Elstree Studios

1925 – present

(revised January 2024)

 

OK – first things first.  You might be looking here for news about stages 7, 8 and 9.  This block had asbestos and RAAC concrete discovered within it so will be demolished.  The good news is that Hertsmere Borough Council, who own the studios, intend to build three new studios/stages to replace them.  Here is their statement, issued on 4th October 2023:

 

 

 

Meanwhile – back to the history…

 

Boreham Wood was, in the 1920s, an area of fields and woodland with a single main road running through it.  Near the station were a couple of pubs, a few shops and a scattered collection of houses owned mostly by commuters using the nearby Elstree railway station.  The station is actually not even close to Elstree village which is a mile away at the top of a hill.  It was, however, the nearest village when the station was opened.  Thus, Elstree railway station is now in Borehamwood town centre.  When the various studios were opened here they took their name from the station, not the wood, and so we had the various ‘Elstree’ studios which were actually in Borehamwood.  Borehamwood expanded over the years – largely thanks to the film industry – and is now a large town whilst Elstree has remained a small village.  Is that any clearer?  No, I thought not.

The town of Borehamwood has over the years been home to six film studios (seven if you include ELP’s Millennium Studios or eight if you include the new Sky studios) and has often been dubbed the ‘British Hollywood.’  There is sometimes confusion amongst those not well-informed as to which films and TV programmes were made in which studio.  By ‘studio’ I mean a site containing several film stages.  This chapter deals with the site that is currently known simply as Elstree Studios.  (The other major studios currently in operation in the town are the BBC Elstree Centre where EastEnders is made and the new Sky Studios Elstree, that opened in 2022.)

 

It was originally created in 1925 by a trio of entrepreneurs – J D Williams, W Schlesinger and Herbert Wilcox and was called British National Studios.  There was a stormy two years of operation which ended with the company being taken over by John Maxwell, who had been called in to help by the original three.  He renamed the company British International Pictures in 1927.

BIP produced dozens of films – many of them ‘quota quickies’ – in the years leading up to the war.  In 1928 Maxwell began to create a cinema chain – Associated British Cinemas – which by 1930 had grown to 120.  By the end of the 1930s BIP had evolved into the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and the studio became known as ABPC Studios.  When war broke out in 1939 they were commandeered by the Royal Ordnance Corps and used for storage.  Maxwell died in 1940 and control of ABPC passed to Warner Bros.  According to the 1942 Kinematograph Year book, in that year the studios had 9 sound stages.

 

Following the war, the old stages were demolished and new ones built, along with an impressive production block that faced the main road.  Four large stages were constructed (each 150 x 100ft) and Hitchcock was one of the first directors to use the new studios with Stagefright.  Our subject is television and the history of film-making at Elstree is well documented elsewhere. However – it is worth recording that the ’50s, ’60s and some of the ’70s were particularly busy and many successful movies were made here ranging from Summer Holiday to Star Wars.

The four stages were joined by another – stage 5 – in the mid ’50s.  It was 137 x 115ft.  (Interesting somewhat random dimensions!)  This stage was not particularly well soundproofed and apparently can be seen in the On The Buses films doubling as the exterior of the bus garage.  It was built over a water tank that had been previously constructed.  The tank was quite large – 89 x 49ft and 3ft 6ins deep.  (Why didn’t they make it 90 x 50ft?)

 

In the late ’50s stage 1 was divided in two – thus creating stage 6.  Some years later, following the construction of stages 7, 8 and 9 in 1966, this division was removed.  In 1978 another stage 6 was constructed at the back of the site.  This was huge – 30,000 sq ft in fact – and was built for The Empire Strikes Back.

However – we are getting ahead of ourselves.  ABPC was somewhat reluctantly drawn into the new enterprise of commercial television in 1956.  Its subsidiary, ABC Television, took over Warner Bros’ studios at Teddington to make television programmes on video but there was plainly a market to make drama series on film too.

 

 

itc logo

 

ABC TV was of course owned by ABPC so these studios were immediately available to the company to make TV programmes on film.  Between 1957 and 1962 ABC made a string of popular drama series here including Dial 999, The Flying Doctor, International Detective and Tales From Dickens.  (I wonder how many viewers realised that The Flying Doctor set in the Australian outback was filmed a few miles north of London.)

In 1962 Lew Grade, who owned the media company ITC, won the rights to make The Saint.  Since 1960 he had been making Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan in the MGM studios just up the road in Borehamwood.  Danger Man had done well in Britain but less well in the US.  He saw The Saint as a different sort of character and the stories as more likely to do well in America.  He was right.  Despite ITC/ATV being rivals to ABC he was welcomed at ABPC Elstree – or at least the work was – and over the next decade ITC dramas occupied many of Elstree’s stages almost continuously.  (The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s follow-up to Danger Man was made in the MGM studios – with the Village exteriors shot in Wales.)

The Saint, which began filming in 1962, went on until 1968 over several seasons.  It proved to be very popular in the US, which motivated a change to filming in colour in 1966.  An impressive 115 episodes were made.  Other popular ITC series included Gideon’s Way (’64-’65), The Baron (’65-’66), The Champions (’67-’68),  Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (’68-’69), Department S (’69, ’70), Jason King (’70-’71) and The Protectors (’71-’72).

 

elstree saint logo 450p
In 2016 this neon ‘Saint’ logo appeared on the wall of stage 7.  A little nod to the studios’ history of which I wholeheartedly approve!  It looked particularly striking at night.

 

Despite ITC making most of the TV drama here, the owners of the studio, ABPC, did have one huge success.  The Avengers  transferred from Teddington for its fourth series onward.  From this series it was shot on 35mm film and ran from 1964 – 1969 over many episodes.

 

Of course, movies were also occupying the stages including in 1961 Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones.  This film made use of a ‘foreign town’ set which was constructed on the back lot. Unusually, this was left standing after the filming and became an invaluable asset to the studios for about ten years.  It was used as various locations by The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Avengers.  Giles Chapman has informed me that…

‘…its very last on-screen appearance was in The Protectors – the one and only time it appeared in either of the two Protectors series despite much of it being filmed at Elstree.  It’s used for a getaway at the climax of the second-series episode ‘The Tiger And The Goat’, which was shot during 1973 and first aired on 25 January 1974.’

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Back in 1966 the studios were so busy with TV production on film that they constructed three new stages – 7, 8 and 9.  These were equipped with telescope lighting grids, speeding up the time taken to light sets.  Unusually for film studios, between stages 8 and 9 a suite of TV control rooms was built with windows overlooking each stage, although these were not equipped at the time.  Despite being planned with TV in mind, the floors were traditional wood block rather than flat lino.  In fact stages 8 and 9 were even equipped with tanks.  In 1967, The Champions was the first series to use the new studios.

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Stages 7, 8 and 9 under construction in 1966.
The proud gentleman posing for the camera is one Alan H Goatman, the general manager of ABPC Elstree.  I think he may have been gazing proudly at the asbestos and new-fangled RAAC concrete used in the construction.  Actually, he’s probably looking this  way so he can pretend he hasn’t seen the scaffolder with no safety rail, no hard hat and probably wearing a pair of flip-flops.  Happy days.
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Above is stage 8 early in 2013.  It is having a ‘TV floor’ laid ready for occupation by BBC Studios and Post Production (S&PP).  Note the impressive tank (which was sealed up for TV use).  Also, note the white doors at the top of frame that led through to the TV control rooms.  The black door in the centre used to link stages 8 and 9 but was bricked up by BBC S&PP.  The walls were faced with black fabric.
Unfortunately, the floor that was laid turned out to be – well – let’s just say not quite up to spec.  During the first show (Pointless) it was soon obvious that it would have to be replaced.  A stop-gap chipboard floor was laid on top for the last ever episode of The IT Crowd and then in July it was all dug up again and a proper resin TV floor was installed by specialist company Elgood.  Very embarrassing for BBC S&PP but to be fair to them, the company that laid the original floor was apparently specified by Elstree Studios, not by them.  My understanding is that the floor was part of the fabric of the building, so was owned by Elstree, not S&PP.  The new floor in stage 9 was also dug up and replaced but fortunately before any shows were made in it.

