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Archive - Friday, 6 May 2011
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Meeting Sophia on the mound
I WAS very interested to read that the company that owns Shepperton and Pinewood studios has been purchased by a property company for £96 million.
The studio company has large debts, but turned over a profit of more than £5 million last year and seems an interesting buy. Assurances have been given that it’s business as usual, but the cynic in me wonders what, a few years down the line when the inevitable slump in film making occurs and Warner Bros opens Leavesden, will be the fate of Shepperton? Like Elstree, that studio has in the past come very close to closure and occupies desirable housing land but let us hope for a bright future.
It was also interesting to read in a national newspaper and on websites that Elstree itself may be contemplating building more facilities, in particular on the four acres of the studio currently occupied by an infamous earth and rubble mound at the rear of the site.
There has been a mound there for decades which I think came about when they excavated the underground car park in 1966.
I certainly recall having the pleasure of meeting Sophia Loren on the mound 30 years ago while she was making a television film at the studio. It happened when her stepson Carlo Ponti Jr invited me to meet her and we chatted about her previous Borehamwood films including Operation Crossbow and The Millionairess at MGM and The Key with William Holden at Elstree.
Miss Loren asked if there was a local Italian restaurant and somewhere there is a photo of her walking across Shenley Road to an Italian restaurant which was once located in Grosvenor Road.
Sadly, when Brent Walker was demolishing the older part of the studio in 1989 the contractors were allowed to dump hardcore from the demolition site on the mound and thus contaminated it with traces of asbestos. Ever since the cost of removing the mound has been daunting but I know think there is a strong business case to warrant it and to build more stages.
Sherlock Holmes 2 has recently completed at Elstree and newspaper reports reveal a new Brad Pitt movie. The production offices for Batman are also based there.
Back in 1965, the studio realised you need to speculate to accumulate and built the block that houses three stages, canteen, offices, dressing rooms and an underground car park as the seven stages then existing were not enough.
Elstree is perfectly sited for production crews, stars staying in London and TV audiences so let us hope funding can be secured. I certainly feel a sense of pride, as the one time chair of the save our studio campaign, to see the old place humming and apparently generating profits. My role in helping save the studio it is now consigned to history as the campaign unbelieveably started 23 years ago, but I certainly feel our efforts then were worth it and time has proved us right.
Incidentally, readers living in the properties behind the BBC Elstree Centre might not know they were built by ATV when the TV company bought eight acres of land and constructed 98 properties for studio employees back in 1962. In those days you could rent one of their flats for £268 a year or buy one of their three-bedroom homes for £3,555.
ATV bought the old National Studios in 1958 and in 1961 opened the greatly expanded television centre. It produced thousands of programmes over the years and was a big local employer. Sadly, it closed with the taping of a Family Fortunes episode in 1983, but thankfully was purchased by the BBC .
The Beeb in turn has thought about selling it off to developers for years, but it appears safe at the moment, which is good news as I don’t think I have the same level of energy as I did back in 1988 to embark on another eight-year battle to save Elstree.