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London's film studios...

(...that have been used to make TV)

 

When is a film studio a television studio?  Or vice versa?  I have separated out the 'film studios' onto this page as my independent studios page was becoming far too large.  However, it's not all that simple in some cases deciding where each studio should belong.  Pinewood is arguably the UK's premier film studio - but it also has two of the best equipped large TV studios on its site.  Nevertheless, its primary function is film so it's here.  Similarly, Elstree Studios now have several very well equipped multicamera TV studios.  But their history is in film - so they are here too.

Of course, 'film' hardly exists any more as an originating medium - more than half of all features shot in the UK use digital video cameras - often the same cameras that are used to shoot TV dramas.  The lines are thus becoming even more blurred.

So - by a 'film studio' I mean a site with several sound stages - most of which are simple 4-wallers.  These can be used to shoot feature films or TV dramas, single camera TV comedies, ads, pop promos, and so on.  They can also be used to make multicamera TV shows too - using a temporary flat floor and an OB unit for facilities.

Anyway, if you can't find the studio you're looking for on this page it may be on the Independent TV Studios page.

 

 

As well as the major studios listed below, London also has a number of other 'film and TV' studios dotted about that are available for hire.  Most of these are relatively small and almost all are a conversion of an industrial building - usually with a smart client room/green room and a few rooms for wardrobe/make-up.  They often have a simple scaffold grid, pre-lit semi permanent green screens or white cycs and sometimes a local stock of lights or even a camera or two for hire.  Their stages provide a very useful facility to people making commercials, pop promos or who need to shoot a simple interview or talking head.  Here are some examples:

 

Broadley Studio - 1 stage of 670 sq ft (used for Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe amongst other things)

Camberwell Studios - 2 stages of 1,300 sq ft and 400 sq ft

Centrestage Studios - 2 purpose built stages of 2,500 sq ft and 1,500 sq ft with permanent white and green cycs.  Constructed recently after former studios in Euston were redeveloped.

Filmscape Studios - a single 2,500 sq ft stage with white cyc

Halliford Film Studios - (opened in 1955 for the shooting of commercials) - 2 stages of 3,600 sq ft and 2,400 sq ft with permanent cycs

Magic Eye Studios - now closed but used to have 4 or 5 stages up to about 2,500 sq ft.  Perhaps surprisingly, the largest stage was used for an early series of The Weakest Link using an OB truck.

Mount Pleasant Studio - a single pre-lit stage of 1,270 sq ft.

Silver Road studios - 4 stages from 920 sq ft - 190 sq ft (an equipped TV production gallery is also available plus SD cameras.)

SLV - 2 stages of 850sq ft and 290 sq ft.

Waterloo Film studios (opened in 1993) - 4 stages ranging from 2,100 sq ft - 200 sq ft.

 

 

However, I am concentrating here on those film studios that have a history of making network television programmes - drama, comedy or entertainment.

It is also worth noting that due to the current shortage of suitable stages, many TV dramas and even some features are being shot in old deserted factories and warehouses.  These include places like the Gillette Building in Isleworth where the new 24: Live Another Day series is being made, the Peak Freans factory in Bermondsey, where Spooks and Hustle were shot, the old Tate and Lyle building in Greenwich, where The Smoke was filmed and Neasden Studios (an ex-carpet warehouse) where Mr Selfridge was shot.

 

 

Film studios listed below in the order they originally opened:

 

Walton Studios (Hepworth, Nettlefold, Sapphire)

Ealing Studios (Will Barker, Ealing Studios, BBC, BBRK, NFTS, Ealing Studios)

Twickenham

Southall

Elstree (British National, BIP, ABPC, EMI, EMI-MGM,Thorn-EMI, Cannon, Goldcrest, Elstree Film and TV, Elstree Studios)

Shepperton (Sound City, British Lion, Lion International, Lee International, Scott brothers, Pinewood-Shepperton, Pinewood Studios Group)  includes Lion Television

Pinewood (Rank, Pinewood-Shepperton)

MGM-British, Borehamwood

Bray

Jacob Street Studios

3 Mills Studios (Bow Studios, 3 Mills Island, Edwin Shirley, Workspace, LDA, Olympic Park Legacy Co.)

Black Island / Duke's Island Studios

Leavesden

Studio 2000, Borehamwood (formerly Millennium Studios)

Chak89 Studios (formerly HDS Studios)

Longcross Film Studios

London Metropolitan Studios

 

 

 

NB - Film studios are almost always measured in feet, not metres.  They also hardly ever have footage markings on the studio walls.  That is because in the movie world a set is built on a stage in a position that is convenient to the scene crew.  When it is finished, the DP will look at the set and tell his gaffer where he wants each lamp to be rigged.  This will happen over the next few hours or even days.  In the TV world, the set is designed and a plan is sent to the lighting director before it is erected in the studio.  He or she will then design the lighting on paper or computer for that set, based on the designer's drawings.  This is called a lighting plot.  Following the LD's plot, the lights will be hung in specific positions in the studio - either on bars or from monopoles.  So the lights are rigged BEFORE the set is built.  It is essential therefore that the set is erected within a few centimetres of where it was drawn on the designer's plan or the lighting will not work.  There will be no time to re-rig and make adjustments if it is well off its marks.  This therefore never happens.  Yeah - I wish.

 

 

 

Walton Studios - film studios with a huge influence on the early years of British television

1899 - 1962

When I started this website I only included multicamera TV studios - and the larger ones at that.  I have since added film studios that have made multicamera TV programmes on their stages and more recently, film studios where single camera TV comedy and drama has been made.  However, back in 2006 I was persuaded to include Walton Studios by Mitch Mitchell, an early contributor to this site.  He is a great fan of old TV dramas and in the nicest possible way he put some pressure on me to include a reference to Walton Studios.  Since he did take the trouble to write to me with huge amounts of useful info on all kinds of other studios - I felt obliged to acquiesce....

 

The studios were in Walton-on-Thames, not far from Shepperton.  They started life back in 1899, when Cecil Hepworth leased a house called The Rosary in Hurst Grove for £36 a year and built an 18 x 15ft 'stage' in the back garden.  Hepworth was an inventor of exhibition and photographic equipment who had decided that he wanted to try his hand at film making.  He created a production company - Hepwix - together with his cousin Monty Wicks and began by making 'actualities', or local newsreels.  He then moved on to making films using trick photography in his tiny studio.  By 1905 Hepworth had added a new larger stage - indoors at first floor level but still utilising natural light - much of the walls and ceiling were made of frosted glass.  Thus Hepworth Studios were created.

He seems to have been a man full of imagination - as well as probably filming the first slow-motion footage, he also devised a system of mounting a camera dolly on a short length of railway-type track - thus probably creating the first tracking shots in cinema. 

Unlike other studios, production continued at the studio through the First World War, both by making propaganda films and by renting to visiting companies.

Many films were made by the Hepworth company and several actors became stars as a result.  Perhaps the best remembered today is Ronald Colman.

However, following the Great War, British film companies were all struggling to survive and in 1923, despite some critical successes, both Cecil Hepworth and his film company were declared bankrupt.  By then there were two stages and the studios were very well equipped.  However, the receiver was a man who knew nothing of the value of all this and it was all sold off at a pittance - the library of old films made by Hepworth melted down to make dope for aircraft wings.

In 1926 the studios were purchased by Archibald Nettlefold, a theatrical producer and recreational farmer who was part of a family of industrialists from Birmingham.  Now there's a combination.  (His surname was in fact the 'N' in the engineering company 'GKN.') 

The newly renamed Nettlefold Studios made a few comedy silents which were not hugely successful and were one of the last studios to convert to sound in 1930.  However, they quickly caught up and in 1932 were the first studio in Britain with the new 'high fidelity' sound system.  Nettlefold acquired further land at the rear of the studios and expanded Hepworth's original site, enjoying a fruitful relationship with Butcher's Films.

The next few years saw Nettlefold Studios concentrate on making quota quickies.  These were paid for by the big US film companies at the rate of £1 per foot so they had to be made very cheaply and quickly. 

Like most film studios around London, Nettlefold was commandeered by the government for the duration of the Second World War.  Initially this was for storage but following a direct hit to their factory at Kingston-upon-Thames only five miles away, the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft company moved here and built two new 'hangars'.

It is not clear what happened to Nettlefold himself but by 1947 the studios were owned by Ernest G. Roy and had three stages, including the two new aircraft hangers.  A modest string of films was produced but the studios lacked the driving force of Nettlefold.  However, one or two films have survived in popular memory - Tom Brown's Schooldays ('51), Alastair Sim's version of Scrooge ('51) and The Pickwick Papers ('52).  By the mid 1950s they had succumbed to the overall decline that saw many studios go under.  However, rather than close - their saviour was the newly emerging world of commercial television.

Walton Studios in 1956.  According to the British Film and Television year book, in this year they had 'four large stages with further extensions planned for 1957'.  A couple of years earlier (according to the Kinematograph Year Book) - in 1954 Nettlefold had stage A (120 x 85ft), stage B (82 x 52ft) and stage C (110 x 60ft.) 

John New has contacted me.  He began working at Walton as an apprentice carpenter in 1958.  He tells me that the large stage in the centre of this photo is stage A.  Stage B is to the top right, stage C is to its left and the white stage is D, which was 123 x 56ft.  There was also a small stage E, to the top right of the A stage.  This may have been part of the 'further extensions' mentioned above.  Also, in 1959/60 an RCA dubbing stage was built to the left of the A stage.  This was where the Robin Hood castle had previously stood on the small back lot.

When the studios closed in 1962, stage 4 was moved from here to Shepperton, where it became the I stage.  The new dubbing stage is also said to have been moved to Shepperton.

There are several reports in books and on the Internet that one of the stages was moved from here to Bray in 1957 to become their stage 1.  This makes little sense - none of the stages here is the right size and the studios were going strong in 1957 so why sell a stage?  In fact, the confusion seems to have arisen because, as John New informs me, the A stage at Walton was dismantled in 1962 and sent to MGM Borehamwood where it became their stage 10.  Later, when those studios closed it moved again - this time to Bray, where it replaced their stage 1, which may have been damaged by fire.  So Bray received not two stages but one, which had previously been both at Walton and MGM.

 

 

Television saves the day...

In 1955 Sapphire Films began hiring studio space, eventually buying the studios and renaming them Walton Studios.  The company was owned by the powerful American producer Hannah Weinstein. 

In order to avoid the anti-Communist persecution and hysteria of McCarthyism sweeping the US in the early 1950s, Weinstein had moved her family to Europe in 1950 and established her own production company, Sapphire Films, in London in 1952.  She pre-sold the idea of a Robin Hood series to an American flour company with the same name (they would sponsor the series in America) but because her politics were known to be left-wing she was unable to make the series in the US. 

England was no problem of course and since the series was made here she also did a deal with Lew Grade's ITC company to sell initially 39 half hour episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Over the following four years no less than 143 episodes were made on 35mm film.  The series made a star of Richard Greene, and the opening musical sting and theme tune were sung by small boys in playgrounds all over the country for many years.  Dozens of well-known English actors performed in the programme - some playing more than one part over the years.

The scripts were of an unusually high quality because Weinstein made use of McCarthy-era blacklisted American screen writers, some working under assumed names.  Naturally, none of these was actually a member of the communist party, they just didn't agree with the extreme right wing politics sweeping America at the time.  Often stories contained themes exploring social justice - the subject matter was of course highly suited to that.  Ironically, the show became as popular in the US as it was in Britain, being shown on the CBS network weekly from 1955 to 1958.

Each episode took only four and a half days to shoot.  To make that many episodes so quickly involved revolutionary film-making techniques.  The most original was that the scenery was made in sections that could be re-arranged in any order and almost everything was on wheels.  It was said that they could change a set and be ready to shoot in six minutes.  The man responsible for devising this technique was Peter Proud, an art director with 28 years of film experience.

Setting and striking is normally very time-consuming but lighting a set can take even longer.  Proud's solution at Walton Studios was to have a pre-lit area and simply move the set into the light.  I imagine there was a bit more to it than simply that but - 'stone' walls, doorways, windows, pillars and a fireplace all mounted on hidden castors instantly became different rooms or corridors within a castle whilst bushes and lightweight canvas tree trunks were trucked about to form various parts of the forest.  There was one enormous hollow tree that appeared in almost every episode in a different place.  Viewers must have assumed that Sherwood Forest was riddled with hollow trees. 

There were sometimes a few exterior location shots and these were mostly done on Wisley Common and the Foxwarren Park Estate near Cobham which was owned by Hannah Weinstein.  They were often shot by a second unit, using stunt riders rather than the leads and rarely involving any dialogue.  The back lot at Walton Studios also had a castle set and a village set that were used extensively in series 1 and 2.  A larger castle set was later built in the grounds of Weinstein's estate for series 3 and 4.  This was also used for The Adventures of Sir Lancelot.

The Adventures of Robin Hood developed a visual style of its own and was hugely popular.  So much so that Lew Grade decided to make something very similar himself.  Thus at his newly acquired National Film Studios in Elstree, ITP (the production arm of ITC) began to make The Adventures of William Tell.  The two series were almost identical in style and were shown by ATV around the same time.  Most people would have assumed they were made by the same company but no.  Sapphire Films sold the Robin Hood programmes to ITC which was a subsidiary of ATV and responsible for the distribution of their programmes all over the world.

Sapphire made several more series employing the same excellent screen writers:  The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956), The Buccaneers (1956), Sword of Freedom (1957) and detective/spy series The Four Just Men (1959).  For many people of a certain generation these dramas made by Sapphire at Walton-on-Thames epitomise some of the best of British television from the late 50s/early '60s.  Incidentally, the last 14 episodes of Sir Lancelot were shot in colour for the American market, making this the first British colour TV series.  (The next was Stingray, made in Slough seven years later in 1963.)

Other TV dramas were also made at Walton around this time but not by Sapphire.  These included some or all episodes of Sailor of Fortune starring Lorne Greene in 1955-56 and some episodes of The Adventures of Aggie (others were made by HDF at Highbury) in 1956-57.

The studios continued to be used to make features too.  Popular films of the day included I Was Monty's Double ('58) and The Navy Lark ('59).

 

One would have thought that the success of this work would have guaranteed the longevity of the studios.  However, several things combined to bring it all to a close.  Apparently, Weinstein's new husband mortgaged the property and assets of the studios for the promise of a fortune in Florida.  The fortune never came and he did a runner.

Meanwhile, The Four Just Men was received with glowing reviews by critics in Britain and America.  However, the 39 episode series was not deemed suitable by the US networks and was only syndicated by local stations.  The income from US sales was therefore much less than had been anticipated.  As distributors, ITC did their best to sell it around the world and had some success.  Not enough to counter the lack of an American sponsor, however.  At the same time, ITC were said to be driving a very hard bargain with regard to the amount they would pay Sapphire for any further shows they might make.  The sums would simply not add up and the bank foreclosed.

 

On Monday 16th January, the studio staff arrived at work to be told that Walton Studios had gone into liquidation.  Much of the equipment went to Shepperton including the dubbing stage that had been built only a few years earlier.  Shepperton also received stage D from here which they called 'The Robin Hood Stage' and which became their I stage.  According to a report in the Kinematograph Weekly - December 13 1962 - Shepperton were 'proud to have received a stage from Walton' with the dimensions 125 x 55ft (or 123 x 56ft in another account).

The studio lot was sold to the local Council and became Hepworth Way and part of the 1960s Walton-on-Thames shopping centre (now itself demolished.)  The flats at Hepworth Way and the shopping centre apparently feature in the film Psychomania.  I am told that it was also the location for Monty Python's 'Can housewives tell the difference between...?' sketch.

In 1962 Weinstein returned to America, where she continued her political concerns.  The only remaining part of the studios is the old power house, which was converted into a theatre some years ago and is used by the local amateur drama group.

 

 

 

 

 

Ealing Studios

1907 - present

 

In 1902 Will Barker, a pioneer of British cinema, bought two houses on Ealing Green and the land that went with them.  He built his first stage at Ealing in 1907 - like most of that period it was made of glass in order to maximise the available light.  Two more glass stages were soon added along with workshops, prop stores and a laboratory.  He made many modestly successful films here which included a version of Hamlet.  This was particularly notable as it was filmed all in one day.  The sets were apparently stacked in front of each other and as each scene was completed the scenery was struck to reveal the next one.  I suppose they only had to pay the actors for one day's work.  Extraordinary.

Barker went into partnership with Bertie Samuelson to produce a film about Queen Victoria which was so successful that the latter went and established his own studios in Isleworth.  However, it is said that in later years he became so disillusioned with the job of producing films that he advised his sons to concentrate on working in the technical side of the industry - and indeed the name of Samuelson became associated with camera and lighting hire for many years.

Barker retired from the industry after the First World War and in 1920 Ealing Studios were sold to a company called General Film Renters who, unsurprisingly, rented the studios to whoever wanted to use them.  By 1930 Basil Dean's company Associated Talking Pictures had taken ownership and he decided to rebuild much of the site.  It is largely his redevelopment that still exists today.  He built 4 stages, opening in 1931 - the first in the UK built for sound.  Stages 2, 3A and 3B are still in use. 

Stage 1 was converted to offices many years ago but was originally 58 x 34ft.  Stage 2 is 125ft x 75ft wall to wall with a height to grid of 34ft.  Stages 3A and 3B are each 85 x 71ft with a height of 32ft.  There was also a 'model stage' which was 79 x 61ft.

In 1938 Michael Balcon joined the studios as Head of Production and the golden age of Ealing began.

The Studio became best known for its comedies such as The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets.  Some of the stars who became associated with Ealing were Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Peter Sellars, Gracie Fields and George Formby.  He made no less than 11 films here.

Unfortunately, the studios began to have diminishing success around 1955 and were in financial difficulties.  This coincided with the realisation at the BBC that they had run out of room at Lime Grove to keep the film department working efficiently.

Ealing in the 1930s.  The building with the curved roof is stage 2 and the other alongside contains stages 3A and 3B.  Although the site all around is being updated and redeveloped, the three stages remain today much as you see them here.

 

The BBC Years

By 1955 film was used at the BBC mostly for news and current affairs, with some location inserts for studio dramas and comedies.  Almost nothing was filmed on stages - as of course the BBC had no dedicated film stages at that time, all their studios were being used to make multicamera TV programmes.  They had 10 film camera crews and at Lime Grove there were 14 cutting rooms (editing suites as we would now call them) along with viewing theatres and dubbing suites but there simply was not enough space there.  So the BBC began looking for a suitable site for its rapidly expanding Film Department.

Dozens of buildings, some more suitable than others, were looked at such as theatres, cinemas, even closed-down ice rinks.  The Board of Management set aside £240,000 to purchase suitable premises as soon as something could be found.  They then heard a rumour that Ealing Studios were in financial trouble and began secret negotiations to purchase the property and all its equipment.  Of course, the studios were far bigger and better facilities than they were originally seeking but were in many ways ideal - not least being only 20 minutes from Lime Grove and the proposed Television Centre in White City.

On 15th September 1955 the Board of Governors gave the go-ahead and the purchase was completed on 27th January 1956.  Ealing Studios thus became BBC Television Film Studios (TFS).

The money set aside was insufficient and they actually paid £350,000 for the land and buildings.  However, they also had to find another £200,000 for the film library and all the technical equipment.  These were significant sums in those days.  There were serious concerns within the BBC at the huge costs involved and it was made very clear by the DG of the day that the BBC would not move in and refurb the whole site bringing it up to their normal high technical standards.  The intention at the time was not to replace any existing equipment unless absolutely necessary.  In fact, it was anticipated that the stages would be used mostly for storage and rehearsal space.  There was clearly a worry that money might be drained from programme making at Lime Grove, Television Theatre and Riverside Studios into a world of movie-making for television which might cost vastly more than shooting the equivalent programme live in a TV studio.

 

Fred Hamilton has written to me.  He was an assistant cameraman and worked with Peter Sargent to shoot some sequences for a drama called Jesus of Nazareth around the middle of 1956.  This was the first time one of the Ealing stages had been used by the BBC - they filmed on stage 3A.  A small set was built and they lit it with what was left of the old Ealing Studios kit.  The camera was a huge, heavy 35mm Vincent Visatone in an equally massive blimp.  In later years Fred went on to light the first series of Colditz at Ealing - more on this later.  In his autobiography 'Zoom In When You See The Tears' Fred also mentions that the exterior set from The Ladykillers was still on the back lot so they used it as a set for some BBC dramas.

 

The stages soon began to prove how useful they were for all sorts of work that was impractical to do live in a typical multicamera television studio.  According to a BBC document published in 1960, stage 2 was used for large or complicated sets, stage 3A was used for 'general filming' and stage 3B very simple filming such as interviews or for rehearsals.

In order to speed up lighting time on the stages the BBC installed overhead gantries and used rolling towers with lights mounted on them.  Despite only a few years earlier being determined not to spend any more money here, according to the 1960 document they proposed installing a complex system of catwalks over the stage floors at a relatively low height (16ft).  Some of these at one end of stage 2 would be capable of being raised to 20ft giving extra height if a cyclorama was in use. 

It seems unlikely that this lighting system was ever installed.  Fred Hamilton's autobiography describes how when some scenes for Quatermass and the Pit were filmed on stage 2 in 1958, the lighting gantries were raised to fit the set in.  Unfortunately, no money was made available to restore them to the previous height which he writes was a real problem in future years.  He describes the problems he had lighting some scenes for Dr Who.  These were sets that would have been impractical to build in the studio in Lime Grove where most of the episode was recorded.

 

John Barlow has sent me a story that amused me.  It seems that at some point during his tenure as Head of Film the Health and Safety Executive were involved in a dispute between BBC TFS and their neighbours.  Apparently, the washing of various local residents was becoming soiled when hung out to dry.  John found that he was in danger of something similar when it transpired that the soot was coming from the studio's diesel generators.  These were ancient DC gennies and were based on old ship turbines.  They had not been replaced with modern AC generators due to the original policy of spending as little as possible here.  However, replacement was clearly overdue.  Unfortunately, the machines were so old and heavy that in their removal the underground foul drains were damaged, resulting in an even bigger bill to be paid.  John says he retained a nut as a memento.  A nut?

 

In fact, the stages here were not used to make dramas for a number of years.  At least, not entire dramas.  They were however used to film scenes that would have been too difficult to achieve in a TV studio - involving special effects such as fire or water for example.  Stage 2 has a tank which proved very useful on several occasions.  As mentioned earlier, Quatermass and the Pit used a stage for some scenes and Dr Who was a regular user of Ealing for various scenes in the '60s and '70s although most of it was of course recorded on multicamera video at Lime Grove, Riverside or TV Centre.

By 1960 several big dramas had shot scenes here including Nelson and A Tale of Two Cities with the stages being used to film some interiors.  In 1965 no drama was made completely on film but by 1969 things had changed and nine plays were made on film (on location and/or using the Ealing stages).

A scene from an unknown drama being filmed during the BBC years.  Any idea which one???  Or on which stage?

 

Probably the first all-film television play was made in 1966 when Jonathan Miller made his acclaimed version of Alice In Wonderland, with the courtroom set being constructed on stage 2.  This was the largest set built to date on that stage.  Until Colditz that is...

One of the classic series shot at Ealing between 1972 and 1974 was indeed Colditz.  Most of the interiors were recorded on videotape at TV Centre but the castle courtyard was built on stage 2 and scenes were shot on 16mm film.  One of the largest sets ever constructed here, it was extremely accurate and realistic - including a cobbled floor.  Filming in the actual courtyard in East Germany was of course not practical but this set managed to convince many viewers that it was the real thing.

 

During the '70s and '80s the stages continued to be used for a mix of comedy and drama inserts into shows that had most of their running time recorded at TV Centre.  Porridge was a typical example between 1974 and 1977 - some of the larger prison sets were built here.  However, the number of dramas shot entirely on film gradually increased until by the beginning of the 1990s almost all drama was shot single camera - although some was now being shot using lightweight video cameras. 

Notable dramas using these stages included Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven ('78) and The Singing Detective ('86).  There was an interesting difference between these two remarkable series.  The Singing Detective was shot entirely on film - on location and on the stages at Ealing.  However, most of the running time of Pennies From Heaven was recorded in TC6 at TV Centre using the new Link 110 cameras.  These produced pictures that were completely different from the 16mm film sequences.  This difference in image quality as well as the obvious difference in shooting style between single camera and multicamera was something of a distraction on many plays, series and comedies of the period but it was accepted as being the norm by most viewers. 

 

By 1986 it had become the norm to shoot major drama series entirely on film and to be honest I think The Singing Detective was all the better for that.  Mixing film and video within the same programme for no artistic reason has always been a personal gripe of mine - I think the same medium should be used throughout.  I should perhaps mention that I worked as a lowly camera assistant on the TV Centre scenes of Pennies From Heaven.  I thought it looked absolutely superb but the film sequences jarred horribly with the studio sequences.  It should all have been shot one way or the other.

It was not surprising that most producers and directors preferred working with film.  There was the obvious glamour associated with the medium but it also allowed for far more freedom in locations, which of course writers loved.  If sets were needed they could be built on a stage at Ealing and the rest shot on real locations.  As well as major dramas like Fortunes of War ('87) and An Ungentlemanly Act ('92), Ealing was also used for popular series like Shoestring ('79, '80).

 

Cameras, film formats and single camera video used by the BBC

 

When the BBC first started using Ealing, the most popular film format was 35mm.  16mm was seen as an amateur format and the image quality was relatively poor - partly due to the quality of film emulsion in the 1950s but also due to poor image stability and the lack of suitable cameras and lenses.  16mm Auricon cameras were being used by the news department but the image quality was not considered good enough for drama.  However, 35mm was expensive and the equipment big and heavy so there was a desire to move to 16mm if at all possible.

Sound too was an issue.  However, by 1958 it was possible to use a 16mm Arriflex along with an EMI L2B tape recorder that at last produced acceptable sound and pictures.  Later popular cameras included the Eclair NPR and Arri's answer to it - the BL.  Forty of these were purchased in the 1960s and each cameraman was given his own camera rather than using a central pool.  Overnight all the previous issues of reliability and complaints about faults disappeared as each cameraman treasured his own piece of invaluable kit.

Around the beginning of the 1980s the super-16 format began to take over from standard 16mm.  This uses the same width of film but it has only one set of sprocket holes and the image fills all the available space.  This increases resolution and decreases grain producing excellent results.  These images have continued to improve with the ever increasing sophistication of film stock.  Indeed, the format has been used until relatively recently on a few TV dramas like Merlin and for some adverts but it is a dying medium.

 

In fact, film is hardly used for TV production at all any more.  It has been replaced by digital video cameras using large CCD chips and uncompressed data storage such as the Sony CineAlta, Red One and Arri Alexa.  These cameras produce images in many respects superior to 35mm film (some might disagree with this!) but their images are certainly better than the current HD television system can handle or transmit so they are futureproof.  They are the end of a chain of video cameras that started back in the mid 1970s with the Bosch Fernseh KCR-40 - a tubed lightweight camera that required a separate video recorder but was a revolution in video camera design compared with the huge studio cameras in use at the time.

The real groundbreaker was the Ikegami HL-79.  Released in 1979 it produced excellent pictures for its day and was not only used as the hand-held camera of choice in TV studios, it also began to be used as a location drama camera - often linked to a small van or OB truck in which might be a racks engineer with a 1 inch videotape recorder.  One of these vehicles was based at Ealing and was called the 'Location Production Unit.'  One of its successes was The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Interestingly, the BBC OB department also built a similar vehicle.  Somewhat controversially, so did the BBC Studios department, which built two - named 'Studio Insert Units'.  The SIUs were used for EastEnders and various sitcoms and were viewed in a somewhat hostile light by both Ealing and BBC OBs, who considered this kind of work to be their remit!

The cabled cameras and vans were replaced at Ealing by video cameras with built-in recorders during the 1980s - although these were not usually considered good enough for all dramas or comedy inserts which often still used 16mm film.  Six Ealing crews were issued with portable single cameras (PSC) in 1983 and began to try out this new (to them) medium.  Its limitations, particularly in contrast range compared with film were obvious but the cameramen involved soon learnt how to light for video and the PSC cameras began to be used on various programmes.  Once CCD lightweight cameras became available - particularly the Sony DVW-700 - then video was used far more by Ealing cameramen - although rarely for major dramas.

Now film is hardly ever used in TV - the latest generation of digital movie cameras producing far better pictures and with greater flexibilty than 16mm film.

