Elstree will soon have more stage space than in 1950s heyday

This week we travel back to what was filming at Elstree Studios 70 years ago in 1951. The films are nearly all forgotten today but starred some great names of the post war era.

Angels One Five was a RAF wartime story with the ever-reliable Jack Hawkins and newcomer John Gregson. The latter returned to the studio in the 1960s to star in his own television series, Gideon’s Way. Sadly he died too young from a heart attack. The cast also included husband and wife Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, whom I later had the pleasure to know.

Castle In The Air starred Helen Cherry, who with her husband Trevor Howard lived in nearby Arkley, and again I had the pleasure to know them both. Margaret Rutherford provided the comedy relief and was always value for money.

The Magic Box was an all-star film tribute to celebrate the Festival of Britain and featured about 50 well known actors in cameo roles. It starred Robert Donat, who was plagued with ill health and self-doubt throughout his career. In the 1930s he was due to star in Captain Blood in Hollywood but withdrew at short notice, giving a break for newcomer Errol Flynn. The rest is film history.

Robert won an Oscar for his role in Goodbye, Mr Chips, beating Clark Gable for his performance in Gone With The Wind to great surprise. Sadly, The Magic Box was a box office flop.

24 Hours In A Woman’s Life was a tear jerker starring Merle Oberon and Richard Todd. Merle began her film career at Elstree in the 1930s before moving to Hollywood. She was ashamed of her mixed parentage and used to pretend her Mother was her maid. After her career she married well and died a very wealthy lady.

Where’s Charley was a musical version of Charley’s Aunt and starred Ray Bolger, best remembered today as the Straw Man in The Wizard Of Oz.

In those days Elstree was part owned by Warner Brothers, who had promised to send over some of their top contract stars – but that never materialised.

Today Elstree Studios is very different from 70 years ago. All the stages on which the above films were shot were demolished in about 1990 to make way for the Tesco superstore. Now everybody is freelance rather than permanently staffed departments employing hundreds of people and providing apprenticeships.

However, the studio is now very successful, especially with television productions such as Strictly Come Dancing, The Crown and The Chase. Plans are going ahead to build two new giant sound stages so we will have more stage space than in 1951.

Most of the stars I have mentioned are now forgotten but some of the films are worth watching, so give them a try. Until next time, take care of yourself.

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

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