 

There was an expectation around this time that filmed TV drama might be in decline and that the future would see more made on multicamera video.  Thus these stages were built ready to become fully equipped TV studios if necessary, as were J and K at Pinewood.  As we will see below, there was indeed a reduction in the amount of filmed drama over the next few years but in fact, 8 and 9’s control rooms were not equipped for video production for many years.

As it happened, against all expectations during the 1980s the industry trend was reversed and drama on single camera film or video increased – until by the early 1990s multicamera drama production had all but ceased, apart from soaps.  Ironically, it was in fact in the early 1990s that the galleries were at last fitted out – to provide facilities to make sitcoms for independent production companies in stage 9.  This only lasted for a few years and the equipment was then removed.  It would not be until 2013 that they were fitted out again – this time by BBC S&PP.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

 

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ABPC Elstree towards the end of the ’60s.  The new stages 7, 8 and 9 are on the left.  Stage 5 is the large square stage on its own upper right.  The ‘foreign town’ set can be seen top left where the George Lucas stage now stands.  That is where the front of the Overlook Hotel was built for The Shining in 1978.  At the time this photo was taken, stage 1 had been divided into two, forming stages 1 and 6.  (You can just make out the line in the roof.)  That is why the new stages began at 7.  Later, the division was removed and a new stage 6 was built behind stage 5.  Stages 2 – 4 were 150 x 100ft each so a very useful size.
Ed Nassour informs me that the long building just behind the main stage block accommodated the sound department.  The section in its centre with the raised roof was the scoring stage where orchestral music for soundtracks was recorded.
elstree scoring stage 450p
Above is a photo showing what an elegant space it was.  That’s Muir Matheson conducting.  The building also contained 2 re-recording theatres and a combined Foley and looping theatre.

 

 

Around the end of the sixties things began to change.  The film industry was in decline and the 35mm glossy action dramas so popular a few years before were less so now – particularly in the US.  In Britain the style of crime dramas was moving away from studio-based stories and were now being shot in a more gritty style on location using lightweight 16mm cameras.  In 1968 ABC TV lost its ITV franchise and its successor, Thames (as Euston Films), made The Sweeney and proved that you didn’t need expensive film studios any longer.

In 1969 ABPC was taken over by EMI and the studios became EMI Elstree Studios.  Bryan Forbes was the new head – hoping to bring back the good old days of British cinema.  He was very enthusiastic but it seems not universally liked by those working in the studios.  His tenure received some wider criticism but he did produce a handful of films that have stood the test of time – The Railway Children, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and The Go-Between.

A long period of television drama was coming to an end at Elstree.   The Saint had concluded in 1968 and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Avengers finished shooting in 1969.  This was partly compensated for when kids’ series Here Come The Double Deckers! was filmed by 20th Century Fox in stage 5 in the same year.  Clearly aimed at the US market it portrayed an American idea of the typical wacky adventures a bunch of British kids might get up to.  One of the episodes was directed by Charles Crichton – highly regarded director of several British comedy films.  It was very ‘swinging 60s’ and tried to catch the mood of the times but was probably a couple of years late.  Despite its obvious American slant it was actually more popular here in Britain than its intended market.  Only one season of 17 episodes was made.

 

A year later MGM sadly abandoned their own superb studios just down the road and moved in to take a 50% stake in these studios.  There simply wasn’t the work around to keep such a huge studio complex going – and the US parent company was in severe financial difficulties.  The name thus changed again to  EMI-MGM  Elstree Studios

Some people have wondered what would have happened if EMI had moved to share the much bigger and arguably better MGM studios.  The Brent-Walker saga would not have happened (or would it?) and we might still have a big studio complex in Borehamwood to rival Pinewood and Shepperton.  Sadly, we can’t re-write history.  In any case, despite some saying that this was seriously considered at the time, local historian Paul Welsh has scotched this rumour.  He spoke to several of those involved and has confirmed that there was never any real chance of EMI moving into the MGM studios as it would have involved hundreds of redundancies which would likely have led to the staff at ABC’s cinema chain going on strike.

 

A few films were made in 1970 – including The Railway Children and some of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but times were tough in the industry.  Jason King and The Protectors occupied a stage or two from 1970 – 1973 but there was very little other television work.  The Protectors was produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (this was shortly after the various ‘Supermarionation’ puppet series).  They were offered it by Lew Grade on a take it or leave it basis.  They thought if they turned it down he wouldn’t offer them anything again – so they took it.  Most was shot on location all over Europe but the production was based at Elstree and some interiors were shot on stages here.

Once The Protectors wrapped early in 1973 no other television drama was made that year at Elstree and only a handful of features were shot.  By the end of the year MGM withdrew from its part ownership.  The permanent studio staff went from 479 to 256.  The name went back to EMI Elstree Studios and the situation was looking decidedly bleak for their future.  Two films mostly kept the studios alive during 1974 – Murder on the Orient Express and something of a contrast – Confessions of a Window Cleaner.  No TV productions were made.

 

Things did at last pick up in 1975 when George Lucas decided to make the first Star Wars film at Elstree.  Arguably, he saved Elstree from going under.  He provided invaluable business for the studios over the next few years with the following two Star Wars episodes and the Indiana Jones trilogy.

Other film work was patchy and uneven and there was little TV production – an exception being The Return of the Saint (’77-’78).  This was to be the last TV series ITC made in these studios. 

It should be mentioned that the famous promo for Bohemian Rhapsody was shot here in 1975 on one of the original four stages.  Queen had been rehearsing their tour and that extraordinary pop video was quickly knocked off in a few hours one evening.

 

There were more positive signs in 1978.  As part of a deal with Lucas, EMI built a huge new stage – stage 6 – which was intended to be used for The Empire Strikes Back.  The stage was 250ft x 122ft and 45ft high.  It was completed by the summer of 1979.

Also, after months of pre-planning, Stanley Kubrick began filming his horror classic The Shining in 1978 on almost all the stages and the back lot.  Some sets were also built in workshops when they ran out of space.  I have read that the hotel’s kitchen set was located in the Enigma Building, which still exists.  There is also much evidence that the sets for the caretaker’s apartment were built on stages 8 and 9.  So the famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ door smashing scene may well have been located just where Alexander Armstrong stood in later years to present Pointless.  Fancy that.

Kubrick had filmed Lolita here in 1962, some of A Clockwork Orange in 1970, and previously 2001: A Space Odyssey in the MGM studios just down the road.  That ground-breaking film had occupied seven of the ten stages on the MGM site for three years (1965-1967) and sometimes spread to stages here at ABPC Elstree and to Shepperton.  Kubrick was not known for rushing the making of a film and he occupied the site for 51 weeks with The Shining.

For the filming of this definitive horror film, stage 3 contained the ‘Colorado Lounge’ set within the Overlook Hotel.  As principal photography was ending, the set caught fire and caused extensive damage to the stage.  Adjoining stages also received some damage – the total cost was £1.25m.

