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Film nostalgia writer Paul Welsh on Douglas Fairbanks Jr's links with Elstree
With the number of pubs closing it is obvious that the “pub culture” of yesteryear is on the wane and many of the survivors are really licensed restaurants nowadays.
The sad bit to me is you get to meet interesting people sitting around having a drink, people who otherwise might not cross your path.
For instance, last Sunday at the Toby Carvery bar I met a charming lady who, in the 1950s, worked in the sound department at Elstree Studios, and a chap who worked at MGM and later on films such as the Star Wars trilogy and The Shining. Both have kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of our filmed recollections of Borehamwood’s motion picture heritage.
So far, we have interviewed nearly 40 Elstree veterans, all with fascinating memories. We are always interested to hear from anyone who worked in the studios of Borehamwood from the 1940s through to the 1970s.
Last week our latest interviewee was filmed at the BBC Elstree Centre where he worked nearly 60 years ago as a clapper boy on the Douglas Fairbanks Jr television series.
Doug was Hollywood royalty in that his stepmother was silent screen idol Mary Pickford and his father one of tinseltown’s most famous screen swashbucklers.
Doug made his screen debut in the silent era, but in the early 1930s made a couple of movies at Elstree Studios. During the Second World War he served with distinction in the American navy and was much-decorated for his service. He continued to champion the cause of Great Britain, which resulted in an honorary knighthood from King George after the war.
In the 1930s he had starred in films such as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gunga Din but by the 1950s he had decided to produce films for the growing demand of television and rented the National Studios in Borehamwood, which is now the BBC Elstree Centre.
Doug gave employment to acting unknowns such as Christopher Lee and fading Hollywood names such as Buster Keaton.
In 1984 I was organising a celebration at Elstree Studios to mark the 70th anniversary of movie making in our town. It should have been staged at the BBC Elstree Centre where it had all begun in 1914, but that had only recently reopened.
I was able to gather a host of stars for a reception headed by the likes of Dame Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard. I thought I would chance my luck and wrote to Doug, who was living in New York. He replied that by chance he would be in London and was happy to accept the invitation.
A couple of years later the BBC decided to name one of the oldest buildings on its site after him and asked me if I could persuade him to do the unveiling. He kindly agreed and the visit included dropping in on the set of what was then a newish soap opera called EastEnders. I recall we visited the Old Vic interior set to meet the cast. Nick Berry and Gillian Taylforth ran after us to get his autograph.
Doug visited again in 1989 for another star-studded reception I organised at Elstree Studios to mark the 75th anniversary of film production in our town and he also was guest of honour at the festival BBC band concert at the old Venue theatre.
I was visiting New York that year and Doug kindly invited me for drinks at his penthouse overlooking Central Park, where I got to hold the Oscar statuette that was awarded to his father in the 1930s.
The last time I saw Doug was at a night of a hundred stars at the Dominion Theatre in London in the early 1990s. Sadly he had aged and he was invited on stage by Robert Wagner to join his co-star of the 1930s, Ginger Rogers, who was now confined to a wheelchair. They were introduced with a clip from a film they made together 60 years earlier, so it was both a sentimental but also a sad reminder of how time stands still for no man.
Doug died in 2000 but I have fond memories of our meetings and how much he exuded that old-style Hollywood glamour.
Incidentally, while I was at the BBC I was told about some of the organisation’s exciting plans for the site next year, which is great news as it means to stay for the foreseeable future.
Only three or four years ago the BBC was contemplating selling the site for housing. With about 1,400 homes planned for the area in or around the so-called Elstree Way corridor. Call me a sentimentalist but I for one am glad our oldest studio is remaining.
The great thing about being in my twilight years is I now intend to speak my mind about local issues rather than remain “politically correct”, even if I start to sound like Statler or Waldorf from the Muppets.
Until next week, look after yourself and don’t trip over my soap box. If you see me propping up the bar I am always happy to chat and accept free drinks.
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