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Talent on tap: when Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Dame Anna Neagle and Lew Grade were a phone call away
This year we are celebrating 100 years of film production in Borehamwood at several studios past and present.
Sadly, four of the studios have been demolished, but luckily both the BBC Elstree Centre – the town’s oldest dream factory – and Elstree Studios – the second oldest – are both very busy and have exciting plans for the future.
Thirty years ago I had an idea to celebrate the 70th anniversary and so I went to my friend, the late Andrew Mitchell, then managing director of Elstree Studios, to ask if he would finance a reception in the studio’s executive restaurant, now converted into offices.
As ever Andrew was supportive and that left me with the opportunity to invite back some old veterans and stars of yesteryear.
I cannot remember the guest list but I do remember six of our special guests who are all sadly no longer with us.
Freddie Young represented the talent literally behind the camera as he was an ace director of photography with three Oscars to his name for work on films such as Lawrence of Arabia.
Freddie had started at Elstree in the 1920s and was resident cameraman at MGM for a number of years. He was a real gent and an exceptional talent.
Lew Grade was the last of those legendary film and television moguls who could seal a deal with a shake of a hand and approve a series on gut feeling rather than by committee today.
Lew was very proud of his ATV Studios in Borehamwood and was a larger than life character with his ever-present giant cigars. He was eventually deposed from his throne in a boardroom coup but worked until the end. In his youth, Lew had been a Charleston dance champion and his brother Bernard Delfont was in charge of EMI’s film division, including Elstree Studios.
I phoned Dame Anna Neagle and asked if she would attend. She was reluctant due to her health but had such fond affection for the studios here that she agreed.
In the 1930s through to the 1950s, Anna enjoyed great screen success in Borehamwood with films such as Spring in Park Lane and Odette; not to mention her director husband Herbert Wilcox, who co-founded Elstree Studios.
They once lived in a house called Hartfield in Deacons Hill Road. It proved to be Anna’s last visit and she passed away two years later. A classy lady.
I invited Eva Hart as I had just met her, only to find as a seven-year-old girl she had survived the sinking of the Titanic. I believe a brewery chain has named a pub after her in her old home town. I am not sure Eva would have appreciated that but she was a lovely lady.
Trevor Howard did not have far to come to attend the event as he lived in Arkley. I knew Trevor and found him easy to get on with, despite his hell-raising image and his ability to consume vast amounts of alcohol. He enjoyed a successful career in film and left an estate worth £3million, which was amazing for a British star of the post-war era.
When Trevor died in 1988, I attended his funeral and we filed past his coffin to the tunes of his beloved jazz music.
My greatest coup was to get the great Douglas Fairbanks Jr to attend, as he had starred in films at Elstree before the war and in the 1950s produced 160 films for television at what is now the BBC Elstree Centre. He gave breaks to newcomers like Christopher Lee and down and out veterans like Buster Keaton.
I wrote to Doug at his home in Miami and luckily he was due to be in London visiting his daughter. He was my idea of a real star and such a gentleman. We became friends and a couple of years later, I arranged for him to attend the naming of the Fairbanks buildings at the BBC.
I miss them all and that era when I could count upon ready support. Nobody asked for fees to attend and they had to make their own way to the reception. Nowadays they pay stars to attend film premieres in addition to providing a chauffeured car and slap up reception afterwards.
I was a lucky guy, especially as a film fan, to have enjoyed such occasions. I just wish we had filmed them.