 

elstree kubrick on fire damaged stage 450p
The extraordinary Stanley Kubrick, in the ruins of stage 3.  I’ve looked at this photo on many occasions and can’t decide how I feel about it.  Is he happy that he has almost completed the movie and is simply enjoying the moment?  Or is this one of those occasions when in the midst of tragedy someone says something darkly humorous and laughter is a way of breaking the tension.  However, at the back of my mind I can’t quite separate this from the manic look of Jack Nicholson in the closing scenes of The Shining.

 

For those wishing to get a glimpse of how the backstage areas of the original studios looked – I suggest buying a DVD of The Shining.  The extras contain a short documentary filmed by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian.  She begins a sequence interviewing Jack Nicholson in his dressing room.  He walks out and down the stairs to one of the entrances to stage 4, which leads into a corridor of the Overlook Hotel.  The set looks utterly convincing – it was fully ceilinged so once on set there was no way of telling that you were not in the actual hotel, in deep winter high in the Colorado mountains of the USA.  (The opening titles aerial shots of the hotel were filmed by a second unit in Oregon.)

The exterior of the hotel was built on the Elstree back lot – the snow piled up in front of the building was in fact salt.  Falling snow was tiny polystyrene balls, dropped from giant hoppers suspended by cranes.  Unfortunately it blew all over Borehamwood and made a bit of a mess of local gardens. I’m sure the neighbours saw the funny side of that.

 

elstree overlook hotel back lot 450p
For those who simply can’t believe that the Overlook Hotel was built in Borehamwood, here it is.  It was sited more or less where stage 1 now stands.  Hidden behind it in this photo is stage 9, to the left behind the wall of the ‘maze’ are the workshops and the roof of the old stage 5.

 

The documentary also contains a sequence where the young film-maker walks with the camera along a firelane in stage 1 and turns into the famous snow-filled maze that is the scene of the climax to the film.  For those familiar with The Shining, and even for someone like myself with a lifetime working in studios, it is quite bizarre to think that these scenes in such an iconic movie were made in Borehamwood.

 

elstree film stages 3 and 4 ext
This atmospheric shot is the first frame of Vivian Kubrick’s excellent documentary.  I hope she won’t mind me borrowing it to illustrate how the old studios looked.
It shows the exterior of stages 3 and 4 during the late 1970s.  The windows are dressing rooms, make-up areas and production offices associated with the stages which are just a few feet the other side of these rooms.
The building’s architectural style is typical of the post-war period and must have looked very smart when it opened in 1948.
This piece of land is now part of Tesco’s car park.

 

 

In 1979 Thorn, the electrical giant, amalgamated with EMI.  Thus Thorn EMI Elstree Studios were created.  An interesting offshoot of this development was that Thorn had been developing a new type of lamp to replace the old arc lights previously used on film locations and often in studios too.  These new HMI lights were much smaller, more efficient and much easier to use than the old ‘brutes’.  Thorn were keen to see them used so they were offered to Lucas for The Empire Strikes Back.  Always enthusiastic about new technology he took them on location and was highly impressed. HMI lamps were used worldwide on film and TV sets for many years.

The fire on stage 3 prevented George Lucas from shooting the interiors of The Empire Strikes Back at his planned time.  Director Irvin Kershner actually began principal photography on location in March 1979 but his shooting schedule was severely disrupted by all the repairs and rebuilding going on at Elstree.  Also, stage 6 was not completed at the planned time and they began shooting on it before it was totally finished.  I assume it did at least have a roof.  This stage was used to house the Millennium Falcon, which was 65 feet in diameter, with an overall length of 80 ft.  It also contained the sets for the jungle on the planet Dagobah and the rebel HQ on the ice planet Hoth.  Remember that when you are next shopping for frozen chips in Borehamwood Tesco’s.

Incidentally, for those who like such facts – I have read that stage 8 is where the first shot of the first  Star Wars  movie was made in 1975.  Well… possibly.  Stage 8 was apparently the one used for Jabba the Hutt’s Throne Room – we all remember that scene I’m sure.  It was also used for part of the interior of the Millennium Falcon (see photo below).  Stage 9 was the interior of Yoda’s house in The Empire Strikes Back.  I have also read that stage 8 was where the snake pit scene was filmed in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Well… maybe.  Almost certainly, some scenes were shot on stages 7, 8 and 9 in all those movies but which ones are up for debate.  The other stages used were lost to the Tesco’s redevelopment – more on this later.

 

 

elstree stage 6 under construction early 1979 450p
Above is stage 6 under construction, early 1979.  This became known as the ‘Star Wars Stage.’  It is where the Tesco’s store now stands.  The steel was used to construct stages R and S at Shepperton after it was dismantled in 1989.  Stage 6 was about 30,000 sq ft – the same size as the Attenborough and Q stages at Pinewood.
elstree film stage 6 1978 450p
The completed stage 6 from the air – it is the building on the right with the light grey roof.  To its left is stage 5.  The workshops at the top of frame still exist as part of the Elstree Studios lot although the near ends of them were cut off.
elstree stage 8 empire s b 450p
A well-known photograph with some familiar faces, taken in 1979.  This is The Empire Strikes Back and is on stage 8, later used as a TV studio by BBC Studioworks.  The set on the left is the interior of the Millennium Falcon.  The stairs in the corner later led to the TV control rooms and the door on the right to the camera store.
please don’t ask for permission to use this or any other photograph commercially – it is copyright and is shown here for educational and research purposes.
elstree h ford outside stage 8 450p
This is a grabbed frame from a 16mm film made whilst Raiders of the Lost Ark was being shot so it would have been in 1980.  It shows Harrison Ford being taught how to use his whip.  In the background is the familiar door to stage 8.  The workshops on the left were replaced by the John Maxwell Building a few years later.

 

 

There was no television work in 1979 and for a number of years it remained patchy.  In 1980 ATV worked on the six episodes of their film series Shillingbury Tales and Euston Films returned to studio filming in 1982 to make the twelve-part Thames TV drama series Reilly – Ace of Spies.  The Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense series of 13 feature-length TV movies was based here in 1983 although only one episode was filmed on a stage – the rest on location.

1982 was the year Jim Henson and Frank Oz made their extraordinary feature The Dark Crystal at Elstree.  They were of course very familiar with all the joys of Borehamwood, having made  The Muppet Show over the road in ATV’s studios between 1975 and 1980.

 

elstree film studios
The photo shows Elstree Studios in 1982 – then known as ‘Thorn-EMI Elstree Studios.’  At that time there were 9 stages.  The large block in the centre of the picture with the zig-zag roofs contained stages 1-4, constructed in 1948.  The one top left (stage 3) has been rebuilt here with a flat roof.  It was severely damaged by fire in 1979 during the completion of filming of The Shining.  The huge one at the back was stage 6 and was built for The Empire Strikes Back in 1979.  It was 250 x 122 feet.  Stage 5 was the square-shaped building with the pitched roof in the upper centre.
 The triangular shape top centre was the outdoor tank which was built in 1955 for Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck.  Between 2002 and 2018 it was where the Big Brother house was situated.
The studios look quite different now.  The red line through the middle of the site indicates approximately where the divide was between the remaining film studios on the left and what became Tesco’s and its car park on the right.  Thus, 6 stages were lost in 1989.  There is little doubt that if these had been kept rather than being sold off, they would now be extremely busy due to the current shortage of studios.
The long block on the left contains stages 7, 8 and 9 – two of which were much later operated by BBC Studioworks.  This block is due to be replaced.
elstree aerial inc tescos 450p
Above is the site as it was in 2018. Just how much was lost to Tesco’s is clear to see.

