The giant MGM British Studio in Borehamwood had a great reputation as one of the very best film studios, writes PAUL WELSH. When it suddenly closed in 1970, a certain young film buff was granted exclusive access to explore what was left behind

It was great to have 96-year-old Luise Rainer join us for Elstree & Borehamwood Town Council's annual Elstree Film Evening.

Only ardent film buffs may remember Luise today but for a period in the mid-1930s she was the toast of Hollywood winning best actress Oscar two years running, and in the process beating the likes of Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck.

Luise is the only major Academy Award winner left alive from the pre-war golden era of tinseltown and one of only a handful to win the award back to back in the past 80 years.

My friend and actor Andrew Lancel from The Bill told me it is one of the reasons he loves our event, as such glorious names from the past are often ignored by the celebrity fuelled showbiz happenings of today.

At the time Luise was picking up her statuettes, a film studio called Amalgamated was being constructed in Elstree Way.

The developer went bankrupt and Lord Rank purchased the facility before it opened and then leased it to the Government at the outbreak of war.

In 1944, MGM were looking for a European base and purchased the studio and in 1946 began its completion and opening. The first MGM production to be made their was Edward, My Son starring the great Spencer Tracy. He was a problem actor for the company as he had a drink problem often resulting in binge sessions.

If he started smashing up a bar in Hollywood the studio had a task force' who would take him away to sober up while the publicity department quashed any bad publicity and paid for any damages. In those days Hollywood was a company town and fan magazines depended upon access to stars through the studio publicists so any bad press was pretty much kept quiet.

The cameraman on the picture, Freddie Young, once told me: "Spence had it written into his contract that he would finish at 4pm each day so regardless of where we were in a scene he would look at his watch, put on his hat and wave goodbye!"

The MGM British Studio was ten times larger than the present Elstree Studios and most people considered it the Rolls Royce of the pack. Ice Cold in Alex actress Sylvia Syms recalls: "Your dressing room was lined with fresh flowers grown at the studio each day and they made you feel like a star."

A host of stars came along Elstree Way to work at the dream factory including MGM hearthrobs Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Gene Kelly. The glamour stakes were provided by Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly.

On the backlot they built a castle set for Ivanhoe which dominated the landscape for several years until it was replaced by a Chinese village set for Ingrid Bergman's Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Older residents still remember being kept awake in the mid-1960s by the explosive night shooting on the very popular The Dirty Dozen with Lee Marvin.

u u u u u u Thirty-six years ago, the lights went dark for the last time on the sound stages when MGM, in a financial crisis, suddenly closed the world-famous studio.

A few months later a property company bought the site and I asked them if I could visit the historic facility. They said yes I could spend three days on site but I would be alone except for a security man on the gatehouse. Can you imagine the thrill for a young film buff to have a 115- acre film studio to himself?

Sadly, I did not have a good stills camera and it was before home video cameras so I bitterly regret now that I did not make a comprehensive record of my visit. I do remember walking around the decaying backlot street set last used on Quatermass and The Pit and seeing the remains of the Inn of Sixth Happiness and Dirty Dozen exterior sets.

I recall props lying around from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the abandoned ski-lift car from Where Eagles Dare.

Inside the buildings, photographs lay scattered on the floor of Grace Kelly in make-up and a host of other stars. Film scripts lay abandoned in heaps along with production files and private studio internal memos.

Walking onto the silent giant sound stages was an eerie experience and you could almost hear the voices of Stewart Granger in Beau Brummell, Boris Karloff in Corridors of Blood and Margaret Rutherford in those popular Miss Marple comedies.

The greenhouses were overgrown and the corridors deserted, making the studio seem forlorn yet still fascinating. The property company told me I was the only person they officially allowed on site making it an unique and very personal experience.

Over the next couple of years, the buildings were demolished to be replaced by a cold storage plant and then eventually the backlot disappeared under housing estates.

It was a sad end and a wasted opportunity as there was enough space to have turned it into perhaps a film-theme site generating big revenues for the local commmunity and keeping the legacy alive. I just wish I had more than just my memories as a record of those three amazing days so long ago.