 

 

The beginning of the 1990s saw many changes at the BBC brought about under John Birt's infamous reign as Director General.  Echoing the current management, he decided that the BBC had to leave a number of its properties and included in the list was Ealing.  The studios were sold in 1992 and the department moved to share the BBC's outside broadcast base in Acton - where there were of course no studios or stages.  Before the move there were around 60 BBC film dept. camera crews and dozens of scene crew, electricians and back-up office staff.  However, this arrangement did not last long and a year or two later the entire film department was closed down and everyone lost their jobs.  All the camera crews became freelance - and to be honest, most probably never looked back.

 

The 1990s

Ealing studios were acquired in 1992 by a company called BBRK - who were a scenery, lighting and special effects company.  They tried to revive the studios as a centre for film production.  Unfortunately, the business collapsed in October 1994.

The studios were purchased by the National Film and Television School, which was based at the old Beaconsfield film studios.  The intention was to convert the studios into a film school and to leave Beaconsfield.  However, the Lottery Commission decided that it would cost too much to convert Ealing and instead granted money to upgrade Beaconsfield.  The NFTS continued to own Ealing for a while and hired the facilities to independent production companies for film, TV and commercial work but this was an arrangement that could not last.  Nevertheless, some well-known films were made such as An Ideal Husband and parts of Notting Hill

In March 1999 the studios were put on the market yet again.

 

The present

In 2000 Ealing was bought by a consortium from Fragile Films, The Manhattan Loft Corporation and author/producer John Kao.  In 2001 they were granted planning permission to extensively redevelop the site as a film studio and base for media companies.  The original stages have been preserved but almost all the other buildings are being rebuilt to very high quality.

The first new film to be made under the 'Ealing Studios' name was The Importance of Being Earnest ('02) and several other successful movies have been made here including Shaun of the Dead ('04), Dorian Gray ('09), Burke and Hare ('10) and commercially most successful of all - the St Trinian's films ('07, '09).

The stages continue to be used for TV production - I worked there myself in 2003 lighting the 2 Pints of Lager musical special When Janet Met Johnny.  Most notably however, stages 3A and 3B are used to film the 'downstairs' kitchen scenes in Downton Abbey - there being no suitable locations available.  Stage 2 has also been used for Let's Dance For Comic Relief/Sport Relief from 2009 to 2011.  It is to my knowledge the only show ever made at Ealing using a multicamera OB unit.

 

 

 

 

Twickenham Studios (St Margaret's)

1912 - present

 

Dr Ralph Jupp owned a chain of cinemas during the 1900s which in later years were bought up by Gaumont-British.  Flushed with the success of this enterprise, in 1912 he acquired a skating rink and associated buildings in St. Margaret's, near Twickenham.  He turned the rink into what was at the time the biggest shooting stage in the UK (165 x 75ft) with the intention of filming movies to be shown in his cinemas.  He called the site 'St Margaret's Studios.'  His first feature - The House of Temperley - was released in 1913.  He had an eye for the American market too so sent someone across to Hollywood to invite producers, directors and actors to come to his new studio.

Everything went swimmingly for the first couple of years until in 1914 two of his key employees - John East and Percy Nash - set up their own 'Neptune' studio in the countryside near Elstree village in north London. These were the studios that eventually became BBC Elstree Centre.  Twickenham suffered heavy losses in 1915-16.  Jupp's health suffered and the running of the studios was handed over to his cousin.

The Ideal Company then leased the one stage and made several reasonably successful pictures here with some of the top actors of the day.   In 1920, a few months before he died, Jupp sold the studios to the Alliance Company.  This company spent £23,000 on new lighting equipment - a lot of cash in those days.  Sadly, 2 years later Alliance went bust.

 

The studios around 1930

Over the following decades Twickenham changed hands several times.  By 1928 the site was owned by Julius Hagen and was renamed 'Twickenham Film Studios'.  A second stage was opened in September 1934.  Sound equipment was introduced but due to the proximity of the railway line, a look-out had to be posted to warn of approaching trains before each take.

The studios were very busy in the early 1930s - sometimes one film used a stage during the day and another at night!  Unfortunately, disaster struck in 1935 when the main stage was destroyed by fire.

The studio never fully recovered from this and the company went bust again in 1937.  During the war they received a direct hit from a bomb which caused extensive damage.

 

In 1946 rebuilding work commenced when the studios were acquired by Alliance Film Studios Ltd - who owned Southall, Hammersmith (Riverside) and Twickenham.  Probably because much of Twickenham was still damaged, most of their work went to the other two studios.

In the mid to late1950s the studios mostly made commercials, half-hour shorts and filmed television dramas.  Things changed when Guido Coen took over as head of the studios in 1959.  He built the current stage 2 (50 x 40ft) and began to attract a new form of film making.  Several of the 'kitchen sink' gritty dramas such as Alfie and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were made here.  Most notably, Twickenham became The Beatles' favourite film studio with A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Let it Be all filmed here.  These were apparently shot on the present stage 1.

A commercial being filmed at Twickenham in 1958.  This marvellous photo was sent to me by Jules Hewitt via Dicky Howett.  Jules' family business specialised in the manufacture of film lighting equipment.  All the luminaires in this photo are 'Hewitt Universal' lights.

 

In the 1980s investment was made in new sound post facilities and many famous features were partly or wholly shot on the stages including Reds, Shirley Valentine, The French Lieutenants's Woman, American Werewolf in London and A Fish Called Wanda whilst others such as Blade Runner, Cry Freedom, Ghandi and Superman used the excellent post production facilities.

Many TV dramas and features used the studios throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium.  Tragically two of the key personnel who were running the studios died in very different circumstances in 2005 and 2006 and left Twickenham rudderless for a few years.  By the beginning of 2012 it looked as though they would very likely be closed and redeveloped.

 

A vociferous and enthusiastic campaign to save the studios was run by Maria Walker.  Many well-known actors and directors gave their support.  For several months it looked very likely indeed that the studios had sadly been lost but suddenly success came in August 2012 when Twickenham was bought by Sunny Vohra.  He is investing heavily in the studios and modernising and re-equipping them.  There has also been a name change simply to Twickenham Studios - possibly reflecting the importance of TV work done here.  Nice to hear a happy end to a story like this.  Now if only Bray could be saved too!

stage 1

stage 3

 

Twickenham currently has three stages:

stage 1 - 118 x 64ft (7,500sq ft) - includes a tank

stage 2 - 50 x 40ft (2,000 sq ft)

stage 3 - 93 x 60ft (5,551 sq ft)

NB - stages 2 and 3 are linked by a 15 x 12ft door, forming an L-shaped stage if necessary.  This can be very useful as work on building or dressing a set can continue whilst shooting is continuing on the other stage.  The door can then be opened to allow equipment to move from one stage to the other. 

Stage 2 was built in 1959 and stage 3 possibly around the same time.  I have yet to establish when the current stage 1 was built but I assume in 1946 following the war damage.  Stages 1 and 3 certainly appear to have been built at different times.  Can you help to solve this puzzle??

 

Recent movies shot here include The Duchess ('08), An Education ('09), My Week With Marilyn ('11), War Horse ('11), The Iron Lady ('11), Mr Sloane ('14), Before I Go To Sleep ('14) but many more well known features have been dubbed and/or mixed here.

TV work includes:  Poirot, The Saint, Mother Love, Children of the North, Lipstick On Your Collar, Cold Comfort Farm, Against All Odds, Cats' Eyes, Murder Most Horrid, Our Friends in the North, Deacon Brodie, Talking Heads, Microsoap, Spaced, Dirty Work, Man and Boy, Down To Earth, Tipping the Velvet, The Commander, The Kindness of Strangers, Horrible Histories, Sketchy, Primeval, The Hairy Bikers, Morgana, Horrid Henry, Him and Her, A Young Doctor's Notebook.

Twickenham has gone in just a few months from almost certain closure to being one of the most successful studios in London.  With the current shortage of stages it is sure to be busy for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

 

Southall Film Studios

1924 - 1958

 

The great producer/director GB Samuelson purchased an old aircraft hangar in Gladstone Road, Southall in 1924 with the intention of making silent films there.  For whatever reason, the studio appears to have been little used for the first few years but then started making a number of Quota Quickies.

(Of course, if there was a hangar, there must at one time have been an airfield which is hard to imagine now in that very built-up area just south of the railway line.)

In the early 1930s ownership changed hands a few times.  Unfortunately the main stage was burned to the ground in 1936 but was replaced with 3 stages of 75x50ft, 50x50ft and 50x25ft.

It is likely that the stages were used for storage during the war, as were many around London.  In 1946 Southall became part of the Alliance Film Studios group who also owned Twickenham and Hammersmith (Riverside).  Many films were made here at this time, starring popular British actors of the period such as Richard Attenborough.

Television began to play an important part in the studios' history from as early as 1952.  Three pilot episodes of Colonel March of the Yard were filmed starring Joan Sims, Patricia Owens and Dana Wynter.  This is interesting - I wonder who was the intended customer?  The BBC made all its own programmes and the first ITV companies would not be on the air until 1955.  However, people were talking about the new commercial television for several years before then so maybe Southall made these three episodes in order to create interest in prospective customers as soon as they were awarded franchises.

In 1954 another 23 episodes were shot so they must have found a customer by then.  These included such names as Christopher Lee, Anthony Newley, Alfred Burke and a very young Richard O'Sullivan.

Other TV dramas were also made here.  One series starred Boris Karloff.  However, there were still features being shot.  For instance, Hammer made Life With the Lyons here in 1954.  This is quite interesting as they already owned Bray Studios by then so why use Southall?  I have checked and in 1954 no less than 8 features were shot at Bray, which was a relatively small studio.  I can only assume that they couldn't fit that film in so it was made here.  The Lyons Abroad was also made at Southall in 1955 - probably for the same reason.  These films were spin-offs from the popular radio comedy show Life With the Lyons.

By 1956 the studios were listed as a television production centre.  Commercials became a regular source of work.  Pearl and Dean (yes, sing the tune now) made many ads here to be shown in cinemas.

The final title made here in 1958 was The Trollenberg Terror - aka The Crawling Eye.  This was first filmed as a TV series then remade as a horror movie.  Directed by Quentin Lawrence it starred Forrest Tucker, Janet Munro and, er, Warren Mitchell as Professor Crevett.  IMDb describes it thus - 'A series of decapitations on a Swiss mountainside appear to be connected to a mysterious radioactive cloud.'  Perhaps a small studio in Southall isn't the obvious place a movie like this might be shot but the film was considered pretty chilling at the time.

The studios sadly closed after making this epic and were demolished.  The area is now a industrial estate.

 

 

 

 

Elstree Studios

1925 - present

Boreham Wood was, in the 1920s, an area of fields and woodland with a single main road running through it.  Near the station were a couple of pubs, a few shops and a scattered collection of houses owned mostly by commuters using the nearby Elstree railway station.  The station is actually not even close to Elstree village which is a mile away at the top of a hill.  It was, however, the nearest village when the station was opened.  Thus, Elstree railway station is now in Borehamwood town centre.  When the various studios were opened here they took their name from the station - not the wood, and so we had the various 'Elstree' studios which were actually in Borehamwood.  Borehamwood expanded over the years - largely thanks to the film industry - and is now a large town whilst Elstree has remained a small village.  Is that any clearer?  No, I thought not.

The town of Borehamwood has over the years been home to six film studios (seven if you include ELP's Millennium Studios) and has often been dubbed the 'British Hollywood.'  There is sometimes confusion amongst those not well-informed as to which films and TV programmes were made in which studio.  By 'studio' I mean a site containing several film stages.  This chapter deals with the site that is currently known simply as 'Elstree Studios'.  (The only other major studio still in operation in the town is the BBC Elstree Centre where EastEnders and Holby City are made.) 

It was originally created in 1925 by a trio of entrepreneurs - J D Williams, W Schlesinger and Herbert Wilcox and was called British National Studios.  There was a stormy two years of operation which ended with the company being taken over by John Maxwell, who had been called in to help by the original three.  He renamed the company British International Pictures in 1927.

BIP produced dozens of films - many of them 'quota quickies' - in the years leading up to the war.  In 1928 Maxwell began to create a cinema chain - Associated British Cinemas - which by 1930 had grown to 120.  By the end of the 1930s BIP had evolved into the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and the studio became known as ABPC Studios.  When war broke out in 1939 they were commandeered by the Royal Ordnance Corps and used for storage.  Maxwell died in 1940 and control of ABPC passed to Warner Bros.  According to the 1942 Kinematograph Year book, in 1942 the studios had 9 sound stages.

 

Following the war, the old stages were demolished and new ones built, along with an impressive production block that faced the main road.  Four large stages were constructed (each 150 x 100ft) and Hitchcock was one of the first directors to use the new studios with Stagefright.  Our subject is television and the history of film-making here is well documented elsewhere.  However - it is worth recording that the '50s, '60s and some of the '70s were particularly busy and many successful movies were made here ranging from Summer Holiday to Star Wars.

The four stages were joined by another - stage 5 - in the mid '50s.  It was 137 x 115ft.  (Interesting somewhat random dimensions!)  This stage was not particularly well soundproofed and apparently can be seen in the On The Buses films doubling as the exterior of the bus garage.  In the late '50s stage 1 was divided in two - thus creating stage 6.  Some years later, following the construction of stages 7, 8 and 9 in 1966, this division was removed.  In 1978 another stage 6 was constructed at the back of the site.  This was huge - 30,000 sq ft in fact - and was built for The Empire Strikes Back.

However - we are getting ahead of ourselves.  ABPC was somewhat reluctantly drawn into the new enterprise of commercial television in 1956.  Its subsidiary, ABC Television, took over Warner Bros' studios at Teddington to make television programmes on video but there was plainly a market to make drama series on film too.

 

 

ABC TV was of course owned by ABPC so these studios were immediately available to the company to make TV programmes on film.  Between 1957 and 1962 ABC made a string of popular drama series here including Dial 999, The Flying Doctor, International Detective and Tales From Dickens.  (I wonder how many viewers realised that The Flying Doctor set in the Australian outback was filmed a few miles north of London.) 

In 1962 Lew Grade, who owned the media company ITC won the rights to make The Saint.  Since 1960 he had been making Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan in the MGM studios just up the road in Borehamwood.  Danger Man had done well in Britain but less well in the US.  He saw The Saint as a different sort of character and the stories as more likely to do well in America.  He was right.  Despite ITC/ATV being rivals to ABC he was welcomed at ABPC Elstree - or at least the work was - and over the next decade ITC dramas occupied many of Elstree's stages almost continuously.  (The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's follow-up to Danger Man was made in the MGM studios - with the Village exteriors shot in Wales.)

The Saint, which began filming in 1962, went on until 1968 over several seasons.  It proved to be very popular in the US, which motivated a change to filming in colour in 1966.  An impressive 115 episodes were made.  Other popular ITC series included Gideon's Way ('64-'65), The Baron ('65-'66), The Champions ('67-'68), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) ('68-'69), Jason King ('70-'71) and The Protectors ('71-'72). 

Despite ITC making most of the TV drama here, the owners of the studio, ABPC, did have one huge success.  The Avengers transferred from Teddington for its fourth series onward.  From this series it was shot on 35mm film and ran from 1964 - 1969 over many episodes.

Of course, movies were also occupying the stages including in 1961 Cliff Richard's The Young Ones.  This film made use of a 'foreign town' set which was constructed on the back lot.  Unusually, this was left standing after the filming and became an invaluable asset to the studios for about ten years.  It was used as various locations by The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Avengers.  Giles Chapman has informed me that...

'...its very last on-screen appearance was in The Protectors – the one and only time it appeared in either of the two Protectors series despite much of it being filmed at Elstree.  It’s used for a getaway at the climax of the second-series episode ‘The Tiger And The Goat’, which was shot during 1973 and first aired on 25 January 1974.'

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Back in 1966 the studios were so busy with TV production on film that they constructed three new stages - 7, 8 and 9.  These were equipped with telescope lighting grids, speeding up the time taken to light sets.   Unusually for film studios, between stages 8 and 9 a suite of TV control rooms was built with windows overlooking each stage, although these were not equipped at the time.  Despite being planned with TV in mind, the floors were traditional wood block rather than flat lino.  In fact stages 8 and 9 were even equipped with tanks.  In 1967, The Champions was the first series to use the new studios.

Stages 7, 8 and 9 under construction in 1966. 

The proud gentleman posing for the camera is one Alan H Goatman, the general manager of ABPC Elstree.  I think he may have spotted a rogue bit of Flemish bond brickwork in the corner.  Actually, he's probably looking the other way so he can pretend he hasn't seen the scaffolder with no safety rail, no hard hat and probably wearing a pair of flip-flops.  Happy days.

Below is stage 8 early in 2013.  It is having a 'TV floor' laid ready for occupation by BBC Studios and Post Production.  Note the impressive tank (which has of course been sealed up for TV use).  Also, note the white doors at the top of frame that lead through to the TV control rooms.  The black door in the centre used to link stages 8 and 9 but has now been bricked up.  The rockwool walls have now been faced with black fabric. 

Unfortunately, the floor that was laid turned out to be - well - let's just say not quite up to spec.  During the first show (Pointless) it was soon obvious that it would have to be replaced.  A stop-gap chipboard floor was laid on top for the last ever episode of The IT Crowd and then in July it was all dug up again and a proper resin TV floor was installed by specialist company Elgood.  Very embarrassing for BBC S&PP but to be fair to them, the company that laid the original floor was allegedly specified by Elstree Studios, not by them.  My understanding is that the floor is part of the fabric of the building, so is owned by Elstree, not S&PP.  The new floor in stage 9 was also dug up and replaced but fortunately before any shows were made in it.

 

There was an expectation around this time that filmed TV drama might be in decline and that the future would see more made on multicamera video.  Thus these stages were built ready to become fully equipped TV studios if necessary, as were J and K at Pinewood.  As we will see below, there was indeed a reduction in the amount of filmed drama over the next few years but in fact, 8 and 9's control rooms were not equipped for video production for many years. 

As it happened, against all expectations during the 1980s the industry trend was reversed and drama on single camera film or video increased - until by the early 1990s multicamera drama production had all but ceased, apart from soaps.  By coincidence, it was in fact in the early 1990s that the galleries were at last fitted out - to provide facilities to make sitcoms for independent production companies in stage 9.  This only lasted for a few years and the equipment was then removed.  It would not be until 2013 that they were fitted out again - this time by BBC S&PP.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves...

ABPC Elstree towards the end of the '60s.  The new stages 7, 8 and 9 are on the left.  Stage 5 is the large square stage on its own upper right.  The 'foreign town' set can be seen top left where the George Lucas stage now stands.  That is where the front of the Overlook Hotel was built for The Shining in 1978.  At the time this photo was taken, stage 1 had been divided into two, forming stages 1 and 6.  (You can just make out the line in the roof.)  That is why the new stages began at 7.  Later, the division was removed and a new stage 6 was built behind stage 5.  Stages 2 - 4 were 150 x 100ft each so a very useful size.

Around the end of the sixties things began to change.  The film industry was in decline and the 35mm glossy action dramas so popular a few years before were less so now - particularly in the US.  In Britain the style of crime dramas was moving away from studio-based stories and they were now being shot in a more gritty style on location using lightweight 16mm cameras.  In 1968 ABC TV lost its ITV franchise and its successor, Thames (as Euston Films), made The Sweeney and proved that you didn't need expensive studios any longer.

In 1969 ABPC was taken over by EMI and the studios became EMI Elstree StudiosA long period of  television drama was coming to an end at Elstree.  The Saint had ended in 1968 and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Avengers finished shooting in 1969.  This was partly compensated for when kids' series Here Come The Double Deckers! was filmed by 20th Century Fox in stage 5 in the same year.  Clearly aimed at the US market it portrayed an American idea of the typical wacky adventures a bunch of British kids might get up to.  One of the episodes was directed by Charles Chrichton - highly regarded director of several British comedy films.  It was very 'swinging 60s' and tried to catch the mood of the times but was probably a couple of years late.  Despite its obvious American slant it was actually more popular here in Britain than its intended market.  Only one season of 17 episodes was made. 

 

A year later MGM sadly abandoned their own superb studios just down the road and moved in to take a 50% stake in these studios.  There simply wasn't the work around to keep such a huge studio complex going.  The name thus changed again to EMI-MGM Elstree StudiosA few films were made in 1970 - including The Railway Children and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, but times were tough in the industry.  Jason King and The Protectors occupied a stage or two from 1970 - 1973 but there was very little other television work.  The Protectors was produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (this was shortly after the various 'Supermarionation' puppet series).  They were offered it by Lew Grade on a take it or leave it basis.  They thought if they turned it down he wouldn't offer them anything again - so they took it.  Most was shot on location all over Europe but the production was based at Elstree and some interiors were shot on stages here.

 

Once The Protectors wrapped early in 1973 no other television drama was made that year at Elstree and only a handful of features were shot.  By the end of the year MGM withdrew from its part ownership.  The permanent studio staff went from 479 to 256.  The name went back to EMI Elstree Studios and the situation was looking decidedly bleak for their future.  Two films mostly kept the studios alive during 1974 - Murder on the Orient Express and something of a contrast - Confessions of a Window Cleaner.  No TV productions were made.

Things did at last pick up in 1975 when George Lucas decided to make the first Star Wars film at Elstree.  Arguably, he saved Elstree from going under.  He provided invaluable business for the studios over the next few years with the following two Star Wars episodes and the Indiana Jones series.  

Other film work was patchy and uneven and there was little TV production - an exception being The Return of the Saint ('77-'78).  This was to be the last TV series ITC made in these studios. 

It should be mentioned that the famous promo for Bohemian Rhapsody was shot here in 1975 on one of the original four stages.  Queen had been rehearsing their tour and that extraordinary pop video was quickly knocked off in a few hours one evening.

Things did start to look up in 1978.  EMI decided to build a huge new stage - stage 6 - which would be ready for The Empire Strikes Back.  (Stage 6 was about 275ft x 110ft)  Also, after months of pre-planning, Stanley Kubrick began filming his horror classic, The Shining on stages 1 - 4 and the back lot.

Kubrick had filmed Lolita here in 1962, some of A Clockwork Orange in 1970, and previously 2001: A Space Odyssey in the MGM studios just down the road.  That ground-breaking film had occupied seven of the ten stages on the MGM site for three years (1965-1967) and sometimes spread to stages here at ABPC Elstree and to Shepperton.  Kubrick was not known for rushing the making of a film and he occupied the site for many months with The Shining.

During the filming of this definitive horror film, stage 3 contained one of the huge sets of the interior of the 'Overlook Hotel.'  As principal photography on the film was ending, the set caught fire and caused extensive damage to the stage.  Adjoining stages also received some damage - the total cost was £1.25m.

 

For those wishing to get a glimpse of how the backstage areas of the original studios looked - I suggest buying a DVD of The Shining.  The extras contain a short documentary filmed by Kubrick's daughter, Vivian.  She begins a sequence interviewing Jack Nicholson in his dressing room.  He walks out and down the stairs to one of the entrances to stage 4, which leads into a corridor of the Overlook Hotel.  The set looks utterly convincing - it was fully ceilinged so once on set there was no way of telling that you were not in the actual hotel, in deep winter high in the Rocky mountains of the USA. 

The exterior of the hotel was built on the Elstree back lot - the snow piled up in front of the building was in fact salt.  Falling snow was tiny polystyrene balls, dropped from giant hoppers suspended by cranes.  Unfortunately it blew all over Borehamwood and made a bit of a mess of local gardens.  I'm sure the neighbours saw the funny side of that.

The documentary also contains a sequence where the young film-maker walks with the camera along a firelane in stage 1 and turns into the famous snow-filled maze that is the scene of the climax to the film.  For those familiar with The Shining, and even for someone like myself with a lifetime working in studios, it is quite bizarre to think that these scenes in such an iconic movie were made in Borehamwood.  (The daytime maze scenes were shot on the back lot at the old MGM studios - even though they were technically closed.)

This atmospheric shot is the first frame of Vivian Kubrick's excellent documentary.  I hope she won't mind me borrowing it to illustrate how the old studios looked.

It shows the exterior of stages 3 and 4 during the late 1970s.  The windows are dressing rooms, make-up areas and production offices associated with the stages which are just a few feet the other side of these rooms.

The building's architectural style is typical of the post-war period and must have looked very smart when it opened in 1948.

This piece of land is now part of Tesco's car park.

 

In 1979 Thorn, the electrical giant, amalgamated with EMI.  Thus Thorn EMI Elstree Studios were created.  An interesting offshoot of this development was that Thorn had been developing a new type of lamp to replace the old arc lights previously used on film locations and often in the studios too.  These new HMI lights were much smaller, more efficient and much easier to use than the old 'brutes'.  Thorn were keen to see them used so they were offered to Lucas for The Empire Strikes Back.  Always enthusiastic about new technology he took them on location and was highly impressed.  HMI lamps are now used worldwide on film and TV sets.

It is said that the delay caused by the fire on stage 3 prevented George Lucas from starting The Empire Strikes Back at his planned time. Director Irvin Kershner actually began principal photography in March 1979 but his shooting schedule was severely disrupted by all the repairs and rebuilding going on.  Also, stage 6 was not completed at the planned time and they began shooting on it before it was actually finished.  I assume it did at least have a roof.

Incidentally, for those who like such facts - I have read that stage 8 is where the first shot of the first Star Wars movie was made in 1975.  Well... possibly.  Stage 8 was apparently the one used for Jabba the Hutt's Throne Room - we all remember that scene I'm sure.  It was also used for the interior of the Millennium Falcon (see below).  Stage 9 was the interior of Yoda's house in The Empire Strikes Back.  I have also read that stage 8 is where the snake pit scene was filmed in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Well... maybe.  Almost certainly, some scenes were shot on stages 7, 8 and 9 in all those movies but which ones are up for debate.  The other stages used were lost to the Tesco's redevelopment - more on this later.

 

 

Above is stage 6 under construction, early 1979.  This became known as the 'Star Wars Stage.'  It is where the Tescos store now stands.  The steel was used to construct stages R and S at Shepperton after it was dismantled in 1989.  Stage 6 was about 30,000 sq ft - the same size as the new Attenborough and Q stages at Pinewood.

 

The completed stage 6 from the air.  To its left is stage 5.  The workshops at the top of frame still exist as part of the Elstree Studios lot although the near ends of them were cut off.

 

A well-known photograph with some familiar faces, taken in 1979.  This is The Empire Strikes Back and is on stage 8, currently used as a TV studio by BBC S&PP.  The set on the left is the interior of the Millennium Falcon.  The stairs in the corner now lead to the TV control rooms and the door on the right to the camera store.

please don't ask for permission to use this or any other photograph commercially - it is copyright and is shown here for educational and research purposes.

 

There was no television work in 1979 and for a number of years it remained patchy.  In 1980 ATV worked on the six episodes of their film series Shillingbury Tales and Euston Films returned to studio filming in 1982 to make the twelve-part Thames TV drama series Reilly - Ace of Spies.  The Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense series of 13 feature-length TV movies was based here in 1983 although only one episode was filmed on a stage - the rest on location.

 

The photo above shows Elstree Studios in 1982 - then known as 'Thorn-EMI Elstree Studios.'  At that time there were 9 stages.  The large block in the centre of the picture with the zig-zag roofs contained stages 1-4, constructed in 1948.  The one top left (stage 3) has been rebuilt with a flat roof.  It was severely damaged by fire in 1979 during the completion of filming of The Shining.  The huge one at the back was stage 6 and was built for The Empire Strikes Back in 1979.  It was about 275 x 110 feet.   Stage 5 was the square-shaped building with the pitched roof in the upper centre.

The triangular shape top centre was the outdoor tank which was built in 1955 for Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck.  For the last several years it has been where the Big Brother house is situated. 

The studios look quite different now.  The red line through the middle of the site indicates approximately where the divide was between the remaining film studios on the left and what became Tesco's and its car park on the right.  Thus, 6 stages were lost in 1989.  There is little doubt that if these had been kept rather than being sold off, they would now be extremely busy due to the current shortage of studios.

The long block on the left contains stages 7, 8 and 9 - now operated by BBC Studios and Post Production.

 

After years of gradual decline, American moviemakers Cannon Films bought the studios in 1986 and having changed the name to Cannon Studios they immediately made the appalling Superman 4.  They had recently been having enormous success making popular action movies and needed more studio space.  Unfortunately their profitability was short-lived and they lost huge amounts on a run of flops.  In 1989 they went bust. 