 

 

After years of gradual decline, American moviemakers Cannon Films bought the studios in 1986 and having changed the name to Cannon Studios they immediately made the somewhat disappointing Superman 4.  They had previously been having enormous success making popular action movies and needed more studio space.  Unfortunately their profitability was short-lived and they lost huge amounts on a run of flops.  In 1989 the company went bust. 

However – before that there was a significantly successful feature filmed here in 1987 – Who Framed Roger Rabbit? starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd and a load of cartoon characters.  The story goes that director Robert Zemeckis asked Steven Spielberg where he recommended he should make the movie.  Spielberg immediately suggested Elstree and the film was made using many of the same crew that had worked on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones features.  The animation elements were prepared using British artists and technicians and then sent to Disney and ILM in America for completion.  Incidentally, the scene at the conclusion of the film was shot in one of the old disused Central Line generator buildings in Wood Lane, opposite TV Centre.  For those who worked at TVC – have a look at the film and it suddenly seems very familiar!  These two distinctive buildings have been preserved next to Westfield shopping centre and are now merely a bus garage and a conference/event venue, sadly no longer a portal into Toon Town.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third movie in the franchise, helped to keep the studios going in 1988, although most of the film was shot on location.  This ended the run of titles made by George Lucas at Elstree.

 

During the Cannon ownership there was also a little TV production – four episodes of  Inspector Morse, made by Central TV’s production arm Zenith, were based here in 1988.  One source claims that TVS also made the Channel 4 series The StoryTeller – recording nine episodes and a further four the following year under the revised title The StoryTeller: Greek Myths.  However, Dennis Weinreich has contacted me and pointed out that it was actually made at Wembley studios.  He was the dubbing mixer and visited the set several times.  So possibly only the second series was made here.  Can you help with this confusion?

Some scenes for the BBC’s experimental high definition video drama The Ginger Tree were definitely recorded on stage 9 in August 1989.  This was the first time I worked at these studios and I remember it well.  My impression was that the site was pretty run down with little evidence of any work going on in the other stages and the stage we were working on was filthy!  Little did I suspect that 24 years later I would return to light various sitcoms on that same stage.

 

 

In 1989 the studios were sold to property developer Brent Walker, who had made a few films under the ‘Goldcrest’ name.  The site became known as Goldcrest Studios.  With the claimed intention of modernising the studios on a more compact site they sold off about half the land enabling a Tesco supermarket to be built.  As many as six stages were demolished, although stage 6 – the huge one built for The Empire Strikes Back – was dismantled and sold to Shepperton.  The steel was stored and eventually used to build the R and S stages there with some remaining pieces going into the W stage.

In 1990 Brent Walker signed a planning agreement to run the remaining site as studios for 25 years.  However, in 1993 they announced the planned closure of the studios because of financial difficulties caused by the economic recession, hoping to sell the remainder of the site off to be developed as a shopping centre.  This announcement was very poorly received by people in the industry, local residents and the local council.  A prolonged dispute erupted between Brent Walker and the council during which the studios were hardly used and their condition deteriorated.  I can find only two TV series made during this period – The BBC drama series Love Hurts was filmed at the studio in 1993 and the beginning of the following year saw Little Napoleons in production here.

In 1995 the gates closed and Elstree became virtually derelict.  Anything of any value – even carpet tiles, old office chairs and literally kitchen sinks – were sold off by Brent Walker to raise a few quid.  They switched off the heating and allowed rain and cold weather to damage the remaining buildings.  Headed by Paul Welsh MBE, a three year ‘Save Our Studios’ campaign was organised involving local residents, studio employees and filmmakers.  Brent Walker finally agreed to sell the site to Hertsmere Borough Council for £1.9m.

 

 

The studios were taken over by Hertsmere in February 1996 and leased to a management company in April who renamed them Elstree Film and TV Studios.  (This management contract came to an end in March 2007.)

Almost immediately the new company carried out some improvements and began to attract new work.  Stages 5 and 6 were created by adapting workshop space within the John Maxwell Building.  Two large new stages (1 and 2) were completed in 1999.  Each is 135 x 116 ft (15,660 sq ft) and 50ft to the grid.  Somewhat confusingly, the whole building containing both stages is known as ‘The George Lucas Stage’ in recognition of his work here in years gone by.  He also filmed a few pick-up scenes on these stages for episodes 1 – 3.

George Lucas Stage 2, following a Strictly derig.
thanks to Rich Shout

 

Robot Wars was one of the first TV shows to use the new stages – using an OB unit for facilities.  One of the first movies to be filmed in the George Lucas stage was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2004). Somehow it seems right that with Elstree being the original home of Star Wars it should also be host to this homage to space sci-fi.

 

 

The sound stages/studios currently on site are 1 and 2, mentioned above, and stages 3 & 4, (aka the ‘Platinum Stages’) which opened in 2022.  Each of those is 135 x 131ft.   Stage 5 is 95 x 57 feet and is a silent stage with limited facilities adapted from a workshop.  Stage 6 is about 62ft x 62ft and was also converted from a workshop area.  It has a resin TV floor and rooms that can be used as control galleries.  It has sound deadening on the walls and aircon and a basic chain and tackle grid.  The floor was originally laid for the kids’ series The Hoobs in 2000.  They used the rooms next to the studio as workshops, green room and a control area but when that series ended all the technical equipment was removed.

In January 2024 it was confirmed that BBC Elstree would be sold to AXA insurance.  This deal included the sale and demolition of studios C, D and M.  C is used by EastEnders and M has been the home of Strictly It Takes Two in recent years.  So to replace these, BBC Studioworks are taking over stages 5 and 6 here at Elstree Studios.  EastEnders will move into 5 in the summer and studio 6 will be used for It Takes Two between September and December.  My understanding is that studio 6 will then be available for other TV bookings including EastEnders during the remaining 8 months of the following year.  I am not clear how long this deal has been made for but I assume it’s a number of years.  The arrangement will involve considerable investment in equipping lighting, production and sound control rooms.  One assumes that most of the kit will be moved over from BBC Elstree.  Stage 5 will also need aircon, a TV floor, a lighting grid and sound deadening on the walls and ceiling.

 

stage 5
with thanks to Elstree Studios
stage 6
with thanks to Elstree Studios

 

I have  rewritten the following in the past tense, as these three stages are due to be demolished.

Stages 7, 8 and 9 were all built in 1966 with future TV use in mind and had telescope (monopole) lighting grids but until the BBC moved here there were for many years only a handful of very old ‘scopes available for use.  Stage 7 was about 76 x 65 feet wall to wall.  It had a resin floor and a suite of Portacabins originally fitted out as control rooms in the covered way behind the stages.  These were built by Tell-Tale, the production company who made an extraordinary 390 episodes of Tweenies in this stage between 1998 and 2001.  The Portacabins had no equipment installed but flyaway kit could of course be used on an ad-hoc basis.  This stage was part of the normal Elstree Studios package – not run by BBC Studioworks – and was often used for single-camera TV dramas and comedies.  It was occasionally used by The Crown.

Stages 8 and 9 were both about 98 x 76 feet wall to wall and originally had wooden floors.  Each also had a 30 x 31 x 9ft tank (later covered over).  They were 88 x 68 metric ft within firelanes which made them very useful spaces for making television programmes of many types – especially those with studio audiences.  The stages were originally linked by a passage between them with doors at each end but the stage 8 doors were bricked up during the BBC TV conversion in 2013.  There was a TV gallery suite between them at first floor level but this was not fitted out until around 1990 when a company called ESP, run by Derek Oliver, had the contract to provide technical facilities to make TV shows in stage 9. 

