Elstree Studios is one of those iconic film names that sends a shiver down my spine.
Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Indiana Jones trilogy were some of the big blockbuster movies that were made here.
Today it’s also home to major TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother and Dancing on Ice as well as being the production base for films like Sherlock Holmes and The King’s Speech.
This ‘Hollywood in Hertfordshire’ is a success story with its huge sound stages and state-of-the-art production facilities.
Over the decades, Elstree has been the studio of choice for many famous directors including Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Danny Boyle.
Last year, I found myself working in Elstree so decided to take a look at the studios during my lunch break.
From the outside the buildings are surprisingly dull and the whole complex looks more like a factory on an out-of-town industrial estate. There’s little hint of the excitement and magic that takes place beyond its walls and hedges.
I had a chat with a friendly security man who told me the disappointing news that there are no public tours of the studios. Elstree is a working studio and says it has to respect the privacy of productions based there.
Security is extremely tight so the nearest you’ll get to seeing any movie action or famous stars is a quick glimpse of the VIP cars arriving at the front gate.
If you could peek inside the studios, you’d be able to see the amazing George Lucas stages, two of the tallest in Europe which provide great spaces for filming big, blockbuster movies.
Also beyond these walls are seven more film and TV sound stages which can be turned into everything from a desert oasis to a space station or tropical forest.
I was astounded to discover that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was shot at Elstree, with all interior scenes at The Overlook Hotel filmed on its sound stages. There is something so American about this psychological thriller that it’s incredible to think that the bulk of the action was shot in Borehamwood!
No wonder security is tight. Some of the world’s biggest pop stars such as Take That, Kylie Minogue, Rihanna and One Direction use Elstree for their tour rehearsals. It has giant-sized facilities where they can test out their big arena stage shows.
Elstree’s studio village has production offices, rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, wardrobe and make up areas, and post productions facilities. There’s even a a 28 seat preview theatre for the likes of Spielberg, Lucas or whichever big name director is in town.
Take the tour
With no access to any film production areas, Elstree is a closed set for film fans and tourists but there is another way of discovering Elstree’s rich movie history.
The ‘Made in Elstree’ Film and TV Heritage Trail picks out highlights from the studio’s 100 year history, starting with an introductory plaque outside Elstree and Borehamwood railway station.
There’s not a huge amount to see on the ground but at least you get a sense of the history of Elstree as you walk from plaque to plaque.
My knowledge of early Elstree was very hazy so the information boards helped fill the gaps. I learned that the Neptune Film Company opened the first studios in Borehamwood in 1914 with a single small windowless stage which was the first “dark stage” in England.
Neptune Studios was built during the silent movie era on a site where the BBC Elstree Centre now stands. After a series of film companies took over the studios in the 1920s, a young British film producer called Herbert Wilcox and a Hollywood producer named J.D Williams decided to build a new motion picture studio.
Building commenced on the new Elstree Studios in 1925 and the rest is history. The first feature film to be completed was Madame Pompadour starring silent star Dorothy Gish.
Other fascinating facts about early Elstree…
- Alfred Hitchcock directed Blackmail at Elstree, credited as being the first British talking film.
- During the 1930s Elstree Studios launched the screen careers of stars like Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Googie Withers, Ray Milland and Stewart Granger.
- In 1953, the studios were bought by actor Douglas Fairbanks Junior, mainly for his TV productions but were sold to Lew Grade’s ATV just five years later.
- In the 1960s, Elstree Studios was used for many television programmes including The Saint and The Avengers.
Today, the original studios are the BBC Elstree Centre, used for TV drama productions including Eastenders, Holby City and Doctors. Neptune House stands on part of the old site.
You can’t visit BBC Elstree on a studio tour but you can see its TV production buildings from the outside (behind a large fence) on Clarendon Road off Borehamwood’s high street.
The security is pretty hot so, once again, your only chance of spotting a celebrity is when they arrive and leave for their production shift.
The main Elstree Studios complex is 1/4 mile up the road and covers a much bigger site, much of which was redeveloped and modernised in the 1990s.
Go on a virtual tour of BBC Elstree with the Elstree Project in this behind the scenes video feature.
‘Made in Elstree’ heritage walk
Back on the Borehamwood high streeet, follow the heritage plaques which chronicle the studio’s illustrious history and its most popular film directors and stars.
There’s a plaque celebrating one of my favourites – film director Bryan Forbes – who was also Head of Production at Elstree Studios from 1998-1971.
Soap fans will enjoy looking out for the plaque charting the career of Barbara Windsor who films Eastenders at Elstree – if you’re lucky you may even see her shopping on the high street.
Sadly, I was out of luck but others told me that soap stars are regularly spotted coming out of the station or walking down the main shopping street.
Several of Babs Windsor’s 196os and 1970s films including Too Hot to Handle and Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend were also shot at Elstree Studios. The latter is one of my favourite musicals.
Watch a video feature about the history of Elstree on the BBC website – Elstree Studios at 100
Elstree’s musicals are also covered with a plaque celebrating Sir Cliff Richard’s work at the studios. The pop star made two of his most famous films – Summer Holiday and The Young Ones – at Elstree in the 1960s.
Sir Cliff remembers his time at Elstree with great fondness and it’s interesting to read that the films he worked on here were “a joy to make”.
Also look out for the celebratory ‘Made in Elstree’ banners erected along Shenley Road in the town as you walk along the high street.
Another way of finding out more about Elstree’s cinematic history is to drop into the Elstree and Borehamwood Museum which is preserving and sharing the legacy of 100 years of film and television.
There’s a small permanent exhibition which enables visitors to choose from a menu of videos and slide shows as part of the Elstree Screen Project.
It’s brilliant that the legacy of Elstree is being protected for the next generation but I wish that there was a larger-scale attraction celebrating this important part of British film history.
The walking tour and heritage plaques are fine but they tell only a small part of the story. They are interesting but don’t go far enough.
So is Elstree worth a visit for its film history? I’m not sure it’s interesting enough to make the trip out of London to be honest, unless you’re a real film buff like me.
There’s also a problem that I couldn’t find a leaflet or an online map of the heritage walk. So I’d advise you to try to get one before setting off, otherwise it’s tricky to work out where you’re going!
Perhaps one day Borehamwood’s ‘British Hollywood’ will have a truly stunning tourist attraction which recreates the whole immersive experience of making films at Elstree. I have a vision of a British Disneyland with fun activities, film sets and interactive history displays.
Until then, we can but raise a glass of fizz to celebrate Elstree’s 100 incredible years.
Tammy’s guide to Elstree
Located 20 minutes from the heart of London, Elstree Studios are situated on the outskirts of Elstree and Borehamwood. It is 20 minutes by rail from St Pancras station in London. Trains arrive at Elstree and Borehamwood train station.
It’s a 10 minute walk from the station to the main Elstree Studios film complex at the top end of Shenley Road in Borehamwood.
The ‘Made in Elstree’ film and TV heritage walk starts from the railway station and runs along the main high street up towards the current Elstree Studios complex.
Read the full history of Elstree Studios on the official website.