However - before that there was a little TV production - four episodes of Inspector Morse, made by  Central TV's production arm Zenith, were based here in 1988.  One source claims that TVS also made the Channel 4 series The StoryTeller - recording nine episodes and a further four the following year under the revised title The StoryTeller: Greek Myths.  However, Dennis Weinreich has contacted me and pointed out that it was actually made at Wembley studios.  He was the dubbing mixer and visited the set several times.  So possibly only the second series was made here.  Can you help with this confusion? 

Some scenes for the BBC's experimental high definition video drama The Ginger Tree were definitely recorded in stage 9 in August 1989.  This was the first time I worked at these studios - operating the lighting console on that occasion and I remember it well.  My impression was that the site was pretty run down with little evidence of any work going on in the other stages and the stage we were working in was filthy!  Little did I suspect that 24 years later I would return to light various sitcoms in that same stage.

A plan of the studios as issued to people working there during the mid 1980's.  Note the John Maxwell Building to the left of the block containing stages 1-4.  Areas A and B were carpenters' workshops, which in the late '90s would be adapted into stages 5 and 6.

Interestingly, it shows the tank later used for the site of the Big Brother House being used as a car park.

Click on the plan to see in in greater resolution.

with thanks to the Avengerland website

 

In 1989 the studios were sold to property developer Brent Walker, who had made a few films under the 'Goldcrest' name.  The site became known as Goldcrest StudiosWith the claimed intention of modernising the studios on a more compact site they sold off about half the land enabling a Tesco supermarket to be built.  As many as six stages were demolished, although stage 6 - the huge one built for The Empire Strikes Back - was dismantled and sold to Shepperton.  The steel was stored and eventually used to build the R and S stages there with some remaining pieces going into the W stage.

In 1990 Brent Walker signed a planning agreement to run the remaining site as studios for 25 years.  However, in 1993 they announced the planned closure of the studios because of financial difficulties caused by the economic recession, hoping to sell the remainder of the site off to be developed as a shopping centre.  This announcement was very poorly received by people in the industry, local residents and the local council.  A prolonged dispute erupted between Brent Walker and the council during which the studios were hardly used and their condition deteriorated.  I can find only two TV series made during this period - The BBC drama series Love Hurts was filmed at the studio in 1993 and the beginning of the following year saw Little Napoleons in production here.

In 1995 the gates closed and Elstree became virtually derelict.  Headed by Paul Welsh MBE a three year 'Save Our Studios' campaign was organised involving local residents, studio employees and filmmakers.  Brent Walker finally agreed to sell the site to Hertsmere Borough Council for £1.9m.

 

The studios were taken over by Hertsmere in February 1996 and leased to a management company in April who renamed them Elstree Film and TV Studios(This management contract came to an end in March 2007.)

Almost immediately the new company carried out some improvements and began to attract new work.  Stages 5 and 6 were created by adapting some workshop space within the John Maxwell Building.  Two large new stages (1 and 2) were completed in 1999.  Each is 135 x 116 ft (15,660 sq ft) and 50ft to the grid.  Somewhat confusingly, the whole building containing both stages is known as 'The George Lucas Stage' in recognition of his work here in years gone by.  He also filmed a few pick-up scenes on these stages for episodes 1 - 3. 

Robot Wars was one of the first TV shows to use the new stages - using an OB unit for facilities.  One of the first movies to be filmed in the George Lucas stage was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2004).  Somehow it seems right that with Elstree being the original home of Star Wars it should also be host to this homage to space sci-fi.

 

The sound stages/studios currently on site are 1 and 2 (mentioned above) but there is no stage 3 or 4.  Not yet at least.  One assumes that the new stage or stages planned to be built in 2014 will become 3 (and maybe 4).  Stage 5 is 95 x 57 feet and is a silent stage with limited facilities adapted from a workshop.  Stage 6 is about 62ft x 62ft and was also converted from a workshop area a few years ago.  It has a resin TV floor and rooms that can be used as control areas.  However, there are no technical facilities, no cyclorama tracks and it has a very basic chain and tackle type grid.  The floor was originally laid for the kids' series The Hoobs. They used the rooms next to the studio as workshops, green room and a control area but when that series ended all the technical equipment was removed. 

Stages 7, 8 and 9 were all built in 1966 with future TV use in mind and have telescope lighting grids but until the BBC moved here there were for many years only a handful of very old 'scopes available for use.  Stage 7 is about 78 x 65 feet wall to wall.  It has a resin floor and a suite of Portacabins originally fitted out as control rooms in the covered way behind the stages.  These were built by Tell-Tale, the production company who made 390 episodes of  Tweenies in this studio between 1998 and 2001.  The Portacabins have no equipment installed but flyaway kit can of course be used on an ad-hoc basis.  This stage is currently still part of the normal Elstree Studios package - not BBC S&PP - although it is often used to make single-camera TV shows, some of which are shown on BBC channels.  For example, in the spring of 2013 another series of Horrible Histories was made here.

Stages 8 and 9 are both about 98 x 78 feet wall to wall and originally had wooden floors.  Each also had a 30 x 31 x 9ft tank (now covered over).  These stages are thus the magic 90 x 72ft within firelanes which makes them very useful spaces for making television programmes of many types - especially those with studio audiences.  The stages were originally linked by a passage between them with doors at each end but the stage 8 doors were bricked up during the BBC TV conversion in 2013.  There is a TV gallery suite between them at first floor level but this was not fitted out until around 1990 when a company called ESP, run by Derek Oliver, had the contract to provide technical facilities to make TV shows in stage 9. 

Several sitcom series were made between 1990 and 1993.  Series 2 of Birds of a Feather was probably the first (series 1 was recorded in TC6 in TV Centre.)  The cameras were Sony 330s and the crews were freelance - many were ex-Limehouse which had recently closed.  Other shows included Clive Anderson Talks Back, Drop the Dead Donkey, Nightingales and Get Back, which included a very young Kate Winslet in the cast.  Most of these were made by Alomo Productions.

Since the mid 90s a few other multicamera TV programmes have also been recorded in these stages - using OB units for facilities.  Smack the Pony and the fourth series of the quiz show Eggheads are examples.  The revamped version of the BBC children's series Jackanory was made here in 2006 and 2007.  CBBC's Space Pirates was recorded here in stage 7 in 2007. 

From around 1998 the control rooms were occupied by production offices on a semi-permanent basis for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?  That show used stage 9 with the set remaining permanently rigged, ending its regular run in 2010.  It used an OB truck parked outside for facilities but the lighting control was in the camera store room just off the stage floor.

Between 2006 and 2007 a kids' TV series - Jim Jam and Sunny - was made in stage 8.  TV drama continues to use the studios - shot on film or single camera digital video.  Kavanagh QC and Secret Diary of a Call Girl are notable examples.

The two stages in the George Lucas building... (Why DID they call it 'The George Lucas Stage' when there are two stages?  Bonkers.) ...anyway, stages 1 and 2 have proved popular for large scale TV productions since they opened in 1999.  Robot Wars was an early booking and in more recent years stage 2 has been the home of Dancing on Ice from 2006 to 2014 (except for 2011 when the stage was being used for a feature film).  Other TV shows made in either of these large stages have included a Michael Bublé Christmas special for ITV in 2011, Let's Dance for Sport Relief in 2012 and the closing rounds of The Voice in 2012.  Strictly Come Dancing was based in stage 1 from September - December 2013.

 

Of course, one of the most famous TV shows to occupy the site in recent years has been Big Brother.  The house was constructed in the 131ft x 196ft outdoor tank on the back lot (originally built for the film Moby Dick in 1955) and stage 1 was used for the studio sequences.  The house is redesigned and partly rebuilt each year.  BB began in 2000, using Three Mills studios.  After a couple of series it moved to Elstree in 2002.  The show was axed by Channel 4 in 2010 but it was taken over by Channel 5 who continue to use the facilities at Elstree.  The BB house and associated area occupy quite a large area and one could imagine that once this show is finally axed (it can't go on for ever, surely) that space would be an obvious site to construct another stage.  Having said that, in the summer of 2013 Elstree Studios applied for planning permission to keep the BB House for 5 more years.  The permission was granted.

Each January between  2006 and 2010 the George Lucas stages were both being used for live TV shows.  ITV Productions turned stage 2 into an ice rink to make Dancing on Ice whilst Celebrity Big Brother was coming from stage 1 next door.  Across from the BB House a workshop was used as the studio for Big Brother's Little Brother and a few yards away in stage 9 Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire was also being recorded on some of these days.  In fact, in some weeks around that period in all five years more prime-time television was coming from these film studios than from some television centres.

In recent years, Elstree Studios have been enjoying success with a mix of commercials, single-camera TV dramas and multi-camera children's and entertainment productions.  Encouragingly, there are also a few feature films each year that use these these stages for all or part of their filming schedule - for example, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), the highly acclaimed drama Proof (2005) with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, Notes on a Scandal (2005) with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, horror movie 1408 (2006) starring John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson and The Other Boleyn Girl (2006) with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.  2007 saw Wild Child, Made of Honor, A Number and My Zinc Bed in production. 

More recent films to use these stages have included Is There Anybody There? ('08), Harry Brown ('09), Kick-Ass ('10), Devil's Playground ('10),  The King's Speech ('10), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ('11), The Veteran ('11), X-Men: First Class ('11), Jack the Giant Killer ('12), Under the Skin ('12), Hyde Park on Hudson ('12), Comes a Bright Day ('12), World War Z ('13), The World's End ('12) Paddington Bear ('13).

 

 

The Pacifica saga

One might have thought that Elstree's future was very much assured.  However, throughout much of 2006 there were rumours reported in the local press that there were problems associated with finding a new management company to take over in April 2007.  Some claimed that the lack of a decision by the summer of 2006 was affecting long-term bookings.  There was also said to be a report commissioned by the local council, who own the studios, that advised selling off the site for housing.

However, these fears proved unfounded.  Several companies expressed an interest in taking over management of the studios and the winner, announced on 31st January 2007, was an American firm - Pacifica Ventures.  They were the management company that ran Culver Studios from April 2004 to October 2006 - they owned the brand new Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico and were planning to open a new centre in Kiev.  They seemed ideal.  Pacifica stated that they planned to invest heavily in the Elstree site and restore its use as a major studio for the making of feature films.  In January 2007 they unveiled their preliminary proposals which included:

  • Facilities to train people in film-related crafts.

  • Two new sound stages on asbestos-contaminated land at the rear of the site.

  • Two new sound stages to replace workshops.

  • A new gateway and entrance buildings.

  • A permanent streetscene at the back of the site.

  • Retention of existing stages and Big Brother house.

Talks with the council were expected to take three to four months.

The negotiations seemed to be very positive at first but rumours of problems began to emerge.  It appeared that one of the sticking points was over the disposal of the earth mound that covered what remained of the back lot.  This is where two large stages were to be built but 'The Mound' contained asbestos, which of course is very expensive to dispose of.  This is said to have come from the roofs of the original stages that Brent Walker demolished.  It seems that the contractors simply dumped the spoils onto the grass of the back lot, thus preventing it from being used again. 

 

During the talks there were various stories reported in the press concerning legal action affecting one or more directors of the company in the US.  Whether this affected the council's decision is not clear.  Whatever the reason, in July 2007 it was announced that the negotiations had officially ended.  Some weeks earlier Pacifica's vice president, corporate development - Matt Rauchberg - contacted me and he explained the situation from his company's perspective...

They were very keen to become involved in running a studio in the UK and Elstree was their number one choice.  They were impressed with the Elstree site - in particular stages 1 and 2 - but didn't see the studios as viable for attracting film work without building more large stages.

However - as mentioned above - a serious issue was what to do with the Mound and its asbestos.  Pacifica were planning to build two or even three large stages on this five acre site.  They saw this as essential to the future of the studios.  The company put up a significant figure as a contribution to its clean-up, hoping that the council, as owners of the site, would contribute the rest.  The total was unknown as no recent environmental study assessing the clean-up costs had been carried out, which clearly posed a problem for both sides.

(In fact of course, in 2013/2014 the Mound was eventually cleared - the local council paying £4.5m from various funds to carry this out.)

A major issue that appears to have stalled the talks is that of liability.  There have been a growing number of cases recently where people in the industry have sued the owners of studios over asbestos contamination.  It seems that at least one previous employee of the studios has sought compensation for his contracting cancer during the Cannon Film days.  Quite understandably, Pacifica didn't see why they should take on the responsibility for unlimited future claims over something that was plainly nothing to do with them.

For more information, there is a public letter released by Pacifica Ventures that explains their position in greater detail. It can be found on www.borehamwoodtimes.co.uk/display.var.1559188.0.0.php.

 

 

Thus with the collapse of the negotiations the studios remained under the ownership of the local council who also had to manage them for the time being.  According to news reports at the time this was expected to be for up to three years.  It looks now as though this arrangement will continue indefinitely.  Reflecting the change in circumstances, the name changed in April 2007 - at first to 'Elstree Film Studios', then in 2008 simply to 'Elstree Studios' - perhaps recognising the equal importance of television work to the business.

In October 2008 Hertsmere Council advertised widely for a new managing director.  It seems they had decided that rather than attempt again to sell the lease to a management company they would continue to own the studios but appoint an experienced manager who could run them at arm's length from the council.

The person appointed was Roger Morris - previously head of Teddington Studios during the years when they were run by Barnes Trust.  He took up his post at the beginning of 2009 and immediately brought a great deal of enthusiasm to making the studios successful.

The really good news is that the future of the studios is looking more secure now than at any time in its long history.  This is all very encouraging and Roger Morris is to be congratulated in continuing the successful running of the studios, which are said to generate 16% of the local council's income for its ratepayers.  As well as negotiating the deal with BBC S&PP he has also begun work on building a new stage and in July 2013 a planning application was lodged to allow the Big Brother House to stay for 5 more years.

 

The new stage...?

In July 2010 Variety newspaper in the US published an article claiming that Elstree were planning to build two new stages - one at 15,000 sq ft and the other an impressive 30,000 sq ft.  In August of that year, Roger Morris clarified the position.  He was in fact looking into the feasibility of building one, possibly two more stages.  He was quoted as saying that he is having to turn work away because of lack of studio space.  This of course is similar to what Pacifica also planned, and for the same reason.  According to press reports, a suitable investor was being actively sought.  Although the George Lucas building cost £5m in 1999, that was paid off long ago and those two stages are now generating useful income so building more large stages could indeed represent an attractive proposition.

Although nothing appeared to happen regarding this development over the following year, there were press reports in November 2011 stating that Roger Morris was in talks with financial backers over plans to raise '£10m' to build a new 30,000 sq ft stage.  Perhaps spurred on by Pinewood constructing one of a similar size (plus another in 2013) he is reported as saying that he hoped to build the stage 'within 24 months.'  In the summer of 2012 I read that it was hoped to have the new stage open in 2013.

In November 2012 the press reported that a £2m loan had been agreed with the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership's 'Growing Places' fund.  Hertsmere Council would also be providing £2.5m from its reserves. This would enable 4 acres of land to be cleared (The Mound).  Site clearance and construction were due to begin early in 2013.  This total figure of £4.5m was quite a bit less than the previous estimate of £10m for the development but it looks as though it may simply be the cost of clearing the Mound and its asbestos.

Exactly what is eventually to be constructed was not confirmed but according to a report in Broadcast it was at the time planned to include a 16,000 sq ft stage.  It was estimated that the new facilities, once constructed, would generate an additional £0.5m revenue per year.

The winter and spring of 2013 came and went but no work was done on the site.  However, clearance work did commence at last in the middle of September.   There were press reports that a new stage would open in 2014 - although how big it would be were not confirmed.  However, a report on the website www.broadcastnow.co.uk on 3rd October 2013 quoted Roger Morris as saying (perhaps rather surprisingly) that there are as yet no firm plans to build a stage on the cleared Mound.  The decision on whether to build stages and workshops or to leave it as a backlot will be left to client demand.  He is quoted as saying "The market is bigger than the current conventional studio structure can cope with, so the studios have to catch up with the market."  Pick the bones out of that.

 

The Elstree Studios site around 2012.  The red line indicates the very approximate boundary of the land owned by the studios.  (Do not infer anything from its position.)  The George Lucas stage (stages 1 & 2) dominates the site.  The cluster of small buildings at the top is the Big Brother House.  What is very clear is the size of The Mound top left.  Plenty of room for at least 2 large stages plus support facilities.

with thanks to Googlemaps

 

The BBC move in!

In August 2012 the official announcement came that BBC Studios and Post Production (S&PP) would be moving here in April 2013 from Television Centre.  (They are continuing to occupy their BBC Elstree Centre studios over the road in Borehamwood.  Studio D there has been refurbished).  Some in the industry had known about this for many months but final negotiations between S&PP and Elstree took months to conclude.  Work began on converting the stages into well equipped studios at the end of 2012.

Stages 8 and 9 have been provided with TV floors, wallboxes and other basic infrastructure.  The very shabby walls have been covered with smart black fabric.  Most of the steelwork has been repainted and stairs to the galleries in stage 8 refurbished.  There are prop stores on the opposite side of the roadway a few yards away and the costume/make-up block has been redecorated.  S&PP also has a workshop on site for storage.  The grids have been equipped with monopoles/telescopes - some were brought over from BBC Elstree whilst others were purchased from the 3sixtymedia studios in Manchester ex studio 6.  Each stage now has a number of motorised scenic hoists that can be positioned where required.

In fact the old monopoles bought from 3sixtymedia proved to be less effective than had been hoped.  Having two types of 'scopes in one studio also made lighting rigs and finelights very slow.  In the summer of 2013 a decision was therefore taken to purchase 200 brand new monopoles from MTS - the same as were supplied to Pinewood's studio TV-two.  These monopoles are excellent and certainly speed up lighting time.  They are just equipping stage 9 leaving stage 8 with surplus 'scopes from BBC Elstree.

Productions currently turn around over a couple of days - not overnight as was the case at TVC.  In fact, it is likely that the most that can be achieved here is two shows per week in each studio - standing sets being preferred when possible.

A large Portacabin-type building has been constructed at the end of the studio block to service stage 9.  This contains lighting, sound and production control galleries.  These certainly feel very luxurious and spacious inside and not at all 'temporary.'  Much of the kit from studio TC8 at TV Centre equipped these galleries along with some new purchases.  Other Portacabins provide production office and technical apparatus room facilities.

Meanwhile, the TV galleries between stages 8 and 9 were fitted out and are used for stage 8.  These galleries are very smart and are well designed and equipped.  Some kit was new whilst the rest including HD cameras came from TC4.

Stage 7 - at least for the time being - remains operated by the Elstree Studios management and is usually busy with single-camera drama work.  However, it already has a TV floor and Portacabin control rooms (albeit with no kit in them) left over from a previous long term TV booking.  It could therefore become part of the S&PP portfolio with relatively little capital expense involved if there was a good business case made for this.

A few years ago not many people would have predicted that this would be painted on stage 8's dock door in 2013.

 

Stage 1 in the George Lucas building is being used for Strictly Come Dancing - with a standing set for the series.  The dance floor has been enlarged slightly from how it was in TC1 and a much bigger audience can now be accommodated.  This is set further back which gives the impression on screen of a much larger room - which of course it is.  One does wonder how keen the production team will be to return to a much smaller TC1 if they get used to this bigger space.

A very well-equipped control room suite has been built at ground floor level within the production block that runs down the side of the stages.  It has a mix of new kit and some removed from TC1 - so that will have to be replaced in due course.  Access is very quick from the galleries to the floor of stage 1 - or stage 2 for that matter.  There is no technical reason why these galleries could not also service a show in the other stage on days when stage 1 was not in use.  However, shows like Dancing on Ice will still probably use the same mix of Portacabins and flyaway kit or an OB truck that they have done in the past when using stage 2.  In any case, the 2014 series of Dancing on Ice is due to be the last.

 

I have worked on a couple of shows in stage 9 and was on the whole impressed with what has been done with the galleries and technical fit-up.  The lighting installation in the grid was initially very basic and slow to operate but with the new monopoles it has been improved somewhat.  Unfortunately, the electrical distribution is still temporary - there are no boxes in the grid or at floor level with convenient outlets to plug in lights as there are at BBC Elstree, Pinewood, Teddington or TLS.  Everything is connected via trailing Socapex cables to temporary dimmer racks which is slow and confusing to operate.  If S&PP decide to stay beyond 2015 this will have to be addressed.

The lack of off-studio space with easy access to store scenery and props has proved to be a bit of a problem.  The working area is 90 x 72 metric feet, the same as TC8 at TVC but I confess it does feel more cramped - probably because the fire lanes are much narrower - particularly those along the sides of the studio.

What is clear is that on the whole, the equipping has not been carried out as a temporary fix.  It has mostly been done properly, is well thought out and I am sure that those who work in these stages/studios who knew what they were like before will be impressed.  (As long as they get a car park space.)  I do know that the S&PP managers who run the studios are very keen to sort out the inevitable teething troubles and make things run as smoothly as possible.  However, let nobody be under any illusion that these stages are a direct replacement for the lost studios at Television Centre.  They bear no comparison at all.

The current rental deal runs until April 2015.  However, I believe that it is very likely that when TV Centre reopens in 2015 with TC1, TC2 and TC3 these stages will be kept on as part of S&PP's stock of studios along with studio D at BBC Elstree.  S&PP may well retain use of stage 1 too - possibly even in due course equipping it with a TV floor.  (Personally, I doubt that Strictly will return to TC1 - it looks so much better in this studio.)  As a source told me - 'we are in the business of expanding, not contracting' which I think is extremely good news for the UK's TV industry all round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shepperton Studios

1932 - present

From 1955 - when Associated-Rediffusion started to film programmes here because they feared that their Wembley studios might not be ready - to the present day, since television dramas are still filmed here, these studios have played a part in our television history.  As well as single camera drama the stages have also from time to time seen various shows recorded on tape using outside broadcast units.

 

 

 

Shepperton has one of the largest number of sound stages of any studio site in Europe - currently 15.  However, it began many years ago - like several UK film studios - growing up around a grand house and estate.  In this case,  Littleton Park - a 17th century manor house surrounded by 60 acres.  The house  has changed considerably over the years and was extensively rebuilt at the end of  the 19th century following a fire. 

In 1928 Norman Loudon bought the estate.  He was a camera manufacturer but also made a small fortune selling 'flicker' books that gave an impression of movement  when flicked with a thumb.  His ambitions were rather greater however and in 1932 he founded Sound City Film Producing and Recording Studios.  Two stages were constructed in the grounds - one at 110ft x 80 ft and later a second stage 80ft x 45ft.  These eventually became stages L and M.  The larger one was destroyed during the Second World War although it was rebuilt to a slightly smaller size.  L is now 100ft x 65ft and was still in use in 2013, although it is due to be demolished eventually as part of the planned redevelopment of the site.

Sound City.  Click to see in greater detail

In 1936 stages A/B and C/D were constructed.  (A and C are 150ft x 120ft;  B and D are 100ft x 120ft)  These still form the hub of the site.  They were superbly designed, with excellent sound insulation and ventilation plants.  They form two pairs that are separated by connecting doors, so a very long set can be  constructed if necessary.

The ability to link two of the stages was, incidentally, used for the 2008 series of Gladiators - made for Sky 1.  The show was made on stages A and B and was shot in HD using an OB unit for facilities.

A page from the Architects' Journal, August 1936.  The care taken in the construction of these stages is obvious.

click on the image to see it in higher resolution.

'Sound City' in the late '30s.  Stages A/B and C/D dominate the site with the earlier L and M beyond.  Littleton House is on the left and still surrounded by gardens.

This photo taken in 2009 shows some of the oldest stages at Shepperton, their smart steel facing disguising their age.  In the background are the large stages C and A - the B stage is just visible in the background.  In front of A at a slight angle is L - originally constructed in the 1930s and rebuilt after the war.  Foreground on the right is the smaller M stage.  All the buildings in the foreground will be lost and 2 new stages built if the Shepperton Master Plan is ever carried out.

photo thanks to Rotten Tomatoes

 

During the war the four large stages were used at first to store sugar, later to manufacture bomber parts when the Vickers-Armstrong factory a few miles away suffered a direct hit.  Meanwhile, thousands of decoy aircraft, tanks and guns were built in the scenery construction workshops.  These were used to help confuse the pilots of enemy aircraft both in the UK and in North Africa.

Following the war in 1945 Sound City reopened, with all four large stages plus the smaller L stage.  A year later Shepperton was bought by successful film maker Alexander Korda, who renamed it British Lion Studio Company.

 

Probably around 1952/3 the huge H stage was moved here from Worton Hall Studios, Isleworth.  At the time it was the largest stage in Europe at 250ft x 120ft or 30,000 sq ft.  Faced in sheets of corrugated iron, it is probably the ugliest film stage in the UK but my word, it is big.  (It is similar in area to the Attenborough stage and new Q stage at Pinewood but is longer and narrower.)  It has a small tank but what makes the H stage unique is that the entire floor area can be flooded.  This was for example made use of in 2004 when it housed the huge set for the Bat Cave in Batman Begins, complete with flowing river.  A full-scale sailing ship was built in it for Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  It has proved to be one of the most useful stages in the country over many years.  Under the Shepperton Master Plan the H stage is due to be demolished and replaced with another of a similar size near stages J and K but when this will happen is anyone's guess.

Criterion Studios, Worton Hall, Isleworth in 1937.  The main stage was built by Alexander Korda in 1935 for the film Things To Come.  Amongst many famous films it was used for The African Queen ('51).  Urban legend has it that the parakeets that were used to 'dress' the set on that movie escaped and became the ancestors of the thousands of breeding pairs that have inhabited the south-west suburbs of London ever since.  Others claim that this is not true.  They say that the movie was made here, not Shepperton which is nearer to where the birds are mostly to be found and one source is very definite that no parakeets were used in the making of the film.  However, other sources are pretty sure that that some scenes were also shot on stages at Shepperton - so... if those did use a parakeet or two then - maybe???

By the end of 1946 Worton Hall had formed very close links with Shepperton, with several productions using stages on both sites to make their films.

This huge stage was moved from here to Shepperton where it became H stage.  Many sources quote the year 1948 for when that happened but this seems unlikely as Isleworth was busy around then.  Isleworth did not close until 1952, when a loan they had taken out many years before could not be paid off.  This seems a more likely year therefore for the move of the stage.  In fact, as is mentioned below, stages E, F and G were built at Shepperton in 1953.  It seems likely therefore that stage H was re-assembled after they were completed later in that year.

image above thanks to Britain From Above.  Link here

Below - photo thanks to Rotten Tomatoes

 

Further investment was made in the studios and in 1953 E, F and G stages were built.  (E and F are both 72ft x 44ft; G is 94ft x 72ft) These three stages came into their own in 1955 when Associated-Rediffusion needed a bank of programmes shot on film to get them through the first few weeks of broadcasting.  Their Wembley television studios were only just going to be ready in time for the first transmission date.  In Derek Threadgall's excellent book 'Shepperton Studios, an independent view' he quotes Peter Graham Scott...

 

'From May 1955 onwards we made a number of quickly shot films at Shepperton.  I directed three scripts I was able to choose - A Call on the Widow, The Guv'nor and All Correct Sir.  Others who made similar films at Shepperton were Robert Hamer, John Moxey, Charles Saunders and Peter Cotes.  A-R had contracted Sir John Barbirolli of the Halle Orchestra and one of his ideas was to record eighteen quarter-hour performances by young unknown soloists.  I spent an enjoyable two weeks filming two of these programmes per day....

I was expected to shoot A Call on the Widow in four studio days at the unheard of rate of twelve and a half minutes screen time per day.  (The average in film studios was only two minutes.)

It was a particularly lovely summer that year and stages E, F and G hummed with activity.  There was a great spirit of optimism as we gathered for drinks in the garden of the Old House at the end of each filming day.'

 

Korda was one of the greats of the British film industry and under his stewardship several successful films were made.  However, the company's finances were built on shaky ground.  In 1955 the company was wound up and British Lion Films took over the assets of its predecessor.  Sadly Korda died of a heart attack in 1956.

In 1957 the four main stages were modernised with new roofs and grids but 1961 was the year that saw huge investment here.  New wardrobe blocks for stages A/B, C/D and E F G were constructed.  A 'new' stage - I (124ft x 57ft) - was moved here from Walton Studios where it had been used in the filming of  The Adventures of Robin Hood which had been made for ATV.  (The I stage was demolished in 2006.)  A new dubbing theatre was also built - this probably also came from Walton.