Several sitcom series were made between 1990 and 1993.  Series 2 of Birds of a Feather was probably the first (series 1 was recorded in TC6 in TV Centre.)  The cameras were Sony 330s and the crews were freelance – many were ex-Limehouse which had recently closed.  Other shows included Clive Anderson Talks Back, Drop the Dead Donkey, Nightingales and Get Back, which included a very young Kate Winslet in the cast.  Most of these were made by Alomo Productions.

 

From the mid ’90s a few other multicamera TV programmes were also recorded on these stages – using OB units for facilities.  Smack the Pony and the fourth series of the quiz show Eggheads are examplesThe revamped version of the BBC children’s series Jackanory was made here in 2006 and 2007.  CBBC’s Space Pirates  was recorded in stage 7 in 2007.

From around 1998 the control rooms were occupied by production offices on a semi-permanent basis for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?   That show used stage 9 with the set remaining permanently rigged, ending its regular run in 2010.  It used an OB truck parked outside for facilities but the lighting control was in the camera store room just off the stage floor.

Between 2006 and 2007 a kids’ TV series – Jim Jam and Sunny – was made in stage 8.  TV drama continued to use the studios – shot on film or single camera digital video.   Kavanagh QC  and Secret Diary of a Call Girl are notable examples.

 

The two stages in the George Lucas building…  (Why DID they call it ‘The George Lucas Stage’ when there are two stages?  Bonkers.)  …anyway, stages 1 and 2 have proved popular for large-scale TV productions since they opened in 1999.  Robot Wars was an early booking and then stage 2 was the home of Dancing on Ice from 2006 to 2014 (except for 2011 when the stage was being used for a feature film).  Other TV shows made in either of these large stages have included a Michael Bublé Christmas special for ITV in 2011, Let’s Dance for Sport Relief  in 2012 and the live rounds of The Voice in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.  A League of Their Own is now made here – it previously used studio D over the road at BBC Elstree.   Strictly Come Dancing was based in stage 1 from September – December 2013 and stage 2 has been the home of the show every year since then.

From 2015, stage 1 was occupied by Netflix series The Crown.  6 seasons were filmed, ending in 2023.  Once that drama wrapped, BBC Studioworks moved in, using the stage as a replacement for stages 8 and 9, which had been closed due to asbestos and RAAC concrete being discovered.  The portacabin galleries outside stage 9 were connected to stage 1 by running fibres across the car park.  After a few weeks they were lifted by a giant crane and plonked next to stage 1.  I’ll bet there were a few crossed fingers when all that expensive kit was dangling in mid air.

 

Of course, one of the most famous TV shows to occupy the site was Big Brother.  The house was constructed in the 131ft x 196ft outdoor tank on the back lot (originally built for the film Moby Dick in 1955).  The house was redesigned and partly rebuilt each year.  BB began in 2000, using Three Mills studios.  After a couple of series it moved to Elstree in 2002.  The show was axed by Channel 4 in 2010 but it was taken over by Channel 5 who continued to use the facilities at Elstree.  The final show was transmitted in 2018.  The house was demolished early in 2019.  The 2023 series made for ITV is based at the Garden Studios in Park Royal.

elstree big brother house 450p
The Big Brother house and its associated facilities. The wedge shape of the old water tank is clear to see.  That’s the edge of The Mound on the left, before it was cleared. This is now the site of the new stages 3 & 4.

 

Each January between 2006 and 2010 the George Lucas stages were both being used for live TV shows.  ITV Productions turned stage 2 into an ice rink to make Dancing on Ice whilst  Celebrity Big Brother was coming from stage 1 next door.  Across from the BB House a workshop was used as the studio for Big Brother’s Little Brother and a few yards away in stage 9  Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was also being recorded on some of these days.  In fact, in some weeks around that period in all five years more prime-time television was coming from these film studios than from some television centres.

 

 

In recent years, Elstree Studios have been enjoying success with a mix of commercials, single-camera TV dramas and multi-camera (often live) entertainment productions.  Encouragingly, there are also one or two feature films each year that have used these these stages for all or part of their filming schedule – for example,  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), the highly acclaimed drama Proof (2005) with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, Notes on a Scandal (2005) with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, horror movie 1408 (2006) starring John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson and The Other Boleyn Girl (2006) with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.  2007 saw  Wild Child, Made of Honor, A Number and My Zinc Bed in production.

More recent films to use these stages have included Is There Anybody There? (’08), Harry Brown (’09), Kick-Ass (’10), Devil’s Playground (’10), The King’s Speech (’10), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (’11), The Veteran (’11), X-Men: First Class (’11), Jack the Giant Killer (’12), Under the Skin (’12), Hyde Park on Hudson (’12), Comes a Bright Day (’12), World War Z (’13),  The World’s End (’12),  Paddington Bear (’13), The Danish Girl (’15), Suffragette (’15).  Some scenes for the Netflix production A Boy Called Christmas were shot at Elstree in 2019.

2023 was a difficult year for the film industry due to the US writers and actors strikes.  2024 should see everything pick up.  Stages 3 and 4 are likely to attract film and TV drama work whilst stages 1, 2, 5 and 6 will all be booked by BBC Studioworks for TV.  The new stages 7, 8 and 9 should be available in 2026 and it remains to be seen whether 8 and 9 will be equipped as TV studios (as promised) or simply be sound stages.

 

The Pacifica saga

One might have thought that Elstree’s future was very much assured.  However, throughout much of 2006 there were rumours reported in the local press that there were problems associated with finding a new management company to take over in April 2007.  Some claimed that the lack of a decision by the summer of 2006 was affecting long-term bookings.  There was also said to be a report commissioned by the local council, who own the studios, that advised selling off the site for housing.

However, these fears proved unfounded.  Several companies expressed an interest in taking over management of the studios and the winner, announced on 31st January 2007, was an American firm – Pacifica Ventures.  They were the management company that ran Culver Studios in the US from April 2004 to October 2006 – they owned the brand new Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico and were planning to open a new centre in Kiev.  They seemed ideal.  Pacifica stated that they planned to invest heavily in the Elstree site and restore its use as a major studio for the making of feature films.  In January 2007 they unveiled their preliminary proposals which included:

  • Facilities to train people in film-related crafts.

  • Two new sound stages on asbestos-contaminated land at the rear of the site.

  • Two new sound stages to replace workshops.

  • A new gateway and entrance buildings.

  • A permanent streetscene at the back of the site.

  • Retention of existing stages and  Big Brother  house.

Talks with the council were expected to take three to four months.

The negotiations seemed to be very positive at first but rumours of problems began to emerge.  It appeared that one of the sticking points was over the disposal of the earth mound that covered what remained of the back lot.  This is where two large stages were to be built but ‘The Mound’ contained asbestos, which of course is very expensive to dispose of.  This is said to have come from the roofs of the original stages that Brent Walker demolished.  It seems that the contractors simply dumped the spoils onto the grass of the back lot, thus preventing it from being used again. 

During the talks there were various stories reported in the press concerning legal action affecting one or more directors of the company in the US.  Whether this affected the council’s decision is not clear.  Whatever the reason, in July 2007 it was announced that the negotiations had officially ended.  Some weeks earlier Pacifica’s vice president, corporate development – Matt Rauchberg – contacted me and he explained the situation from his company’s perspective…

 

They were very keen to become involved in running a studio in the UK and Elstree was their number one choice.  They were impressed with the Elstree site – in particular stages 1 and 2 – but didn’t see the studios as viable for attracting film work without building more large stages.

