Court bid to bring back Elstree's golden days

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It would take all the film industry's powers of illusion to evoke the glamorous heyday of Elstree studios from the disused buildings and rubble that are its legacy.

The site's desolate appearance today belies the fact that this corner of north-west London was once the workplace of some of cinema's famous names, including Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant and Bette Davis.

Though the glory days are gone, memories of Elstree's past triumphs explain why a court battle over its future is arousing strong emotions in local people, the movie business and film-lovers everywhere.

Brent Walker, the site's owner, says no one wants to shoot at the studio any more and plans to sell the 15-acre site for retail development. That opinion, hotly disputed by many within the film industry, is also opposed by Hertsmere council, with whom the company signed an agreement binding it to use Elstree for film and television work only.

Hertsmere has secured an injunction to stop Brent Walker demolishing the studios before the case is heard in full next year.

Meanwhile, the council is trying to render the legal process unnecessary by finding a buyer who wants the studios for filming. Negotiations are under way with two groups, one a

consortium which includes SelecTV, makers of the Birds of a Feather; the other has not been identified.

Elstree's decline began in the early Seventies when its owners, EMI, announced considerable losses and withdrew investment. Location filming subsequently increased and film companies sub-contracted technical services to save money. Years of uncertainty followed, until in 1989, close to the peak of the property boom, Brent Walker bought the studios for pounds 32.5m.

At that time, the group owned several post-production companies through its involvement with the film industry, and planned to invest heavily in the complex. But the project was thwarted soon afterwards when Brent Walker hit financial trouble as a result of over-expansion during the Eighties. The studio continued to operate, but lost pounds 1.5m in three years, and the doors finally closed in September. By then, Brent Walker had persuaded the council to allow the demolition of the huge Star Wars stage so half the site could be sold to Tesco - on condition that the money was used to redevelop the rest of the site and build a replacement studio.

The work was never carried out, although the company did contribute pounds 1.5m towards local road and environmental improvements.

Mike Canniford, Brent Walker's property director, says the firm's pounds 1.3bn debts make past commitments an irrelevance. He argues the studios have been on the market for three years without a buyer, indicating a lack of interest among film-makers.

Movie industry insiders contest that, saying Brent Walker's pounds 10m price is unrealistically high. They complain that the studios were allowed to become unviable, with equipment being stripped and say that at least one television series was turned away.

However, Mr Canniford says: 'It's easy to say a lot of people would be interested if we gave Elstree away. We are prepared to be realistic about the price, but we have a duty to our shareholders and bankers.

His attitude does not impress Paul Welsh, chairman of Save Our Studios, a pressure group lobbying to save the studios, who believes film-makers would welcome the chance to return to a revamped Elstree. 'I had a meeting with Spielberg and he told me he enjoyed working at Elstree. It is small and concentrated, unlike the Universal studios, and he doesn't have to drive across the lot.

Mr Welsh hopes the court will force Brent Walker to forfeit a pounds 10m bond for failing to carry out the promised redevelopment including building five new studios and a cinema - an amenity, ironically, the area lacks - and fully supports Hertsmere's efforts in taking legal action.

The council is responding to public pressure in fighting the case, but a vibrant Elstree would have obvious economic benefits through direct job creation and increased business for local firms.

The authority believes the company has no right to expect favourable treatment over a breach of planning regulations. Gill Gowing, head of planning, explained: 'Why should our approach to Brent Walker be any different than to a home-owner who has built an extension without permission?

'Brent Walker bought the site at the peak of the property market, but that's no justification for not enforcing the legal agreement. There are many residents in Hertsmere who face negative equity on their homes.

One way forward could be a compromise substituting a smaller studio development for the original scheme.

Councillors are unlikely to support a project that sold more of the site for retail or office space. There is all-party agreement within the hung authority that Elstree should be saved, and a sense that the loss of half the site has not brought this any closer.

Meanwhile, the film industry has again turned its attention to Britain. The pound's weakness against the dollar has attracted directors anxious to make the most of their budgets, and there is now a shortage of studio space around London.

Sylvester Stallone's latest film, Judge Dredd, is keeping Shepperton busy - ironically, the studio bought the dismantled Star Wars stage from Elstree - while attempts to shoot the new James Bond film at Pinewood have been thwarted because the stage is fully booked.

Sydney Samuelson, the British film commissioner, believes Elstree's fortunes could be rapidly revived under a management which understands the vagaries of the industry. 'All British studios are full, and there is a profound need for studio space, which I expect to remain for the foreseeable future. The three studios at Elstree could be quickly brought into use. At about 6,000sq ft they are quite small, but there's room to build a big sound stage, and that would be viable immediately.

Mr Samuelson is confident that despite the fickle, cyclical nature of film-making, demand for studio space will continue to increase because of the proliferation of television stations.

'There are more terrestrial and satellite broadcasts, and a tremendous shortage of product. They can't show re-runs for ever. Brent Walker aren't film and television people, they are property people. You have to live the business and have first-class management, as they do at Pinewood and Shepperton. That's why they are so successful.

'With good management and the will to succeed, the moment is right for Elstree and it has a bright future.

STUDIOS FACT FILE

The Brent Walker site known as Elstree Studios began life in 1926 as the British National Studios, later owned by Thorn-EMI. It is not in Elstree at all, but in neighbouring Borehamwood. It became known as the British Hollywood because of its six separate studio complexes in a single location. Alfred Hitchcock directed Blackmail, the first British talkie there in 1929, and Ronald Reagan also filmed at the complex, starring in The Hasty Heart in 1948. In those days Elstree had a permanent staff of 600 people, but today only one studio - the BBC complex which makes EastEnders and is the base for Newsroom South East, continues to function.

(Photographs omitted)

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