MGM-British Studios Borehamwood

1937 – 1970

(Revised May 2020)

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Although these superb 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.  Naturally, they were mostly used for making feature films but a few television productions were also shot here.  Most have been forgotten but there was one particular series that helped define the 1960s – Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.  Before that, McGoohan starred in Danger Man… but we will come to these in due course.

 

The first TV series filmed here were intended for US television using a mix of British and American actors.  Dick and the Duchess was a 26 episode sitcom that began shooting in 1958.  It was followed by Rendezvous in 1959.  This was a 60 minute drama – 28 episodes were filmed here in Borehamwood and a further 13 in the US.

Zero One was filmed between 1961 and 1965.  It starred Nigel Patrick and was set around the world of international air security.  This was a very rare collaboration between the BBC and a Hollywood Studio.  39 episodes were made in total.

Espionage was a 24 episode series made for ATV/ITC in 1963.  Each was not surprisingly a spy story but curiously there was no regular cast – each episode followed the adventures of spies in various parts of the world and at different times in history.  Dozens of well-known British actors were cast in leading roles.  The series was shown in America on NBC and some of these actors went on to be cast in Hollywood movies, thanks to their exposure on this production.

Journey To The Unknown was a horror/sci-fi TV series made here in 1968 by Hammer Films and 20th Century Fox.  It featured a mix of British and American actors and has been reported to be the most expensive TV drama filmed in Britain up to then, which is surprising as it came after The Prisoner, which can’t have been cheap to make.  It was originally to be called Tales Of The Unknown but changed its name just before release.  One episode was set around the making of a TV show – the Intertel facilities at Wycombe Road were used for this.  There have been no DVDs of it but most eps are available on YouTube and it is remembered by many people who loved it at the time.  Actually, ‘loved’ may be the wrong word.  Various people describe watching it when they were very young and being deeply disturbed by some of the stories!  Perhaps because of its relative obscurity it has gained something of a cult status.  Seventeen episodes were filmed, primarily for ABC TV in the US but it did poorly in the ratings there so only one season was completed.  Four double-length features were later released for TV sales that cut together two episodes each.  These were called Journey Into Darkness, Journey to the Unknown, Journey to Murder and Journey to Midnight.

 

 

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above – the studios soon after they were built.  Extraordinary to see them surrounded by fields.  Below was after most of the stages had had their grids raised by MGM.  Incidentally, the fields in the distance just in front of the main road on the right of the upper photo are where the new Sky/Universal Studios are being built.
 

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Let’s wind the clock back to how these studios came about.  They were created by Paul Soskin, a film producer, and his uncle Simon Soskin, who 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 they were forced to call in the receivers.  Apparently, technical equipment had been ordered from America but when it arrived, there was no way of paying for it.  Back then, stages without lighting or other technical kit in them could not be rented out.  In 1939 the ownership of the studios eventually passed to the builders – McAlpine – who put them on the market hoping to sell them to a suitable studio management company.

John Maxwell immediately made a good offer – he owned Elstree Studios just down the road. Those studios were outdated and needed rebuilding (which in fact happened after the war.) However, J Arthur Rank knew that they would be major competitors to his newly opened Pinewood and Denham studios so he snapped them up.  Rather cynically, he had no intention of using them for filming – he just wanted them unavailable for other film-makers to use.  Rank contacted his old pal Sir Malcolm McAlpine, who sold the studios to him for less than the offer Maxwell had made.  Make of that what you will.

Rank immediately leased the studios to the Ministry of Works, with the intention that the stages would be used for Government document storage.  They began filling the studios with files and paperwork.  However, in October 1940 it was decided that it would be more useful to the war effort if the stages were used to manufacture aircraft parts so large numbers of documents were stored elsewhere or simply dumped.  Structural changes were made to enable the stages to become factories and workshops.  Meanwhile, the ownership of the studios passed from Rank to Prudential Insurance – he was having to raise cash to save his own studios.  Although Rank had hoped the Borehamwood studios would never be used for film making, this change of ownership meant that he couldn’t prevent that happening after the war.

