Things move quickly in Denham, it seems. It’s only been nine months since my last visit, but in that time, what remains of Korda’s Xanadu has gone the way of all studios. It’s being refurbished and repackaged as a collection of luxury flats. And whereas the town did its best to disguise its heritage, there’s now a reminder of its glorious past as soon as you leave the station:
Just past the HQ of Bosch and the blue plaque, Korda’s old offices immediately catch the eye. Walter Gropius’ Art Deco building scrubs up well…
While I was taking photos, the site foreman walked past and asked what I was doing. More with a tone of baffled curiosity than an urgent sense of heightened security. He takes what I tell him in good stead, though I miss out the bit that I’m walking between these dead film studios, like some misguided pilgrimage. For his part, he tells me that they’ve been here since Christmas and will stay until 2020. Naively, I ask if they’re keeping the grounds between the offices and the river. Of course not. On the land that Churchill’s swans once called home will stand two hundred new builds, but the access roads will be named after famous stars and directors. And the site will be peppered with artworks depicting scenes from well-known movies shot at Denham. It’s interesting the degree to which film history is a selling point for these apartments – “buy a slice of history” – and they’re selling well apparently, even though they won’t be completed for a long while yet.
When I told a friend about this, an Oxford don, he wondered why anybody would want to live in an old film studio, now that the stardust had been swept up and the ghosts exorcised. He thought there was something depressing about the grinding juxtaposition of a glamourous dream factory with a functional housing estate. But that assumes there’s anything really glamourous about a series of sound stages, empty husks waiting to be filled. As Matthew Sweet likes to point out, it’s the people that supply the glamour, not the buildings.
There was one thing the foreman said that changed my mind, though. They are restoring Korda’s personal cinema and bar. This was the cinema that lasted much longer than the studios themselves, being part of the laboratories that existed as late as 2014. As the publicity strives to point out, this is the cinema where George Lucas would have seen the rushes for The Empire Strikes Back, where ET would have had its first preview, and Kubrick would have pored over the footage from Eyes Wide Shut. Now, this is something else. Even if the bar has been refurbished and polished to a high ersatz sheen, it would still retain a residue of glamour. Of course it would to seem to require a highly imaginative mind, bordering on delusional, to picture oneself slipping into the shoes of a 1930s film star and sipping their gin sling after a productive day in the studio next door; especially when the studio next door is now a terrace of townhouses complete with their own carports. But that’s exactly what we do when we lose ourselves in a movie, especially a movie in a multiplex on the fringes of a light industrial estate, where we somehow erase the recent trauma of parking the car and navigating the various circles of the shopping mall. It doesn’t take much to transport us from our routine concerns and real-world problems, sometimes a trick of the light will do.
The foreman asked if I’d like to visit the marketing suite. I decline his offer, just in case I’m tempted by the thought of Alexander Korda’s old office. I’m easily upsold.
To get to Elstree, I’m taking the scenic route, via The LOOP, which stands for London Outer Orbital Path, or the M25 for walkers as it’s become known. Fully opened in 2001, it runs a 150 mile ring around the capital, connecting footpaths, local nature reserves, country parks and the occasional B road. Operated by Transport For London, it can be accessed by various tube, Overground and railway stations, meaning you don’t need a car to enjoy the countryside. In other words, the London LOOP is paved with good intentions.
And that’s part of its problem, in order to connect with public transport hubs, to join the dots, it takes the walker on a route so random that it seems to have been the result of a surrealist parlour game, the hiker’s equivalent of Exquisite Corpse.
At least that’s how it feels on the first leg, Denham to Hatch End, whose highlights include a yomp through an unofficial municipal dumping ground:
… a detour through a country park where the walker has to play hide and seek with a path so indeterminate and illogical, I wondered whether TFL send out an employee every month to trample down the route or scatter breadcrumbs for distressed hikers, who then have to follow a line of pylons to exit the park.
But this section does provide a tour of outer London’s finest golf courses, which takes you within striking distance of the greens…
One of them, at least has some claim to film history. Fans of vintage cars and Kenneth More might recognise this entrance to Moor Park golf course…
It has a cameo in Genevieve, while fans of Sheridan Le Fanu adaptations and Ingrid Pitt might recognise the mansion from The Vampire Lovers. The golf course sells itself as both a wedding venue and film location; it’s a reminder that when film companies scout locations, they often don’t like to venture too far from the studio.
As for the London LOOP, while I was enjoying a near-death experience on the busy Harefield Road, I wondered who designed this route, and how do you get permission to become an official pathway. And whether it was too late for The Studio Tour to become one, after all there is money in film tourism.
The second leg, from Hatch End to Borehamwood is more straight forward, less like free form jazz, a conventional ramble through nature trails and a country park, with the odd golf course thrown in and a detour to see the home of W. S. Gilbert (of And Sullivan fame). So, it doesn’t seem long before I arrive at the sign for Elstree and Borehamwood – the first town on this long pilgrimage that not only recognises its film history, but celebrates it:
Borehamwood did have five studios in one small town, this really was Britain’s Hollywood. However, it took the efforts of the local community and one man in particular to preserve that heritage, to keep the signs of its former life (as we shall find out later).
