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Paul Welsh on sharing memories with Richard Briers and a new boom in filming at Elstree
It was very sad to hear of the death of veteran actor Richard Briers, who is best remembered for The Good Life television series.
I spoke to Richard on the phone only last October when I was trying to assemble star guests for my movie memories show at the Ark Theatre.
He phoned me on my mobile as I was walking along Studio Way and I mentioned to him I was walking over part of what had once been the MGM Studios. Richard laughed and said he remembered being cast in one of the Miss Marple films there starring Margaret Rutherford and was paid the princely sum of £25, although he was happy with that in the early 1960s.
I was surprised when he apologised for not being able to attend my event and explained, with a degree of laboured breathing, that he was housebound due to a progressive lung disease which he was finding very frustrating and limiting.
It is the measure of the man that he bothered to phone me at all under those circumstances but he was a true gent and very much loved by his fellow actors.
Last week I found myself in Studio D at the BBC Elstree Centre, which is being refurbished. In the film business we describe them as sound or silent stages, but in television they use the term studios. I am sure there is some historical reason for this.
I was there as part of the Elstree Project, in which I interview veterans of Elstree and
Borehamwood’s film and television past, using a student film crew from the University of Hertfordshire.
We have done more than 30 interviews to date of behind-the-scenes men and women and each has been quite fascinating as otherwise these memories would go unrecorded.
On this occasion it was Martin Baker, who worked at the studio from 1966 when it was ATV until linking up with Jim Henson and moving across to Elstree Studios to work on The Great Muppet Caper and Labyrinth.
Martin, who is still at the studio today, worked on all those great ATV light entertainment shows including specials with Liberace, Tom Jones and Julie Andrews. It also brought him into contact with some Hollywood greats such as John Wayne, Gene Kelly and Bing Crosby.
People tend to forget the wide range of programmes and the amount of stars who worked at ATV in that golden age of television.
Martin also worked on The Muppet Show, which was one of the most successful television shows of all time. I mentioned The Muppets to a couple of 30-year-old friends of mine who had never heard of them, but then I realised the series had finished before they were born. That certainly made me feel old as I remember being invited to the press launch of the show in the late 1970s.
Jim Henson sadly died at a young age and I believe the show is now owned by Disney, which recently released a new film — thus Miss Piggy and Kermit the frog are still active into their middle age.
It is great news Stages 8 and 9 at Elstree Studios are being refurbished as the BBC prepares to move more production to Borehamwood.
It seems we have entered a boom era with studio facilities, what with Warner Brothers building Leavesden and Disney taking out a long lease on part of Pinewood, which is also putting in for planning permission to greatly expand its facilities.
Both BBC Elstree Centre and Elstree Studios have a great advantage in being located close to London with easy access to a wide range of locations. The good public transport links make it easy for television audiences to attend shows. All of this spins off much-needed revenue into our local businesses.
As we move towards the centenary of film-making in Borehamwood celebrations next year, I also hope we can start cashing in on the tremendous growth in movie tourism.
What a pity the marvellous 115-acre MGM Studios could not have held out a few more decades as it would be busier than ever now. How wide-eyed those silent film pioneers would be today if they entered Borehamwood to open the Neptune Studios where BBC Elstree Centre now stands.
When they arrived the town was little more than a small rural village surrounded by farm fields and cattle were driven along Shenley Road to the rail yards.
You could count the number of houses and to see a car was a source of conversation. An
elderly lady told me when she was a young girl the schoolmaster told her she must curtsy when the gentle folk from Barnet Lane were driven past in their horse-drawn carriages. I wonder what would happen if you told the young ladies at Hertswood School today to do that?
The past 100 years have certainly seen some changes.