Longcross Film Studios

2006 – present

(revised September 2021)

longcross aerial

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’.

 

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. 

In 2019 the British Army had 227 Challenger 2s in its inventory.  148 are being upgraded with new turrets and guns designed in Germany.  The work is being carried out in various factories in the West Midlands, Glasgow, Newcastle upon Tyne and the Isle of Wight.  These Challenger 3 tanks will continue in use till around 2040, hence facilities like this are no longer required.

 

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

There is now a housing estate there and it is accessible by road so boringly it is just another stop on the Waterloo to Reading line.

 

This map shows how big an area the whole Longcross site covers. The M3 can be seen to divide the two parts of the studios – with the stages, workshops and offices on the left and the test track and other facilities on the right.
with thanks to the Longcross website

 

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.  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 and known as Barrow Hills.  Its beautiful exterior and interiors are in excellent condition and have been used on many TV dramas.  For a number of years it has been used by the BBC’s Call the Midwife as ‘Nonnatus House’.

Within the test track there is 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.

 

The Manor House, aka Barrow Hills
with thanks to Longcross Studios

 

Since January 2006, the factory units have been used as film stages and supporting facilities but this was seen as a temporary arrangement, pending redevelopment.  A planning application was submitted by the owners in 2011 to turn the northern part of the site occupied by the old factory units into a business park with smart office buildings, shops and cafes.  This was granted but in July 2013 another application was made that altered the proposals to include a number of houses on adjacent land, north of the M3.  (These were completed in 2021.  More housing is planned on the south side of the motorway but so far there is no sign of that happening.)  The redevelopment of the whole site was intended to take place over a long period with the housing first and the business park following on.

An interesting press release emerged in September 2021.  Netflix announced that they were taking over a ‘long-term lease’ on the site and planned to expand the facilities.  This will include a number of new stages and workshops enabling them to ‘significantly increase the breadth and calibre of production facilities’.  Since the housing on the northern side was completed in 2021 it was assumed that the redevelopment of the business park would begin soon but clearly that isn’t happening.  Possibly with post-Covid working practices making offices look less attractive and the continuing demand for film stages, it would appear that the developers have decided to postpone their original plans for a business park – possibly indefinitely?

According to press reports, since 2006 the whole Longcross site has been co-owned by Crest Nicholson and global asset manager Aviva Investors.  In 2021 Aviva purchased the 72-acre film production part of the site from Crest Nicholson for £45m.  The housing part of the site is still owned by both companies.  So Aviva are now working with Netflix to develop the film studios.

 

Of course, with Netflix having exclusive access to the Longcross stages for their productions it does mean that they are no longer available for other users.  For a while this looked as though it would affect the future of Call the Midwife, which has been filmed here for a number of years.  They use the Manor House on the Barrow Hills south side of the motorway, which is not affected by the Netflix deal, but also have offices and sets on the north side, which is affected.  At least two more series are planned after 2021.  After much negotiation, it was announced in November 2021 that a deal had been struck between the BBC and Netflix.  The press reported that the ‘warehouses’ containing the show’s sets will be moved across the motorway to the Barrow Hills side of the studios.  I think what this probably means is that one or more rapid-build temporary stages will be erected on the south lot and the show’s sets rebuilt within them.  According to The Mirror, the relocation will cost ‘at least £1million’, which will be spread between the BBC, distributor BBC Studios and the production company, Neal Street.

 

Although new permanent stages are planned, a number of temporary stages have been erected at Longcross to cope with demand in the short term.  These have been supplied by Serious Stages, who were established 35 years ago in Somerset to build stages for the Glastonbury festival.   Their two demountable units here enabled Mission Impossible to move from Leavesden and complete principal photography.  By late 2021, Serious apparently had an astonishing 13 temporary stages at Longcross.

 

longcross stage 1 450p
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 number and sizes of the new stages planned by Netflix have yet to be announced.)

 

The largest stages have been used for big movies like Hugo, War Horse and Clash of the Titans.  The scene towards the end of Skyfall on the frozen lake at night was shot here.  Other features have that have shot scenes here include Green Zone, Wrath of the Titans, John Carter, Jack the Giant Killer, Fast and Furious 6, Captain Phillips, World War Z, Thor 2, Marvel’s Dr Strange, The Gentlemen, Artemis Fowl, Aladdin, The King’s Man, Angel Has Fallen, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Murder on the Orient Express and Death On The Nile.

TV dramas and comedies shot here since 2006 have included Holby Blue (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, Enid (the Enid Blyton biopic with Helena Bonham-Carter) and part of series 2 of Broadchurch.  Since 2014 Call The Midwife has been filmed at Longcross and is set to continue on the south lot.