We are celebrating a very special anniversary this year – 100 years of motion picture production in Borehamwood, or, as they would have spelt it back in 1914, Boreham Wood.
A century ago, filmmakers first arrived in our town. We do not know whether they came by steam train, as the station had opened in 1868, or by road. They spotted some farmland up for sale and decided this was an excellent place to start making films.
When Neptune Studios – where the BBC Elstree Centre now stands – opened in 1914, it was still the era of silent movies and they decided to construct a dark stage, meaning it would be served by electric lights powered by a generator rather than utilising a glass roof and using natural light.
Twelve years later more filmmakers arrived and built Elstree Studios, and it is ironic that these two oldest dream factories have survived while four other studios in the town and others elsewhere are now fading memories.
Back in the 1980s, I remember having a drink with a retired film producer in the Red Lion - now McDonald’s in Shenley Road. He told me that in 1920 he was employed as a junior at the old Neptune Studios and to supplement his income he played the piano to accompany silent films at the old Gem cinema, now the florist’s in Station Road.
When those pioneer filmmakers came to Boreham Wood they found a small rural village surrounded by farmland that bordered onto Shenley Road. It would be nearly two decades before Elstree Way was constructed and nearly four decades before the giant council estates were constructed to house people displaced from London.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s locals were sometimes recruited as extras and could earn up to one pound a day.
Their ranks were boosted by people trying their luck in movies such as Terry Thomas, Stewart Granger, Michael Wilding, James Mason and future Oscar-winner Charles Laughton. These all became big names in post-war cinema.
Oscar-winner Ray Milland once told me: “I was engaged by Elstree Studios in the late 1920s and when the leading man broke his leg, I was offered his role. Then Paramount spotted me and I was offered a Hollywood contract. It was all just luck.”
James Mason, one of my favourite actors, told me: “I was offered a role at Elstree at the start of my career in the 1930s, but after a few days the director released me saying I had no future as a screen actor.”
Ironically, James became famous in the 1940s as the star of Gainsborough melodramas and from the 1950s enjoyed a distinguished career in Hollywood.
In the 1920s, Elstree Studios employed an up-and-coming director called Alfred Hitchcock, who liked to retreat to the old Plough pub in Elstree village during his lunch hours.
The history of film production in our town is littered with the debuts of future stars and the final screen appearances of such movie icons such as Douglas Fairbanks and Gary Cooper.
Elstree Screen Heritage, with the support of the local councils and the two remaining studios, are determined to make sure this unique centenary does not pass without celebration.
By now you should have received your special 16-page centenary edition of the Town Council’s magazine Town Crier and free copies of the film heritage trail leaflet are available from public buildings.
A documentary is planned, a book on the former MGM British Studios, celebrations at Elstree Studios, a special centenary concert with the BBC Elstree Band, more plaque unveilings, film screenings and much more to come throughout the year.
Finally, I know some residents are sensitive to the fact that Elstree Studios and the BBC Elstree Centre did not choose to use the name Borehamwood. The reason is historic rather than some form of snobbery, and now Elstree has become symbolic throughout the world it is too late to change.
It is true the BBC could have opted for the BBC Borehamwood Centre when they moved in during 1984. However, when Elstree Studios opened in 1926 it was natural they took the name of the railway station, the local parish council, the telephone exchange and that the nearby village of Elstree had been a watering hole between London and St Albans since Roman times.
I hope you like the new banners erected along Shenley Road and will visit the local museum when it is taken over for two months in the summer to celebrate what was once called the
Hollywood of England.
Meanwhile, the sun is shining and I can sit out in the garden for the first time in months, so forgive me if I leave you for a large glass of apple-flavoured vodka and a good book. My doctor is keen I include more fruit in my diet so I will be toasting him in my garden seat enveloped by that lovely sun. Until next week, look after yourselves.