Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios

"Elstree Studios" refers to any of several film studios that were based in the towns of Borehamwood and Elstree in Hertfordshire, England, since film production begun in 1927.



Despite being called “Elstree Studios” only one studio was actually located in Elstree itself, the remainder being in Borehamwood. There are a number of reasons for this:

When the studios were being established, Elstree was significantly larger than Borehamwood. It must therefore have seemed sensible for anything that needed the name of the town in its name to be named after Elstree rather than Borehamwood. Nowadays, Borehamwood is the larger, but the old names have remained in use. The fact that the parish that contains the town is also called "Elstree" may have had some influence on the choice of name.

When the studios were at their most prolific, the local railway station was known as "Elstree". This was because it was cheaper to print 'Elstree' onto the tickets rather than 'Borehamwood'.[citation needed] (Nowadays, it is called "Elstree and Borehamwood".) Furthermore, the local telephone exchange was also called just "Elstree". Before the advent of subscriber trunk dialling, a person wanting to make a telephone call to a studio would ask the operator for, for example, "Elstree 1234". It would therefore be natural[citation needed] for anyone visiting the town to make a film to think that the whole town was called Elstree.


Clarendon Road Studios, Borehamwood

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 2 years later they purchased the site. Rock Productions built 4 new large stages and began making films including the 1937 feature The Edge Of The World.

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

During 1953 the studios were leased to Douglas Fairbanks Jr, mainly for television production (including the Douglas Fairbanks Presents series and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) but were sold to Lew Grade’s Associated Television in 1962. Most of ATV's larger productions came from this site, most notably the international hits The Saint and The Muppet Show. After contract negotiations in 1968 requiring more regional coverage for the Midlands, more programmes came from their new studios in Birmingham, notably Crossroads, Bullseye (UK game show), Tiswas and a few other small-scale programmes.

Sale to the BBC

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 their new main production centre in Nottingham was completed. When the BBC bought the site in 1984 in order to produce the new soap opera EastEnders (first aired on 19 February 1985), they 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 they 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. As stated above, any working part from the more damaged EMI 2001s were kept as spares. Meanwhile, the BBC replaced the BBC Television Centre studio 3 and 4 cameras with Link 125 tube cameras. Various BBC studios around the country, including Elstree and TV Centre studio 1 kept the EMI 2001s up until 1991, as their picture quality was generally considered by the BBC to be superior to pictures produced by other brands of camera. 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.

As stated above, the studios were bought by the BBC in 1984 to become the home of EastEnders, but many other programmes have been made there - Top of the Pops, 'Allo 'Allo!, You Rang, M'Lord?, Grange Hill, Hangar 17 and Holby City - amongst others past and present.

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[1] 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. 2010: Plans to relocate Holby City and EastEnders are currently on hold and the BBC will continue to produce both shows at the BBC Elstree site at least through to 2013. Work is 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 is possible option and would see the Eastenders set nearby the new Coronation Street set.[2]

Elstree Studios, Borehamwood

British National Pictures Ltd purchased 50 acres (20 ha) of land on the south side of Shenley Road and began construction of two large film stages in 1925. The first film produced there was Madame Pompadour in 1927.

Elstree Studios.
Elstree Studios, Shenley Road.
Elstree Studios - The main gate entrance, Shenley Road.

British International Pictures Ltd (BIP) took over the studios in 1927 and the second stage was ready for production in 1928. In 1929, Blackmail, the first British talkie released, was produced at the studios. At the end of the silent film era, 6 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. BIP was absorbed into the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) in the early 1930s.

During the Second World War 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. In 1968 Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI) bought control of ABPC and the studios were renamed EMI Studios.

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 efforts of Mitchell and the considerable help of John Reed who was on the board of EMI and Alan Sapper the head of the ACTT Union, he turned the studios Four Wall, which effectively meant reducing the staff to administration, with the exception of the Dubbing facility and having free lance crew being brought in by each production company. This was inevitable due to the changing nature of cinematic styles that relied more and more on location shoots and the reduced financial involvement of EMI in its own film production, thus rendering a permentant production staff employed full time at the facility redundant.

