Backlots – the places where the real movie magic happens

Alas, readers I feel autumn has arrived so it will soon be time for me to regale you with tales of yesteryear around a burning fire rather than walking down Memory Lane via Lovers Leap and Dead Men’s Gulch. When do you decide, gentlemen, to put on those long johns and you ladies that rather fetching second petticoat?

This week I look back on what I consider the most fascinating part of a historic film studio, which is the backlot. To be honest, one film stage looks much like another whether it is in Borehamwood or Hollywood.

Our oldest studio in Borehamwood opened in 1914 in the days when workers were summoned back to work with the tolling of the studio bell. Its backlot came into its own when it was under the ownership of ATV, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. I remember visiting a pottery town built for the Clayhangers, and a life size reproduction of the Globe Theatre, not to mention the building site for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. I was invited to the unveiling of the EastEnders set back in about 1985 by Keith Clement, then head of what is now the BBC Elstree Centre. Who knew the soap opera would still be on air all these years later?

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The Overlook Hotel under construction on the backlot at Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios has of course hosted a number of outdoor sets over the decades. I recall visiting the castle created for Willow, the marvellous hotel exterior and maze for The Shining, and the Victorian street set for Young Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes a production would create its own backlot, such as for Saving Private Ryan at Hatfield, which I found amazing. We must always salute the unsung heroes of film production, who are the creative craft people who make these things possible. Of course this computer technology is beginning to replace such skills but they are still building sets such as for The Crown on the Elstree backlot so not all is lost.

I have told you before about my wandering around alone on the just-closed 120-acre MGM Studios in Borehamwood in 1970 and the remaining backlot sets. Hopefully your memories will fade and we are always getting new readers so I can recycle that story soon. It is not easy writing a weekly column on the same subject for 44 years without repeating yourself.

Of course the Hollywood studios had the best and largest backlots, although sadly most have long since been redeveloped. I once met Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas, as one does and she told me about her failed efforts to save the wonderful MGM backlot in the early 1970s. It is now housing, as is the MGM Borehamwood backlot, but at least I was able to get the road names a film theme. I wonder how many of our local residents realise their homes occupy the site of the Ivanhoe castle, the Dirty Dozen chateau or the Inn Of The Sixth Happiness Chinese village ?

I got a big kick out of visiting the backlot set of The Waltons at Warner Brothers in Hollywood, and chatting with Ralph Waites, who played the Dad in that long running series. I was so tempted to shout ‘ Goodnight John Boy’, which will mean nothing to my younger readers. I am part of a quickly being forgotten past but there is still life in us old dogs yet, so until next time you younger readers, remember we were young once and thank you for celebrating our past shoulder to shoulder.

  • Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios

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