FILM / Rushes

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The Independent Culture
The death of the Elstree film studios has been a long time coming. Officially named in 1926, 12 years after the first studio set up in the Hertfordshire countryside, Elstree's honourable history has included the first British talkie (Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail) and a Thirties heyday which saw nine functioning film sets and over 250 features.

The Fifties witnessed the US studio system beginning to crumble and the stars shooting abroad - an arrangement which suited Elstree, happy to play host to the likes of Gable, Taylor, Tracy and Flynn as home-grown projects dried up because of lack of government support and audience interest. The Sixties were bumpier. By then it was clear than Elstree was becoming reliant on overseas investment to keep its 27 acres occupied and profit margins afloat.

After a welcome hot streak during the Seventies and Eighties - Superman, Star Wars, Murder on the Orient Express, the Indiana Jones trilogy were all shot there - the big American money pulled out at the end of the decade in an effort to reduce rising costs and give disgruntled, increasingly vocal unions back home gainful employment.

Ever since, received wisdom has insisted that the ailing patient would linger for a time, concentrating on television productions, and then be put out of its misery, despite owner Brent Walker's undertaking to Hertsmere council to keep the studios operating and viable for another 25 years.

The misery officially ended on Tuesday with a blunt statement that the demise of the British film industry meant, 'Brent Walker can on longer continue to subsidise studios for which there is demonstrably no demand.'

The amount of subsidy is considerable - in the region of pounds 750,000 a year, a sum which has undoubtedly contributed to keeping wannabe saviours at bay. Indeed, the small production companies clustered at Elstree have been informed their leases will not be renewed.

Rumours abound that financially straightened Brent Walker, hoping to recoup costs, wants to build either a supermarket or a mall on the Elstree site. A Tesco already hogs the 12 acres Brent Walker was allowed to develop as part of its original planning permission. The company may also have to find pounds 10m in redevelopment tribute to a council embarrassed to see its original pact so publicly flouted.

Could Elstree have been rescued? Paul Welsh, of the Save Our Studios campaign, believes Brent Walker's lack of aggressive advertising of the studios' services contributed to the downward spiral. Yet it's hard to see how an ad budget, however lavish, could have helped Elstree avoid a fate predicted by pundits for the better part of three years, despite recent hyperbolic talk of the resurrection of British film heralded by the unexpected successes of The Crying Game, Howards End and Enchanted April.

Andrew Patrick, chief executive of the British Film Commission, begs to differ. The commission's figures show that Elstree's sisters, Pinewood and Shepperton, are both booked almost solid with international productions for the next six months, as a positive exchange rate lures back old partners high on cost-effectiveness. Three big- budget projects are poised to roll and there are more in the pipeline. Patrick argues that if Elstree hadn't been run down over the last six years, ruling itself out of serious consideration, the facility would have been ideally positioned to take advantage of what the commission hopes is a sustained recovery rather than a temporary blip.

'That's the great sadness. Elstree ceased to be a major some time ago. If the closure actually does happen, it'll be something of a symbolic burial. Another part of our film heritage that was left to wither away. I think things could have been different.'

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