It is great news to see the magnificent Sky Elstree Studios rising so rapidly in Borehamwood and due to open next year. At the same time, two giant new sound stages being built at Elstree Studios will also open next year. The latter held a public competition to name the buildings. My choice was for Alfred Hitchcock, who was pioneer director at the newly opened studios in the late 1920s and made the first British talkie at Elstree. My second choice was Stanley Kubrick, who often used the studio and was a local resident. My third choice was Steven Spielberg, due to the trilogy of Indiana Jones movies shot at Elstree. I await with interest the results.
The Sky Studios Elstree project is progressing. Credit: Keith Armstrong for Sky Studios
However, I have a concern about the future of our oldest studio, now known as the BBC Elstree Centre. My contacts tell me the BBC are planning to sell off part of the 17-acre site next year. Some feel that is why they are ceasing production of the much-loved Holby City in December, albeit the recorded episodes will continue into the new year. Holby occupies a couple of floors in the old office block built by ATV doubling as hospital wards and of course exteriors. I suspect that building will be demolished and several acres of land sold off for a high rise housing estate. A figure of £70 million has been mentioned regarding value. EastEnders will remain and ring fenced on part of the site and the BBC have spent a vast fortune making that possible. Time will tell if I am correct but it will be a sad day.
The studio opened in 1914 as a silent film facility and boasted the first enclosed stage thanks to the use of electricity rather than relying on natural light through a glass roof. It was eventually able to embrace talking movies and continued to be a working studio even during the war years. Stars of that era it attracted included Old Mother Riley, George Formby and Vera Lynn and made stars of up-and-comers such as Bill Owen, who later became famous in the television series Last Of The Summer Wine. In fact when we were unveiling a plaque to celebrate the studio in 1996 I invited Bill to do the honours.
During the 1950s the studio mixed television series such as The Invisible Man with movies starring the likes of Shelley Winters and Stewart Granger. For several years my late friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr produced 160 television films, giving a break to old timers like Buster Keaton and newcomers like Christopher Lee.
From 1960 until the BBC bought the site in 1983 it was owned by ATV and their ownership must have a column to itself but think of The Muppets, Tom Jones specials, Family Fortunes, Celebrity Squares and so much more.
To my knowledge the studio is zoned for industrial use only by Hertsmere Council, but given their track record let us see what happens. With the scramble for studio space in the UK — hence the new Sky Studios — I hope the whole site could have a future. I have no faith in the decision makers at the BBC. Just look at the vast overspend on the new EastEnders outdoor set, which resulted in a Government report. Arranging a drink in a brewery springs to mind but I could not possibly comment. Watch this space because I will fight for that studio.
- Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios