A blockbuster sequel for fabled film factory

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Elstree Studios, birthplace of some of the best-known films in cinema history, is to make blockbuster movies again after an 11th-hour settlement to a bitter eight-year wrangle.

The studios, in Hertfordshire, could now make the next three Star Wars films after the local authority bought them from the debt-ridden property developer Brent Walker.

Hertsmere Borough Council has paid an undisclosed sum for the right to lease the 15.5- acre site and its three studio buildings to Hollywood's biggest movie- makers, including Lucas films, the Star Wars producers.

The deal, arranged on Tuesday night, means Brent Walker will not have to face a High Court case due to start on 4 March. The company was being sued for failing to honour a planning agreement to rebuild the studios and keep them for television and film production for at least 25 years.

Philip Copland, of Hertsmere council, said: "This opens the way to hold meaningful discussions with interested parties and we anticipate considerable interest from the film industry."

Brent Walker had refused to sell the site for less than pounds 8.5m, even though an independent assessor valued it at just pounds 1m. The company insisted there was not enough work to justify Elstree, but at least three American studios are interested in making films there.

In 1990, Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman were turned out without explanation before they had completed Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. And the company behind the television series Kavanagh QC, starring John Thaw, was refused a six-month contract.

At their height the studios were known as "The British Hollywood". The Dambusters, Murder on the Orient Express, The Saint and The Avengers were made at Elstree, as were the three Indiana Jones films.

But now tinned peas are stacked up near the spot where Harrison Ford was pursued by a boulder in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A Tesco supermarket recently opened on a 12-acre site at the studios, and the place where Richard Todd bombed Germany in The Dambusters is now marked by a car park.

Brent Walker had sold the land for about pounds 19m, but 15.5 acres remained, leaving film buffs with a permanent record of some of the cinema's greatest moments, including Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail, the first "talkie" made in Britain.

The announcement coincides with the 70th anniversary of the famous film centre and the centenary of British cinema.

The chairman of the Save Our Studios campaign, Paul Welsh, said yesterday: "It is amazing news. The greatest satisfaction is that Elstree can now re-open - it can have a long-term future."