Controversially, in the same year the old stable block and distinctive clock tower were demolished along with the restaurant and bar in the Old House to make way for stages J and K.  These were considerably smaller than the present J and K.  J was 80ft x 36ft and K was a tiny 36ft x 35ft.  They were built specifically for screen tests and to be used for television commercials and dramas  - although it is not recorded how much of this use they actually had.  Certainly, J was too small to be used for anything that needed more than a simple set or two and K was too small to be used for much at all other than pack shots or to film a single person for a screen test.

These stages were adapted into a three story admin building in 1996 when the new J and K were built.  This was named the David Lean Building.

Shepperton in the late 1960s.  In the foreground is the multistorey car park that was built in 1967.  The dark building at the top right of the studio site is stage H.

The old J and K stages are hardly noticeable in the clutter of buildings, unlike their later replacements.

Stages L, M and I can be seen behind the 4 main stages.

The original entrance to the site can be seen here in the bottom centre before it was lost to housing in 1977.

 

In 1965 Stanley Kubrick made a relatively brief return visit to Shepperton.  Here's a snippet that might be of interest to film buffs of a certain age and disposition.  The first day's shooting on 2001: A Space Odyssey was on the H stage.  The set was the excavated site on the Moon where the monolith had been discovered.  The 'hole' was 150ft x 50ft x 20 ft deep and at one end had an area representing the Moon's surface.  The first day of shooting this extraordinary film was December 29th 1965, some three and a half years before a man would actually step onto the Moon itself.  (The majority of the film was shot at the MGM studios in Borehamwood, where it occupied most of the stages there for several years.)  Oh well - I think it's interesting, anyway. 

 

British Lion's success grew during the 1960s but they were constantly fighting the overall decline in the British film industry as a whole.  Nevertheless, investment continued - in 1965 L stage was re-equipped.  In fact, between 1958 and 1966 half a million pounds (a great deal of money at the time) was spent on new buildings and equipment.  Unfortunately, during the '70s the decline began to seriously affect the viability of British Lion.  In 1972, the company was taken over by Barclay Securities.  They intended to redevelop much of the site (a familiar story unfortunately) but fortunately and rather surprisingly, tree preservation orders prevented them from carrying out their plans.

A campaign was begun to save the studios which resulted in a deal in 1973, whereby the original studio backlot would be sold off but twenty acres would be retained, which included all the existing stages.  Barclay Securities was at this time taken over by J H Vavasseur and Co., who became the new owners of Shepperton Studios.  A new deal was struck that increased the site by another two acres but the plans included the proposal to move H stage to another part of the site.  It didn't happen.

By 1974 the studios were said to be in a run-down state.  Studio equipment was sold off to pay for the rebuilding of some roads and the rewiring of several of the stages.  Yet another owner arrived in June 1975 when British Lion (by then called Lion International) was bought by Spikings and Deeley.   They shortly afterwards changed the name to Mills and Allen International.  I hope you're keeping up with all this.

In 1977 some of the site including the original entrance was sold off to be used for housing.  This saved the studios from closure.  Another part of the site was also threatened but was leased by a company owned by The Who.  They took over six acres including Littleton House and J and K stages.  The redevelopment of that part of the site was thus prevented.

 

During the 1970s and early '80s stages E, F and G were occupied by a company called BBRK.  They often also used the giant stage H.  This business was owned by four art directors who specialised in designing sets for distinctive TV commercials.  If you lived through that period you will definitely have seen their work which helped define the cultural experience of all of us.  Many famous directors shot commercials on their stages on some extraordinary sets.  These included the Cadbury's Smash Martians, PG Tips chimps, Hamlet cigars and the ad that stopped me dead in my tracks one day in a cinema on my way to buying an ice cream - the Benson and Hedges swimming pool.  Nobody had seen anything like these beautifully made commercials before.

 

Phil Rutter has written to me with an interesting story.  It seems that the builders Taylor Woodrow decided that they needed a studio to create corporate videos.  An offshoot of the company called Kadek Vision was created and they took out a lease on a construction workshop in 1977.  This was between stages E, F and G and the canteen block.  The two-storey building was gutted and a TV studio created within it.  Initially it was equipped with low grade Philips Video80 kit but this was later replaced with broadcast quality cameras and RCA quad VTR machines.  They dug a trench to install cables linking their VTRs with the BBRK stages so that some ads could be shot on video rather than film.  Phil tells me that they made quite a few.  This was pretty ground-breaking but to be honest, it never really caught on as a replacement to film.  Ads to this day have always tried to look like 30 second features. 

 

In 1984 a major upturn in the fortunes of Shepperton began when the whole site, including The Who's land was purchased by the Lee brothers for £3.6m.  They also later took back ownership of the land occupied by the old H stage, which you'll remember had been threatened with demolition to make way for more housing.  Lee were running Wembley studios at the time and had had some success there with a mix of commercials, filmed TV drama and one or two major feature films a year.  Shepperton became Lee International Studios and a programme of investment began.  In fact, they also kept Wembley on until July 1986 - which at the time rather confusingly also had the name 'Lee International Film Studios.'

During 1985 stages L and M were upgraded and new workshops surrounding stages A/B and C/D were constructed.  These included smart new lighting stores - not surprising considering the new owners.  The following year a stylish new art department building adjoining a large workshop block was completed.

All seemed to be going very well.  The company was so confident in fact, that in 1987 Lee International bought the Panavision company.  This stretched the finances considerably but it looked like a good idea at the time.  Sadly, very shortly afterwards came 'Black Monday' and huge amounts were wiped off the value of shares worldwide.  The company was in difficulties and other problems began to emerge which led to a serious fraud office investigation.  Not only that, but film making dried up thanks to a strike by the US Screen Writers' Guild.

American investment bankers Warburg-Pincus bought out the company, and the Lee brothers lost the influence they had enjoyed over the industry for many years.  The studios continued to operate under the Lee International name, however.  I have read that the emphasis of operations at Shepperton focused on television production around this time, but I have yet to establish any typical examples of dramas or series.

The new owners continued with the steady programme of investment.  In 1994, R and S stages were opened on the northern edge of the site alongside H stage.  (R is 120ft x 85ft and S is 100ft x 100ft)  They were constructed using the steel from the old stage 6 at Elstree, previously built for The Empire Strikes Back.  The original Elstree stage had been dismantled to make way for a Tesco superstore and sold to Shepperton.  R and S are a different shape from the one they were built from and in fact some steel remained - it being used on the later construction of the W stage.

 

In 1995 a new chapter began when Ridley and Tony Scott bought the studios.  They immediately brought an experienced and fresh eye to the studios which became known simply as 'Shepperton Studios'.  Within a few months they began to develop much of the site with new facilities.

In 1996 three stages were built.  W is 130ft x 80ft and the double stage J & K are larger - J is 150ft x 100ft and K is 120ft x 100ft.  When it opened, the building was one single very large stage and was used for the film Lost in Space.  After that movie wrapped it was divided into the present two stages - J & K.  The earlier much smaller J and K were adapted to become The David Lean Building. 

The next five years saw a period of stability during which the studios were used for many big British and international movies.  By now, Shepperton was equipped with many good sized stages and a useful back lot that were attracting film makers.  However, they were in direct competition with Pinewood which was not helping either of them financially.  Each studio was also having to turn movies down because they weren't quite big enough to fit in all the potential work.  The answer was to combine assets so on 11th February 2001 a merger with Pinewood was announced and a new company - Pinewood-Shepperton plc - was formed.  They are still known as Shepperton Studios but are now part of the Pinewood Studios Group that can now offer facilities to production companies at this site as well as at Pinewood.

 

Shepperton in 2004.  Top left is the huge Queen Mary reservoir.  The river Ash borders the site in the foreground.

Upper right are the original stages A/B and C/D.  In the foreground right is the double stage J/K, on the left are stages R/S.

The site has seen three areas used as the back lot.  Bottom left is some of the housing that was built on the original back lot that was sold off in 1977.

The relatively small area seen in the foreground above occupied by the W stage, a car park and J/K stage was the back lot between 1977 and 1996.

The current very large back lot is reached by crossing a bridge from the main site and is off this picture to the right.  This land was not part of the original site and was purchased in the late '90s.

On the back lot is a 'Western Street set' of log cabins, originally constructed for The Golden Compass.  Unusually, it was retained after the movie wrapped as it was thought to offer a very useful and flexible facility.

 

In May 2004 Pinewood-Shepperton submitted a planning application to carry out a major rebuilding programme over ten years.  It was intended to increase the amount of square footage of stages and supporting areas by more than twenty percent.  There was a similar long-term plan submitted for Pinewood.  The Pinewood plan has partly been carried out with some modifications but relatively little redevelopment actually took place here compared with what was planned.

In September 2006, Pinewood Shepperton plc announced that it had entered into a joint venture with Morley Fund Management Limited on behalf of Aviva plc Life Funds. The 50:50 joint venture, called Shepperton Studio Property Partnership, acquired the 999 year leasehold interest of Shepperton Studios with a view to further developing the studio in line with the planning consents achieved by the company.  Thus, the new partnership was to release the funding necessary to begin the ambitious construction plans mentioned above.  The demolition of stage I and construction of  'I block' began in late 2006 - the John Mills building being completed in 2007 and the 60,000 sq ft Gainsborough Building opening in June 2008.  The latter block contains offices and facilities for media companies and additional space for productions currently shooting on the Shepperton stages.  However, no new stages have been built.

Above is the 2004 Master Plan.  This was all due to happen over the following 10 years.  Below, how the studios actually looked in 2012.  The H stage was planned to be demolished and the land used to build a car park.  A new H stage of similar square footage but different proportions was to replace it to the south west of the main hub of stages.  Two stages were also planned to replace L and M along with support facilities.  The existing car park was to be demolished and a large office complex constructed for media companies.  Some of these developments may yet be carried out over the years to come.

click on the plans to see in greater detail

with thanks to the Pinewood-Shepperton website.


 

I have hardly mentioned any films made here in the history of the studio site above.  The list is almost endless and is easily found in several excellent books about Shepperton.  However - it would be wrong not to mention any so here are a few notable ones from the post-war years...

An Ideal Husband ('47), The Third Man ('49), The Wooden Horse ('50), The Sound Barrier ('52), The Colditz Story ('54), Hobson's Choice ('54), Richard III ('55), Room at the Top ('58), Our Man in Havana ('59), I'm All Right Jack ('59), The Angry Silence ('60), The Guns of Navarone ('61), The L-Shaped Room ('62), Dr Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ('63), Becket ('64), The Spy Who Came in From The Cold ('64), Darling ('65), A Man For All Seasons ('66), Oliver! ('68), The Day of the Jackal ('72), Young Winston ('72), Return of the Pink Panther ('75), Alien ('78), Privates on Parade ('81), Ghandi ('82), Nineteen Eighty-Four ('83), The Company of Wolves ('84), Passage To India ('84), Out Of Africa ('85), Cry Freedom ('86), 84 Charing Cross Road ('86), Gorillas in the Mist ('87), Henry V ('88), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ('90), The Crying Game ('91), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ('93), Four Weddings and a Funeral ('93), The Madness of King George ('94), Sense and Sensibility ('94), Shadowlands ('94), Braveheart ('95), Evita ('95), Elizabeth ('96), Sliding Doors ('97), Shakespeare in Love ('98), Notting Hill ('98), Gladiator ('98), The End of the Affair ('98), Billy Elliot ('99), Spy Game ('00), Chocolat ('00), Possession ('01), Love Actually ('02), K19: The Widowmaker ('02), Finding Neverland ('02), Calender Girls ('02), Troy ('03), Stage Beauty ('03), Mrs Henderson Presents ('04), Batman Begins ('04), The Da Vinci Code ('05), His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass ('06), Black Book ('06), Inkheart ('08), Moon ('08), The Boat that Rocked ('08), FAQs About Time Travel ('08), The Young Victoria ('08), Robin Hood ('09), Nine ('09), Chatroom ('10), Captain America ('10), Hugo Cabret ('10), 47 Ronin ('11), Last Passenger ('11), A Fantastic Fear of Everything ('12), Thor: The Dark World ('13), Gravity ('13), World War Z ('13), Guardians of the Galaxy ('13)

 

The list above is very impressive and what strikes me is the continuing consistency of the high quality of the films over the years.  It is also nice to see that the studios have produced so many excellent British films.

Shepperton has been used for several multicamera TV productions over the years.  These include You Bet ('88-'95) the later series of Red Dwarf ('91-'99) The National Lottery Big Ticket ('98) The Vicar of Dibley ('97-'06).  I had the pleasure of lighting the Christmas and new year episodes for 2004/5 on stage B.  As mentioned above, Sky 1's Gladiators ('08) was recorded here too - series one on A and B stages and series 2 just on the A stage.  In 2011 ITV's Dancing on Ice moved to the J and K stages at Shepperton from its previous home at Elstree but it returned to Elstree in 2012.

I hope to add a list of single-camera television drama and comedy shot here in due course but I have noted that Blackadder Back and Forth was shot here in 1999, Jam and Jerusalem in 2006 and BBC comedy Beautiful People was made here in 2008.  For several years, the longest-running sitcom on British TV was made at Shepperton.  I refer of course to Last of the Summer Wine.  The interiors were shot here on single camera and the final edited programme projected to a studio audience at Teddington to record their reaction.  Interestingly, despite the longevity of the show (and its cast), in its final years it was shot using the latest HD camera technology.  One assumes this was to make the most of the beautiful location sequences rather than revealing all the crags and crevices of the distinguished cast.

 

 

Whilst dealing with Shepperton, a brief mention should be made about Lion Television Services.  This company was an offshoot of British Lion Films and was led by Peter Lloyd, who had previously been running the Granville Studio.  It was formed in 1969 and was an independent company with an OB unit that was based at these studios, occasionally using one of the stages to make programmes.

Regarding Lion TV, Mike Fitch has sent me the following...

'...originally formed by an ex-ATV producer called Peter Lloyd.  We had a garage and offices built on the left hand side just after coming through the main gate.  We didn't fit out a studio there but we often used the scanner as a plug in to a studio with great success.  We started off with a b&w scanner with Emi 2028 cameras, whilst we were building our colour scanner which was equipped with LDK 3 cameras.  The first Head of Cameras was Roy Garner, ex ATV and then it was the late Dave Swann who tragically died in 1989 in a hotel fire in Bulgaria.  The other cameramen at that time were John Howard, an Oz whereabouts not known, Barrie Dodd, who is Head of Cameras at Visions Mobiles, and Dave Barber (Rocket) who eventually formed his own OB company which is Telegenic.  After a couple of years British Lion put us up for sale and we were bought by Trident Recordings, who renamed us Trilion.'

Trilion are covered on the Independent TV Studios page.

 

 

 

 

 

Pinewood Studios

1935 - present

These are probably the best known UK film studios in the world.  Although they quite rightly deserve this fame for all the successful feature films made here they have in recent years been building up the television side of their business.  At present only three stages have been converted into fully equipped TV studios (one regularly used for the Lotto draws) but the film stages have been used to make a huge amount of single camera television drama and comedy, and many multi-camera entertainment shows have been made here using OB units for facilities.

 

The photograph above shows Pinewood Studios in the 1950s.  (Compare it with the cutaway drawing below to discover what each building was used for.)  At that time there were only five main sound stages: A - E.  The old stately home, Heatherden Hall, can be seen foreground right.  Its grounds have been used for many a film location, including of course several of the Carry On movies.  The triangular pattern of paths on the large lawn on the foreground left indicates by coincidence the site and shape of the huge outdoor 'Paddock Tank', which was built in 1959/60.  The open area to the top of the picture is now occupied by several more stages, supporting buildings and the back lot.

This advertisement shows the studios as they were in 1961.  There are five main stages, two smaller ones - F and G - and the long narrow one (top right, marked '21') later called stage H is referred to here as the 'tunnel stage.'

Click on the image to see it in greater resolution.

 

Pinewood is arguably the most famous film studio in the UK - thanks to a long history of successful British and international movies.  The studios' history dates from 1934 when Charles Boot, a businessman with film-making ambitions, bought Heatherden Hall.  A year later he met J Arthur Rank and the rest is, as they say, history.  Stages A - E were the first to be built and still form the hub of the site.  In 1957 an additional two smaller stages (F and G) were brought into operation along with two new viewing theatres.

Other stages have been added over the years including, of course, the huge 007 stage - which was originally built in 1976 for the film The Spy Who Loved Me.  When completed it was 334ft x 136ft and was the largest stage in the world.  It also had one of the biggest indoor tanks - at 297ft x 73ft and nearly nine feet deep.  It was in fact a 'silent' stage as it was not soundproofed.  Nevertheless, dialogue was often recorded in it - although filming sometimes had to wait for the occasional passing aircraft.  This stage was completely destroyed by fire in June 1984 and reopened in January 1985, with a few alterations to its design, as the 'Albert R Broccoli 007 Stage', in honour of the producer of many early Bond movies.  It is however known throughout the industry simply as 'The Bond Stage'.

The third and latest incarnation of the Bond Stage.  374ft x 158ft and containing a 9ft deep tank 300ft x 72ft.

with thanks to the Pinewood website

On Sunday 30th July 2006, during the derigging of sets for Casino Royale, fire broke out once again.  The stage was almost completely destroyed but within a matter of weeks it had been dismantled and trucks laden with steel were arriving on site to begin the construction of its replacement.   The new stage was completed in March 2007.  It is said to have better sound insulation than before and the design is rather different with vertical walls rather than the sloping ones of its predecessor.  The structural steel frame is now cleverly outside the walls thus increasing the useable floor area considerably.  It has gone from about 45,000 sq ft to 59,000 sq ft and is the largest in Europe.  Even that wasn't big enough for the film Prometheus in 2011.  One end of the stage was opened up and a temporary structure extended it many more feet onto the back lot.

 

There is little point in trying to name all the films that have been made at Pinewood.   The list goes on and on.  It includes some of the greatest and most successful movies made anywhere in the world.  The studios' own website is an excellent source of historical material and there are several books that recount the ups and downs of these studios.  But - our subject is television, so...

Pinewood was first and foremost a film studio.  However, the increasing demand for television drama shot on film created a new market in the early 1960s.  According to George Perry's book, 'Movies from the Mansion', in 1964 stage H was built specifically to house MCA productions, who were to make several filmed TV series.  Owen and Burford's more recent book 'The Pinewood Story' says the same.  The books state that as well as the 'new' stage a self-contained block was constructed with admin areas, dressing rooms, make-up and wardrobe.  The first TV series was called Court Martial and consisted of 26 x 48-minute episodes. 

I must confess, I have a problem with this account.  To be frank, H stage never looked as though it was built to make television productions in the 1960s.  It is no longer with us but for many years was an ugly, concrete construction and was in fact much older than that.  It can be seen on aerial photos of the site dating back to the 1950s and in the drawing shown above is referred to as the 'tunnel stage.'  It was very narrow - making it rather difficult to arrange sets within it, I would have thought.  It joined onto the Large Process Stage - another even narrower long building and was part of that complex.  Confusingly, the Large Process Stage is now called stage H. The original H stage was a very odd shape being 89 feet long but only 36ft 6ins wide.  (The current H stage is possibly even more strange being 115ft x 28ft.)

My conclusion, although I have yet to find final proof of this, is that the tunnel stage was refurbished and renamed H in 1964.  Thus the stage was not actually built for MCA, rather it was adapted from its previous use.  New admin and wardrobe/makeup facilities were created alongside it for MCA to use.  However, this is not all they used.  Bill Hill, one of their producers, has recalled that...

'The people at Pinewood built us our requirements as a self-contained unit.  They gutted a whole block and reconstructed it, creating an admin block, completely self-contained and inter-communicating, plus dressing rooms, make-up, hairdressing and wardrobe departments.  They modified three stages for our production.  (My emphasis)  This went on during July and August.  The unit of 150 people started to arrive ready to shoot on 7 September.' 

(This quotation is gratefully taken from Owen and Burford's 'The Pinewood Story.') 

Thus, it seems that two more stages were involved, as well as H.  Stages F and G were nearby and part of the same block of buildings so one assumes that these three formed the dedicated MCA complex.

The Pinewod lot in 1966.  Stages F, G and H are top left.  The brand new stages J and K (now called TV-one and TV-two) are top centre.  L and M have yet to be built.  The painted backing for the Paddock Tank is foreground left.  These days it is painted chromakey blue - skies and other backings are added in post production but for many years it was painted as a realistic sky.

 

In 1966, work began on two new stages - J & K.  Constructing them would cost £352,000.  Previous stages on studio sites in the UK had mostly been built out of steel, clad in concrete - often painted cream.  Frankly, these old stages are not particularly attractive as buildings.  However, J and K were different in many ways.  They were faced with red brick and with their admin and wardrobe/make-up facilities as part of the construction they form a nicely proportioned and visually attractive construction.  The Pinewood management and architects visited studios all over the world to discover the latest techniques in design and construction and applied them to these stages.

Television was very much in mind when they were designed.  This requires fast re-lighting of sets so a grid with monopoles was included.  Monopoles allow lights to be rigged with great accuracy and to be positioned much faster than in conventional film stages.  (The way overhead lights are rigged in film stages is to mount them on elevated platforms sometimes called boats or to hang them on scaffold poles, ladder beams or trusses that are suspended from the overhead beams via steel lines or chain hoists.  This is a very slow and relatively inflexible method.)  In J & K a grid was designed combining monopoles for lightweight lamps and I-beams enabling heavier movie lights to be suspended.

The other main difference between a TV studio and film stage is the floor.  A film stage traditionally has a floor covered in hard wooden blocks that can have nails hammered in, enabling scenery to be secured rigidly to the ground.  Thus, any camera moves have to incorporate the use of tracks as the floor is too uneven to roll a dolly across it.  This takes time to set up - time that does not exist in the making of television programmes.  TV studios have a hard concrete floor covered with lino or resin, enabling the wheels of camera peds or dollies to run smoothly over it.  J and K were intended to be used for both film and television so this created a problem.

The solution was to have a hard smooth floor that had a wooden surface laid over it when required.  The wood block floor was laid in removeable pallets 8ft x 5ft which sat on top of the perfectly flat 'molten plastic' TV floor.  In fact, after a year or two the wood stayed down until 2000, when the stages became dedicated TV studios and new resin floors were laid.  More on this later.  The stages were also constructed with very effective acoustic isolation, being built on separate concrete rafts.  The centre production office/control room/makeup and wardrobe area between the stages sits on its own T-shaped floating raft.  This is all quite a contrast to some of today's studios that have been very simply and cheaply adapted from former industrial buildings.

From the sound point of view, the stages included 'high grade microphones and the installation of a Mellotron.'  For those of us old enough to remember bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson, the word Mellotron conjurs up the sound of grand sweeping strings, brass sections, 8-voice choirs and many other classic sounds of '70s progressive rock.  However, because the Mellotron was basically a keyboard with a pre-recorded tape linked to each key on the keyboard, there were non-musical versions available that had sound effects on each key so that these could be played in immediately in real time, much as digital samplers are used today, thus saving time on the dub.

Another bit of forward planning in the design of these stages was to include space for TV control rooms.  At the time of construction, all the TV drama made at Pinewood was on film but they considered the possibility that in future they might have to record on videotape using TV cameras.  Thus, control rooms were incorporated between the stages, with windows at first floor level looking on to the studios.  The rooms were not equipped and were intended as observation rooms but they soon became used as dressing rooms and production offices.  After a few years the windows were boarded up.  The blocked-up window frames can still be seen today.  The galleries were eventually equipped in 2000 and 2001 - although not quite as originally intended.  Until 2012, studio TV-one (as we must now call it) had its production gallery at ground floor level although TV-two's production gallery was on the first floor in the space it was originally designed to go all those years ago.  The lighting galleries were both on the ground floor.

 

Over at Elstree a new block containing stages 8 and 9 was being built at the same time - these stages had an identical grid with monopoles and also TV control rooms beween the stages that, like Pinewood, were not equipped but included just in case they would be needed in the future.  How right they were.

The boarded up gallery window in TV-two.  The stairs up to the production gallery were added in the mid noughties.  The window was re-glazed in 2013 so the old gallery is now used as an observation room.

 

J and K (now known as TV-two and TV-one respectively) are quite large as TV studios go at 110 x 80 ft gross - 106 x 74 metric ft within firelanes.

In 1969, stages L and M were built - using the same design principles of a monopole grid and hard floor with wooden surface.  These stages did not however have TV control room suites included.  They are 105 x 90 feet wall to wall, so slightly shorter than J and K but usefully quite a bit wider.

L and M are still mostly used as film stages, although they have often been used to make TV dramas on single camera film or video - for example, they were Gerry Anderson's base in 1970 for the last 9 episodes of UFO, between 1973 and 1976 when he made 48 episodes of Space 1999 and again in 1994 and 1995 for 24 episodes of Space PrecinctThe Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis was also made in one of these stages at the same time as UFO in the other.

New Tricks has been a more recent regular occupant with 77 episodes over 9 series since 2003.  A 10th series was transmitted in 2013.  Stage M featured prominently in the first series of Ricky Gervais' comedy Extras

L and M have also been booked in the past for multi-camera productions using drive-in OB scanners as control rooms.  For example, a series of the gameshow Strike it Lucky was recorded in 1994 in one of this pair.  Apparently, Pinewood have considered converting them into TV studios in the past but at the time all the stages on the site were very busy with film work.  In fact, according to press reports in 2007, EastEnders looked as though it was due to move to Pinewood within a year or two.  These two stages were earmarked to be converted into studios for that programme.  However, the plans were abandoned and EastEnders stayed at BBC Elstree - at least until at least 2015.

Pinewood around 1970.  Stages J and K are the brick faced buildings top centre.  They would later become studios TV-one and TV-two.  Stages L and M are off this photo to the left.  In the distance are the fields where Pinewood hopes to expand over the next decade or so.

TV series and dramas shot on film at Pinewood have included Court Martial ('64), Man in a Suitcase ('66), The Avengers - 2 eps  ('66), Strange Report ('68), From A Bird's Eye View ('69), UFO ('70), The Persuaders ('70-'72), Shirley's World ('71), The Zoo Gang ('73), Space 1999 ('73, '76), The New Avengers (''76, '77), The Professionals ('77), Press Gang ('89), Ivanhoe ('81), The Hunchback of Notre Dame ('81), Witness For the Prosecution ('82), The Last Days of Pompeii ('83), Master of the Game (''83), Squaring the Circle ('83), The Corsican Brothers ('84), Deceptions ('85), Still Crazy Like a Fox ('86), Pack of Lies ('87), Hazard of Hearts ('87), some sketches for French and Saunders ('87-'98), A Man For All Seasons ('88), War and Remembrance ('88), Press Gang ('89), Crucifer of Blood ('90), Fry and Laurie's Jeeves and Wooster ('91), The Camomile Lawn ('91), an episode of Inspector Morse ('91), Bye Bye Baby ('91), Tales From the Poop Deck ('91), Dennis Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar ('92), Lady Chatterley ('92), Head Over Heels ('92), Minder ('93), The Borrowers ('93), Moving Story ('93), Space Precinct ('94, '95), Chandler and Co. ('94, '95), Poirot ('94), The Spooks of Bottle Bay ('94), Class Act ('95), The Final Cut, ('95), Last of the Summer Wine ('95, '98, '05, '06), Ivanhoe ('96), The Preventers, ('96), Hostile Waters ('96), Born To Run ('96), Jonathan Creek ('96, '97, '99, '04), Crime Traveller ('97), Potamus Park ('96, '97), Invasion Earth ('97), The Vanishing Man ('97), CI5: The New Professionals ('98), Little White Lies ('98), Hornblower ('98, '00, '01, '02), Roger Roger ('98), Midsomer Murders ('98), Harbour Lights ('98) and the brilliant Longitude ('99).

Dennis Potter's final two drama series, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus were filmed at Pinewood in 1995 - unique in that in order to fulfil the writer's dying wish they were jointly financed and transmitted on both BBC1 and Channel 4.

Parts of the two British episodes of Friends -The One With Ross' Wedding were also filmed here in 1998 - the rest was made in front of an audience at Fountain Studios. 

More recent single-camera TV dramas and comedies shot here (often using L or M stages) have included Dinotopia ('00), The Lost World ('01), The Queen's Nose ('01), Trial and Retribution ('02), Wild West ('02), Spooks ('03-'11), Ray Winstone's Henry VIII ('03), Auf Wiedersehen Pet ('03, '04), My Dad's the Prime Minister ('04), two episodes of Dr Who ('06), some sketches for Dead Ringers ('03, '04, '05), some sketches for Little Britain ('03-'06), Grandma's House ('10), some sketches for That Mitchell and Webb Look ('06-'10), scenes for Come Fly With Me ('10) New Tricks ('03-'12) and Episodes ('10, '11).  Episodes was particularly noteworthy, being set mostly in Hollywood but with almost all the interiors and some exteriors actually shot on a stage here in Pinewood.

