Over the years I wish I had kept discarded film props and scripts on my visits to various film studios as they can be very valuable today. I did buy the begging bowl from the 1960s film Oliver when I attended an auction of film items at Shepperton in the 1970s but walked past discarded Star Wars stuff around the same period. I note that one of several axes made for The Shining is up for sale at £75,000 and I will be interested to see what the personal script of The Empire Strikes Back, owned by my old friend the late Dave Prowse, sells for at auction shortly. Dave made an excellent living for decades appearing at Star Wars conventions around the world, although he was unrecognisable when playing the role of Darth Vader in that famous costume and with the voice of another actor.
I met Harrison Ford for the first time at Elstree Studios about 40 years ago on an awful film called Hanover Street. The best thing about it was the enormous street set constructed on the backlot. One very cold night they rigged it with explosives to resemble an air raid during the Blitz and I was invited along to witness it. Preparing took several hours and my back was giving out. The very kind Mr Ford offered me his chair, knowing of course that nobody would mistake me for him.
Today the Elstree backlot plays host to the exterior sets for the hit television series The Crown, which I must admit to never having watched. However, over the decades it has been used by many film productions. I can still recall the castle constructed for Willow and the Victorian street set for Young Sherlock Holmes, not to mention the snow clad exterior of the hotel in The Shining. I regret I never bothered to take any photos of these great sets.
One of the biggest outdoor sets I visited was built at Hatfield for the box office hit Saving Private Ryan. It was of a French village where the finale takes place. I still have somewhere in the loft a 10 x 8 photo signed by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon and one of the replica rifles made for the film. In 2005 we were celebrating the end of the Second World War in the Borehamwood carnival parade and dressed up as an officer of the Home Guard as I looked like somebody out of Dad’s Army. I carried the rifle with a letter of permission from the police but obviously that would not be allowed today.
There used to be a small standing street on the Elstree Studios backlot in the 1960s that was used in several television series of that era. Roger Moore once told me it appeared in several episodes of The Saint to save expenses filming on location. He recalled ” if we were supposed to be in France they would change the shop front names, park a Citroen car and have an extra cycle past wearing a beret and a string of onions. If it was supposed to be Bermuda they would erect a couple of palm trees and have an extra walk past wearing a panama hat.” Mind you, if you consider how little an episode of The Saint or The Avengers cost compared with The Crown, it is perhaps forgivable.
The old MGM Studios in Borehamwood had some wonderful backlot sets that stood for years, like the 1950s Ivanhoe Castle, which became a local landmark. I also enjoyed visiting the various remaining backlots in Hollywood back in the 1980s but several had been sold off for housing. Again, I never took any photos of my visits, which is a shame, but the images remain in my memory .
They still build great indoor and exterior sets for films and television, which seems surprising in this era when you can create so much via computer technology, but that can never be as good for the actors. I personally salute all those usually unknown craftsmen past and present who have added so much to our enjoyment. Well, it is time to go and enjoy the sun in my garden. Until next time keep well.
- Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios