollywood. Columbus Books: London, ISBN 0-86287-446-7.
  • Warren, Patricia, (1983). British Film Studios: An Illustrated History. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-8644-9.
  • Welsh, Paul (1996). Elstree Film & Television Festival Programme. Elstree and Borehamwood Town Council.

External links

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