 

A number of gameshows and entertainment programmes have also used various stages as multicamera studios.  These include Strike it Lucky ('94), You Bet ('95), Dog Eat Dog ('01), Shafted ('01), Braniac: Science Abuse ('04, '05 '06), X-Perimental ('04), The Whole 19 Yards ('09), The Magicians ('11) and Got To Dance ('11) which was transmitted live from the R stage.  A fibre network has been installed all round the Pinewood site enabling any of the stages to transmit live TV and in 2011 the link to the BT Tower was upgraded to uncompressed HD.

Although Pinewood has recently had its ability to handle live TV upgraded, in fact the first live TV broadcast was from the K stage in 1992.  This was for the children's Saturday morning show Parallel 9 which ran for several months in the summers of  '92 - '94.  The K stage became the surface of a distant planet whilst celebrity guests had to enter a tatty little caravan on the back lot, which of course was the 'portal' to Parallel 9.  Weekends are usually quiet at Pinewood (apart from the occasional fire) so this show did not interfere with the normal running of the studios.

Dragon's Den has also been shot here at Pinewood.  The first two series in 2004/5 used a real location but after that the show built a set on the F stage (100 x 76 ft wall to wall).  It is interesting to note that the programme was still being made here in 2011 despite the fact that it is a Salford based show.  In fact, in 2012 they used studio HQ4 in Salford's MediaCity to record it.

 

In February 2000, Pinewood was purchased from Rank by a business consortium headed by Michael Grade and Ivan Dunleavy.  In June of the same year, J stage began conversion into a dedicated TV studio, with a resin floor and its own fully equipped gallery suite with digital mixer and associated electronics.  In 2001, K was similarly converted into a digital TV studio specifically for The Weakest Link, which had previously been using Capital and then Magic Eye Studios in Wandsworth.  (Thanks to Neil Wallace for that info.)

Following some further refurbishment in 2005 the studios were renamed 'TV-one' and 'TV-two'.  (K became one and J became two.)  The studios specialise in series with standing sets but do occasionally accommodate single productions.  For many years TV-one had The Weakest Link as a regular booking whilst TV-two had sitcoms like My Family, According to Bex and All About Me filling its schedule.  The first series of The Catherine Tate Show was also recorded in TV-two Test the Nation came from TV-one on a few occasions when Fountain was busy and the Christmas special of The Green Green Grass was recorded in TV-two in October 2005.  It was shot in high definition using an OB unit for facilities as the studio did not have its own HD gear. 

The second series of Extras was also filmed in TV-two in 2006.  This series dealt with the making of a sitcom which was part recorded using the studio's facilities.  Most of the series was shot on single camera Digibeta.  Exterior shots showed BBC TV Centre but no, the studio was actually here at Pinewood. The Extras 2007 Christmas special was also made here in the summer of that year.  In the spring of 2007 TV-one was the home of the second series of The IT Crowd, the production requesting that they have a studio with the production gallery on the ground floor. 

I had the pleasure of returning to the studios in November 2007 when I lit a revival Christmas special of To The Manor Born in TV-one.  This was shot in HD using an OB scanner parked in front of the building.  Other shows around this time included Lily Allen and Friends in 2008 and Would I Lie To You in 2009.

 

2008 saw an interesting development.  The highly acclaimed theatre production of King Lear, with Ian McKellan in the title role, was recorded in TV-two for C4 and the American PBS channel.  Unfortunately this doesn't seem to have heralded a return to recording successful theatre productions for television so that many more millions can see them - in the way the BBC did for many years but oddly abandoned in the early 1990s.  Actually, that's not strictly true any longer.  Since about 2012 several productions have been broadcast live from the National Theatre and Royal Opera House to cinemas around the country.  This only became possible when cinemas were equipped with digital projectors.  Some of these plays and operas have also subsequently been shown on broadcast TV.

The Green Green Grass Christmas special 2005 in TV-two.  Comedy lighting by yours truly.

with thanks to the Pinewood website

 

In 2009 a BBC Children's series - ZingZillas - took up residence in TV-one for most of the year.  This meant that the final series of Weakest Link before its move to Glasgow was moved into TV-two.  The knock-on effect of this was that My Family had to move from its home of several years to Teddington.  This unfortunately disrupted several regular Teddington bookings including Harry Hill's TV Burp and this undoubtedly affected subsequent bookings at Teddington.  Once My Family wrapped, Teddington's studio 1 was nothing like as busy as it had been previously.  The wisdom of all this is not for me to comment on here but it certainly caused much discussion amongst many people in the industry.

The first part of  2010 was somewhat thin on the ground for TV bookings in these two Pinewood studios and from the summer they were rented out as film stages for the X-Men: First Class movie.  Film bookings extended well into 2011, TV-one being used as a props workshop supporting the Ridley Scott 'Alien' prequel Prometheus.  It was also used as a wardrobe store for Snow White and the Huntsman for many months from 2011 into 2012.  This doesn't on the face of it seem the best use of a TV studio but I guess Pinewood's sales and marketing people know best.  TV-two saw the return of Would I Lie To You in  2010, 2011 and again in 2012.    Lee Mack's All Star Cast was also made in TV-two in 2011.  In May 2012 I had the pleasure of lighting the Angelos Epithemiou Show for Channel 4 in TV-two.

 

In December 2012 it was announced that Camelot would be leaving their 1,200 sq ft studio run by Arqiva - only a few miles away in Chalfont Grove.  The National Lottery draws moved into TV-one from January 2013 until a purpose-built studio and associated facilities were completed elsewhere on the Pinewood lot.  The old scoring stage (once used to record orchestral soundtracks) was converted into a TV studio and renamed TV-three.  The Lotto draws moved there in October 2013.

TV-three is much smaller than the other two studios but twice the size of the old Chalfont studio at 2,640 sq ft.  It has a dedicated suite of control rooms next to the studio and its own cameras.  In theory, these could be used for TV shows being recorded on other nearby stages on the days when there is no Lotto draw.  The 7,500 sq ft F stage sits directly alongside TV-three so would appear to be an obvious candidate to be used for series with standing sets.  The Richard Attenborough stage is a short walk across a roadway so TV-three's galleries might also be a practical alternative to using an OB truck for major shows in that huge space.

In January, Pinewood began to actively market TV-three and its associated facilities, saying that it is available for hire from Sunday to Friday.  That would be quite an impressive turnaround in and out of the Lottery draws overnight.  The Lotto set is packed full of LED product and looks very impressive on screen.

 

 

Investment and improvements have been carried out in the two main TV studios from time to time.  The green rooms, dressing rooms etc are all very smart.  The studios themselves have relatively new air conditioning systems.  In the summer of 2009 TV-two was given a new resin floor, despite the existing one being less than ten years old.

From the beginning TV-one and TV-two never owned their own cameras and VTR machines but hired them in on a daily basis when required.  This must have saved a great deal when setting them up and it also meant that less capital was tied up doing nothing when the studios were not actually recording.  In this way, Pinewood were able to charge less than some other studios when standing sets were used.

 

Pinewood, perhaps surprisingly, did not carry out a full HD installation in these studios at the same time as other studios around the country.  They had HD fibre cables installed in both studios and to and from the galleries and MCR but continued to hire in equipment when required.  They did however purchase 8 Sony HDC-1000/1500 cameras which were shared with Teddington and they have hired in more when required. 

In 2012 they at last carried out some serious investment here - constructing a new gallery suite at the front of the building at ground floor level taking over some offices and a green room.  These have quick and easy access to both studio floors.  (MediaCity Salford please note!)  At present there is one suite to service both studios - it is assumed that only one studio will be recording or transmitting at a time.  If both do need to be in use then an OB unit can be used - although it would be possible to use the old galleries and equip them with flyaway kit for a series.

The new galleries opened in September 2012.  Many working professionals including me were asked their advice when the galleries were designed and they are now arguably the best in the country.  How refreshing, compared with one or two other recently built TV studios.

The old ground floor lighting control rooms have become camera and technical stores and the production galleries have become viewing rooms but as mentioned above could be used as temporary control rooms if required.

 

TV-two was also given new lighting monopoles - the previous ones were very old and time consuming to use - there were actually three separate designs in use, each requiring different hand-held motors to raise or lower.  The very smart new ones were designed and built by German company MTS to Pinewood's specification.  They are a huge improvement.  It is planned to purchase new monopoles for TV-one very soon.  (BBC S&PP bought 200 of the same monopoles for stage 9 at Elstree in 2013.)  TV-one was also given a new floor in 2012 (TV-two had a new one in 2009.)

Not surprisingly, with the closure of BBC TV Centre in April 2013 these studios have seen an increase in their use - especially with their excellent new facilities.

 

 

 

In 2001 Pinewood purchased Shepperton Studios to form Pinewood-Shepperton.  Michael Grade remained as chairman.  The business with all its facilities and 36 stages became one of the world's premier film and television resources.  During 2006 the company began operating under the name of the Pinewood Studios Group and now markets and operates the various stages and TV studios at Pinewood, Shepperton and Teddington as one operation.

 

In May 2004 Pinewood-Shepperton declared an intention to redevelop both sites and increase their film and TV studio space significantly over the following ten years, demolishing some old stages and building several new ones.  In April 2005 the company bought the lease to Teddington Studios when they went bust, thus saving them from closure.  This unexpected acquisition may have delayed some expansion in the TV side of the business at Pinewood itself.

In 2007 full planning permission for the Master Plan was granted and  work immediately began on a new entrance and gatehouse and some new buildings nearby.  The Queen opened the gatehouse on 2nd November.  According to the Pinewood website at least three new film stages were planned  (see the plan below).

The plan from 2007 seen below indicated that the car park in front of the two TV studios was also to be developed.  It looked likely that a 15,000 sq ft TV studio was to be built there.  Although it is unlikely now that a fully equipped TV studio will be built, this will almost certainly be the site for a new sound stage which could be used for TV production using the galleries nearby.  In 2010 a 'temporary' workshop building was erected that is likely to remain until the new stage is built.

In fact, the Pinewood Master Plan began its development in 2003 (although full planning permission took several years to obtain) and the industry has moved on significantly over the following decade.  Blockbuster feature films and big TV entertainment productions now demand very large stages which was not the case back then.   Towards the end of  2011 construction of a very large stage - initially referred to as stage T - commenced.  It was built on the area opposite stages L and M where the old H stage and some workshops used to be located.  It received its first booking in February 2012 (the feature film Les Misérables) and was officially opened and named as  'The Richard Attenborough Stage' in April 2012.

The new Richard Attenborough stage.  Its length is the same as the building that contains stages L and M, seen behind.

with thanks to the Pinewood website

It is an impressive 30,000 sq ft (203ft x 148 ft and 50ft high).  This is very large indeed - about half the area of the 007 stage but much larger than any of the other stages here.  The Richard Attenborough stage is intended for major TV entertainment shows as well as feature film production.   It has emergency exits and other facilities enabling a large studio audience to be handled if required.  It is more than twice the size of any of the largest TV studios in the country so not surprisingly Pinewood are looking to attract the big blockbuster live event shows.  However, no technical facilities have been incorporated so an OB unit has to be used.  The first TV show recorded here was The Love Machine - made by Princess Productions for Sky Living in July 2012.

 

Below is the Pinewood Master Plan as it appeared on the Pinewood website in 2007.  These developments were expected to take around ten years to complete.

The orange blocks are new constructions or refurbishment of existing ones.  Note that a new building is indicated occupying the car park in front of studios TV-one and TV-two.

Towards the end of 2010 this area was converted into a temporary scenery workshop for a major feature film.  The 'temporary' building remained through 2011, 2012 and 2013.  It is likely to be the site of a new stage within the next year or two.

The studio map in 2013.  The new Richard Attenborough stage occupies a significant part of the site although it was not quite what was originally intended on the Master Plan as seen above.

The double orange block top left of the master plan is where the 30,000 sq ft Q stage and associated workshops is indicated in light blue and shown as 'under construction.'

Note the new TV-three marked in red just above the F stage.

with thanks to the Pinewood website

 

 

At the beginning of September 2007 the Pinewood Studios Group surprisingly announced that they were considering purchasing the BBC Studios part of BBC Resources.  They spent nearly 1 million pounds on the bidding process but in the end the sale collapsed.   It seems that Pinewood were not prepared to take on the pension liabilities of the BBC staff.  Back in 2007 Ivan Dunleavy had announced that the company was planning to significantly increase the proportion of  TV vs film at Pinewood.  According to the press, he stated...

'We are looking to achieve a parity with film in terms of revenue.  The UK TV market is large and diverse, we want to increase our share in it."  Dunleavy apparently said that the company could increase the revenue share from TV, which currently stands at 30%, to 50% over the next three years.'

This interesting statement probably reflected the company's declared interest at the time in purchasing BBC Studios.  It is likely that the purchase of the business would have been followed by the construction and/or conversion of several new TV studios at Pinewood.  The staff and much of the equipment would have been moved to Pinewood over the following 3 or 4 years (along with with the BBC's regular programme bookings) enabling TV Centre to be demolished in 2013.  Of course, the purchase of the business fell through, and the total demolition of TV Centre is not going to happen now although it has been sold and most of it will be redeveloped.   TV Centre will retain three of its eight studios when BBC S&PP return in 2015.  This will probably affect any expansion plans at Pinewood with them unlikely to build new fully equipped medium sized TV studios.

 

Another story will also have affected Pinewood's plans to increase revenue from television...

In the summer of 2007 various rumours began to circulate widely, mostly from people associated with BBC Elstree, that EastEnders might be planning to leave Borehamwood and the BBC studios there sold off for redevelopment.  These rumours grew and indeed were reported in two or three newspapers.  According to press reports, Pinewood was the most likely site for the programme to move to.  If so, Albert Square and its surrounding roads would have been reconstructed on the back lot here and three stages taken over and converted into television studios.  I gather that L and M were the ones earmarked, given their original TV-based design, plus R, which is next door.  Of course, a great deal of space would also have been required for prop and set storage and for offices and post-production suites.

The story was repeated in the press in March 2008 but was officially denied by BBC spokespersons.  They claimed that in the current economic climate it would not be possible to sell the Elstree site for the money they would be seeking.  Thus EastEnders would be staying where it is for the time being.  It seems that the BBC were hoping for £300m from the sale of that site (coincidentally the same as for TV Centre) which would almost entirely be given over to housing.  However, the crash in property values diminished the value of the BBC's Elstree studio site considerably so a sale became unlikely for several years.  Thus EastEnders remains at Elstree - until at least 2015.

 

In recent years changes in tax laws have seen the fortunes of Pinewood wax and wane as movie-making is so easily influenced by production costs.  An uncertain period in 2005 was improved when the tax laws were made more encouraging in 2006.  However, the availability of cheap labour and facilities in eastern Europe affected the number of films made here in the following few years.

 

Project Pinewood...

Evidence of the determination to see the long term success of the studios came on 15th November 2007 when Pinewood-Shepperton announced a proposed expansion of the site - taking up the fields on the opposite side of the road between the studios and the M25 motorway.  The scheme was certainly ambitious and would have occupied a huge area on land already owned by the company.

The plan as announced in 2007 was to build several permanent location sets to which film-makers would otherwise have to travel.  The published plans were genuinely quite extraordinary.  Proposed locations included Venice, an American university campus, streets in Vienna and Chicago, a UK industrial canal, a London street market, New York warehouse district, 'Lake Como', West Coast America, Chinatown and even a medieval castle and a Roman amphitheatre.  Whew!  The cost of constructing all this to the kind of detail that would be convincing on an Imax cinema screen can only be imagined.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the proposal was that these dwellings would be lived in by real people.  About 2,000 homes were to be included which would be available to buy or rent, so if you fancied living in a flat overlooking a Venetian canal or possibly in a New York slum you would be able to live your dream. 

One small fly in the ointment was that this land is designated Green Belt.  Another was, of course, the cost involved in constructing all these inhabitable but historically accurate dwellings.  Perhaps the most challenging was what to do with all the people living in these properties trying to go about their everyday lives whilst movies are being shot all round them.

 

Not surprisingly, after almost a year of consultation the proposed plans were considerably revised.  As announced in September 2008 they then included large areas of open green space which would have been available for use by local residents and all the existing hedges and wooded areas would have been preserved.  The castle, amphitheatre, Lake Como and Venetian canals had all disappeared from the plan.

This was now a more realistic proposal in every way and one can see how useful it might have been.  The site was to  have a mix of  'filmable' streets and smaller private roads and cycleways for local inhabitants to use.  Clearly, people living here would still need to drive the car to work every morning.

A final planning application was made in July 2009.  Unfortunately this was roundly refused in October by the local authority - largely because of the Green Belt issue.  A local campaign to refuse permission was started up and strong views were expressed.

A public enquiry into the development began on April 5th 2011 and lasted into May.  Pinewood were hoping that the 960 permanent jobs that would be created would help the application.  Also that this expansion of facilities would help to maintain Pinewood's reputation as one of the top film studios in the world.

On 20th January 2012 secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, announced that the application had been refused.  Unfortunately this decision came only a few months after the government announced that they were relaxing planning regulations in order to stimulate growth in the construction industry.  This created a loud backlash of many individuals and organisations claiming that the Green Belt was now under threat.  The government strongly denied that this was the case so had they allowed this application so soon they would have played straight into the hands of the protesters.  Unfortunately the timing was not good for Pinewood.

Pinewood did not choose to appeal against this decision so this scheme died but they immediately began working on another much more interesting proposal.

 

 

For most of the first decade of this century the television side of the business was thriving and the two TV studios were kept very  busy.  As the TV side of the business diminished towards the end of the decade the pendulum swung back towards the film side and the stages were busy all year round with features.  In November 2011 the government announced that it was extending UK film tax relief until the end of December 2015, which was excellent news for Pinewood and of course all the other British film studios.

2010 saw a considerable reduction in Pinewood-Shepperton's income from television, compared to film.  It fell from £11.3m in 2009 to £8.2m in 2010.  This decline continued in the first half of 2011 - but was offset by a big increase in revenue generated from movie production.  For much of this period the two TV studios were occupied by feature films and many of the studios at Teddington were relatively quiet.  The Pinewood management partly blamed the BBC and ITV for using their in-house studios more than before in a press statement.  However, more than half of all the entertainment programmes shown on BBC and ITV channels are made by independent companies who are relatively free to make their shows where they like and Pinewood has an interesting advantage over the other London TV studios in that it is technically a 'regional' studio since it is (just) outside the M25.  It therefore enables programme makers to tick that particular box if they have to.

In fact in recent years several entertainment shows have used film stages at Pinewood and Shepperton to record series such as Ant and Dec's Push The Button, The Whole 19 Yards, Got To Dance and The Love Machine.  This is the kind of work Pinewood is likely to be seeking to attract over the next few years.

 

Although Pinewood-Shepperton was seen to be operating successfully (total revenue in 2010 increased by 8%) in April 2011 an unexpected bid was made to buy the company.  This was from Peel Media, the company who own and run MediaCity in Salford.  They already owned 29.7% of Pinewood and launched an £87.8m takeover bid.  Two weeks later, Mohammed Al Fayed, former owner of Harrods, was also said to be considering an all-cash bid for the company.  On 27th April it was announced that Peel had increased its offer to £96m and this new offer was accepted by the directors of the group.  Michael Grade stayed on as chairman and Peel said that they would allow Pinewood to continue to operate autonomously.

Being owned by Peel has given Pinewood greater financial stability which has enabled long term investment to begin.  Previously, the company had to pass a large proportion of its profits to a number of shareholders leaving relatively little for major investment.  Peel seem to be looking at Pinewood in the long term enabling the construction of at least two new large stages and some welcome investment in the two main TV studios.  Certainly, I can report that walking round the site now all the buildings are clean, freshly painted and old cables, pipes and other clutter have been removed giving a much smarter appearance all round.  Most of the old dilapidated buildings and workshops have gone and everywhere gives the impression of a very successful and busy enterprise.

 

Although the 10 year Master Plan was published by Pinewood in 2004, by no means all of the proposed development has actually taken place.  Of course, the studios have a smart new gatehouse, the Richard Attenborough stage opened in 2012 and Q stage in 2013 but most of the other redevelopment has yet to happen.

The Q stage was constructed during 2012/13 in the south dock area replacing a 16,700 sq ft silent stage and some offices and workshops and opened in September 2013.  It has its own very large workshops and office areas included as part of the development.  It is in an area of the site that was earmarked for development in the Master Plan so planning permission was already granted.

 

Following the rejection of 'Project Pinewood' in January 2012 which would have been on land owned by the studios on the other side of the road, (see above), in August 2012 Pinewood announced that it would submit a new planning application for major development by the end of the year.  In fact the application was made on Feb 1st 2013.

Consultation took place with local residents during the autumn.  This proposed expansion recognises the fact that over the past few years most of Pinewood's stages have been fully booked and work has been turned away.  They can currently only handle two feature films at the same time and this sometimes also means that TV work has to be turned away.  The aim is eventually to be able to handle four features plus more TV work.  Pinewood will also be aware that Warner's new studios opening in 2012 at Leavesden have taken the crown from Pinewood in offering the newest and some of the largest stages in the country.

The new proposal is much more realistic than Project Pinewood and appears to be more aware of the environmental consequences of building on Green Belt land.  Pinewood hope to get planning permission on exceptional grounds of national importance and they do have a point.

The plans indicate three new stages on the existing site.  One is the large Q stage that opened in 2013.  Another is in front of the two TV studios - so no real surprise there.  This is currently occupied by a temporary workshop and was indicated on the 2004 Master Plan so one assumes construction can take place very soon.  The third new stage occupies the area of car park 1 next to the D stage.  This is about the same size as Stages A, D and E and was not on the original Master Plan.  A multi-storey carpark is also planned on the site of the existing carpark 3, near the main entrance as are two new production office blocks.

 

More controversially, significant development is planned on the land on the other side of the road.  This is all to take place over 5-15 years.  8 large stages and 2 medium stages are proposed there, along with a number of workshops, offices and support facilities.  Very cleverly the walls of some of the stages will have a 'city street' set built into them enabling scenes to be shot on site that would otherwise involve closing off parts of a real city centre.   There will also be another large back lot for temporary outdoor sets. 

It will all be hidden from the roads and local houses by trees, shrubs and a landscaped bund.  A large area of natural open ground including a wooded hill will be retained for the use of local residents along with a wide green border containing footpaths round the perimeter.

This development will certainly be needed if the British film industry is to retain its position as the only serious competitor to Hollywood.  The combined creative industries of theatre, film and television are one of the few things we do better in this country than than anywhere else in the world.  This industry directly and indirectly generates huge amounts of revenue to the Treasury as well as providing employment to thousands of people.  The British film industry needs all the support the government can give it, so one does hope that planning permission for this scheme will be eventually forthcoming.

Permission was refused by the local council but a public enquiry began in November 2013 following an apppeal by Pinewood.  It is due to report its findings in April 2014.  Fingers crossed they agree - it would be very bad for the whole industry if the scheme is turned down.

 

 

 

Pinewood in early 2006, viewed from the north end of the site.  The huge building in the foreground is the second 007 stage - since destroyed by fire and replaced with another.  To its right are stages R and S - each 166 x 116ft and built in 1999.  Nearby on the right of this picture are stages L and M, originally built for TV filmed dramas.  The two TV studios currently in use are in the centre of this picture.  The car park in front of the TV studios will be the site of a new stage very soon.  The area occupied by the car park on the left is where the new multi-storey car park will go if planning permission is granted.

With thanks to the Pinewood website.

 

 

 

 

 

MGM-British Studios Borehamwood

1937 - 1970

 

Although these studios were only a few hundred yards down the road from the ones we now call 'Elstree Studios' and 'BBC Elstree Centre' they were always named more accurately as being in Borehamwood rather than Elstree.  They were not used to make a great deal of television, which is why they have not been included in this website until now.  However, they were the home of one particular TV drama series which helped define the 1960s - Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner.  That was not the only television show made here but certainly the most important.

Other more obscure TV series mentioned in the 1960/61 British Film and TV Yearbook include One Step Beyond, The Third Man and Zero One.

 

The studios were built from 1935 by Paul Soskin, a film producer, and his uncle Simon Soskin.  They named them Amalgamated Studios.  As they neared completion in 1937 it turned out that a production deal with Columbia had fallen through.  This combined with far greater construction costs than anticipated (don't these people watch Grand Designs or Homes Under the Hammer?) meant that the builders effectively took over the ownership.  Thus, the brand new studios found themselves looking for someone interested in film-making to purchase them.

John Maxwell of the nearby Elstree BIP Studios considered it but J Arthur Rank knew that they would be major competitors to his newly opened Pinewood and Denham studios so he snapped them up.

Hardly a film had been made here before the war came along and they were taken over by the government to be used for storage.

In 1947 Rank was in financial difficulties so he sold the studios to the Prudential who in turn sold them to MGM in 1948 to be used for making international films starring a mix of British and American actors.  They were renamed MGM-British Studios and were considered by many to be the most glamorous studios in the country.  They were heavily invested in by MGM and were equipped with all the latest kit from Hollywood.

However, they struggled to come up with a major success until Ivanhoe in 1952.  In 1958 MGM rented out studio space to 20th-Century Fox for the making of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman, which was a huge international success.  This had involved the construction of a large set on the back lot representing a fortified Chinese town.  It covered 500,000 sq feet and was the first of many big sets built behind the stages, in the style of typical Hollywood studios.

1958 was also the year that Tom Thumb was made here.  This was an immediate hit and became a firm favourite with children for decades thanks in future years to VHS and then DVD sales.  Successes in the early '60s included The VIPs and The Yellow Rolls Royce which had a large cast of very famous international stars.

The studios were of course primarily used for making films but our subject is television.  The first well known TV drama made here was Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan, series one being filmed in 1960.  It was the idea of Ralph Smart, one of the writers on The Invisible Man which was filmed at ATV's Elstree studios just down the road.  He got together with Ian Fleming and they decided to create a James Bond series for TV.  Unfortunately, the rights to Bond had been sold to Eon Productions - the first Bond film Dr No had yet to be made but buying the rights back was not possible.

Along with another writer, Ian Stuart Black, they created a new character working as a freelancer in the world of espionage - 'John Drake'  He was to be cool, ruthless, a casual user of women and able to solve any problem using his bare fists or a loaded gun.  (In other words, James Bond.)  They sold the idea to ATV's Lew Grade and he gave the go-ahead.  They selected Patrick McGoohan to play the lead.  He was tall, good looking and with an extraordinary screen presence.  He agreed to play the part but on one or two conditions.  He had it put in his contract that he would never be seen kissing a woman, his character would always treat them with respect and also that any problems would be solved by his brainpower before he had to resort to fighting.  So the character became not so much James Bond as Dr Who.  McGoohan had had some bad experiences during his recent contract with Rank and was not going to make the same mistake twice.  I have seen a documentary where people who knew him described him as being a devout Catholic - explaining that his personal moral code affected what he was prepared to do on screen, both in Danger Man and later in The Prisoner.

The first series was popular in Britain but only moderately so in the US.  Maybe they wanted to see more kissing and fighting.  A second series was therefore not commissioned.  However, once Dr No came out in the cinemas in 1962 and ABC's The Avengers grew in popularity, the world of secret agents suddenly became big business so Lew Grade thought again about another series of Danger Man (It was called Secret Agent in the US).  The length was increased to 50 minutes and the show ran for a total of 86 episodes over four series.  McGoohan became the highest paid actor in the UK.

The Studio had originally been built with four large blocks containing seven stages - one block had a very large stage (stage 3) of 194 x 96ft and the rest were split in two with stages approximately 120 x 96 ft and 74 x 96 ft each.  By 1962 a further two stages of 75 x 50ft had been built and stage 10 opened in 1963.  It was somewhat larger at 120 x 85ft and had previously been in use at Walton Studios which had recently closed.  This stage was later dismantled yet again and re-erected at Bray in 1973.

 


MGM in May 1966.  2001: A Space Odyssey was occupying most of the stages but in others were The Prisoner and The Dirty Dozen.  Extraordinary times.

Click on the map to see it in greater detail

 

An episode of the first series of Danger Man had used Portmeirion as a location to represent an Italian village.  Situated on the coast in north Wales, it was the personal project of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who designed it to fit organically into the natural landscape of sea and mountains.  (He was still building it during the filming of Danger Man and later The Prisoner.)  Although clearly with a Mediterranean look about it, he denied that it was a copy of an Italian village and in fact the architecture borrows from several styles and periods.  McGoohan was struck by its unique qualities which helped him form the germ of an idea for a new show once Danger Man had wrapped.