Now, I’ve arrived with hours to spare – what can go wrong ? A lot it seems. For a start, I’ve trudged under the M1 and onto the Elstree Road in order to find the remains of the sixth studio, the black sheep of the Elstree family, the Danzigers’ studio. I haven’t been able to find an address for it, only that it’s west of the Aldenham Resevoir. There’s an industrial park, a line-up of possible suspects, but no evidence that the Danzigers had been here – I’ve heard that a plaque marks the spot. So, by the time I get to Elstree, I realise that I must have missed it. And when I ask of its whereabouts at the local museum, the volunteer behind the counter confirms that the industrial park is the place I’m looking for. Her husband did some work for the Danzigers, but she doesn’t know exactly on which site the studio stood. And she doesn’t think there’s a plaque to commemorate it, there wouldn’t be one for the Danzigers. I realise that I will have to walk back, a three mile round trip (after already walking 10 miles to get there), and photograph every single building and do some detective work back at the office.
Luckily for me and my creaking joints, I find the plaque at the first building I come to.
I don’t know how I missed it first time around
I guess I liked the idea that the studio was as elusive as the brothers who ran it. They just seemed to appear from nowhere. Brian Clemens, the creator of The Avengers, started his career at the studio and heard whispers that Harry and Eddy Danziger were connected with the mafia. Michael Winner was told that they had financed the studio from an insurance pay-out on a mysterious fire at their fairground in New York. New Elstree (to give its official title) was so notorious that you never told anyone that you were working there. Directors were given eight days to make a feature film and two and half days to make a television show. If the production ran behind schedule, the Danzigers would cut the appropriate number of pages from the script and replace the missing scenes with stock footage of the sun setting. And apparently, the films still made sense, or as much sense as any Danziger production. From 1956 to 1961, they made countless B pictures and TV series, from nudie pics to modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, with titles that give you the whole picture – Striptease Murder, Three Sundays To Live and Two Wives At One Weddiing. Not one of them, though eclipsed the Danzigers signature movie The Devil Girl From Mars, in which a PVC clad alien with shoulder pads the size of aircraft carriers lands on earth to use our men as breeding stock. It was shot in Shepperton.
New Elstree was the only Elstree studio to be situated in Elstree. The other five were based in Borehamwood, a half mile down the road. As I approach the town, the first hallmark of its heritage appears half way down Allum Lane:
A gated, executive development has been named after Ludwig Blattner, the inventor of a sound recording system and the owner of a studio from 1928 to 1932. But if you hadn’t read Patricia Warren’s illustrated history of British film studios, you wouldn’t get the reference. But does it matter ? Better this than yet another Hillcrest Avenue. And I realise later that this was only the start of things to come.
As soon as you get to the station, you are made acutely aware of the town’s heritage, whether you get there by train…
…or on foot…
In a way it doesn’t matter that I seem to be the only one following the film trail or photographing the information panels near the station and on Shenley Road
And yes, people do look askance, this is not Harry Potter World, this is a working town, a bustling collection of greasy spoon cafes and kosher delis. And two studios are still major employers. Eastenders is filmed at the end of Clarendon Road. BBC Elstree makes a surreal appearance between two terraced houses:
I don’t linger long, just in case I get my collar felt…
The charm of Elstree back in the day was that you would see Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn or Robert Mitchum down The Red Lion or buying cigarettes in the local shop. It doesn’t seem that they were instructed not to pose for photographs or sign autographs. And The Red Lion is now a McDonalds.
Back on Shenley Road, next to Tesco, is the other working studio…
It too has a few panels dedicated to the great and the good who have graced the studios – there are 27 panels in all, celebrating the lives and work of luminaries such as Charles Laughton, Richard Todd, Elizabeth Taylor, and this man:
But the most significant memorial to the town’s major industry is the housing estate on the site of the vast MGM studios. Not so much a housing estate as a small town. Off the major artery of Studio Way is a network of over 40 roads, each named after a star, director or mogul – Danziger Way, Mason Close, Hitchcock Court.
And this is really an example of what The Oxford Don was referring to – the grinding juxtaposition of old school glamour and modern housing development, the brutal incongruity of decadent fantasy with humdrum reality. Of course, living in a cul-de-sac named after Grace Kelly doesn’t make you feel like a star, there is no extra added aura. But at the same time, I doubt it makes you feel any worse about your life. I doubt the residents of Kelly Close feel depressed because the name of their street is a cruel, daily reminder of their fading dreams or the fact they didn’t become a film star and marry a prince; in the same way that a residents of Wordsworth Drive, say, doesn’t measure their lives against that of a famous poet. As The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin reminded us every episode, there’s long been a surreal disconnect between the names of suburban roads (Coleridge Close, Tennyson Avenue etc) and the lived experience of the people who dwell in them.