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Our film nostalgi writer recalls how a handful of volunteers saved Elstree from the grey suits of the City
I cannot believe this year marks the 25th anniversary of the launching of the “Save Our Studios” campaign, when Elstree Studios was under a definite threat of closure.
The campaign, known as SOS, was launched by Pat Carr, the production manager on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, with myself as chairman and front man. We had a handful of committee members and the late, great Malcolm Page was my vice chairman.
It came about when the studio owner Cannon Films was awash in red ink and creative accountancy, having only bought the facility from EMI two years earlier. It had already sold the historic film library.
The company sold the studio to a merchant banker for £20 million who three months later sold it to developer Brent Walker for £32m.
In the intervening three months we embarked on a very active campaign, which I would
certainly no longer have the mental or physical energy for today.
We collected 15,000 names on petitions, including signatures from the casts of EastEnders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. I remember asking Sean Connery to sign, which he did, although he said: “I admire your fight, but you can never win against big business.”
I gave about 60 radio and television interviews for audiences throughout the world. A friend of mine was holidaying in Spain and saw me pop up dubbed in Spanish. A TV news crew came from Argentina and said I could say what I liked as they would shoot me in long shot and I would appear to be speaking in their tongue. I therefore became multilingual without ever having to learn a foreign language.
I remember TV crews from Australia, America, Italy, Germany and even Iceland. On radio I was interviewed by the likes of Derek Jameson and Pete Murray and appeared in a Noel Edmonds TV quiz show.
I clashed on live television with Michael Winner, who described Elstree as “a series of tin sheds off the A1”, but afterwards he sent me £200 towards the campaign fund.
We went to the Houses of Parliament to brief some MPs and sat on the veranda, which was very nice, and I hosted a public meeting at the old Venue theatre with 700 people attending including actors George Baker and Sylvia Syms.
I even sat on a sound stage at the studio briefing George Lucas and Steven Spielberg while Harrison Ford and Sean Connery were rehearsing a scene.
At the end of a hectic three months, Brent Walker purchased the site on the understanding it would sell 12 acres to Tesco and build a new modern studio on the remaining 15 acres. At that point, the original committee members moved on with their own lives and a second campaign started that was to last eight years. New faces such as Paul Sattin, of Sapex Scripts, joined the fight.
The studio lurched on for five years in its reduced form while Brent Walker drew up plans to develop the rest of the site for housing and retail, despite the signed agreement with Hertsmere Borough Council to retain the studio and rebuild the lost facilities.
Eventually, the studio was closed and it remained virtually empty for three years, during which time the site was stripped and allowed to become semi-derelict. During those years it became a lonely fight for me on occasions, but thankfully the council agreed to fight Brent Walker.
To cut a long story short, I had booked two weeks' annual leave to attend a High Court action in London in 1996 against Brent Walker, or more truthfully against the 48 banks to which it owed money, who wanted to sell the land. It was a gamble by the council, but one evening when I was attending an event in Regent Street to celebrate the centenary of the first public film show I got the call that Brent Walker had offered to settle out of court.
Months later I found myself the volunteer chairman of the company set up by the council to oversee the reopening, relaunch and rebuilding of Elstree Studios. Over the next four years we refurbished the existing buildings, reopened the underground car park and built two new giant sound stages. Of course, it was not the Elstree I had grown up with but it could still have a future.
Now I understand it is a glowing success, with expansion plans and returning handsome
I have not been directly involved for years and had not seen my fellow campaigners for 17 years when we had a reunion and handed over the unspent campaign funds to Great Ormond Street hospital.
New residents will know nothing of that campaign and victory and anybody under the age of 35 is unlikely to remember it. However, it remains in my mind and, who knows, if I hint enough perhaps the studio will invite me back for an anniversary celebration drink.
It was a stimulating and exciting eight years fighting the grey suits of the City and shows the effort can prove worthwhile.