The Prisoner was an extraordinary series that was unlike anything previously made on TV.  It was very much of its time - filmed in 1966 and 1967 it was about a secret agent who had for some undisclosed reason decided to give up his job.  We see him in his London flat, gas is pumped in through the keyhole, he passes out and wakes up still in his flat but - when he opens the curtains he is in a mysterious village from which there is no escape.  Each episode had a different 'Number 2' who attempted to break our hero.  Meanwhile he (number 6) tried to escape.  The series was baffling, ground-breaking, occasionally somewhat pretentious but built up a very loyal audience.  It tackled some pretty deep subjects to do with freedom, democracy, politics and religion but all within the framework of a prime time mystery spy thriller.  Most importantly, it was never made clear who were the goodies and who were the baddies - we never knew whether Number 6 had been caught by 'us' or 'them.'  The show still has a huge fan base.  It was the Twin Peaks or Lost of its day.  Nothing like it had ever been made before.

Many people assumed that McGoohan was playing the same character as in Danger Man - John Drake.  He always denied this but according to some who worked on it, the early printed scripts had his character's lines spoken by 'Drake.'  In later scripts his lines were down as being spoken by 'P' (for Prisoner).  His rules of what he would and would not do on screen still applied.  The script for episode 2 called for him to kiss a woman whilst he whispered instructions in her ear so that the bugging microphones couldn't hear him.  Much to the frustration of the writer and director he refused to kiss her so the scene didn't work as it should have.

Many of the exteriors were filmed in Portmeirion but all the interiors and some exteriors were shot at MGM in Borehamwood.  The show was based in stage 6 - appropriately enough - but occasionally other stages were used - for example, Billy Casper informs me that the episode 'Fall-Out' used some old sets from Battle Beneath the Earth on stages 1 and 2.

Exteriors shot on a stage here included a beach scene (using the stage's tank), the woodland scenes, some scenes at the outdoor cafe and many of the scenes outside Number 6's house.  The lighting is always the giveaway!  That and the painted backcloths.  None of this would have been noticed on TV when these shows were first broadcast but are apparent now on today's high definition TVs. 

There was one particularly striking interior set - a large circular room with backlit walls, and panels in the floor from which chairs or tables or other things might emerge.  This set was dressed and redressed to become several different chambers in which the controlling powers were running The Village. 

The first series ended after 13 episodes but it was agreed between Lew Grade and McGoohan that another whole series would be too many so they would finish it with only four more.  Rather like Twin Peaks or Lost - everyone wanted to know how it was going to end and in particular who was 'Number 1'?  The final episode satisfied almost nobody - the press and viewers were furious that a nice neat tidy answer was not forthcoming but of course with a series as enigmatic as this how could there be one?  Just like Twin Peaks and Lost in fact.

Those involved in making The Prisoner tell how McGoohan was obsessed with it and controlled everything.  More than one director was fired by him.  He ended up directing some episodes himself and some were also written by him under false names.  His acting performance in the series is quite exceptional but his power on set when working was at times disturbing to the crew and other cast members - Leo McKern who played a two-hander with him towards the end of the series is said to have had a nervous breakdown, the intensity of acting with McGoohan was so stressful.

I can thoroughly recommend the Blu-ray release of this series.  The image quality is astonishingly good - the original 35mm colour print has been beautifully cleaned up and graded.  The style of the show is clearly very 1960s but much of it still stands up remarkably well - the performances are particularly strong from McGoohan and his supporting cast.  It is easy to see why it made such an impact.

Apart from a series called Rafferty and a handful of episodes of Columbo in the US, McGoohan rarely acted in TV dramas after The Prisoner and only appeared in a few movies during the rest of his life - these included Ice Station Zebra ('68), Scanners ('81) and Braveheart ('95).  To be fair, in 2000 he did agree to give his voice to a character called 'Number 6' in The Simpsons episode The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.  So maybe he did have a sense of humour after all.  He died in January 2009.

 

Whilst McGoohan was changing the face of television on one of the stages at MGM, Stanley Kubrick was taking over most of the other stages with a film that would change the face of cinema - 2001: A Space OdysseyThe film was not well received by some at first but over the years it grew to become considered one of the best ever made - in 2012 it was voted the 6th greatest film ever in the Sight and Sound poll of movie critics and their similar poll of film directors placed 2001 the second greatest film ever made.  Praise indeed. (In case you were wondering, the directors placed Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Story first.  No, me neither.)

Originally called Voyage Beyond the Stars, 2001 was co-written with Arthur C Clarke.  Based on one of his short stories it was developed into an epic saga about primitive mankind being taught how to survive by a far superior alien race four million years ago and then making contact again in 2001 to help us on our way and stop us from destroying ourselves.  At least, that's what I think it's about.  Kubrick always refused to explain the film but the novel that he and Clarke co-wrote whilst the film was being made is much more easy to understand then the film, which baffled audiences when it first appeared, possibly since Kubrick did not follow the conventional rules of storytelling.

It didn't baffle me.  I was 15 when I saw it and was completely knocked out by it.  I saw it 9 times over the following couple of years and it remains my number 1 greatest ever film.  Mind you, I've never seen that Japanese one.

He was insistent that the space hardware in the film should be technically and scientifically accurate.  Real aerospace companies from Britain and the US were involved in designing much of what appeared on screen.  This was at the same time as some of them were working on the actual moon landings - Apollo 11 landed on the Moon after the movie was completed but much of the design of the interiors and exteriors of the spacecraft was modified during the filming in order to keep up with the rapid development of real science and technology.  For example, the craft in the film were originally metallic in finish but it then became apparent that NASA were painting their spacecraft white so the model shots so far filmed were scrapped and re-made.

After the first scene on the Moon was shot at Shepperton around Christmas 1965, filming began at MGM Borehamwood in January 1966.  Scenes involving actors were completed by September 1967 but effects photography continued until March 1968.  The film occupied seven of the ten stages at MGM plus some in other studios such as ABPC Elstree and Shepperton from time to time.  It went way way over time and budget but its photography and model shots were so well done that they still stand up today.  There was of course no CGI in those days - effects shots on other films were usually done using travelling mattes and bluescreen that always caused grain and picture degradation.  Kubrick insisted that the image quality should be pristine so new techniques were developed.  These included front axial projection and shooting effects using multiple takes 'in camera.'  This involved an early purely mechanical version of motion control, before computers were available.

One of the 'Dawn of Man' sequences.  The background plate was projected onto a highly reflective screen made by 3M.  The front axial projector was attached to the camera so that both lenses were exactly aligned.  The background image was a large format photograph specially shot in Africa.  It was almost invisible to anyone in the studio and could only be seen properly by the camera.  All of the Dawn of Man scenes used this technique, none were shot outdoors - except for the final one where 'Moonwatcher' throws the bone into the air.  That's a Borehamwood sky behind him!

photo thanks to www.gavinrothery.com

The spacecraft models were huge in order to look as realistic on camera as possible.  For example, the Discovery was about 60 feet long.  Kubrick insisted that the lighting should appear to be from a point source (the sun) and of course everything had to be in focus.  This meant that the camera lens was stopped down to a pinhole.  Thus, a sequence where a spaceship appears to glide past the camera in a few seconds was shot with each frame being exposed for 4 seconds, then the camera (not the model) was moved a fraction of an inch, so that the simplest of moves would take many hours to shoot.  Then it would all be done again having wound the film back in the camera to precisely the same frame in order to add a foreground spacecraft or a background planet, then again to add images of people seen through windows.  These were done by covering the model in black velvet and fixing white card to the windows.  Pre-filmed sequences were then projected onto the card a frame at a time whilst the camera moved a fraction of an inch, exactly repeating the previous move.  Sometimes these separate takes were months apart.  Eventually, the film would be processed and the rushes viewed and if there was the slightest of wobbles or other issues like mismatching exposure it was all shot again. 

Finally a star field was added using an animation technique.  Rather than using a travelling matte, each individual frame of previously shot models was lined up using a grid by a room full of women who used photographic enlargers to note which parts of the image had spacecraft or planets over them.  In another room, people painted the stars out using black paint in each individual frame of film so that the stars disappeared behind the spaceships and planets - and then the two images were combined.  This laborious technique enabled crisp, grain-free 70mm images to be maintained throughout the film.

Not all of the spacecraft were miniatures.  Here is one of the full-scale pods from the Discovery being filmed on a stage at MGM Borehamwood.  Some of these shots were achieved by covering the whole grid with black velvet.  The pod and floating astronaut were suspended on wires and the camera mounted on the floor looking straight up.  This way the wires supporting them were hidden.  A star field was added later.

photo thanks to www.gavinrothery.com

Incidentally, on a documentary on the making of The Prisoner, one of the editors interviewed tells the story of how there was a scene where 'Number 6' uses a sextant to look at the stars.  They needed to cut to a shot of the stars but filming such a thing was surprisingly difficult and expensive.  He went next door and had a chat with one of his mates who was working on 2001.  He 'lent' him a star field shot which duly appeared in The Prisoner.  Kubrick of course knew nothing of this and heads would have rolled if he had found out.

Most impressive were the sequences where astronauts appeared to be walking on the outer walls of a centrifuge creating artificial gravity.  A huge rotating circular set was constructed on one of the largest stages at MGM - it was built by Vickers-Armstrong (one of the UK's leading aerospace companies) and was some 38ft in diameter, costing around half a million pounds in 1960s money.  This enabled some of the most effective space travel scenes to be filmed that had been seen on screen up to that time or even since then.

 

Again, I would recommend buying the Blu-ray of this film.  The images are crystal clear and absolutely faultless - as is the multi-track sound.  The movie was first shown in Cinerama cinemas - these had huge curved screens and presented films made in Super Panavision 70mm with 7 channel sound.  They were in a way similar to today's Imax cinemas in that they projected films on a much bigger screen and in far greater detail than could be seen in normal cinemas.  At first Cinerama used three 35mm films running side by side but from 1965 almost all Cinerama films were shot on a single 70mm film.  The Casino was London's main Cinerama theatre from 1954 to 1974 - it is now the Prince Edward Theatre.  2001 played here for 47 weeks from May 1968 to March 1969 and again for 6 weeks in 1972.

 

Above is the giant 'centrifuge' that was built for 2001.  Below is one of the extraordinary shots in the film, made with no CGI or flying wires.  One astronaut is seen at the bottom of the frame sitting apparently eating a meal - the other emerges from a hatch, climbs down the ladder and walks round the 'wall' to meet his colleague, apparently now upside down.  This sequence was achieved with a camera fixed to the set.  The astronaut sitting was strapped to the chair and was hanging upside down at the start of the shot.  The other actor climbed down the ladder and as he walked round the centrifuge it was revolved so he was always at the bottom - thus the poor upside down actor eventually ended up the right way round.

Below is one of the scenes being filmed where the centrifuge did not have to rotate.  The cramped space is clear to see - as is the size of the 70mm camera.  Image thanks to www.gavinrothery.com

 

Other movies were made here during the run of 2001 - not quite all the stages were occupied by that film.  Some well known ones included Blow-Up ('66), The Dirty Dozen ('66), Quatermass and the Pit ('67), Dance of the Vampires ('67), Where Eagles Dare ('68), Inspector Clouseau, ('68).  Many of these made use of the large backlot to build exterior sets.

In 1969 and 1970 another TV series was made here - Gerry Anderson's UFO.  The effects shots were made in his Slough studios but this was his first sci-fi series using real actors rather than puppets.  The series starred Ed Bishop, Gabrielle Drake and Michael Billington and was moderately successful - but not enough to warrant a second series.  26 episodes had been ordered but unfortunately the studios closed before series 1 was complete.  The last nine eps were shot later at Pinewood.  Ed Bishop was familiar with these studios - he played the captain of the ship that travels to the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Unfortunately for him, all his dialogue was muted in the final cut and his scene is simply played out with music.  By a sad coincidence, both Michael Billington and Ed Bishop died within a week of each other in June 2005.

About 10 more movies were made in these studios after 2001 wrapped but sadly despite its success, other films made here were less profitable.  MGM was in trouble back in the US and they had to cut their costs. The studios in Borehamwood were proving very expensive to run and despite their popularity amongst film-makers, in 1970 they were closed.  UFO was the last production made here.  MGM moved down the road to take a 50% share in EMI's studios - they were also struggling.  However, this arrangement was only to last three years or so and MGM would then no longer have a studio in the UK.

 

The site sat empty until it was taken over by Christian Salveson in 1973 who demolished the stages and built facilities to be used as a cold store.  Stage 10 was dismantled and sold to Bray where it became their new stage 1.  It would later be renumbered stage 2 and would remain in use right up to 2010. 

However, the Studio's film-making days were not quite over.  In 1973 there was apparently a scene shot for Holiday on the Buses (I can't say I have seen it) where Stan demolishes an old building; this is in fact rather tragically stage 6 at MGM - the one used to film The Prisoner.  As a complete contrast, in 1978 Kubrick was filming The Shining at EMI Elstree studios down the road.  He needed to build a section of the maze that features in the film but the back lot at EMI was already occupied with the Overlook Hotel.  Thus, the maze was constructed on the old back lot at MGM.  This was for the daylight scenes.  The night scenes of the maze in the snow were shot on stage 1 at EMI Elstree.

The distinctive white clock tower and admin building lasted until 1986.  Despite protests from local people they too were demolished when Christian Salveson left the site and it became a Sainsbury's distribution centre.  The back lot was turned into a housing estate.

 

 

 

 

Bray Studios

1951 - 2010 (the studios have not accepted bookings since 2010 but remain standing, pending redevelopment.)

 

Bray studios will forever be associated with Hammer horror films but those were only a relatively small part of the studio's history.  Although set up as a film studio, the stages were soon being used used to make a number of TV dramas and in latter years some multicamera sitcoms, a kids' gameshow and a lottery gameshow for the BBC.  They were also a favourite location for bands to rehearse tours.  Famously, on one occasion in 2007, David Gilmour was in one big stage and Roger Waters was in the other with his band.  They met, inevitably, and rather uncomfortably, outside one day and the encounter was filmed.  (Watch it on YouTube).  Although they had performed a couple of years before when Pink Floyd were reunited for Live 8, this filmed conversation demonstrates quite nicely that the Floyd would never re-form on a permanent basis.

 

The studios as they were after they closed in 2010.  Stage 3 on the left, stage 2 straight ahead, stage 1 below.

 

But - back to the beginning.  Down Place, a 17th century mansion beside the Thames between Windsor and Maidenhead, was owned by one Jacob Tonson.  He, by the way, formed the 'Kit-Kat Club' which had nothing to do with chocolate bars.  The club didn't meet here, despite what you might have read, but in Tonson's London residence.  The house was a private dwelling until 1951 when a small wing remained privately occupied.

Down Place seen from the Thames in 2007

photo thanks to Pete Reed on Flickr

 

Now to go back a few years before 1951 - Hammer Productions Ltd was created in 1934 by an ex-actor, William Hinds, who called himself Will Hammer.  Hinds was part of a comedy double-act paired with a bloke called Smith - they lived in Hammersmith, hence 'Hammer and Smith.'  The Hammer name stuck.  He was a member of the family who became famous for their High Street jewellery shops and he later became the chairman of the Goldhawk Building Society.  No, really.  He also managed a few theatres and sold bicycles.  I'm not making this up.  The first Hammer film was The Public Life of Henry the Ninth ('35).  I'm sure we all remember that one.

In 1935 Will Hammer paired up with one Enrique Carreras. The pair of them established 'Exclusive Films.'  Some of their movies were under the 'Exclusive' banner, others were 'Hammer' films.  In 1938 Enrique's son James joined the company.  A little later, Will's son Anthony joined the company too.

After the war they began making cheap quota quickies (these have featured in the history of studios throughout this website).  They made a film called Dick Barton, Special Agent ('48) which was based on a BBC radio series.  Realising that this might be a rich seam of possible movie titles, in 1949 they formed a new company to exploit this new direction - Hammer Film Productions.  For the next few years they made low-budget films based on popular radio shows like The Man in Black ('50), A Case For PC49 ('51) and Life With the Lyons ('54). 

They decided to make these low budget films in large houses rather than renting costly studios.  The first one was in Dial Close, Cookham Dean near Maidenhead but the neighbours were not impressed so they had to move on.  The next property was Oakley Court, a Victorian gothic mansion beside the Thames between Maidenhead and Windsor, to which they would return in future years.  The owner was still in residence but lived in a few rooms and let them have the run of the rest of the house.  The Man in Black ('50) was made here.  They made two or three films here and also in a house in Harlow, Essex.

In 1950 they filmed a few scenes of The Dark Light in Down Place, which was in effect next door to Oakley Court, although a few hundred yards up river.  The house was almost derelict - it had been used to store duffel coats during the war (many were still there!) and parts of the floor had collapsed under the weight of all that damp duffel.  The owner was living quietly in one wing, separated from the rest of the house.  Nevertheless, Down Place proved to be perfect for their needs so in 1951 they took out a one-year lease on the property.  Cloudburst ('51) was the first Hammer film completely made here.  In fact they liked the house so much that in 1952 they took over the freehold.

They named the place 'Bray Studios' after the nearby village (famous for its vicar, its riverside homes where several celebrities have lived over the years and its two Michelin 3-star restaurants.  The restaurants came later by the way.)  Everything here was very, very basic but a team spirit soon established itself amongst the crew that would last for years.

 

 

When Hammer first started using the house for filming they numbered the rooms just like stages - A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H.  Some of course were relatively small and with low ceilings, making lighting and boom operation very tricky.  In fact it was not uncommon for the boom op to be standing outside, poking his rod through the window as there was no space in the room for him to stand. 

In 1953 they decided to knock three rooms into one, including the ballroom.  This created the 'ballroom stage' or stage 'B-C-D'.  It was 110 x 25 ft.  A decent length but rather narrow and of course with a relatively low ceiling compared with a purpose-built stage.  When the new big stage was built in 1957 this became stage 3.  It was used for many scenes in famous films including Dracula (the Inn where Peter Cushing arrives in the village), The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy and several others.  In fact, if you see a long, narrow set with a low ceiling in any early Hammer film it was probably shot on this stage.  It was seriously damaged by a fire in 1961 but was rebuilt.

Another smaller stage was created within the house in the side wing by knocking some rooms together and the large entrance hall was often used too.  These all gradually went out of use over the years as proper stages were built in the grounds but the ballroom stage was used up until the late 1970s.  It later became a viewing theatre.

Also in 1953 Hammer built their first actual stage - it was a modest 45 x 40 ft but it had a grid height of 18ft which was a luxury in that at last they could light sets from above.  It was built of brick, which meant that they could use fire FX within it relatively safely.  It had a small tank 10 x 8ft and only 4ft 6in deep but this extra depth was useful in some sets.  The stage was built between the wings at the rear of the house where a circular driveway had originally led to the entrance.  Known early on as stage 2, it changed its number several times over the years but remained till 2010 when it was known as stage 4.

 

 

Frankly, Hammer was not doing too well making its quota quickies and radio adaptations.  Just about keeping its head above water but that was about it.  Then in 1955 Hammer secured the rights to make a movie version of TV sci-fi series The Quatermass Xperiment. 

Quatermass was phenomenally successful and was followed up in 1956 with Quatermass II.  They realised that horror might be the way to go so made The Curse of Frankenstein ('57) - their first colour film.  For the next few years they revelled in blood and gore with films like Dracula ('58), The Hound of the Baskervilles ('59), The Mummy ('59), Curse of the Werewolf ('61), The Damned ('63), Kiss of the Vampire ('63) - well, you get the idea.  Most of these films starred Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing.  These movies used every inch of Down Place which was dressed and redressed for each title, whilst other sets were built on the stages.  The exterior set on the back lot was also used for many a graveyard, ancient village or ruined castle.

 

Despite the popularity of many of their films, the business itself never did that well.  In 1955 Bray Studios was in trouble.  They cut their regular staff to 60 and started to rely on outside companies to book their facilities.  They considered selling the studios but the success of each horror film as it came out just about rescued them from disaster.  Their US distributors Columbia purchased a 49% share in the studios in order to save them from closure.  This investment enabled Bray to build their third and largest stage in 1957.  This was of course a terrible time for the British film industry in general.  Cinema audiences were plummeting and the creation of ITV in 1955 made things even worse.  Why would people pay to go to the pictures when television provided such great entertainment at home for free?

 

 

In 1956 the first TV production was filmed at Bray.  It was The Errol Flynn Theatre and was made not by Hammer but by Motley Films Ltd, although the credits state 'An Inter-TV Production.'  25 half hour episodes were made it appears, all in one year.  They were aimed at the American market but were also shown by the new ITV companies.  Errol Flynn himself played the lead in every fourth show but they also starred many leading movie actors including Christopher Lee (of course), Glynis Johns, Leslie Phillips, Herbert Lom, Mai Zetterling and many others.  Interestingly, the first in the series (Evil Thoughts) was actually filmed at Walton Studios in 1953 as a pilot for a similar series that was never commissioned.

 

 

Despite the fragility of the company's finances, by 1956 it was clear that they needed more room at Bray.  Part of The Abominable Snowman had to be filmed on a stage at Pinewood as there was no suitable space at Bray and so in 1957 they constructed a new much larger stage which became known as stage 1.  It was 90 x 60ft (according to Kinematograph Weekly).  There are some reports that this stage came from Walton Studios - but this seems very unlikely since those studios were busy at this time and in fact undergoing some modest expansion.  The confusion appears to have arisen because the later stage 1 at Bray came from MGM Borehamwood but prior to that it had been located at Walton as their stage A.  Anyway, we will come to this in due course!  Stage 1 was built where the final stage 2 stood, but was somewhat smaller.

A year or two later, Hammer built another stage - stage 4.  This was a rather basic looking construction faced in corrugated iron but was still standing in 2010.  It was 71 x 36ft so not large by any means but very useful for sets such as various domestic interiors, cells, inns and the like.  Apparently it was favoured for dungeon sets where rats were involved as the escapees could do less damage than on the other stages.  It also had a 4ft 6in deep tank that was 10 x 8ft.

 

So by December 1962 (according to Kinematograph Weekly) they had the following:  stage 1 - 90 x 60ft;  stage 2 - 45 x 40ft;  stage 3 - 110 x 25ft and stage 4 - 71 x 36ft.

 

The back lot was to the left of the main entrance down the driveway from the Windsor Road, where the newest brick-built stage was located in the latter years of Bray.  There were three main sets over the years that were used many times over.  The first was the exterior of Dracula's castle which was built in 1957.  This was re-dressed and used for several films including The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Hound of the Baskervilles

In 1960 this was struck and a village square was built for The Brides of Dracula.  This square was enlarged bit by bit and a second square added to it.  It became very elaborate indeed with loads of convincing detail.  It could be a generic mid-European town square or a medieval English village with a bit of re-dressing.  It even became a Chinese dockyard in Terror of the Tongs.  (No, me neither.)  Eagle-eyed Hammer fans can recognise familiar archways, roof lines and windows in most of the films shot around this time but the sets were so detailed that most viewers would have completely accepted that they were real.  Other sets were squeezed in around the village square when required, occasionally spreading into the adjacent field. 

In 1965 the village square set was replaced with an exterior castle set for Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  This was transformed into a gothic house for Rasputin the Mad Monk and then became part of a village and graveyard for Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile.  Don't you just want to rush off and watch all these glorious titles now?!!

The back lot sets were cleared in 1966 when Hammer left Bray.

This is a plan of the site in 1966.  Down Place is at the top - the ballroom stage (3) was within the long wing of the building across the top with the curved section.

Stage 1 is the large block in the centre of the site - a larger stage would be built here in 1973.

The rectangle to the south of stage 1 was stage 4.  Stage 2 was the square shape tucked up by the house.

The long row of buildings along the left of the site were various workshops, stores and the powerhouse.

Exterior sets on the back lot were built in the area on the bottom right of this plan.

 

 

In January 1964 ABPC became co-owners along with Hammer and Columbia.  This was an odd deal.  Hammer remained effective owners but they had agreed that they would henceforth make all their films at ABPC Elstree, unless those studios were full.  Bray thus became a sort of overspill site.  The studios became mothballed for much of 1964.  None of Hammer's six films in 1964 was shot at Bray.  It was used for a couple of films made by Bill Luckwell but the studios were proving a financial millstone.  They reopened in March 1965 and Dracula Prince of Darkness was the first of seven films made by Hammer between '65 and '66 plus two produced by Harry Alan Towers (see Highbury Studios for more info on him).  The first four films in 1965 were shot back to back and shared several sets and props which were redressed for each film.

In 1965 Hammer also took over the Victorian gothic mansion Oakley Court.  (You will remember that they first used it as a filming location in 1950.)  This was a few hundred yards along the river from Down Place.  I have not been able to establish whether this was a lease or possibly a number of short term rentals whilst the property was unoccupied.  (The previous owner had died a few months earlier and the house remained empty until 1979 when it was converted into a luxury hotel).  Oakley Court looked even more the thing for making horror films than Down Place and several used the house such as The Reptile ('66), Plague of the Zombies ('66) and And Now The Screaming Starts ('72). 

However, other less chilling films also used this property including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and - rather surprisingly - Tommy Steele's Half A Sixpence.  Some accounts state that the original St Trinian's films used it too but to be honest the dates don't fit, the house doesn't look the same and none of the official location guides mention Oakley Court.  In any case, for many films that did use it, it is likely that the exterior and the extensive grounds were used more often than the interior - Down Place was still more suitable for interior shots.

 

Oakley Court - as it is now (a very nice hotel).  Imagine it rather more dilapidated at night with clouds scudding across a full moon.  You get the idea.

The house was the HQ of the French resistance during the war and DeGaulle was said to be a visitor.

 

The brief resurgence in Hammer's filmmaking at Bray did not last and the last Hammer horror film made here was The Mummy's Shroud, which wrapped in October 1966.  They continued making films but used Elstree.  Hammer left Bray in November.  They retained ownership of the studios but for the next four years just used them for some effects photography on a few films.

In 1970 the studios were used for two significant movies - John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday and Ken Russell's The Music Lovers.  Bray was still owned by Hammer at this time although the company itself was nowhere to be seen.  However, many of the former crew members worked on those films.  They used the three main stages - the ballroom stage was occupied by FX work on When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.  The set on the back lot was long gone but the prop stores had various familiar items lying around, left over from classic Hammer horrors.

 

In November 1970 the studios were sold to Redspring Ltd for £65,000.  That wasn't very much even then.  They originally planned to demolish the stages and build housing (sound familiar?) but fortunately changed their minds.  The studios were renamed 'Bray International Film Centre.'  The old stage 1 was demolished and replaced with a new, larger one opening in 1973.  I have been told that this was because the old stage 1 had been 'gutted by fire' but I can find no other records of this.  Can you help?

 

Above is a plan of the site from 1976.  According to the brochure it is taken from, the studios had been 'largely rebuilt' during the previous four years.  This included the new stage 1.  This stage was also taken from another film studio - it had originally been stage 10 at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood.  Those studios had closed in 1970 but were bought in 1973 by Christian Salveson who used some of the old stages for storage and demolished the rest.  However, this one was dismantled and re-erected here.  Stage 10 had been the last to be built at MGM in 1963 so was relatively new.  It was 10,200 sq ft - 120 x 85ft.  When at Borehamwood it would almost certainly either have been used by Patrick McGoohan's iconic series The Prisoner or as one of the stages for Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey.  (Both were made there at the same time.)  Whichever, that is pretty cool provenance.

Confusingly, the stage numbering changed at this time - with the stages being re-numbered in descending order of size as can be seen on the drawing above, which is from a studio publicity brochure.  Some time in the late '70s the ballroom stage (4) was converted into a viewing theatre.  The 1976 brochure boasts that the studios had:

Four sound stages, three tanks, eight cutting rooms, nine dressing rooms; theatre and sound department; fourteen offices, penthouse production suite; two art departments; workshops for painters, plasterers and metalwork; wardrobe, hairdressing and make-up; props store and camera store.

The new stage 1as it was in 1976

This photo is from a marketing leaflet dating from the late 1980s.  It appears to be the same stage (then called stage 2) but looking in the other direction.

 

 

Some significant films were shot at Bray during the 1970s and into the '80s including Pope Joan, The Hireling, Agatha, Loophole and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The early '70s also saw the site being used for effects work on Dr Who and between 1973 and 1975 Bray was booked by Gerry Anderson for effects work and miniature shots on his series Space 1999.  Apparently he didn't use the big stage but took over the stage in the house, some workshops and one or both of the other small stages.

