The Saint shows devotion for Elstree with plea for rescuer

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The Independent Online

For 80 years they played host to Hollywood's biggest stars, producing a string of big and small-screen classics from a leafy corner of north London.

Now Elstree Film Studios are up for sale - but in need of a major cash injection to help them to recapture their glory days.

Yesterday, the actor Sir Roger Moore, who filmed 118 episodes of The Saint at the studios in the 1960s, made a plea for a sympathetic buyer for what he described as "an important part of the British film and TV industry".

The studios, whose hits include Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail, The Dambusters, the Indiana Jones trilogy, and Star Wars, were put up for sale by Hertsmere Borough Council, which bought them in 1996. According to the council, a serious injection of cash is needed to keep the studios going in the long-term.

Sir Roger said: "Hertsmere Council extended it a lifeline when it needed it most, and invested heavily. Now that they are seeking to pass on the ownership, I hope that an equally passionate and caring owner can be found; and help take the studio into one of the most exciting periods of film and new media production."

By the time Hertsmere council got Elstree, had passed through many owners, including Warner Brothers, EMI and Brent Walker, although the studios remained in demand, hosting the making of television shows including The Avengers, Last of the Summer Wine, The Fast Show, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Hertsmere has put in £12m but the council said that it recognised that if the studios were to survive as a major film and television facility, "significant [further] investment may be required".

Potential buyers include a group of businessmen led by the young entrepreneur and developer Madush Gupta, who want to put £20m into the site and create a major film school alongside working studios. Central St Martins, the leading art school, would be invited to run its film classes from there.

According to Mr Gupta, working through a company called Elstree NewCo, his team are just the sort of owners that Sir Roger would want. "The place is alive with stories and storytellers and should stay that way for future generations," he said.

Hertsmere council's executive will meet tomorrow, where it should reduce the six shortlisted bidders - which include Elstree NewCo - down to the final two.

Mr Gupta, 33, said: "Our scheme resurrects the studio of the past. The very substantial investment that is required has not happened."

His company said that Central St Martins is "very interested" to putting its film courses at Elstree but, as he has not yet secured the site, they cannot be signed up. The film school at the University of California at Los Angeles has also been sounded out. NewCo would also put a conferencing facility and a "digital village" on the site, as well as accommodation for the students at the film school.

The British film industry has been hard hit by the removal of tax breaks last year, putting a question-mark over the future of movie-making in the UK. Mr Gupta said that Elstree needed to expand to attract larger-budget films and he would add two sound stages to the existing eight. "There are low-key plans on offer from everybody else. We offer a very vibrant, creative, future for the studios," he said.

He also believes that the studios, set just north of London, must be saved from other potential buyers who would not invest in the film facilities or who simply want to put an industrial estate or housing on the site.

While the council has stated that it will only consider bids from those that want film and television to continue to be made at Elstree, it is understood that some of the potential buyers have asked Hertsmere to lift this condition.

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