However – as mentioned above – a serious issue was what to do with the Mound and its asbestos.  Pacifica were planning to build two or even three large stages on this five acre site.  They saw this as essential to the future of the studios.  The company put up a significant figure as a contribution to its clean-up, hoping that the council, as owners of the site, would contribute the rest.  The total was unknown as no recent environmental study assessing the clean-up costs had been carried out, which clearly posed a problem for both sides.

(In fact of course, in 2013/2014 the Mound was eventually cleared – the local council paying £4.5m from various funds to carry this out.)

A major issue that appears to have stalled the talks is that of liability.  There have been a growing number of cases recently where people in the industry have sued the owners of studios over asbestos contamination.  It seems that at least one previous employee of the studios has sought compensation for his contracting cancer during the Cannon Film days.  Quite understandably, Pacifica didn’t see why they should take on the responsibility for unlimited future claims over something that was plainly nothing to do with them.

 

For more information, there is a public letter released by Pacifica Ventures that explains their position in greater detail.  It can be found on www.borehamwoodtimes.co.uk/display.var.1559188.0.0.php.

 

 

Thus with the collapse of the negotiations the studios remained under the ownership of the local council who also had to manage them for the time being.  According to news reports at the time this was expected to be for up to three years.  However, this arrangement has carried on since then.  Reflecting the change in circumstances, the name changed in April 2007 – at first to ‘Elstree Film Studios’, then in 2008 simply to ‘Elstree Studios’ – perhaps recognising the equal importance of television work to the business.

In October 2008 Hertsmere Council advertised widely for a new managing director.  It seems they had decided that rather than attempt again to sell the lease to a management company they would continue to own the studios but appoint an experienced manager who could run them at arm’s length from the council.

The person appointed was Roger Morris – previously head of Teddington Studios during the years when they were run by Barnes Trust.  He took up his post at the beginning of 2009 and immediately brought a great deal of enthusiasm to making the studios successful.

From that point, the future of the studios looked more secure than at any time in its long history.  Roger Morris is to be congratulated for continuing the successful running of the studios, which are said to generate 16% of Hertsmere Council’s income for its council tax payers.  As well as negotiating the deal with BBC S&PP (now called Studioworks) he also cleared The Mound – a significant achievement!

 

 

 

New stages…?

 

In July 2010 Variety newspaper in the US published an article reporting that Elstree were planning to build two new stages – one at 15,000 sq ft and the other an impressive 30,000 sq ft.  In August of that year, Roger Morris clarified the position.  He was in fact looking into the feasibility of building one, possibly two more stages.  He was quoted as saying that he is having to turn work away because of lack of studio space.  This of course is similar to what Pacifica also planned, and for the same reason.  According to press reports, a suitable investor was being actively sought.  Although the George Lucas building cost £5m in 1999, that was paid off long ago and those two stages are now generating useful income so building more large stages could indeed represent an attractive proposition.

Although nothing appeared to happen regarding this development over the following year, there were press reports in November 2011 stating that Roger Morris was in talks with financial backers over plans to raise ‘£10m’ to build a new 30,000 sq ft stage.  Perhaps spurred on by Pinewood constructing one of a similar size (plus another in 2013) he was reported as saying that he hoped to build the stage ‘within 24 months.’  In the summer of 2012 I read that it was hoped to have the new stage open in 2013.

Of course, before anything could be built it was going to be necessary to clear The Mound.

 

In November 2012 the press reported that a £2m loan had been agreed with the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership’s ‘Growing Places’ fund.  Hertsmere Council would also be providing £2.5m from its reserves.  This would enable 4 acres of land to be cleared.  Work was due to begin early in 2013.  This total figure of £4.5m was quite a bit less than the previous estimate of £10m for the development but it turned out it was simply the cost of clearing the Mound and its asbestos.

Exactly what would eventually be constructed was not confirmed but according to a report in Broadcast magazine it was at the time planned to include a 16,000 sq ft stage.  It was estimated that the new facilities, once constructed, would generate an additional £0.5m revenue per year.

The winter and spring of 2013 came and went but no work was done on the site.  However, clearance work did commence at last in the middle of September.  There were press reports that a new stage would open in 2014 – although how big it would be was not confirmed.  However, a report on the website www.broadcastnow.co.uk on 3rd October 2013 quoted Roger Morris as saying (perhaps rather surprisingly) that there were at that time no firm plans to build a stage on the cleared Mound.  The decision on whether to build stages and workshops or to leave it as a backlot would be left to client demand. He is quoted as saying “The market is bigger than the current conventional studio structure can cope with, so the studios have to catch up with the market.”  Pick the bones out of that.

 

elstree cleared mound 450p
Above is a photo released in May 2014 showing the cleared Mound.

 

So, for the time being at least, there has been no new stage.  Instead, exterior sets with various buildings including Downing Street and the gates of Buckingham Palace were built on the back lot until filming on The Crown wrapped in 2023.

Some might wonder if building an exterior set for one production was the best use of this valuable land – a couple of stages would have been far more useful to the film and TV industry in general.  However, the deal to locate this prestigious drama at Elstree was arguably a very good one and secured income to the studios for a number of years.

 

Intriguingly, in February 2016, it appeared that the plan to build a new stage was not dead after all.  Roger Morris was reported to have said that Elstree was planning not just a simple sound stage but ‘the ultimate designer studio’ with gallery, transmission capability, integral dressing rooms and wardrobe and a ‘fantastic’ lighting grid.  Planning permission was granted in October 2016.  The 21,000 sq ft stage was due to open late in 2017, which one assumes meant that The Crown would no longer have use of the back lot for exterior sets.  However – disappointingly, the stage was not built and The Crown continued to use the back lot.

So what was going on here?  My guess, and I have absolutely no idea whether this is the case, is that Mr Morris was quite sensibly putting a back-up plan in position, should Netflix cancel The Crown after the first 2 seasons or decide to film it elsewhere.  However, it did run its 6 year course.  So will stage 10 will be built here now?  I think this is extremely unlikely.  Hertsmere Council are committed to replacing stages 7, 8 and 9 since that building was found to be unsafe.  They may in due course build another stage but my guess is that actually a back lot next to some excellent stages will prove to be a long term advantage to Elstree Studios.

Roger Morris resigned as MD of Elstree Studios in December 2021 and is now the group managing director of Stage 50.

 

elstree new stage plan 450p
The plan of the proposed new stage 10 as it appeared on Hertsmere’s website in May 2016.  If it is eventually built it will be a really useful addition to the facilities on offer here.  Stages 3 and 4 (see below) have been constructed where the Big Brother House is indicated at the bottom of the plan.

 

Some more interesting news came in November 2016 when Hertsmere Borough Council, owners of the studio, announced that yet another stage was proposed.  Intriguingly, this would be located at the front of the existing site – so one assumes it would replace the Universal Production Services facilities and other small buildings there.  They were reportedly considering a stage of around 13,000 sq ft with ancillary facilities of 37,000 sq ft.  Unfortunately, this idea came to nothing.

 

 

New stages at last!

In September 2019 a press release announced the intention to construct two linked stages (3 & 4).  These have been built on the site of the old water tank where Moby Dick was filmed and the Big Brother house stood between 2002 and 2018.  Planning permission was granted in January 2020.  Work was expected to begin within weeks but Covid-19 affected the finances of the privately funded project.  Fortunately, in August 2020 Hertsmere Borough Council agreed to release £6m of match funding so building could proceed.  Work on the site actually began in May 2021 and was reported to be costing £15.6m.  A ‘topping out’ ceremony was held in February 2022 and it was hoped that the stages would be available by April 2022 but in fact they officially opened in August.  This is great news for the whole industry as with Disney taking over Pinewood, and Amazon and  Netflix booking Shepperton and Longcross, there is an acute shortage of large sound stages in London for independent productions.