1975 was the year in which Anglo-German sci-fi series Star Maidens was filmed.  I have read that they used some props and sound effects left over from from Space 1999.  I assume Gerry was asked.

Bray seems to have become known around this time as a centre of excellence for special effects work.  In 1978, Ridley Scott's movie Alien took over the site under great secrecy.  The effects shots, model shots and the exterior shots of the Nostromo spacecraft were filmed here.  The sequence where John Hurt rather foolishly looks into the egg and we see movement inside it was shot on one of the stages here - or at least, the closeups of the egg were.  Ridley Scott's own hands were inside the 'gloves' that formed the embryo alien in the translucent egg - he knew exactly how he wanted it to twitch.

Between 1983 and 1984 Gerry Anderson returned to Bray to make his first puppet series since the Supermarionation days of the 1960s on the Slough Trading Estate.  This was Terrahawks and the puppet scenes and special effects for all 39 episodes were shot here.

 

In 1984 the studios were bought by Samuelson's who shortly afterwards built a brand new large stage (see below).  Movies in the 1980s included The Sea Wolves, Dead Man's Folly, A Month in the Country, For Queen and Country and Hope and Glory.  TV drama included Paradise Postponed, The Manageress and Inspector Morse.

Some of the acts for the 1985 Live Aid concert rehearsed at Bray - in fact a large number of world-class bands and solo artists used the relative privacy of stage 1 or 2 to rehearse their tours over many years.  The two main stages were and still are an ideal size to set up the set and lighting rig to be toured.  There is little doubt that if the studios were still open they would still be used for this kind of work.  Bray Studios are ideally situated only a short drive from Heathrow and London and with excellent hotels and world class restaurants nearby.

 

The Bray Studios site around 2010.  (Compare this with the plans above.)

That's the Thames at the top, obviously.  Down Place is the house at the north of the site with the long narrow wing below it and then extending southwards to the left and right.  The wing on the left contained the camera and sound dept and cutting rooms with workshops further south.  The wing on the right is a private house.

Nestled within the wings and attached to the house is stage 4 - the first one to be built in 1953. 

The large building south of the house is stage 2, built in 1973.

The cluster of buildings south of that consists of stage 3 (with the pitched roof) built around 1958 and a couple of workshops constructed a few years later.

At the bottom of the picture is stage 1 - it has workshops, production offices, make-up and dressing rooms etc running along each side.  This stage was built around 1985.

The houses on the right of the image are private properties and not connected with the studios. 

with thanks to Googlemaps

 

 

According to the 1983 BFI Yearbook, Bray then had the following:  Stage A - 10,204 sq ft; B - 3,003 sq ft and C - 1,883 sq ft.  These sizes do not quite tally with the ones quoted in the 1962 yearbook and numbers have oddly become letters.  This may have been an error by the publishers of the Yearbook.  Also, note that by then the ballroom stage had become a viewing theatre.

 

By 1985 another large brick-built stage had been built.  This was an actual purpose-built stage - not coming from another studio.  It was roughly the same size as the existing stage 1 and was constructed on the land that in years gone by had been used by Hammer to build their exterior sets.  When it was opened the numbering changed again, with it becoming stage 1.

So according to the BFI Yearbook, in 1986 Bray had stage 1 - 10,247 sq ft, stage 2 - 10,204 sq ft, stage 3 - 3,003 sq ft and stage 4 - 1,883 sq ft.

However, a marketing brochure kindly sent to me by Mark Elliott has the stages as follows:

Stage 1 - 113 x 91ft (10,283 sq ft), stage 2 -  120 x 85ft (10,200 sq ft), stage 3 - 71 x 36ft (2,556 sq ft) and stage 4  - 45 x 40ft (1,800 sq ft). 

I think we can probably rely on these dimensions as being accurate.

 

Above is the plan of the new stage 1 as it appeared in a marketing leaflet around the time it was built.

with thanks to Mark Elliott

Stage 1 - built in 1985.

These four photos are thanks to Adrian Ace and Flickr

These photos were taken in 2007.  The poor state of some of the buildings is clear to see although the two main stages look in pretty good nick externally at least.

The dock doors to stage 2 - built here in 1973 but previously at MGM Borehamwood and before that at Walton studios.  The most travelled stage in the country.

Stage 3.  Built pretty cheaply in 1958, this one is certainly showing its age.

The back of Down Place seen here in the background.  In the middle distance is stage 4.  This was the first stage Hammer built in 1953.

On the right is the glamorous Portacabin serving as make-up and wardrobe for stage 2.

Below is a photo taken in 1955, 52 years before the one above.  The movie was Dick Turpin - Highwayman.  I have included it here as it is a similar viewpoint to the image above.  Below, the stage was very new and the exterior set is where the Portacabins were built much later on the left.  Amazingly, the trees in the background don't seem to have changed much in half a century.

 

In 1990 the lease for the studios was taken over by Bray Management Ltd.  In July 1999 Broadcast ran a story under the headline 'Bray Studios Saved From Closure.'  In it they reported that the studios had been saved 'for the next 15 years.'  In the article Peter Gray and his business partner Neville Hendricks are quoted as saying that they were looking to spend '2 or 3 million over the next five years on structural and facilities improvement to bring it into the 21st century.'

TV dramas and comedies filmed here in the '90s and noughties included Inspector Morse, Pie in the Sky, 99-1, Born and Bred, Demob, Dirty Tricks, Invasion Earth, Murder Rooms, Night and Day, Our Friends in the North, Forever Green, Gone To The Dogs, Jeeves and Wooster, Poirot, Roger Roger, Roughnecks, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Sex Chips & Rock n' Roll, Soldier Soldier, Stick With Me Kid, Still Life at the Penguin Cafe (ballet), The Detectives, The Gentleman Thief, The Safe House, The Unknown Soldier, The Wyvern Mystery, Titmuss Regained, The Turn of the Screw and Murder Most Horrid. 

At least two multicamera sitcom series were recorded here.  One was How Do You Want Me ('97, '99), starring Dylan Moran and Charlotte Colman.  Far more controversial was Heil Honey I'm Home ('90), a spoof '50's style sitcom depicting Hitler and Eva Braun living next door to a Jewish couple.  It was made for the ill-fated BSB channel Galaxy but only one show was aired before BSB went bust.  The rest of the series was never transmitted.  There was also a BBC1 lottery show - Red Alert.  Two series were recorded in 1999.  These productions used OB trucks for facilities.  200 episodes of the CBeebies series Fimbles were also made at Bray from 2001.

In 2003 Stage 1 was the home of Inside Clyde, a kids' gameshow set within the internal organs of a human being called - er - Clyde.  It was presented by Tony Hawks and directed by highly respected (and much missed) David G Croft who now lectures at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.

Part of the set for Inside Clyde

with thanks to David G Croft's website

The stages at Bray have often been used to shoot commercials.  One notable example was the 1998 Guinness ad with the surfer and the white horses.  Apparently much of it was filmed against bluescreen on one of the stages here.

Movies shot here since 1990 included The Witches, Edward II, Mojo, Velvet Goldmine, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Reign of Fire, The Dark and (ahem) Ali G Indahouse.  Probably the last film made here was some miniature and effects work for Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus in 2009.

 

Sadly, in 2010 Neville Hendricks announced that the studios were no longer economically viable.  He said that bookings from films and TV had diminished in recent years and competition from larger studios such as Pinewood and Shepperton meant that they could no longer attract sufficient business.  He planned to renovate Down Place and live there with his extended family.  The stages and other buildings would be demolished and seven luxury houses would be built.  There was inevitably strong opposition to this - some people pointing out that it is the relatively small size of the site and its seclusion that has appealed over the years to so many film-makers and to bands who need to rehearse in privacy.  Twickenham studios - a similar sized site - was saved from closure in 2012.  However, despite a campaign to save these studios, on 3rd October 2012 planning permission was finally granted.

 

In a newspaper interview in 2010 Mr Hendricks explained that the stages and facilities are now very old and need 'millions' spent on them to bring them up to a reasonable standard.  He does possibly have a point - much of the site has had a dilapidated and seedy look to it for a number of years although I would question whether millions need to be spent on the stages.  You could build brand new ones for millions - a few hundred thousand would go a long way to redecorate and tidy up the existing ones.  Certainly the support facilities do need some money spent on them.

It is worth pointing out that stage 1 is comparatively not very old and stage 2 has a bit of a history but was erected here in 1973 which compares very well with many film stages.  Studios like Ealing, Twickenham, Elstree, Pinewood and Shepperton all have much older stages that are still in regular use.  A film stage is a very basic thing - a black box with a grid and some power.  It is not like a TV studio which is full of technical equipment that goes out of date.  A well-built film stage (like stages 1 and 2 ) can go on for ever.  In fact, many films and TV series are being made in far less suitable facilities than this.  Old factories and warehouses are frequently being used now due to the lack of available film stages.

Hendricks also explained that the old house needed a great deal spent on it to preserve it for the future.  That is a point.  It is perhaps unlikely that he would get his money back from renting studio space if he did spend millions doing up the old house and turning it into several luxury residences.

 

So - bitter as it may seem - it looks as though simple economics have brought the studios to a close, although it is a shame he didn't appear to be willing to put the site on the market to see if someone else might make a go of it.  He does also appear to have turned away work since 2010 which could have kept the studios going for a few years longer whilst discussions continued over their future. 

Thanks to attractive tax laws, the making of features and TV dramas in the UK is more popular than ever.  This has meant that they have really struggled to find stages to hire.  Since TV Centre closed in 2013 there has been an even greater demand for studio space and stages 1 and 2 here might well have attracted TV shows with standing sets.  They would almost certainly have had regular bookings by TV dramas and low budget features - these are now having to use unsuitable buildings such as empty factories and warehouses around London due to the severe shortage of available sound stages.

My guess is that if it had been put on the market, an enterprising company or individual could have come in and refurbished stages 1 and 2 for a relatively small amount.  Some new dressing rooms/make-up facilities and production offices would have been needed for stage 2.  Stage 3 and the surrounding workshops should probably have been demolished and replaced with new workshops and/or possibly a new medium stage.  The house clearly needs some money spent on it but it was a near ruin when Hammer took it over in 1951 (remember the duffel coats?) so there is no reason to assume it should be transformed into a luxury dwelling now.  Making it weatherproof is a priority but its dilapidated character is surely part of its charm and film-making history.

 

There is still a Facebook group and petition in 2013 attempting to save the studios and the occasional newspaper report has mentioned it.  Terry Gilliam is one notable director who has lent his support but it is unclear how the studios can now be saved since planning permission for their demolition has sadly been granted.  However, I have been informed that the decision by the planning committee is being challenged.  It seems that they might have been given false information which may have affected their decision.  So perhaps it is not quite done and dusted yet!

 

One part of the proposed redevelopment is that a small 'media centre' will be built so that, according to press reports, 'the site can continue to make television programmes.'  Quite what this might contain is at present unclear but I suspect that the newspapers have misunderstood what is planned.  The architect's drawing indicates a relatively small office-type building on two floors with no apparent space for any TV production studios.  It is possible that a very small interview-type/greenscreen studio might be incorporated - there seems to be a windowless wing to the building that might contain a small studio. 

I imagine that the hope is to attract one or two small TV production companies so that planning of programmes to be shot elsewhere and maybe some off-line editing can be done in the building.  There are only 24 parking places on the plans so this suggests a relatively small-scale enterprise.

The council also called for a permanent memorial to the studios' history on the site but what form this will take has not yet been clarified.

 

I can report that the stages were still standing in February 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob Street Studios

1984 - 1994

 

Located a few hundred yards downstream of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the river, these studios were in their day the largest in London, covering 3.25 acres. They were originally a Spillers' dog biscuit factory - no, really - and began with 4 stages, increasing to 7 by the time they closed.  Apparently, the empty factory was used as a location for a pop video and the makers realised that the buildings would make great film stages until redevelopment took place - as still often happens today.  In fact this temporary use went on for 11 years.

Several highly regarded feature films were shot here either entirely or partly including Highlander ('86) with Christopher Lambert, Personal Services ('87) with Julie Walters and Prick up Your Ears ('87) with Vanessa Redgrave, Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.  Other movies included Biggles - Adventures in Time ('86), The Young Americans ('93), and Different For Girls ('96). 

Jacob St was used to make pop videos, commercials and several TV dramas.  Best known of these was LWT's London's Burning.  This was based on the 1986 TV movie written by Jack Rosenthal.  It ran from 1988 - 2002 and there were 171 episodes.  The original fire station featured is on Wolseley St in London and was opposite the Jacob St Studios.  When the studios closed in 1994 another fire station was used.  The Comic Strip 2 was also filmed here.

The studios were demolished to make way for a large residential development.

 

 

 

 

3 Mills Studios

mid '80s - present

The House Mill ahead and the Clock Mill to its right.  The third mill was rather carelessly lost 500 years ago.

photo thanks to Wikipedia

 

These studios are located on Three Mill Island, Bromley-by-Bow in East London.  The island is said to be London's oldest surviving industrial centre and is the location of The Clock Mill and The House Mill - the latter being the largest and most powerful of the four remaining tidal mills in Britain.  It last turned in 1941 but there are plans to restore it to working condition as a power generator.  In fact there may have been several mills on the island at the time of the Domesday Book - these reduced to three by the 12th century (when the island gained its name) and in the 16th century the three became two - the House Mill and the Clock Mill, seen above.  These together had a total of seven large waterwheels and in the 19th century they were processing around 125 tons of maize and barley per week. 

The mills and associated facilities on the island have been built and rebuilt several times over the centuries.  As well as maize and barley they were even briefly used to produce gunpowder.  In the 19th century Nicholson's acquired the site and used it to distil gin.  Following air-raid damage during the war this ceased but the remaining buildings continued to be used for warehousing.  This lasted in parts of the site right up to the early 1990s.

Some of the old distillery buildings began to be used for film production from the mid 1980s.  There are conflicting reports on the precise sequence of events but this seems the most likely - two companies established themselves here - Bow Studios and 3 Mills Island Studios.

 

In 1993 the two studio businesses and all the other buildings on the island were bought by Workspace Group - a property company specialising in the provision of accommodation for small businesses.  Workspace invested over £8m in the site - a considerable amount.  At the same time Edwin Shirley, a former actor and businessman, saw the potential in these facilities so he formed Edwin Shirley Productions (ESP), took out a lease and became the management company for the new 3 Mills Studios.

Unfortunately in 2001 there appears to have been a legal dispute between Workspace Group and ESP over lease contracts and rent payments.  According to press reports at the time, Workspace 'ousted' ESP from the studios.  There seems to have been some concern at the time that the studios would close but Workspace declared that they were committed to seeing film-making continue.  They brought in a consultant from Leavesden Studios to help take over the running of 3 Mills.

In August 2004 the studios were taken over by the London Development Agency who transferred ownership to the Olympic Park Legacy Committee in 2010.  Some of the stages were used as rehearsal rooms for the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies.

The studio site (thanks to the 3 Mills website).  The pink areas are stages, dark blue are 'warehouses', orange are prop stores, light green are rehearsal rooms, light blue are production offices, beige are workshops.  The impressive size of the whole studio complex is clear but it is also interesting how it forms two distinct halves.

 

As you can guess from the long history, the site is now an attractive mix of buildings of various shapes and sizes.  There are no fully equipped TV studios here but there are an impressive 14 stages and 10 rehearsal rooms plus a number of workshops, prop stores and over 200 production offices.  Most stages were adapted from previous industrial use so have a variety of  proportions and roof heights.  Most have fairly basic grids unlike the purpose built stages at sites like Pinewood, Elstree, Leavesden or Shepperton.  Only stage 15 has air extraction built in and none has air cooling which means they are bound to get pretty warm when used for long periods with a big lighting rig.

The studio is really two separate sites side by side and linked by a bridge over the river.  On the west are stages A, C and D and associated workshops and offices and to the east the island with the old mills and the numbered stages 1 - 15. (stages 3, 10, 13, and 14 no longer exist.)

The stages are used for all kinds of work - shooting pop videos and commercials and for rehearsing rock tours and West End musicals etc.  Several feature films have also been made here such as Topsy Turvy, 28 Days Later, Sexy Beast, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Made in Dagenham, Sunshine and Attack the Block.  3 Mills is also used to film single-camera TV drama and in recent years they have occasionally been used to record multi-camera TV shows using OB units.  Not only that but live TV comes from here now - channel 4's Million Pound Drop is made at 3 Mills.

These studios are reasonably close to tube and DLR stations and with good road, rail and even air connections via London City.  However, they are situated well away from most of London's other film and TV studios so those working in the industry living to the west probably find them not as easy to commute to.  Also, as mentioned above, most of the stages do not have the flexible grids found elsewhere and none has built-in air conditioning - so 3 Mills have had to attract business in other ways.  Quite sensibly, I am told that they are relatively cheap to hire and so are ideal for shows with standing sets or, let's be honest, low budgets.  However, that's far from all - the site is long established as a busy studio centre and is well equipped with production office and workshop/wardrobe/make-up areas.  It also contains many beautiful old buildings plus the surrounding waterways of course and by all accounts is a very pleasant environment to work in.

 

Multicamera TV shows made here have included 24 Hour Quiz, The Grid, Big Brother (series 1 and 2), Blue Peter Christmas Panto, The Slammer ('06, '08), Hell's Kitchen ('07, '09), Gordon Ramsay's Cookalong Live ('08), Katy Brand's Big Ass Show ('08), Britain's Next Top Model ('10), Million Pound Drop ('10, '11, '12, '13), A Comedy Roast ('10),  Ant and Dec Push The Button ('11).

Single camera dramas and comedies have included Bad Girls, The Canterbury Tales, Chickens, Cold Lazarus, Crocodile Shoes, Hornblower, Hunting Venus, Kavanagh QC, Letting Go, London Bridge, London's Burning, Manchild, Prime Suspect, Randall and Hopkirk (deceased), The Diary of Anne Frank, Waterloo Road, Ashes to Ashes, The Bill, Lead Balloon, Luther, Whitechapel.

 

There are 14 stages as follows:

 

Stage 1 - 3,945 sq ft - mostly used as a rehearsal room for musicals

Stage 2 - 3,129 sq ft - very dead acoustic and mostly used for theatrical and musical rehearsals

Stage 4 - 6,034 sq ft - (links to stage 6) square shape and used for some single camera dramas such as Diary of Anne Frank

Stage 5 - 10,437 sq ft - same size as arena of Royal Albert Hall.  Often used for rehearsals but also commercials and features such as Attack The Block.

Stage 6 - 8,056 sq ft.  Contains an L-shaped blue screen.  Used for Hells' Kitchen and The Slammer amongst many others.

Stage 7 - 13,483 sq ft - largest stage here.  Used for Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Bad Girls, Never Let Me Go plus many others.

Stage 8 - smallest at 3,802 sq ft.  Used for Hell's Kitchen, 28 weeks Later, Lead Balloon etc.

Stage 9 - 8,949 sq ft.  Million Pound Drop, The Slammer, Terry Pratchett's Hogfather and so on.

Stage 11 - 8,128 sq ft and with a block and tackle grid.  Million Pound Drop, The Mighty Boosh and many rock tour rehearsals.

Stage 12 - 7,834 sq ft and with highest grid on site.  Used for Million Pound Drop, Diary of Anne Frank, Ant and Dec's Push The Button, Sunshine.

Stage 15 - 5,320 sq ft and the newest stage on site with gantry, I-beam grid and external power source for OB scanner.  Gordon Ramsay Cookalong Live, The Deep Blue Sea plus various ads etc.

 

Stage A - 10,499 sq ft.  Several features such as Eastern Promises, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Enter Shikara made here.

Stage B is now a workshop.

Stage C - 9,169 sq ft.  Direct access to stages A and D.  Fantastic Mr Fox, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Sunshine.

Stage D - 9,402 sq ft - Fantastic Mr Fox, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Sunshine.

 

Stages A, C and D are grouped together on the west of the site along with various workshops and warehouses and are ideal as a base for making feature films.  This area is separated from the rest of the site by a central gate in the roadway that links the two halves of 3 Mills.

 

stage 1 - mostly used for rehearsals

stage 7 - largest stage at 206ft x 81ft widest, 59ft narrowest

stage 11 - fitted with an I-beam grid and 100ft x 82ft.

stage 15 - purpose built with an I-beam grid and 84ft x 77ft.  This stage also has air extraction (the only stage with this) and a wooden floor.

All the above images with thanks to the 3 Mills website.

 

3 Mills is not a major studio like Pinewood, Shepperton or Leavesden.  Most of the stages are relatively small by film standards but are ideal for shooting TV drama, commercials, pop promos and low budget features.  They have also been used for a number of muticamera TV shows with standing sets.  3 Mills might be compared with Black Island or Dukes Island studios in west London or even HDS studios.  All are appealing to the same market.  Their only possible handicap is their location but thanks to the Olympics, the east of London has enjoyed considerable investment in transport links and a general uplift to the area.  These studios are bound to benefit from all that.

 

 

 

 

Black Island/Duke's Island Studios

1992? - present

Just off the A40 Western Avenue in North Acton are two large buildings containing film stages just a few hundred metres from each other.  They are both owned and operated by the Island Studios group, which also has Cape Island and Gold Island Studios in South Africa and Manchester Island Studios in, er, Manchester.

Apparently the Black Island building was originally a cold store.  It was then acquired by AFM Lighting to be turned into a 4-waller studio complex with AFM supplying all the rigging and lighting facilities.  The earliest mention I can find of Black Island Studios is in 1992.  (Can you confirm that this is when they were established?)  AFM merged with Lee Lighting in 2008 to form Panalux.

The studios provide a very useful facility for single camera shoots - especially commercials and pop promos although I understand that they are occasionally used for TV dramas and single-camera comedies.

To my knowledge they are not often used for multi-camera TV shows but Oasis recorded a televised concert on one of the Black Island stages in August 2008.  Black Island has also been the location since 2005 for the boardroom scenes in the BBC's The Apprentice.  This is a set of course, not a real boardroom and is shot with multiple cameras but is not vision mixed at the time.  Another show shot in a similar way is Channel 4's Four Rooms.  The first series was shot at a real location but subsequent series have been recorded in a set on one of the stages at Black Island.  As a complete contrast, The Dick and Dom Diaries was recorded at Duke's Island in 2008.  I'm also told that David G Croft directed a children's reality gameshow series called Starfinder here in 2003.  Pilots have included Pro-Celebrity Bowls, believe it or not.

The stages are also often used for bands to rehearse tours.  A few low-budget features have been filmed here too.

Black Island stage 1

Black Island stage 5

Black Island stage 6

with thanks to the Island Studios website

Duke's Island white stage

The stages available are as follows:

Black Island

stage 1 - 150 x 65ft (9,750 sq ft)

stage 2 - 90 x 65ft (5,850 sq ft)

stage 3 - 100 x 65ft (6,500 sq ft)

stage 4 - 45 x 40ft (1,800 sq ft)

stage 5 - 150 x 110ft (16,500 sq ft)

stage 6 - 90 x 55ft (4,950 sq ft)

 

Duke's Island

red stage - 45 x 40ft (1,800 sq ft)

white stage - 80 x 56ft (4,480 sq ft)

blue stage - 70 x 70ft (4,900 sq ft)

 

All of the stages have cycloramas, some with coves.  The three Duke's Island stages have runway beams for rigging as does stage 5 at Black Island.  There are plenty of associated dressing rooms, make-up rooms, production offices etc.

I have drawn a bit of a blank trying to establish titles of TV dramas or comedies that have been shot here.  Can you help???

 

 

 

 

Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden

1994 - present

Leavesden as it is today.  In the foreground are new workshops, then the new stages behind.  On the far left are the two buildings used for the Warner Bros Studio Tour.  The huge back lot is behind the stages.

 

Leavesden Studios - or now more accurately 'Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden' - are located north of Watford just a mile or two inside the M25, about the same distance from central London as Pinewood is.  These two major studios are about 17 miles apart from each other, round the M25. 

Before the 1930s the present studio site was part of a farm and called One Mile Field.  The clue to its size is in the name.  In 1932 the local council were looking for a suitable location to construct an airfield and this was one of two that were considered.  Interestingly, it was also proposed that film studios should be constructed here and this was the preferred choice of the local parish council.  In fact, neither project happened.  The field was purchased by the council and in 1937 an enormous park including several playing fields was planned.  It was to be called the King George V Recreation Ground.  Some preliminary work commenced in 1939 but the park was not completed.  In any case, the declaration of war in September 1939 put all such projects on hold.

At the outbreak of war the Handley Page aircraft company requested that other factories be built around London to help assemble its Halifax bombers.  The De Havilland company agreed to do this and began to look for suitable sites to construct an airfield with associated factories.  The King George V Recreation Ground was ideal and work was begun in January 1940.

George Wimpey Ltd constructed a single tarmac runway, about 3,000 ft long by 150ft wide.  They also built two factories - No.1 factory was built to the north of the runway and No.2 factory on the eastern perimeter.  There were also two 'flight clearance' sheds built - one near each end of the runway.  These were very large hangars where aircraft could be prepped ready for their first flight.

Many years later, No.1 Factory formed part of the film studios used for the Harry Potter movies.

No.2 Factory was demolished when part of the airfield was sold off to construct a business park in the 1990s and was never used for film making.

 

But - back to the war. 

No. 2 factory was used to construct Mosquito fighter/bombers.  The Mosquito was a very fast 2-engine aircraft made mostly of plywood that had a variety of versions including night-fighter and tactical bomber.  An astonishing 1,476 of them were made at Leavesden.  The Mosquitos also used the flight shed at the western end of the runway near the A41.  This building was used from the mid '90s to 2009 as an occasional overspill film stage.  It has now been replaced by a brand new sound stage.

Mosquitos being manufactured at Leavesden during the war in the No. 2 factory - now demolished.

 

Meanwhile, No.1 factory was used to assemble Halifax bombers. The Halifax was a large 4-engine bomber, almost as successful as the more famous Avro Lancaster.  700 were built here.  Rather like bits of Airbus airliners are manufactured now in various factories all over Europe, different sections of the Halifax and its engines were constructed in factories around London.  Before the war these all manufactured cars, lorries and buses.  A new company - the London Aircraft Production Group - was formed to coordinate this process which ended with the assembly of the aircraft at Leavesden prior to their first flights.  It is said that pilots liked the Leavesden Halifaxes because the seats were beautifully made in green leather.  The company that made those previously constructed London Buses.  The Leavesden Halifaxes also had superior riveting, which increased the top speed of the aircraft by 10-15 knots.  Very important when being attacked by a prowling Bf 110 night fighter somewhere over Germany.

A Halifax bomber being assembled in No.1 Factory.  Possibly this is where the Great Hall in Hogwarts was located some 60 years later.

The last Halifax made at Leavesden was named 'London Pride' and was rolled out on 16th April 1945 with great celebration from many of the great and good including Sir Frederick Handley-Page.

 

Following WWII, No.1 Factory was taken over by the DeHavilland Aircraft Engine Division.  This was one of the first factories in the world to manufacture commercial jet engines.  For example, the Ghost engine was made here in 1947, which powered the Comet airliner and the Venom fighter.

During the Korean war which ran from 1950-1953, DeHavilland anticipated a significant increase in orders for military aircraft.  They decided to double the size of the Leavesden factory so constructed workshops alongside the existing hangars and a new admin block with a control tower at the runway end.  These new facilities were completed in 1954.  They are still in use today as part of the new WB film studio complex.

Above is No.1 Factory as it was in 1948 - camouflage paint on the roofs still there from the recent war.  The row of hangars in which the Halifax bombers were assembled became film stages between 1994 and 2009. 

Below is the same view in 1954 following the addition of the extra workshop space that would be used to manufacture aircraft engines.  This area still remains in the WB Studios and is referred to as a 'multifunction zone'.  The smart new office block seen below is still in use.  At the left hand end of the lower picture can be seen the new control tower for the airfield.  The smaller wartime one is the round white building in front of the old hangars.  In case you were wondering - the tall white tower seen on the picture above was a temporary control tower erected to give a view of the runway in 1948 to see over the new buildings whilst they were being constructed.  Once the new control tower was operational it was removed.  (That's useless factoid No. 857B.)

In 1959 the DeHavilland company became part of Hawker Siddeley which in turn was taken over in 1966 by Rolls Royce.  They based their 'small gas turbine division' at Leavesden, where many engines for aircraft and in particular for helicopters were made.  The last engine manufactured here was a Gnome for a Wessex helicopter in 1993.