Having forced Bernie Delfont's hand along with the rest of EMI board the studio went from strength to strength bringing in a variety of major directors such as Sidney Lumet who shot Murder on the Orient Express at Elstree, Ken Russel who worked with Mitchell on his first feature film French Dressing made film Valentino at Elstree; Stanely Kubrick and his Seventies shocker The Shining, Mitchell's previous employer Fred Zinnemann with his film Julia and most significantly for the studio's survival in 1976 Star Wars. This led to numerous Lucas productions such as the following Star Wars sequels and Raiders series being made at Elstree and also brought in Spielberg and Henson. This was the golden era of the Construction picture, which essentially required large studio facilities to fulfill the filmmakers' vision, prior to CGI technology and Elstree became synonymous with these kind of pictures due to the success of the Star Wars and Raiders movies.

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 Studios. Due to the parent company’s numerous unsuccessful investments in releases that attempted to capture the Us market with no success whatsoever the studios was 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 a Tesco superstore was built.

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 local Town Councillor and studio historian Paul Welsh, with the support of many old stars and the general public. Hertsmere Borough Council stepped in and bought the remaining studio 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 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.

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 and many more.

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 WWII 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

In 1930 British and Dominion bought three new sound stages from British International Pictures Ltd on the adjoining site before their construction was completed. Film production continued until 1936 when fire destroyed the 3 stages. British and Dominion made substantial investment in Pinewood Studios and moved production to Iver Heath, Bucks.

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.

Elstree Way Studios, Borehamwood

Amalgamated Studios Ltd constructed a large studio on the north side of Elstree Way between 1935 and 1937. The company was unable to meet the cost and sold out to Arthur Rank.

During WWII the studio was used by the government for storage.

In 1944 the studio was purchased by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) although they did not take possession until 1947. After improvements the studio contained 7 stages totalling over 70,000 square feet (7,000 m2) of floor space.

MGM continued production at the site up until 1970 when they moved to the EMI Studios on Shenley Road (see above). The site was demolished and redeveloped for industrial use and housing.

Danziger Studios, Elstree

The Danziger brothers built a studio, New Elstree, to the west of Aldenham reservoir in 1956. It was used mainly for television production but proved unprofitable and closed in 1962.

Millennium Studios, Elstree Way, Borehamwood

Established in 1993, the Millennium Studios on the south side of Elstree Way offered TV and film production space together with associated services. Millennium Studios have now relocated to Thurleigh near Bedford.[3]

In popular culture

"The British equivalent of Hollywood's all-star revues was Elstree Calling (1930), produced by British International Pictures (BIP), which consisted mainly of musical and comedy items from stage shows of the day introduced by compare Tommy Handley. Lacking the lavish production values and visual spectacle of its Hollywood equivalents, Elstree Calling is now something of a curio item interesting chiefly for two reasons: Alfred Hitchcock (then contracted to BIP) was one of several directors employed on the production; and the film is quite possibly the first ever to refer directly to television (the linking narrative concerns a television broadcast of the revue, some six years before the BBC began regular television transmissions)."[5]

Selected film and television shows made at Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios, Shenley Road



Clarendon Road Studios

BBC Productions

Other productions

MGM Studios

British and Dominion Studios


  1. ^ Sets too shabby for latest TVs force EastEnders out of town - Times Online
  2. ^ "'EastEnders' set moving to MediaCityUK Salford?". Digital Spy. 5 June 2011. http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/soaps/s2/eastenders/news/a323206/eastenders-set-moving-to-mediacityuk-salford.html. 
  3. ^ Millennium Studios website accessed 8 December 2010.
  4. ^ Paul Duncan, Alfred Hitchcock: architect of anxiety, 1899-1980, Publ. Taschen, 2003, ISBN 3822815918, 9783822815915, 191 pages (page 46)
  5. ^ Ian Conrich, Estella Tincknell, Film's musical moments, Publ. Edinburgh University Press, 2006, ISBN 0748623450, 9780748623457, 226 pages (page 32)

External links


  • Leslie Banks, The Elstree story: Twenty-one years of film-making, Publ. 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 0860234061. 
  • Warren, Patricia (1983). Elstree: The British Hollywood. Publisher: Columbus Books, London, ISBN 0-862287-446-7.
  • Warren, Patricia, (1983). British Film Studios: An Illustrated History. Publisher: Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-8644-9
  • Welsh, Paul (1996). Elstree Film & Television Festival Programme. Elstree and Borehamwood Town Council.
  • Peecher, John Phillip (1983) The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Publisher: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-31235-X

Coordinates: 51°39′31″N 0°16′33″W / 51.6587°N 0.2758°W / 51.6587; -0.2758

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