The Elstree epic 

5 March 2018

Elstree Studios have kept the cameras turning for 40 tinselled years. From silent epics to the first talkies. From war films to musicals. To today, when the TV cameras have invaded the studio floor. That is Elstree, the Studio of the Stars. You can see a 90-minute story about it on Sunday narrated by James Mason. Here the story – the story which unfolded behind the cameras – is told by Ken Passingham.

From the TVTimes North for 11-17 March 1967

It was the morning of May 13, 1926, and the tyres of Walter Sygrove’s bike gritted on the rolled flintstone road as he spun through the village of Boreham Wood.

It didn’t take long, then. A few small shops, some half-timbered houses, a pub, All Saints’ Church — and that was Boreham Wood, that was. Except for the hoarding, of course.

That reared high over the farmland announcing a film studio with a list of on-the-spot luxuries and amenities for employees.

Indeed, it included a swimming pool — that status symbol beloved of Hollywood, now envied by Boreham Wood which was destined to become the Studio of the Stars.

Walter Sygrove wasted no time. He applied for a job and they took him on trial as a cashier at £3 a week. Plus enjoyment of the amenities, naturally.

Amenities? Well, they did have a canteen on the 40 acres of land bought only a few weeks before by an American called J. D. Williams for £100 [£5,600 in 2018 allowing for inflation] an acre (it would cost an estimated £15,000 [£257,000] an acre now) and, although it wasn’t Claridges, you could get yourself a meal for 1s. 6d. [7½p decimal, £4.20]

So Sy joined the other three permanent members of the staff (there are 600 now) — and watched a young director called Herbert Wilcox piece together the first film to roll at this new Hollywood-in-England — “Madame Pompadour”

“I remember that first day,” he says. “There was a famous American actress called Dorothy Gish as the star and playing opposite her was a chap called Antonio Moreno, who died at his Californian home last month. Silent it was — the film, I mean.

“Apart from the extras, there were so few people around that I used to stroll about on a Friday afternoon just paying out salaries as and when I found the men.

“Of course, everyone worked on Saturdays then. I’d come in early and then go off to play cricket. Usually, I’d leave a note on the office door. Like ‘Gone to cricket. Back at 6.30 p.m.’

“As time went by and we grew in numbers, they would come looking for me, instead. Often they’d fetch me off the field — and I’d have to hand my bat to someone else.

“Annoying, that.

“When I began paying out extras they got a guinea a day [£1 1s, £1.05 decimal, £60 in 2018] and half a crown [2s 6d, 12½p decimal, £7 in 2018] for every hour of overtime. We were all like a huge family and we’d work on into the evening and thoroughly enjoy it.”

Cliff Richard in a waltz-time scene from Summer Holiday which Elstree produced in 1962.

And while Sy and the others caught a bus from Edgware to the studios for a 6d. [2½p decimal, £1.40 in 2018] fare (it costs 2s. [10p decimal, £1.70 in 2018] now) and ate a meal for 1s. 6d. (it’s now 4s. 6d. [22½p decimal, £3.85 in 2018]), Wilcox romped through “Madame Pompadour” with a crew of four inside four weeks on a budget of £17,000. [£290,000 in 2018]

“Actually,” Wilcox says, “I paid my extras 15s. [75p decimal, £42 in 2018] to 17s. 6d. [87½p decimal, £49 in 2018] for a 20 hours’ working day. Today it would cost seven to 10 guineas [£10 10s, £10.50 decimal, £180 in 2018] a day for a 40-hour working week.

“Today I would have to have a crew of at least 90 — but I think we were all a damned sight more congenial and happy in those days.”

Walter Sygrove – he has worked at the Elstree studios ever since 1926

I can imagine. Those were the days when Wilcox could make a film in three weeks for £20,000 [£1.1m in 2018] and reap a profit of £150,000 [£8.4m in 2018] before the electricity bill came in. (No one remembers what that was because all records were destroyed during the war.)

Now the Elstree story has been pieced together. It begins and ends with Charlie Drake’s latest film, “Mister Ten Per Cent,” made on a £250,000 [£4.3m in 2018] budget. The most expensive film made at Elstree was “Moby Dick” in 1954-55 for £1 million [£25.6m in 2018] plus.

During the 40 years almost every leading director, producer, writer and star in the industry has worked at Elstree.

Here Stewart Granger was picked out of the crowd. Here, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth More and Richard Todd were given their first break. Here, Audrey Hepburn made her debut as a cigarette girl.

Here, Ursula Andress, billed as the world’s most beautiful woman, won her first starring role.

And it was here, too, that Diana Rigg became Patrick Macnee’s partner in the first of the new series of The Avengers. Here they made Gideon’s Way, The Flying Doctor and The Human Jungle.

It is the permanent battleground for Roger Moore as The Saint.

Oh, it’s all happening at Elstree — 40 years after the day American J. D. Williams had his dreams of an English Hollywood, bought the land — and Walter Sygrove rode past on his bike.

Since then, Wilcox has made fortunes and lost them, happily emerging in his seventies from the shadow of bankruptcy. J. D. Williams is dead, but his wife of those days is still alive and lives at the Film and TV Benevolent Home at Morecambe, Lancs.

And Sy?

He’s now Chief Cashier at Elstree studios, the longest-serving member of the staff with the kind of weight and authority that grow on a man who has handled literally millions of pounds in his time.

There was a straggling population of 200 when he came. Now there are 30,000.

And Sy, bald and bespectacled now, is still waiting for that swimming pool to be built.

But that, as they say, is showbusiness.

You Say

1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 5 March 2018 at 8:47 pm

Another TV series filmed at Elstree Studios was Douglas Fairbanks Presents (1953/57), 156 half hour episodes of this anthology dramas was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks Junior, who also starred as different characters in 48 episodes. The series was shown on NBC in the USA and featured many British and US actors such as Christopher Lee, Ron Randell, Bill Owen and Buster Keaton. Granada re-ran the series up till 1975.

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