Britain's Tinseltown: the return of Hollywood to Herts
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
With a century of film and TV making in the can, Hertfordshire is no newcomer to the industry, but new studio investments worth billions are putting the county on the global stage.
I remember a taxi driver who drove me home from Harpenden station telling me he’d seen 'that Richard Gere' coming out of Rothamsted Park. I told him: 'Well, that’s Herts for you. You’re never more than six feet from a celeb.'
A tad trite perhaps but it did come on the back of being asked to keep my six-year-old away from a camera following Charles Dance through a cobbled lane at Hatfield House and watching Ricky Gervais pose with locals in Old Hemel.
Not to mention watching Piers Brosnan shoot a Bond scene the other side of a fence flanking South Way in Abbots Langley, a few yards from what was to become a vast Warner Brothers studio in which Daniel Radcliff was to debut as Harry Potter.
I even remember a small crowd gathering to watch two model aeroplanes, no bigger than those you often see over Wheathampstead Common, buzzing around the Leavesden skyline as part of what was to become a dog-fight scene.
So, pretty soon my six-feet-away analogy may contract into something slightly less socially distanced, as work speeds ahead on the new 32-acre Sky Elstree Studios development which flanks the existing Elstree Studios.
The contractors, Hemel Hempstead-based BAM Construct, are around 28 weeks into the 89-week build with six buildings well under way and, at the time of writing, cladding about to go on to the first of them.
What they describe as a large 'cut and fill' across the site saw over 30,000 cubic metres of earth moved during the wet, winter months and a similar quantity of recycled material used to provide a base for the construction works.
The local Mimmshall Brook, a bridge over which is said to be haunted by Dick Turpin, has even been successfully diverted, tastefully landscaped and supported by new attenuation ponds, ready for construction of a new multi-storey car park.
It’s all part of what Adam Harding, BAM regional director, described as 'a local business proud to be supporting the growth of the creative economy in Hertfordshire' as well as enhancing the lives of local communities.
But it’s only a sub-plot, albeit a significant one, in what is emerging as a blockbuster of a sequel to the county’s epic relationship with the silver screen that goes back as far as what some veterans still know as the early days of the talkies.
The development comes on the back of proposals for yet another film complex, known as Hertswood Studios in Borehamwood - and the addition of two new stages at Sky’s soon-to-be neighbours, Elstree Studios, which were approved last August backed by a £6m government grant that matched the commitment from Hertsmere Council.
Add to that, ongoing development at Warner Brothers in Leavesden – which recently resumed, albeit tentatively, its Harry Potter tours – and you’ll understand why the film industry sees the county as a home-grown Tinseltown.
Sky Studios COO Caroline Cooper said: 'That’s true. We have always seen Hertfordshire as Britain’s Hollywood and, in a way, this development only cements that position. It was an obvious choice for us in so many ways.
'There’s a great pool of talent to tap into already so it’s an ideal location for a project like this and being close to London is always a draw when it comes to that top-tier talent.'
So do they collaborate with the other studios? 'Yes, we talk to Elstree and Leavesen all the time,' she said. 'In fact, there’s very much a symbiotic relationship. We’re all quite passionate about things like making sure there is a good pipeline of talent coming through so we do share a lot with the likes of Roger [Morris, MD] at Elstree and Emily [Stillman, senior vice president studio operations] at Leavesden, for example.
Roger Morris agreed with the symbiotic relationship. 'We do work closely, there’s no competition. If you think back, there were once five studios here and there was a lot of collaboration on resources. Stanley Kubrick worked at all of the studios, for example, and Warner Brothers shot Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows here when they ran out of capacity.
'I know people say we’re the new Hollywood but I say we’re better than that. We’re no imitation. We can establish our own credentials. If anything, Hollywood is sending a lot of work over here at the moment.
'But there’s no doubt this will re-establish the area as a creative hub. I remember when I first came here I’d meet people and they’d say, where do you work, and when I told them they’d say oh, my grandfather worked there. It was a family thing, whether they were prop designers or carpenters.'
