Hammer films virtually symbolised the 1960s and '70s, and PAUL WELSH has been reading about the iconic production company.

I have been reading an excellent new book by Wayne Kinsey that looks back on part of Elstree's fascinating film heritage. Published by Tomahawk Press, and entitled Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years, it concentrates on the many movies and television series that the famous company made in our town from the mid-1950s until the late 1970s.

Hammer was a household name at one time for its supernatural and science-fiction films, but it also made comedy hits at Elstree, such as the television spin-off On The Buses and its sequels.

One of the earliest efforts here was Quatermass II, shot at the old Danziger Studios that once stood near Aldenham Reservoir. It starred Hollywood actor Brian Donlevy and, in one scene being filmed on location and on a windy day, his wig blew off requiring the crew to scramble after the wayward hair piece.

Some writers have indicated Brian's performance was hampered by his heavy drinking although I have spoken to his two co-stars, William Franklyn and Bryan Forbes, who recall no such problems.

The book is lavishly illustrated with several hundred photographs, some of which brought back memories for me. I recall the exterior street set they used at MGM for Quatermass and The Pit in 1967. The production was shifted there owing to overcrowding at Elstree which proved a God-send for the director who found himself occupying an otherwise empty studio.

A minor point, but Wayne describes the facility as smaller than Elstree - whereas in fact it was more than three times as big.

I visited the set of Hammer's last film at Elstree in the mid-1970s, called To The Devil a Daughter, which starred Honor Blackman, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee.

I remember Richard expressing his frustration with the script and on several occasions threatening to walk off the production.

In later years he would not talk about it other than to say: "I should never have gotten involved."

Bette Davis made two Hammer films at Elstree in the mid-1960s, entitled The Nanny and The Anniversary and, at the time, she stayed at The Chantry, in Barnet Lane. Popstar maker Simon Cowell told me that as a child he was a neighbour and remembers being bounced on the actresses knee.

Bette could be a bit of a tyrant on set and on one film had the director replaced.

Another feisty Hollywood star also visited the studio for a Hammer film called Fanatic. Tallulah Bankhead had been a big name in the 1930s and 1940s, but this proved to be her swansong. A known alcoholic, she could be unpredictable, and Donald Sutherland once told me: "I was a young actor starting out and I remember she turned up naked in my dressing room at Elstree, but I assure you nothing happened, she was getting on in years."

I also remember when I was at school at Hillside my English teacher was waiting for her husband to pick her up.

Then a Mini drew up with this large man squeezed in behind the wheel. I asked what he did for a living and she said he was playing the mummy at Elstree Studios in The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb. He also turned up as a soldier in Zulu with a bandaged leg, clubbing various tribesmen with his wooden crutch, but then I think left the industry.

Roy Skeggs was a local resident who owned Hammer for several years until he sold it in 2000 to the company that still maintains a part-time office at the studio.

When Roy retired, he moved to Letchmore Heath, which of course MGM had used as the location for The Village of The Damned, so it must have seemed home from home!

Oddly enough, one of Hammer's biggest successes made in Borehamwood did not involve Dracula or Frankenstein, although both have appeared on the stages at Elstree.

It was the On The Buses film, a spin-off from the popular television series. It used one of the stages as a make-believe bus garage, and is great fun to watch as it was shot around the town so you can see Borehamwood as it looked nearly 40 years ago.

Elstree and Borehamwood Town Council honoured Hammer with a commemorative plaque in 1996 and Christopher Lee unveiled a plaque saluting a frequent Hammer co-star, Peter Cushing.

The demise of the company came about with dwindling audiences for its type of product in the 1970s.

Since then, various efforts have been made to relaunch it, but the market has changed and financing is difficult. In reality, many cinemagoers today have never even heard of Hammer.

This book, however, relives those golden days of British production. So anyone interested in reading anecdotes from the people who made the films about this slice of Elstree's history won't be able to put it down.