 

In April 1944 Prudential sold the studios to Alexander Korda, who by then was working for MGM.  The plan was to create a top quality film studio when the war ended to be used for making international movies starring a mix of British and American actors.  (I imagine J Arthur Rank was not amused.)  They were renamed MGM-British Studios and came to be considered by many to be the most glamorous, best designed and best equipped studios in Europe.

After the war, they were heavily invested in by MGM, who had to remove the wartime machinery, lay wooden floors and raise the grids in most of the stages, which were then equipped with all the latest kit from Hollywood.  MGM also purchased a great deal of land around the studios, enabling future expansion to take place and creating a very large back lot, which would prove invaluable in the years to come.

It took until June 1948 to complete the redevelopment of the site.  However, in fact a couple of British films had used the facilities before the official opening – one was Brighton Rock.

Although several films were made here from the late 1940s, MGM 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.

 

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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 (18,600 sq ft) and the rest were split in two with stages approximately 120 x 96 ft (11,500 sq ft) and 74 x 96 ft (7,100 sq ft) each.  The block containing stages 6 and 7 did not have the grids raised by MGM and stage 7 was equipped as a music scoring stage. 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.

 

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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.  In his later career he acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with but I have read accounts of people who worked on Danger Man who said he was absolutely charming and often joined members of the crew down the pub for a pint.

Incidentally, although the majority of the filming was done here in Borehamwood, the last 6 eps of series 2 were made at Shepperton.  Enthusiasts have noted the various scenes that were shot on standing sets on the back lot at Shepperton.  The standing sets at MGM as well as other locations around Borehamwood were also often used.

 

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.

 

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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 has a different ‘Number 2’ who attempts to break our hero.  Meanwhile he (Number 6) tries 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 an enthusiastic 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 café 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. 

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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.)

Originally with a working title of 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 than 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.  And I have 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 thus 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 July or September – accounts differ.  It then took a year to work out how to film the Dawn of Man sequences.  Meanwhile, effects photography continued until March 1968.  The film occupied seven of the ten stages at MGM at various times plus occasionally other studios such as ABPC Elstree and Shepperton.  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.

 

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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.

One sequence revealed a disturbance when it was finally viewed in the rushes.  It had been filmed in June 1966.  They worked out that it had happened when England scored the winning goal in the World Cup final.  Despite the camera and model being very securely fixed, the crew jumping up and down in celebration in the corner of the stage had been enough to register on camera.

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.

 

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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, in 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 12 metres 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.

 

I would strongly recommend buying the 4K UHD Blu-ray of this film.  It was released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release in 2018 and is the result of a new 8K scan from the original negatives.  It has been graded to be as accurate as possible to the original colour balance.  Dirt and scratches have been removed but no digital enhancement has been done.  The high dynamic range (HDR) makes the skies in the Dawn of Man scenes astonishingly realistic, and of course the Star Gate sequence is stunning.

This is not to be confused with the re-release of the film shown in some cinemas, supervised by Christopher Nolan.  For reasons best known to him, he insisted that the scratches, blemishes and colour casts due to the age of the negative should be retained.  I’m not sure Kubrick would have approved, knowing his obsession with technical quality.

The images on the 4K Blu-ray 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.

 

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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.

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Above 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. 

 

Between April and November 1969, a TV series that has acquired a bit of a cult following was filmed here – Gerry Anderson’s UFO.  The effects shots were made in his Century 21 studios in Slough but this was his first TV series with real actors rather than puppets.  Stages 6 and 7 were used for these scenes.  The standing sets on the back lot were seen in some episodes and the ‘futuristic’ office block at ATV’s studios down the road – now called Neptune House – became the ‘Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation.’  Many years later it became the hospital in the BBC’s Holby City.

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   rapped 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 April 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, reopening in 2018.

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 and UFO.  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.  It must have been strange for Kubrick to see the studios closed and in a dilapidated state when a decade earlier he had spent two years here making 2001, when the studios were in their prime.

 

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.  The Sainsbury’s buildings were themselves demolished in 2019 to be replaced by a logistics facility (i.e. several warehouses) and a data centre.

 

 

For more information on these sadly lost studios I can wholeheartedly recommend Paul Welsh’s superb book  MGM British Studios – Hollywood in Hertfordshire.  It is full of fascinating information about the studios and all the movies made here.  It can be purchased from Elstree Screen Heritage, who benefit from the sales.