The Sky development is set to open next year and will have an almost industrial capacity to produce several films and TV shows simultaneously, thanks to 13 sound stages, each covering over 20,000 sq ft.
And we’re talking a blend of big name productions – think the likes of Universal Pictures - along with those from third party producers, which will encourage not only what is clearly now an ever-flourishing creative sector in Britain but European talent.
Sky Group CEO Jeremy Darroch said at the time of the announcement that the new studios will 'play a pivotal role in bringing the wealth of UK and European talent and creativity to the world'.
The Sky project alone is estimated to create 2,000 jobs, while the Elstree Studios upgrade, one that will see the new stages built on the site of the former Big Brother house, will bring 800 more. Sky said its new studios would generate an additional £3bn of production investment in the UK’s creative economy over the first five years of operation.
Culture secretary and Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden predicted it will champion British creativity on the global stage while Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright recognised the borough’s 'long and illustrious' reputation for film and television production. 'Above all, this is a moment of huge pride for our residents and businesses. With the council-owned Elstree Studios, nearby BBC Elstree and now Sky Studios Elstree, this really does mean the return of the British Hollywood to our borough,' he said.
The Hertswood project, which is still in the planning process, would see 21 stages – amounting to a million square feet - built between Rowley Lane and the A1 near South Mimms would add a further 14,000 jobs into the mix, all of which, according to the global forecasting experts at Oxford Economics, could contribute an annual £1.17bn to the local economy.
Combined, the studios represent the biggest creative cluster of film-related activity which has seen studios open while others have closed or relocated.
Such historic links will be celebrated by tomorrow’s generation, thanks to just the sort of collaboration Caroline Cooper was talking about: a three-way partnership between Sky, the developers BAM, and the Screen Arts Academy, that Roger Morris set up at Elstree.
As part of a nine-month project, students will create four ten-minute documentaries, looking at such themes as film and TV heritage, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and the Sky site’s construction process.
They, in return, will receive masterclasses and workshops on documentary research, marketing, PR and distribution, and planning and production, all designed to help them develop the sort of skills to help them progress their films. All important, as Morris put it: 'I worry that we may have a lot of stages but don’t want to see a skills shortage.'
The original studios were established in 1926 by British producer Herbert Wilcox and his Hollywood counterpart, J.D. Williams. The first feature film made there was Madame Pompadour starring silent screen star Dorothy Gish.
It changed hands several times. Alfred Hitchcock directed Blackmail, widely seen as the first British talking film, there. Other firsts followed, including colour production and multi-lingual films through the twenties and thirties.
After a break for the war, it became synonymous with the greats of the time, attracting the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Sophia Loren. The Dam Busters was shot there as was Moby Dick.
In the 1960s, it became the home of ABC Television. It needed new stages and took advantage of the wealth of locations on its doorstep – remember all those shots of Emma Peel’s Lotus speeding around the lanes near Aldenham in the Avengers and early morning shoots in St Albans.
George Lucas went on to make Star Wars here and Steven Spielberg directed the Indiana Jones trilogy - the snake pit was in Stage 8, by the way.
During this time it changed hands many times - Thorn EMI, Cannon, George Walker among them – until a campaign to save the studios, led by local film historian Paul Welsh, saw Hertsmere Council step in.
Former Teddington Studios owner and Pinewood boss Morris was brought in as managing director in 2008 and it has flourished ever since.
As for the Sky development, BAM Construct estimate that, to date, they and Sky Studios Elstree have invested £9.6m in the local economy and point out that they have a full calendar of activities throughout June, including site visits for local Primary schools and the Elstree Explorer Scouts.
June Wilkinson, education and community co-ordinator at BAM, summed up future prospects when she spoke of the partnership with Elstree Screen Arts: 'I hope that this encourages the students to follow their dreams and that one day some of them will be back on site, creating the films of the future.'
I think that’s what’s they call, in cinematic terms, a happy ending.