The stages are almost square, at 41 x 40m each.  That’s 135 x 131ft or 17,685 sq ft.  The George Lucas stages are 135 x 116ft so these are the same length but much wider.  Very useful sizes and the grid height is similar to the George Lucas stages.  These stages have a ‘removeable section of wall’ between them (consisting of timber ‘cassettes’) which is 46 ft wide and 31 ft high.  Interestingly, there are no production offices or wardrobe/make-up facilities included in the development.  However, two new workshops have been built alongside the existing ones.

A competition was announced in the autumn of 2021 to choose the name for these two stages.  Curiously, they wanted one name, not two, thus adding to the confusion of stages 1 and 2 being called ‘The George Lucas Stage.’  Anyway, there was much speculation on Facebook groups and forums as to which name would be the most popular choice and thus win the competition.  Typical suggestions were Hitchcock, Kubrick, Spielberg or Paul Welsh (the local hero who saved the studios from demolition back in the 1990s).  In their great wisdom, the studio board chose ‘Platinum.’  Yep, Platinum.  I think it’s fair to say that many on the board are local councillors and not people steeped in the great tradition of the British film industry.  Personally, I think they will simply be referred to by most people as Stages 3 and 4.

 

The completed ‘Platinum’ stages. Most new sound stages have an exterior treatment that is designed to blend in with the local landscape for environmental reasons and so as not to create a visual distraction for the neighbours.  Not here.  Oh no.
A photorealistic image of how the completed stages 3 and 4 were originally planned to appear when complete. They are the shaded blue-grey building mid left.  The actual stages are in fact coloured in an arresting pattern of red, grey and white.  The Tesco store is upper left, where the original stage 6 once stood.  Sets from The Crown can be seen on the back lot in the foreground. Below are the new stages and two new workshops under construction in 2021.

the interior of the completed stage 3
George Lucas stage 1 in the background, the corner of Platinum stage 3 in the foreground.

 

 

The BBC move in!

I have taken us from the beginning of film-making at Elstree right up to the present but so far have omitted one of the most interesting aspects of these studios’ history…

 

In August 2012 the official announcement came that BBC Studios and Post Production (S&PP) would be moving here in April 2013 from Television Centre.  (They are of course continuing to occupy their BBC Elstree Centre studios over the road in Borehamwood.  As well as all the studios used by EastEnders, they also have the very useful Studio D on that site).  Some in the industry had known about this for many months but final negotiations between S&PP and Elstree took months to conclude.  Work began on converting the stages into well-equipped studios at the end of 2012.

 

Stages 8 and 9 were provided with TV floors, wall boxes and other basic infrastructure.  The very shabby walls were covered with black fabric.  Much of the steelwork was repainted and stairs to the galleries in stage 8 refurbished.  There is a dedicated prop store on the opposite side of the roadway a few yards away and the costume/make-up block was redecorated.  The grids were equipped with monopoles/telescopes – some were brought over from BBC Elstree whilst others were purchased from the old Granada studios in Manchester ex studio 6.  Each stage also had a number of motorised scenic hoists that could be positioned where required.

In fact the old monopoles bought from 3sixtymedia proved to be less effective than had been hoped.  Having two types of ‘scopes in one studio also made lighting rigs and finelights very slow.  In the summer of 2013 a decision was therefore taken to purchase 200 brand new monopoles from MTS – the same as were supplied to Pinewood’s studio TV-two.  These monopoles were a great improvement and certainly speeded up lighting time.  They were installed in stage 8 leaving stage 9 with surplus harp ‘scopes from BBC Elstree.

A large Portacabin-type building was constructed at the end of the studio block to service stage 9.  This contains lighting, sound and production control galleries.  A production I lit was one of the first to use them and they certainly felt very comfortable and spacious inside and not at all ‘temporary.’  Much of the kit from studio TC8 at TV Centre equipped these galleries along with some new purchases.  Other Portacabins provided production office and technical apparatus room facilities.

Meanwhile, the TV galleries between stages 8 and 9 were fitted out and used for stage 8.  These galleries were well designed and equipped.  Some kit was new whilst the rest including HD cameras came from TC4.  These were replaced in 2019.

 

Shows made in 8 or 9 while they were run by BBC S&PP/Studioworks included Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Celebrity Juice, Sweat the Small Stuff, Pointless, 15-1, Room 101, The Chase, Big Fat Quiz, The Apprentice: You’re Fired, Unspun With Matt Forde, Harry Hill’s Clubnite, The Fantastical Factory of Curious Craft, Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back – and sitcoms The IT Crowd, Father Figure, House of Fools, a few eps of Not Going Out and series 2 of The Goes Wrong Show.  Have I Got News For You moved here from TLS in 2018 and 2019.  (Since 2020 it has been made at Riverside.)

 

elstree s&pp stage 8 450p
A few years ago not many people would have predicted that this would be painted on stage 8’s dock door in 2013.  It was replaced with the BBC Studioworks logo in 2016.

 

Stage 1 in the George Lucas building was used for Strictly Come Dancing in 2013 – with a standing set for the series.  The dance floor was enlarged from how it was in TC1 and a much bigger audience was accommodated.  This was set further back which gave the impression on screen of a much larger room – which of course it is.  In 2014 and subsequent years the show used stage 2 – which is identical in size.  In 2017 Strictly remained here, despite TC1 reopening.  I can smugly say that this website predicted several years before that it would not return to TV Centre.

A very well-equipped control room suite was built at ground floor level within the production block that runs down the side of the stages.  It has a mix of new kit and some removed from TC1.  Access is very quick from the galleries to the floor of stage 1 or stage 2.  New cameras were installed in 2019.

 

I worked on a few shows in stages 8 and 9 and on the whole was impressed with what had been done with the galleries and technical fit-up.  The lighting installation in the grid was initially very basic and slow to operate but with the new monopoles it was certainly improved.

The lack of off-studio space with easy access to store scenery proved to be a bit of a problem.  The working area was 88 x 68 metric feet, roughly the same as the old studio 2 at TLS but it did feel more cramped because the firelanes were narrower – particularly along the sides of the studio – and the corners had a bite taken out for staircases and doors.  Interesting to compare these with the two TV studios at Pinewood, which were built around the same time – they are significantly larger at 106 x 74 metric feet within firelanes.

 

 

The initial 2 year rental deal was lengthened by another 2 years to April 2017 – it was extended in 2014 when S&PP admitted the obvious fact that they could not return to a building site at TVC in 2015.  It was then further extended to 2020 and in November 2019 it was announced that the deal would continue to at least March 2024.

A press release in August 2022 confirmed that Studioworks would have full control of stage 2 until December 2024.  It also revealed that they would continue to use stages 8 and 9 until at least March 2029.  Tied in with this was investment in improvements across the facility, including dressing room refurbishments, improved accessibility across the associated areas and a complete redecoration in terms of flooring, wall protection and corridors within the areas operated by BBC Studioworks.  The site has been looking rather tired for a while so this refurbishment work seemed to be very good news indeed.

 

 

Bad News…  and then some good news!

 

Unfortunately, in September 2022, asbestos was discovered.  This precipitated an immediate closure of stages 7, 8 and 9.  Productions scheduled to be made in them were moved to other studios and film stages.  Pointless was recorded in the Versa London studio and The Chase at Meridian Water.  In February 2023 The Chase was being made in the new Platinum stage 4.  The portacabin galleries for stage 9 were used, with fibres being run up the hill.  Later, Pointless moved to Riverside and after The Crown wrapped in April 2023, George Lucas stage 1 was taken over by Studioworks for other shows, controlled by stage 9’s galleries.