During the '60s, '70s, '80s and into the early '90s the airfield was used for general aviation and several business and charter aircraft were based here - as was the Goodyear Blimp.

In '91 and '92 there were no orders for Rolls-Royce helicopter engines, partly due to the recession and of course to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This led to big cutbacks in defence spending.  Sadly but inevitably RR decided to close the facility.  They had left the site by June 1993 but the airfield remained open for a few more months.  However, on 31st March 1994 the last flight left the airfield and it was closed to aviation.

 

 

In 1994 the Bond film Goldeneye was unable to use Pinewood as the stages there were fully booked.  Eon, the production company, looked for an alternative studio but only this airfield offered the large stages they needed by converting several of the old hangars.

What at first was seen as a temporary fix to a problem turned out to be rather more permanent.  The old aircraft factory No.1 proved to be an excellent place to make movies.  The arrangement of several large hangars linked to thousands of square feet of workshop space was ideal.  Also of course, being an airfield there was and is a large area upon which to build exterior sets.  This back lot has the added advantage of a very low horizon with no visible buildings.

 

In 1995 the airfield was bought by 'Millennium Group' who intended to turn it into a theme park based on movies.  They also planned to keep some film making here and to sell off part of the site for housing and a business park.  The housing and business park went ahead but the theme park plans were never submitted to the council for approval.

 

In 1996 George Lucas returned to England to make the first of his Star Wars prequels - The Phantom Menace.  The original three films had of course been made at Elstree Studios, a few miles south of here, but those studios were no longer able to provide sufficient space.  Leavesden was ideal.  It could be sealed off from the rest of the world and there was more than enough space to construct large sets and fill stages with spaceships, alien worlds and giant greenscreens.

One of the old stages in use.  Although converted from aircraft hangars they were equipped with proper film stage grids as can be seen here.  The new stages however have higher and better designed grids.

In 1997 the studios were used to make Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.  No, me neither.

1998 saw Tim Burton move in to make Sleepy Hollow.  The spooky forest was a huge set built on one of the stages.  Hundreds of spacelights were hung from the grid to give the diffuse light that made it all look so creepy.  I'm told that each one was on a separate dimmer, giving the DoP extraordinary control over the lighting balance.  We take this for granted in television but in the world of film, dimmers were hardly ever used at that time.  As a complete contrast, An Ideal Husband was also filmed here in 1998.

 

In 2000 Warner Bros leased the whole airfield and began to make the first of the Harry Potter films - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  They made 8 movies in total, completing the series in 2009.

Leavesden during the Harry Potter years.  The area with zig-zag roofing is the workshop space built after the war for manufacturing aircraft engines.  The stages are on the right (previously the wartime Halifax factory) and the two buildings at an angle in the centre were wartime aircraft hangars being used now as stages.  The upper one is stage C which you can see has had an extension added to it.  The lower one is the D stage which had a tank for shooting underwater scenes built within it.  The D stage is the only one still remaining.  To the left can be seen the exterior set for Privet Drive - Harry's muggle home.

image thanks to Windows Live

During this time there were 7 stages including a huge one over 74,000 sq ft.  These were adapted from existing hangars.  The old flight shed on the west side of the airfield was also occasionally used as a silent stage.  Stage D had an underwater tank 60ft x 60ft and 20ft deep built within it, so nearly twice as big as the underwater stage at Pinewood.  This was constructed in 2004 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which contained several underwater scenes.

 

The original stages were as follows:

A - 243 x 132 x 30ft (32,000 sq ft)

B - 231 x 132 x 30ft (30,500 sq ft)

C - 122 x 92 x 28ft (11,000 sq ft but had a temporary extension added)

D - 123 x 96 x 28ft (contained underwater tank)

E - later used as a workshop area

F - 15,300sq ft

G - 19,200 sq ft

H/I - 74,500 sq ft

Flight shed - 48,000 sq ft

 

Most of the above had very limited sound attenuation, as they were of course adapted from industrial units.

The back lot had several familiar sets built on it including Privet Drive, the main courtyard at Hogwarts, Hagrid's hut and part of the rickety bridge at Hogwarts.  Most of these had bluescreens built round them and the backgrounds were added in post production.  None of these sets now remain.

 

In 2010 Warner Bros announced a proposal to buy the freehold and to redevelop the site as a major international film studio.  The plans were agreed and construction began.  The stages dating back to the wartime Halifax factory were demolished and replaced with new ones.  All are now fully insulated sound stages.  This is particularly important as most are positioned next to each other.  I have read that many of the original steel frames of the old hangars were incorporated into the structures of the new stages.  This explains why they follow very similar outlines and must have saved quite a bit of cost in their construction.

Other buildings were refurbished or had extensions added.  There were some new construction workshops and offices added too.  The new studios opened on 11th June 2012.

Above is a plan showing how the old stages were laid out.  The exterior walls have remained more or less in the same place but below is a drawing indicating how the new stages are arranged.  Stage C (upper left) has been completely rebuilt and is much larger than before.

What has been completed is a site with superb facilities for every department.  There are now 9 stages in the main complex - the 10th on the west side of the airfield opened in 2013.  This huge stage (L) of nearly 50,000 sq ft replaced the previous flight shed.  Only the 007 stage at Pinewood is larger in the UK at 59,000 sq ft.  It also has 50,000 sq ft of hard standing outside its dock doors where sets could be extended if required.

The stages have excellent grids with catwalks over them enabling rigging to be relatively fast and flexible.  The vast workshop area that adjoins the stages is now designated a 'multi-function zone' that can have production offices, wardrobe, make-up, prop stores etc positioned close to each stage as and when required.

The new studios were officially opened in April 2013 by Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge - who all clearly enjoyed visiting the Harry Potter exhibition and in some ways rather spookily resembled the three leading characters of those books and films.

 

The impressive new Leavesden site.  The size of the back lot is clear - including what is left of the original runway which has been widened.  The block of buildings on the upper left contains the new stages and the Studio Tour with its car park is on the right.  The stage replacing the old flight shed is not visible in this photo - it is to the bottom left.

image thanks to Kays

 

The new stages are as follows:

A - 180 x 130 x 45ft (23,400 sq ft)

B - 180 x 130 x 30ft (23,400 sq ft)

C - 240 x 130 x 45ft (31,200 sq ft)

D - 120 x 90 x 27ft (10,800 sq ft - contains underwater tank)

E - 280 x 120 x 30ft (33,600 sq ft)

F - 280 x 130 x 30ft (36,400 sq ft)

G - 280 x 120 x 30ft (33,600 sq ft)

H - 140 x 130 x 30ft (18,200 sq ft)

I - 140 x 130 x 30ft (18,200 sq ft)

L - (replacing old flight shed) 440 x 112ft (49,280 sq ft) - this is a mute stage

Outdoor tank - 250 x 250ft x 4ft deep with a 8ft deep section of 109 x 96ft

 

You will notice that most of these stages are very large indeed.

The very impressive new C stage at Leavesden.  All the stages have been built to this very high specification.

with thanks to wbsl.com

 

In addition to those listed above, two new stages - J and K - are situated just south of the main block of studio buildings but separated from them.  They house the Warner Bros Studio Tour - also known as The Making of Harry Potter.  This is not a theme park but an exhibition of actual sets, dismantled from the original stages and re-erected here.  There are thousands of props from the movies on display which can be closely examined by visitors.

One assumes that if and when the public eventually tire of Harry Potter, this exhibition could cover other films although there is no indication that this might be happening any time soon.  It is also possible that in due course these two buildings could become working stages as part of the studio lot.  Just to emphasise - Warners have not suggested anywhere that this is planned.

 

In an interview, the head of Warner Bros UK was quoted as saying that the site contains 'three smaller TV studios.'  I'm not sure which three of those above he means - H and I are the smallest (although still pretty enormous at 18,000 sq ft each!) so may be earmarked for TV drama production.  None are actual TV studios in the sense of having resin TV floors and production galleries.  In fact, all the stages have concrete floors.  The third 'TV studio' he had in mind may be D, which contains the underwater tank.  The Warner Bros website indicates that the tank can be covered over and the stage used for normal filming.

Interestingly, Warner Bros, which is part of media giant Time-Warner, own Waterloo Road producer Shed Media.  This group includes Wall to Wall and Twenty Twenty Television.   Any of these companies might therefore use these studios to make TV drama.  We could also see one or more of the stages being used for large-scale entertainment series using an OB unit for facilities.  For example, The Voice is made by Wall to Wall but has not used these stages - so far.  In fact, according to the studio's website the stages here are available for any company to hire - not just those associated with Warner Bros.

 

Although these studios are best known for the Harry Potter films, they have been used to shoot some scenes on several other movies.  Some have used stages, others just the back lot.  I have mentioned two or three above but others have included Die Another Day ('01), The Dark Knight ('07), Sherlock Holmes ('09), Inception ('10), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ('11), The Dark Knight Rises ('11), Argo ('12), Robopocalypse ('13) and All You Need is Kill ('13).   Incidentally, I have read that the set for Sherlock Holmes' house had been previously used as Sirius Black's house in one of the Potter films.

 

So far the studios have not been used for much TV production but this may change with the recent expansion of facilities.  One notable drama some years ago was the excellent Longitude ('00). 

The second series of the kids' gameshow series Pump It Up was recorded here in 1999 for ITV.  The first series had been made the year before in a similar very large converted industrial shed in a village a few miles from here called Park Street Studios.  As it happens, that facility had previously been used by another Bond movie - Tomorrow Never Dies.  By coincidence, it too was originally an aircraft factory - in its case used by Handley Page.  Park Street Studios were demolished around 2007 and the land used for housing.

 

It may not have escaped your notice that these studios are now Pinewood's main commercial rival in the UK.  Had Pinewood been able to accommodate Goldeneye all those years ago, Leavesden Studios might never have come about.  I wonder where all the Potter films would have been made?  Possibly not even in the UK. 

Warner Bros owned Teddington Studios back in the 1930s and 1940s.  These studios in Leavesden are on an entirely different scale.  They are in fact one and a half times the size of Warner's studios in Hollywood.  With some of the newest, largest and best-equipped stages in Europe, it will be very interesting to see the kind of work they attract in the coming years.

 

 

 

 

Millennium Studios / Studio 2000, Borehamwood

1995 - 2006; 2010 - present

Elstree Light and Power (ELP) is a lighting hire company that evolved from Meteorlites - a company that was established in 1976 specialising in rock concert lighting.  They developed a system of pre-rigged trussing that enabled complex lighting rigs to be rapidly set and struck.  This efficiency was noticed by one or two BBC OB lighting directors around the late 1980s who started to use Meteorlites to provide the lighting for televised concerts, shows and events.

I was console operator on some of these TV productions and had great fun with a 90-way Celco controlling hundreds of Parcans.  For one entertainment series recorded in Jersey in 1988 I operated two consoles side by side (about 12 feet long in total) controlling over 1,000 parcans and other lights mounted on a ground support truss over a massive stage - the rig designed and built by Meteorlites.  I needed a chair on well-oiled wheels for that one.

 

Following the success of their work on BBC OBs, the company headed by Ronan Wilson decided to move away from the world of concert lighting and concentrate on lighting for film and TV.  (After all, the guys running the business were not quite as young as they used to be and maybe constant touring was beginning to lose its appeal?)  They changed the name to Elstree Light and Power (ELP) and in August 1993 based themselves in Borehamwood, not far from Elstree Film Studios.  They also supplied some lighting equipment to the BBC at their Elstree studios for TOTP and other shows.

I should mention at this point that Ronan is one of the industry's great innovators.  As well as inventing the pre-rigged truss in his rock and roll days he has devised ingenious solutions to rigging and staging problems for many TV shows.  He came up with the idea of a studio on legs that could be sited on top of an OB truck for sports events like Formula 1.  ELP are also responsible for supplying the lighting rig for Question Time, which is staged in every kind of venue from sports halls to arts centres to prestigious historic locations, where it is essential that no damage of any kind is caused to the fixtures and fittings.  Other shows they have supplied kit to include The Proms, The Royal Wedding, Robot Wars, Strictly Come Dancing at Wembley, The Voice, Britain's Got Talent, Top Gear etc etc etc.  They have also provided lighting equipment for many dramas including Lewis and Waking the Dead.

 

ELP named their new premises Millennium Studios.  They were bigger than they needed to store their considerable range of lighting and rigging equipment.  Office space was rented out to film and media companies.  Much of the Elstree Film Studio site just down the road was in the process of being demolished to make way for the new Tesco store so a number of companies previously based there moved up the road to Millennium Studios including Hammer Films.

On the ground floor of the warehouse an area was set aside to be used as a sound stage.  It was (and still is) 80ft x 44ft.  It became available for use in January 1995 and was known as 'X' stage.  It had a suite of rooms supporting it that included production offices, construction workshop, wardrobe, make-up and green room. 

The stage was not equipped with technical facilities (apart from lights, obviously) but was used by a number of TV companies to make single camera drama and entertainment shows or multicamera productions using flyaway facilities.  Some children's programmes were made here - including the first series of The Mysti Show for the BBC in 2004.

In 2005 the Trisha show moved to Channel 5 from ITV and also moved studios from Anglia in Norwich to this studio.  (The following year it moved to Maidstone.)

Incidentally, the bar area near the studio was attractively dressed and furnished with some unique bar stools.  These were adapted from the carcasses of Link 110 TV cameras that had been skipped by the BBC and 'rescued' by ELP.  They were certainly a talking point although not necessarily the most comfortable stools in the world.

 

Around 2006 ELP decided to move out to much larger facilities at Alconbury - which used to be a USAF airbase.  (I remember going to a very impressive airshow there in the 1980s.)  The facilities here in Elstree were closed down.  ELP dropped the 'Elstree Light and Power' name and became known purely by the initials.

 

 

In 2010 the studio in Borehamwood was reopened and renamed Studio 2000.  It is associated with Denmark Studios, a small 4-waller in north London.  It is equipped with a permanent greenscreen (which can be repainted) and has been used for various single camera shows such as Rude Tube and Summertown.  This business has no connection with ELP.  Hire company Production Gear Ltd is also based here.

I would appreciate any more info on TV shows made in this studio in recent years.

A production in the studio in 2010

 

 

Meanwhile, in 2009 Ronan Wilson purchased hangars and other facilities at Thurleigh, Bedforshire.  The airbase used to be an MoD establishment specialising in military research.  It was used for testing various missiles, Harrier, Concorde and various flight simulators.  That site is now called Millennium Studios.  The stages there specialise in providing rehearsal facilities for band tours but can be used for shooting movies, TV drama, pop promos or commercials.  The huge range of ELP kit is naturally available for rigging and lighting.

ELP still have their equipment base at Alconbury but in 2011 they moved their office facilities and some hire stock back to Borehamwood - in fact to Elstree Film Studios.  They now occupy the old studio powerhouse so can of course be called 'Elstree Light and Power' once again.  They are very handily placed to support the stages that have been taken over by the BBC.

 

 

 

 

Chak89 Studios, Hayes (formerly HDS Studios)

1997 - present

 

These studios were created within some industrial units at the corner of Springfield Road and Beaconsfield Road, Hayes.  There is some conflicting and confusing information around so it has been difficult to establish exactly what facilities were available and when they were created.  However, I believe the information below is the most likely:

 

The company HDS was originally based in Reddich and specialised in scenery construction, building a number of sets for all the main broadcasters, including Pebble Mill apparently.  The name 'HDS' is derived from the initials of the men who owned it.  Later they moved to Hayes.

Initially there were a number of large workshops - some used for constructing and storing scenery with three of them being used as film stages for commercials, pop videos etc.  In 1997 these three were converted into TV studios for the new Channel Five soap Family Affairs.  The three studios shared two control room suites.

The studios were remarkably well equipped, with 10 Sony 570 cameras shared by the studios.  The two production gallery suites were fitted with BTS vision mixers and all the facilities one would hope to see.  The main shortcoming was the grids which were very basic fixed beam grids as you find on a film stage rather than a TV studio.  These limited the studios to fixed and inflexible lighting rigs and prevented rapid turnarounds and relights.  The slightly sloping ceilings and grids on some stages also made things rather challenging.

There were dubbing and editing facilities here and optical links to the BT Tower for live broadcasts.  Scenery construction was also carried out in a 40,000 sq ft workshop. 

No doubt to to the considerable disappointment of the owners of the studios, Family Affairs only stayed here for two years until 1999, when it moved to TalkbackTHAMES' own studios in Merton to join The Bill.

 

In 2000, after Family Affairs had left, Sky's business division took over studio 2 and built three small studios within it - A, B and C.  They also constructed two new control galleries.  They began broadcasting from the studios in September of that year.  In addition, elsewhere in the building there was a small news studio (20 x 20ft) with its own control gallery and a 'pack shot' studio (14 x 10ft) with a chromakey cyc.

'Sky Travel Shop' occupied Studio A for 1 day a week as a live production.

Studios B and C were used for 'The Automotive Channel' and 'The Pub Channel' - which was aimed at publicans and not available to the general public.  (Non-stop hints and tips from Al Murray, one assumes.)  Actually, I'm told that the channel was live for most of the day giving tips on how make your bar/ pub/ club better and included items such as cooking demos.  The Automotive Channel broadcast to the motor trade from 8.30am to 1.30pm every weekday.

When the Pub and Automotive channels finished broadcasting their live output, the use of the studios and galleries quickly switched to 'At The Races'.

The two galleries occupied by Sky were equipped with Snell and Wilcox 1524 vision mixers, Calrec sound desks, an Aston concept, 3 Sony Betacam SX machines and digital Sony cameras.  There were four cameras per studio with Vinten peds - each with a Radamec pan/tilt head.  The cameras were rolled to new positions marked on the floor by the floor manager.  I'm told that the sets were partly chromakey and used a 'virtual' system to fill in the gaps.

One of the three TV studios created by Sky.  This is thought to be the current stage 4C so probably the original home of the Pub Channel.

 

From 2001 two more stages (4 and 5) were marketed along with their own production offices, makeup, wardrobe and dressing rooms.  They could be linked to either of the original production gallery suites.

The business seems to have got into difficulties around the end of 2003 and ceased operation on 29th April 2004.  My understanding is that that the Pub and Automotive Channels were closed down and At The Races moved to Teddington, with Sky Travel Shop becoming a pre-recorded package and going to studio 7 at Sky's HQ in Osterley.

 

In 2007 a planning application was made to convert the studio site into a mixed use development including function halls, cinema, ten pin bowling, restaurant, health club and multi-level car park.  One can get an idea of the size of the site from this alone.  That application had the total floor area of the studios at an astonishing 75,000 sq ft. which must have included the scenery construction workshops and other facilities.  The planning application was refused by the local council and by the Mayor of London's office and went to appeal where it was also turned down.

The studios were therefore closed and put up for sale.  However...

 

Pending redevelopment, the studios were taken over by The Collective - a company offering locations for film and TV shooting.  They carried out some basic improvements to the facilities but only offered the stages as a simple dry-hire location, with minimal support and management.  However, stage 3 was refurbished and is now soundproof.

 

In April 2013 it was announced that the studios had changed their name to Chak89.  This followed the acquisition of the site by Elbrook Cash and Carry - a leading food and drink wholesaler with an annual turnover of £129m.  They also own Chak89 restaurant and banqueting hall.  This company specialises in organising weddings and banquets - not just in their own premises but in many prestigious locations around London.  They seem to be intending to run the site as a film studio for the foreseeable future and are investing in improving the facilities here - which is extremely welcome.  Perhaps not surprisingly given the new owners, there is now on-site catering for example.  It is no secret that after HDS left, much of the site was poorly maintained and in need of some basic tidying up.

stage 3.  At 8,400 sq ft this is one of the largest and with its permanent cyclorama is probably the best equipped.

The stages here have been used for filming commercials and a number of single-camera TV dramas including ITV's Lewis and the BBC's Born and Bred.  More recent bookings include New Tricks, A Young Doctor's Notebook, Miss Marple, Misfits, The Last Weekend, Hunted, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, Him and Her and Hunderby.  According to the Chak89 website, Britain's Got Talent has used a stage here, as apparently has The Jonathan Ross Show.  Quite what was filmed here by those two shows is not clear - the main shows are of course made at Fountain and The London Studios.

Some feature films have also used the stages here to shoot scenes.  These include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Bollywood thriller Rush.

 

It seems pretty clear that at some point most of the stages have been renumbered.  The sizes and numbers do not tally between those when they were owned by HDS and those advertised now.  I assume this is because some of the stages are an irregular shape so it depends how you measure them. 

According to the best information I can find, during the HDS days the studios were as follows:

 

Studio 1: 8,000 sq ft (92 x 76ft working area)

Studio 2 - in 2000 converted into 3 TV studios:

A: 2,000 sq ft

B: 1,800 sq ft

C: 1,900 sq ft

Studio 3: 11,000 sq ft (!)

Studio 4: 7,000 sq ft approx

Studio 5: 6,530 sq ft (85 x 70ft working area)

 

with thanks to the Chak89 website

However, according to the Collective and Chak89 websites, the stages are now as follows:

stage 1: 6,210 sq ft (90 x 69ft)

stage 2: 5,796 sq ft (84 x 69ft)

stage 3: 8,400 sq ft (105 x 92ft) This stage has a permanent cyclorama.

stage 4A: 1,291 sq ft

stage 4B: 1,300 sq ft

stage 4C: 1,700 sq ft

stage 5: 7,000 sq ft (described by The Collective as a workshop space or props store)

stage 6: 8,514 sq ft

 

If you have worked here and can let me know any more about the studios I'd appreciate it.  I would particularly like to hear from anyone who worked on Family Affairs.

 

 

 

Longcross Film Studios

2006 - present

This facility is unique amongst all those available in the UK for film and TV making.  It has one of the largest and most unusual back lots to be found.  Originally owned by the Ministry of Defence - and in more recent years by the defence research company QinetiQ -  it was where tanks and other military vehicles were developed and tested from 1941.  After the war the MoD hung onto it despite protests from locals and they only left in 2005.  It was known by several names including 'Forces Vehicle Research and Development Establishment' and 'Defence Evaluation and Research Agency'.  The site is currently owned by Crest and Aviva who plan to redevelop it.

 

 

Most British tanks of the '40s-'90s were developed and tested here including the Challenger and Challenger 2, which is famous for its almost impregnable 'Chobham' armour.  This was named after the nearby village.  No Challenger has ever been lost through enemy fire - one had a Milan anti-tank missile and dozens of RPGs fired at it - it was slightly damaged and 6 hours later was fully operational.  Another tank was hit by an astonishing 70 RPGs but was not badly damaged.  On another occasion, an IED exploded under the tank - the driver lost 3 toes.  The underside armour has been modified to prevent this happening again.

One was accidentally destroyed - by another Challenger 2 in a tragic 'blue on blue' incident in the Iraq war.  This however was due to a round exploding on the open hatch - not penetrating the Chobham armour.  Although the British Army has about 400 Challenger 2s in its inventory which will continue in use till around 2035, these are not expected to be replaced as the age of the main battle tank is thought to be nearly over.  Hence facilities like this are no longer required.

 

 

Longcross is located on the M3, two miles outside the M25 in Surrey, close to Wentworth golf course.  The nearby Longcross railway station has been a source of mystery for many years as commuters have noted that it always remains open and trains have often made unscheduled stops there, despite hardly anyone using it.  Clearly the handful of people who did were very very important.  More intriguingly, the station is inaccessible by road and can only be reached via the golf course or down a country lane that reduces to a track, then a footpath.

This photo was taken by a friend of mine who has long suspected that Longcross station is not what it seems.  Apparently, it is impossible to take a sharp photo - they all come out blurred like this (or so he tells me.)  It is considered by him and all his fellow travellers as the station with no name - indeed, to mention its name will bring disaster upon the utterer.  He's a very intelligent chap so naturally I believe everything he tells me.

 

Longcross Studios are sited literally on the M3 - (OK - maybe not literally on it, but either side of it) - half the site with its extensive buildings is to the north and a bridge capable of supporting the weight of a tank passes over the motorway to the test tracks to the south.  The test tracks are in naturally wooded landscape and look like normal country lanes and roads so can be used for filming car chases, stunts etc.  They include a loop a mile long which is ideal for dialogue scenes in cars.  There is also a high speed track two miles long with banked corners and an off-road track, steep inclines and other challenges.  Not surprisingly, these were used in the Bond film Skyfall and a number of other movies and TV dramas too.  Sadly, in 2007 a stunt driver was killed here whilst rehearsing a sequence for The Dark Knight.

The country lane loop was used for the 2013 Christmas special of Not Going Out - a long scene in a car being shot in a controlled environment with no risk or danger from other traffic.

In the centre of the test track lot is a Victorian manor house built in a Jacobean style, previously used as an officers' mess.  Its beautiful exterior and interiors are in excellent condition and have been used on many TV dramas.

Within the back lot is even a 9-hole golf course which is certainly unusual to be found on a film lot.  Quite what secret weapon the MoD was testing here is open to question.

stage 1

with thanks to the Longcross Studios website

 

On the north side of the M3 are numerous offices, workshops and four stages.  These of course were the original factory units where armoured vehicles were constructed.  Some have immensely strong roofs as they contained integral cranes that lifted components - they are a very useful height too making them ideal film stages.

stage 1 - 42,000 sq ft: 350 x 120 x 50ft high  (This is big!)

stage 2 - 17,600 sq ft: 226 x 78 x 30ft high

stage 3 - 12,400 sq ft: 165 x 75 x 35ft high (this is more of a workshop than a shooting stage but can be used for either.)

stage 4 - a former helicopter testing chamber - 65 x 65 x 35ft high.

The largest stages have been used for big movies like Hugo, War Horse, Clash of the Titans and Skyfall.  The scene in Skyfall on the frozen lake at night was shot here.  Other movies have included Green Zone, Wrath of the Titans, John Carter, Jack the Giant Killer and Fast and Furious 6.

TV dramas and comedies shot here since 2006 have included HolbyBlue (Kudos for BBC1), Jekyll (Hartswood for BBC1), series 2 of Hyperdrive (BBC Comedy for BBC2), Primeval, Moving Wallpaper, Lewis, Honest, Echo Beach, Law and Order UK, Foyle's War, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story and Enid (the Enid Blyton biopic with Helena Bonham-Carter).

A planning application was submitted by the owners in 2011 to redevelop the northern part of the site into a business park.  This was granted but in July 2013 another application was made that altered the proposals to include a number of houses.  It is not known when any work will commence but with the acute shortage of studio space in the London area, these facilities are sure to be busy both with film making and TV drama production in the meantime.  The redevelopment plans as published do not include any film or TV studios.

If you know the titles of any other TV dramas or comedies shot here, please let me know!

 

 

 

 

London Metropolitan Studios, Greenford

2013 - present

In 2013 another disused factory was taken over to be used as 4-waller stages.  This one is a relatively new building and looks to be in very good condition.  Rather than being a temporary filming facility pending redevelopment, this looks set to develop into a fully functioning studio complex.  It is being marketed by The Collective - London's leading film and TV location agency.  The studios are situated in Greenford, West London - near the A40 and close to Greenford tube and train station.

The building contains two very large stages - each 35,000 sq ft with a good height to the roof beams - 32ft in fact.  There is a third space the same size but this is perhaps more suited as a workshop area as it is pillared and has a lower roof height.

There are plenty of rooms that can be used as offices, wardrobe/makeup, props stores etc.  There are also kitchen and canteen facilities.  The site also has an area of over 3 acres where future expansion could take place.  There is consent for a further 74,000 sq ft of studio space to be constructed.

This will no doubt become a very popular facility - it seems ideally suited to large scale TV drama series or feature films.  It is very conveniently located and has plenty of space to develop and expand internally and externally over the next few years.

One of the 2 main stages.  Each is the same size.

with thanks to The Collective

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright information:  As on the rest of this website - please do not use or ask permission to use any of these images in books or other publications or on TV programmes or commercially run websites.  Many of the illustrations are copyrighted by their respective copyright holders according to the original copyright or publication date as printed on the artwork or publication and are reproduced here for historical reference and research purposes.  If you do own the copyright to any image displayed here and wish it to be credited or removed, please contact me and I shall of course be happy to oblige.

 

 

An apology - firstly for all those errors which are almost certainly still sprinkled throughout the above.  I shall do my best to put them right when I discover them or when somebody contacts me with the facts!  Secondly - I am very aware that I have almost completely ignored sound in all my comments about studio equipment.  It's not that I'm not interested, rather that I am far better informed about cameras and lighting and frankly there is very little information out there about which sound mixer was installed in what studio and when.  That's my excuse anyway

 

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