I gather that, perhaps surprisingly, work did not commence on removing the asbestos until the beginning of February 2023. 

However, there was worse to come.  It seems that when the building was given closer examination, RAAC concrete panels were discovered in the roof.  In short, the building either had to have significant and expensive repairs carried out or be demolished and replaced.

 

It is worth pointing out that the actual closure of the stages was very sudden and unexpected by those working there.  On 1st September 2022 a show called Don’t Hate the Playaz was in stage 9.  I’m informed that rehearsals were due to begin at 15.00.  At 15.10 an alarm sounded, requiring everyone to urgently evacuate the studio, which was then shut with no further access being permitted.

This caused serious problems to the companies supplying lighting, sound and other equipment.  I am told that it was not until early 2023 that the hired lights were made available to the company that had supplied them.  They were seriously out of pocket as those lights could not be used by other productions.  I have also been informed that as of July 2023, the company had not received payment for hiring the lights to the original show.

Looking at the situation from the outside, this whole affair does not seem to have been handled well.

 

 

 

In July 2023 Hertsmere Council issued a report entitled “Procurement of a Consultant – Elstree Film Studios Strategic Future – Way Forward”.  It was quoted in Screen Daily and The Knowledge, and seemed to be very bad news indeed.  This is part of the article they published:

 

‘The studios are in urgent need of between £150m and £200m to secure the future of the film complex, after a report found roofs of some older stages were “dangerous” and evidence of asbestos.  The report is from Hertsmere Borough Council, which purchased the studios in 1996 “in a very dilapidated state”.

It said the money was needed to replace “life-expired buildings”, but that the council also could not “afford to continually invest” in the complex, where The Crown, Star Wars and Indiana Jones films were all shot.

The council has spent £22m to date on improvements, including on asbestos remediation and building the George Lucas stage in 1999.  The site’s market value is estimated as ranging from £40m to £100m, depending on future use.

“Due to the age of Studios, much of it built in early 1900s, the site demands significant investment in its major infrastructure such as roofs, flooring, replacement of windows, replacement of electrical wiring and mechanical plant replacements,” said the report. ”The list is exhaustive and the recent asbestos findings along with remediation works, has brought matters to a head.”’

 

I confess, I have some problems with the above.  There are several things here that are, shall we say, confusing.  Firstly, as can be seen by reading the history at the top of this page, the studios as they exist today do not date back to the early 1900s.  Stages 1 & 2 were built in 1999, 3 & 4 opened in 2022 and 5 and 6 are in a building constructed in the 1980s.  None of these is likely to need significant structural repairs.  It is only the block containing 7, 8 and 9 that is reported to have serious problems.

However, whoever compiled the report had clearly found things that concerned them.

So I had a quick look at Hertsmere Council’s minutes and it appeared that things may not have been quite as bad for the studios’ future as they at first seemed.  Following the discovery of the asbestos and then the dangerous roofs, the council was understandably concerned that the costs of repair might be too much for them to bear.  However, they clearly intended the studios to continue in use – albeit without 7, 8 & 9 for the time being.  In the meantime they restructured the board as follows:

 

On and from 1 August 2023 the  membership  of the Board of Directors of Elstree Film Studios Limited (Company number 04975020) shall comprise of :

–       five non-executive  directors who shall be elected members of Hertsmere Borough Council;

–       four  independent  non-executive directors with industry experience appointed by the Council on the recommendations of the Hertsmere Shareholders & Investment Committee and the Cabinet; and

–       one executive director appointed by Elstree Film Studios Limited.

 

Then on October 4th came a statement with some positive news at last.  Hertsmere Council met on September 20th and agreed to pay for the demolition of stages 7, 8 and 9 – replacing them with three new stages.  They will also carry out much needed improvements to other parts of the site.  In a press release, Jeremy Newmark, leader of the council said:

“Elstree Studios continues to thrive and the award-winning Platinum Stages, which opened last year, clearly show that we’re committed to continued investment in this valuable asset for our borough and our residents.

“Whilst the financial outlay to the council will be significant, this initiative is key to ensuring the site remains competitive and aligned with emerging trends in the film and television industry. Elstree Studios also contributes to our revenue budget, which benefits residents across the borough.

“We acknowledge that the building works following the discovery of asbestos and subsequent issues with RAAC have had an impact on the studio’s clients. We are doing all we can to mitigate those impacts.”

 

So to summarise – in July the council issued a report that was extremely damning and seemed to suggest that keeping the studios on is unaffordable.  Then, following a full council meeting behind closed doors on September 20th they appeared to contradict the previous report and fully endorsed keeping the studios on, agreeing to spend an undisclosed sum on rebuilding the three stages and upgrading the rest of the site. 

I think it’s fair to say that the council is widely split in its support for the studios.  Those attending a public meeting on 12th July noted the difference in opinion from various councillors which they described as being ‘poles apart.’  Interestingly, this is not a party political matter.  The previous Conservative administration was led by Morris Bright MBE, who was and remains very supportive of the studios and the new Labour/Lib Dem council is led by Jeremy Newmark, who is just as enthusiastic.  Fortunately, those councillors for the studios appear to outnumber those against.

 

 

I have been informed that the plan is to dismantle the stages, leaving the steel frame and grids in place.  This will then be faced using steel panels with acoustic treatment with a new roof built on top – basically the construction technique used on new stages today.  That seems to be a sensible way to proceed, although it is a shame that stages 8 and 9 could not be made a little larger.  Or maybe they can?  Let’s see what transpires.

More interestingly, following questions from me about the replacement stages/studios on a thread on a public Facebook page, Jeremy Newmark wrote ‘We are intending on equipping at least two of them as full multi-camera TV studios with further investment in the adjacent structures to provide expanded permanent gallery space.’ He also wrote ‘Now that the council is under a new Labour/Lib Dem leadership we will only be making promises we intend to keep.’

I assume that Studioworks will be involved in the planning of these new studios, as they were with the building of the new TV studio at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow that opened in 2022.  I am hoping that Studioworks will confirm their involvement soon and provide more details about the new studios.  This is all excellent news of course.  It is sad to see the old stages go but hopefully the new studios will be more fit for purpose.

 

In December 2023 Hertsmere council’s planning department agreed to allow demolition of the three stages.  Due to the possibility of asbestos contaminating nearby properties and the rest of the studios, there were several restrictions placed on this process.  Within the methodology statement is the note that the steel frame and grids will be retained, as was previously rumoured.   (Thanks to Adam Fowler for pointing this out to me.)  The demolition commenced on January 29th 2024 and will last until August.  One assumes that during this time, discussions will be taking place between the studios’ management and BBC Studioworks, who will occupy the new studios when they are built.  My guess is that the design process will take several months, followed by arranging the funding and then the construction itself so I doubt if the new studios will be available before 2026.

In the meantime, Studioworks are renting GL stage 1, with the old portacabin control rooms from stage 9 having been craned over to the area next to it.  They have also purchased rigging gear – trusses, motors etc – to speed up rigging time and reduce costs in the George Lucas stages.

Bizarrely, in January 2024 the BBC Studioworks website was still advertising stages 8 and 9 as being available to book!

 

The old stage 9 galleries, now located outside GL stage 1.  A semi-permanent job has been done.  I gather this arrangement is likely to last from January 2024 for two years.  Perhaps the new stages 7, 8 and 9 will be open by then???